On a recent Sunday, actor Peter Coyote stood behind the bench in the imposing, faux-marble-columned Brooklyn Surrogate Court and yelled in phlegmy Yiddish tones, ” Sheket B’vakasha! Sheket B’vakasha! “
Nearly 20 men dressed in yarmulkes, payess and prayer shawls threw their fists in the air and shouted “Hey!” before heeding Mr. Coyote’s call for quiet.
The assembled men were not, as it may have looked, wading into the increasingly murky waters of Middle Eastern politics. They were filming a comedy. Though matters Jewish tend to be fraught with anger, sadness and tension these days, a group of young filmmakers financed by producer Ed Pressman are hoping to make moviegoers laugh until they plotz with what may be the world’s first “Jewxploitation” movie, a Hebraic homage to Shaft called The Hebrew Hammer .
The Hammer, a.k.a. Mordechai Jefferson Carver, is the creation of first-time writer-director and University of Southern California film-school graduate Jonathan Kesselman. Carver, played by Saving Private Ryan actor Adam Goldberg, is a private eye who wears leather and payess and drives a souped-up Cadillac painted to look like an Israeli flag on wheels. He is variously referred to in the script as “a baaaad Jewish brother,” “the baaddest Heeb this side of Tel Aviv” and a “Semitic super stud.” And according to the script, the Hammer must summon all of his badness to battle the evil son of Santa Claus-played by Andy Dick-who’s trying to abolish Hanukkah.
Mr. Goldberg got the part after the Big Three of Jewish actors-David Schwimmer, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller-turned it down. According to producer Sofia Sondervan, all three passed because “they were too big for this.”
In a phone interview, Mr. Goldberg said he took the role of the “Certified Circumcised Dick” in large part because he gets to utter the line “Shabbat, shalom, motherfuckers!” in the film, which has been shooting in New York for the past three weeks.
But given the volatility of the situation in the Middle East, Mr. Goldberg also got serious about what The Hebrew Hammer is not about.
“The film, taken on the surface in the sort of current political context, could be misconstrued. It is not taking a stance on Israeli politics or the Middle East, even though a lot of that imagery is used,” he told The Transom. “It is an out-and-out parody of these blaxploitation films of the 70′s.”
So far, the filmmakers said, there has been only positive reaction from the Orthodox communities in which the bulk of the film has been shot.
Ms. Sondervan, one of the film’s producers, said that when she worked on Miramax’s 1998 film about the Hasidic community, A Price Above Rubies , production was regularly stopped by protesters in Brooklyn’s devout Orthodox Jewish Boro Park neighborhood. This may have had something to do with Texan Renée Zellweger being cast as a Hasidic housewife.
“Twenty minutes in Boro Park, and 400 angry Hasidic Jews would come prepared for a demonstration,” Ms. Sondervan said. “Now we have 400 Hasidic Jews who want to be extras and Hasidic girls saying, ‘We love Adam Goldberg!’”
Lazer Lichtenstein, a 29-year-old Modern Orthodox Jew from Boro Park, was among the extras taking part in the scene with Mr. Coyote, who plays the head of the Jewish Justice League. Mr. Lichtenstein said that this was his second day of extra work. On the first, he’d shot a scene at the Cotton Club in Harlem, which had been renamed the Golden Menorah.
“I have not been offended at all,” said Mr. Lichtenstein. “I really don’t care what other people say. It’s just a comedy, a fun thing. I had a couple of friends with me. We were chilling out with the cast and everything, taking pictures on the set.”
Of course, the Orthodox community aren’t the only ones in danger of getting offended.
A recent script with the Jewish Justice League scene included a character named “Harvey Weinstein-Chairman, Worldwide Jewish Media Conspiracy.” In the screenplay, the fictional Mr. Weinstein haggled with fellow League members about the relative merits of Adam Sandler movies and suggested that David Copperfield might be a good hero to battle Evil Santa.
As it turns out, the filmmakers had approached New York’s Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax Films, to play the fictional one, but he declined to take part in the movie.
“I understand that his people didn’t want him to participate,” said Mr. Pressman, The Hebrew Hammer ‘s executive producer.
Mr. Pressman, who has long been a patron of maverick writer-directors-he has either produced or executive-produced Terrence Malick’s Badlands , Abel Ferrara’s The Bad Lieutenant and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street -was visiting the set for the Jewish Justice League scene and said that he had hoped to keep the name and use a look-alike Mr. Weinstein. But, he added, the production’s “lawyers said we couldn’t get away with it.”
Perhaps the lawyers changed their minds, because when George Hosmer-the dark-haired, heavyset actor chosen to play Mr. Weinstein-hit his marks wearing a black mock-turtleneck sweater under a gray suit, he looked more than a little like Miramax’s front man.
Mr. Weinstein’s spokesman, Matthew Hiltzik, begged to differ, however: “There are plenty of dark-haired, heavyset Jews, but there’s only one Harvey,” he said.
When The Transom asked Mr. Hosmer if he was trying to channel Mr. Weinstein in his performance, he smiled. “Just a smidge,” he said. The actor quickly added, “It’s a composite of lots of different producers,” and he also casually mentioned that he is “a great admirer of Harvey.”
Of course he is.
The script also calls for a scene in which the Hammer penetrates Santa’s North Pole lair to find Senator and former Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman tied to a chair. Mr. Pressman said that a professional Lieberman impersonator had already been fitted for his costume, but backed out because “he thought it would be in bad taste.” But the faux Lieberman was quickly replaced by the actual Ed Koch. Mr. Pressman said that a few weeks ago, the former Mayor of New York gamely allowed himself to be tied to a chair and abused by Mr. Dick.
Rock in Hammer ?
While he was at U.S.C. film school, Mr. Kesselman, now 27, made a short about the Hebrew Hammer that screened at the Austin Film Festival in Texas and got him a lot of attention in Hollywood. Around the time that Mr. Kesselman was graduating from U.S.C., he was beginning to talk about turning Hammer into a full-length feature with Marc Platt, who has a production deal with Universal Pictures.
According to Mr. Kesselman, Universal producers saw the project as a “black/Jewish buddy picture.” Ms. Sondervan was franker when she said, “Marc Platt wanted to make a Chris Rock vehicle.”
Producer Lisa Fragner soon found the project and brought it to the attention of Ms. Sondervan, who in turn brought it to Mr. Pressman, who, last September, had founded the ContentFilm production company with former October Films co-founder John Schmidt.
Mr. Pressman decided to include the film in his company’s first slate of pictures, which includes the Sept. 11 drama The Guys with Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia; Party Monster with Macaulay Culkin and Marilyn Manson; The Cooler with William H. Macy; and the psychological thriller Love Object .
In return for being one of Mr. Pressman’s “discovered” directors, Mr. Kesselman has entered the low-budget world of independent filmmaking: more than 30 locations in 22 days! What Mr. Goldberg called “limited Craft Service offerings!” Extras culled from the crew!
Among the authentic Orthodox Jews in the Jewish Justice League scene were a number of goyim, including the set’s still photographer, who Ms. Sondervan admitted to hiring because he looked like Jude Law. The photographer was sporting unconvincing payess , as was James Parvin, a half-Irish, half-Iranian filmmaker asked by Mr. Pressman to chronicle the making of The Hebrew Hammer.
The film also features cameo appearances by non-Jew Nora Dunn of Saturday Night Live fame. Ms. Dunn plays the Hammer’s mother, who’s less concerned with saving Hanukkah-”It isn’t even one of the high holidays!”-than with the fact that her “boychick is almost 30 and has yet to settle down.”
The Hammer’s “Semitic siren” love interest, Esther Bloomenbergensteinenthal, is played by a rail-thin shiksa from Michigan named Judy Greer, who has appeared in The Wedding Planner and Jawbreaker .
“I mispronounced every word at my audition,” Ms. Greer said with the nasal flatness of a true Midwesterner. Her near-platinum blond tresses were also dyed darker for her role.
Ms. Greer said she was enjoying her time as a Jewess and raved about the Shabbat dinner she recently attended, along with Ms. Dunn and Mr. Goldberg, at the Long Island home of the Kesselmans’ Orthodox Long Island family.
Jewish Notting Hill
“It was so fun. And they do that every week!” enthused Ms. Greer, who added that “the food was so good! I’d never eaten that way before, but now I’m not scared of it anymore!”
Mr. Kesselman’s family had invited everyone they knew and kept Mr. Goldberg signing autographs all night. “It was like a Jewish Notting Hill ,” said Mr. Kesselman, referring to the scene in the romantic comedy where the movie star played by Julia Roberts attends a dinner party with regular people.
Mr. Dick is cast as Damien, the son of Santa Claus, who orders his benevolent father gored by a reindeer. The elder Claus’ dying words are ” Et tu , Blitzen?”
“The reindeer took direction well,” said Mr. Kesselman.
Apparently too well. One set source told The Transom that the reindeer assembled at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field had actually attacked Mr. Dick. Ms. Sondervan conceded that this was sort of true, though she added that “he was supposed to be yelling at them for his Evil Santa character.”
Actor Melvin Van Peebles, who wrote, directed and starred in 1971′s blaxploitation classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song , will make a cameo in The Hebrew Hammer as Sweetback, and his son Mario is playing the head of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front.
Other appearances include current Saturday Night Live star Rachel Dratch as the Hammer’s Long Island secretary. Mr. Pressman and Mr. Kesselman said that they had also approached Mel Brooks about a small role, but that he turned down the part. They did not say whether Mr. Brooks also thought he was too big for the small-budget film.
Shh! Weisbach’s Back
In recent weeks, the publishing-industry buzz has been about the lack of buzz surrounding former Wunderkind editor Rob Weisbach’s new job.
After three years of joblessness and heated murmurings about his Next Big Gig, Mr. Weisbach resurfaced in early April as a regular old editor-at-large and vice president at Simon & Schuster.
And according to one publishing-industry source close to the situation, “The really shocking thing is how no one seemed to care. I thought there would be tittering little pieces about how the mighty have fallen, but there haven’t been.”
Another publishing source agreed, noting that “everyone wanted it to be a big story. But it’s just so anticlimactic.”
Mr. Weisbach started at the age of 24 as an editorial assistant at Bantam Books. By the time he was 30, in 1996, he had his own imprint at William Morrow, based largely on his successes with best-selling books by celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Jerry Seinfeld.
Publishing’s answer to the Internet bubble, Rob Weisbach Books soon earned a reputation for swank marketing materials. Mr. Weisbach’s seasonal catalogs advertising the upcoming works of writers like A.M. Homes, Scott Lasser and Dale Peck caught the late-90′s Visionnaire Zeitgeist perfectly, and were frequently more elaborate than the books themselves.
Not long after Mr. Weisbach paid actress Whoopi Goldberg a reported seven figures to write her autobiography, his stock in the publishing world began to founder. The resulting 1998 memoir, called Book , should have been titled Bomb . Mr. Weisbach’s imprint earned a new rep for spending big and earning little.
In 1999, when HarperCollins bought Morrow, Mr. Weisbach’s imprint and his fancy catalogs were unceremoniously dumped. Rather than stay on as an editor, the normally visible Mr. Weisbach slipped under the radar.
The past three years have been something of a duck hunt, as publishing-industry players and reporters watched for Mr. Weisbach’s professional re-emergence. He was occasionally quoted as being close to finding financing for a new media company, and was rumored to have printed up letterhead and press kits for the start-up before Sept. 11 scuttled the plan.
On April 3, Simon & Schuster sent out a press release announcing Mr. Weisbach’s new gig.
Simon & Schuster executive vice president and publisher David Rosenthal told The Transom that he “had long admired Mr. Weisbach and thought that his imprint was a noble experiment.” By “noble experiment,” Mr. Rosenthal said he meant that “he did some good things, but it didn’t necessarily work out …. Any time anyone, shall we say, is buying books for a lot of money … there’s an element of risk involved.”
Mr. Rosenthal said that one of Mr. Weisbach’s chief responsibilities at Simon & Schuster would be to “maximize the synergies between our imprint and Viacom.” Viacom, which owns CBS, bought Simon & Schuster in January.
Mr. Rosenthal envisioned a potential scenario in which “CBS television has a program with a hot star, where a celebrity-type book could be done. Rob would be a good person to track that.” But Mr. Rosenthal added that while finding books by, say, Ray Romano might be “a rich part of his job, the key thing for Rob will be identifying and acquiring hot books, big books.”
Though Variety and Publisher’s Weekly both ran brief stories about the hire, there was a surprising lack of hoopla over the man who was once a media darling and then a punching bag in Schadenfreude -riddled Gotham.
One publishing source speculated that Mr. Weisbach may have wanted it that way. “He’s a master of this kind of thing,” said the source of the calm following Mr. Weisbach’s hiring at Simon & Schuster. “Maybe he just spun it right so that he avoided that kind of story.”
Or maybe the publishing world had realized that Mr. Weisbach’s misfortune was also theirs.
“Even though so many of us were jealous of Rob’s early success, everyone was sad to see [the imprint] go, because it was something new and something energetic,” acknowledged one publishing source. “There haven’t been any new imprints since. And had he succeeded, there would have been more.”
Mr. Weisbach did not return The Transom’s calls, though he did give his friend, William Morris agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, the go-ahead to talk.
Ms. Rudolph Walsh, who has remained close with Mr. Weisbach throughout his job search, said, “People don’t know how to categorize Rob, and that’s something he’s suffered from. The great thing about the Simon & Schuster thing is that it removes the need for categories. He won’t be this kind of editor or that kind of editor. He’s going to be more of a cowboy in search of a new frontier.
“We’re all waiting on the edge of our seats to see what comes next from Rob,” Ms. Rudolph Walsh continued. “Just like we’d wait on the edge of our seats for his next catalog. I can guarantee you that it’s not anything like what he’s done before.”