Michael Sheen, Lior Ashkenazi and Richard Gere in Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer
Joseph Cedar for his latest film (his previous two having been Oscar-nominated) has assembled an outstanding cast - Lior Ashkenazi, Harris Yulin, Hank Azaria, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, Josh Charles, and Isaach De Bankolé - to work with Richard Gere in Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer.
Joseph Cedar on the costumes: "Michelle Matland is the person I should be crediting. We did these wardrobe trials at Ann Roth's studio." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Meeting me for breakfast, the director spoke about Gere's films - Rob Marshall's Chicago, Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful, and Oren Moverman's Time Out Of Mind and The Dinner, screening at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. An aside to Terry Jones's Monty Python's Life Of Brian and a Harvey Weinstein take on Otto Preminger's Exodus leads us to a Ralph Richardson cracker exchange. Michelle Matland and Ann Roth ingeniously add to the impact with clothes making or breaking the man.
Norman (Richard Gere) makes you think about the nature of sacrifice and necessity when it comes up against power, charm, and ruthlessness. An infinite variety of humiliation gets stored in his treasure chest. The familiar insult can't harm that much, or can it? Norman's lies sometimes help and sometimes make the situation worse. Gere shows us someone who doesn't explode, as though we, in the audience, have to do it for him. Dignity and martyrdom don't come as easily as some superheroes may suggest.
Josh Charles, as Arthur Taub, has to throw Norman out of his townhouse, where he crashed a party and lied shamelessly to gain entrance.
Anne-Katrin Titze: The scene at Arthur Taub's party is very strong emotionally. It's like a roller coaster. What happens in that "basketball room" is completely heartbreaking and at the same time you completely understand the reactions of the owner of the place for not wanting this stranger at his dinner party.
Richard Gere as Norman: "There's a coat, there's a hat, there's a scarf, there's a bag."
Joseph Cedar: I asked myself, what would I do if someone like Norman came into my house and exactly the way Norman does? The answer is I would do what he did.
AKT: Exactly. I would, too.
JC: I would be nice and nasty at the same time and I wouldn't let him stay. Because he is not invited and it's my house.
AKT: Watching it, you nevertheless feel so sorry for him.
JC: But think of it. What Norman is doing is pretty bad: he invited himself through a man he doesn't know who he lied about to be his good friend who didn't show up.
AKT: It's really, really bad. Richard Gere is fantastic to make us feel for Norman, still.
JC: The fact that it's Richard Gere makes it … I don't think that you feel Richard Gere-ness. I've been asked a lot, why Richard Gere. There's something about his appearance that helps make these scenes a little less obvious. If the Hank Azaria character [Srul Katz] came into this townhouse, they wouldn't even let him through the door. He would have been kicked out long before that. He wouldn't sit at the table. If he would, they'd call security. Richard Gere makes it almost acceptable.
Joseph Cedar on Richard Gere: "I think he's always had the top level of what this profession is." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: The costume helps with that. It walks a fine line. Your costume designer [Michelle Matland] used to work with Ann Roth, didn't she?
JC: Michelle and Ann Roth worked together. Ann Roth dressed Richard.
AKT: Ah, perfect. It's exactly what you are describing. The camel coat is almost passing.
JC: Michelle Matland is the person I should be crediting. We did these wardrobe trials at Ann Roth's studio. What you're looking for in a costume has to do with character. What is Norman trying to project? What can he afford? In this movie, Norman wears one costume.
AKT: I noticed.
JC: So that has to be real and at the time it has to be a little iconic. We also wanted him to stand out a little bit. The color had to stand out in a shot of a thousand New Yorkers walking by. There's something about creating a uniform for Norman that was fun to work on. It looks legitimate, it may even look expensive from a distance but when you get close you know that it's nothing.
AKT: He and the Katz character share the cross-body bag.
"I asked myself, what would I do if someone like Norman came into my house …"
JC: The Katz character is a Norman one degree lower. There's a coat, there's a hat, there's a scarf, there's a bag. It's all the same elements. It's just like there's Banana Republic, Gap, and Old Navy. Norman is the Banana Republic, he's the Old Navy version of Norman.
AKT: Also the feeling that their bag is their home. We don't know where or how they live.
JC pointing at his large backpack: I'm out all day right now. So I have everything with me. It's not exactly Norman stuff but it takes into account the many things that have to happen in one day.
AKT: My bag is not that large today.
JC: Women have that, men don't for some reason. I don't know why. It's also fashion, it works better. I wonder if there's something more interesting about why men don't have to carry their whole life with them. They have offices…
AKT: An umbrella.
JC: But that's it. Traditionally, why weren't they designing bags for men?
AKT: Farmers or millers, yes. But you are asking about the businessman in his business suit. I like how you introduce Norman with his bag stalking a jogger, somebody who is running. The body language of someone running with a heavy cross-body bag tells us a lot. I thought of a fairy tale about a character apologizing before doing harm and asking for forgiveness in advance. It reminded me of the Grimms' tale The Maiden Without Hands. I don't know, if you're familiar with it?
JC: No, but it sounds like I should.
Jo Wilf (Harris Yullin) with Prime Minister of Israel Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi)
AKT: A father sells his daughter to the devil. She is so pious, the devil can't touch her, so they make another deal. He has to cut off her hands. So the father tells his child: "My daughter, I am going to cut off both your hands because otherwise the devil will take me. Forgive me the harm I'm going to cause you." He does and she leaves the house forever.
JC: This sounds familiar in a slightly different version to me.
AKT: That's what I was thinking about with the phone call in your film.
JC: Saying sorry and saying thank you are kind of cousins.
In a scene of marvelously mis-matched personalities, Charlotte Gainsbourg as Alex tells Norman exactly what others might barely think when he tries to play his contact game. "Why do you try to get me to meet people? Do I look lonely to you?" she asks. "What do you need?" he asks in return and her response startles him.
AKT: The scene on the train is wonderful. Alex says she is from Geneva and Norman immediately asks if she knows so-and-so from Basel. It's very funny and absurd.
"There's something about his appearance that helps make these scenes a little less obvious."
JC: Charlotte Gainsbourg's character Alex is someone who can only tell the truth. She is absolutely transparent. The opposite of Norman. Each one of the Israeli characters is in contrast to the diaspora nature of Norman. There's a history of the Jewish image being entertaining without it being hateful. I like that. I think we're in a time where we can afford to be entertaining, afford to be ironic about the way we've been perceived. It shows that we're very confident right now.
AKT: Still, going straight to the stereotype and not avoiding it is daring.
JC: It's the reason why this film was made. It's not pretending to be something else.
AKT: A few little details that I found so great in your film. The first phone conversation between Norman and Eshel after the Taub disaster. They both end the phone conversations with "I do".
JC: Right. I think there's a love story here. At some point it's one-sided but it captures a relationship that could have been between two lovers, whether they're two men or a man and a woman. A courtship, guilt, fake gratitude, even physical attraction at some point - I think it's all there.
Steve Buscemi as Rabbi Blumenthal looks at Norman in disbelief
AKT: Where is Eshel staying? I didn't catch the name of the hotel. Do you mention it?
JC: Yeah. Warwick. You know why?
AKT: No. Tell me!
JC: There were a few location options. We ended up on the Warwick because it was beautiful and it fit our budget, what hotel we could put him in. But I like the way Eshel says "Warwick". Israelis can't say "W".
AKT: That explains why I didn't catch it.
JC: I don't know if you remember in Monty Python's Life Of Brian where the Pontius character can't say - I forget which letters? It just felt like the one word Israelis can't say. Like they can't say World Trade Center or World War One. Warwick!
AKT: That's funny. Someone says in the scene when everything turns dream-like that Exodus was the last great movie…
JC: If you'll ask Harvey Weinstein, he'll say: "The last good film about Israel was Exodus." I've heard that line many times. "Why don't we make a romantic comedy in Israel?"
AKT: I just watched it again recently.
JC: It feels like it doesn't end. You could still be watching it. It's so long. It's the war and after the war...
AKT: There's a scene with a cracker I always liked. When the Ralph Richardson character hears that they are going on a hunger strike on the ship and he puts down his cracker. It's a great gesture, a tiny detail.
Charlotte Gainsbourg as Alex Green: "She is absolutely transparent. The opposite of Norman."
JC: Okay, I don't remember it but it sounds great.
AKT: I liked the use of the cracker with the fish…
AKT: Herring - after the Taubs' dinner party where he [Norman] didn't get anything to eat. But I want to ask you about the scene where Norman is trapped between the two security doors. Where did that scene come from?
JC: Oh, yeah. Some security booths have that logic where you can only open the second door if the first one is closed. Norman is crossing a line there where he knows he won't be able to go back on. It's irreversible. It felt like a good way to capture that moment of him taking the step and then regretting it but it being too late. It's one of those things you root in reality but you slightly push it a little bit. It's a set, so we had to build the doors so that he could just barely reach the end. otherwise he could do that. He can hold one and get to the other.
AKT: That's one of the scenes where I thought Richard Gere has never been better.
"A fantastic actor brings a whole new understanding of another side of a scene."
JC: You know, I like that scene and I think he's good in it. But it's not that hard for an actor to do that kind of scene. There are other scenes in the movie, if you ask me, in terms of level of difficulty, that are much more challenging for Richard. This is hard, I agree. You ask an actor to do something that is completely fake and it's extreme and there's a panic that you feel - that's good, he did that.
But Richard Gere, accepting humiliation over and over again from everyone in the film and somehow convincing an audience that he is understanding what happens to some degree and he's absolving whoever it is that did it to him because he had no choice - that is much more difficult for Richard Gere to do. Getting that right is a level of performance that for any actor is really difficult. Movie stars don't usually have that.
AKT: Do you think playing a homeless person [in Time out of Mind] trained him, helped him?
JC: I'll tell you the truth now. I think Richard has been hearing a lot these past few years how recently he has been doing great things. As if what he's been doing till now is not good. And that's not true.
AKT: No, it isn't.
Richard Gere with Time Out Of Mind and The Dinner director Oren Moverman Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
JC: He's been doing some good work, very good work with roles that are not great. There are some roles … If you look at Unfaithful, Unfaithful should be a classic film. It is not because it was made after there are no classic films. That's a great film and he's getting a chance to do something that brings out that superb method. Chicago recently gave him a chance. Most of the films in the last couple of years asked him to do something that is not difficult for him - just to be a successful businessman. Which he does well and the audience likes what he does.
I think he's always had the top level of what this profession is. An ability to be something that you're not and an ability to connect to an audience in a way that the audience feels what you're feeling. He's had that his entire career. Now he's doing things that are different from what we've seen in the last 15 years.
AKT: Already in American Gigolo, he was showing us a descent into hell, a man going into the underworld. It had a mythological quality. I saw The Dinner a few days ago.
JC: The Dinner is closer to what people expect from him. What he did in Time Out Of Mind is very difficult but it came from a life long of knowing how to be something that you're not. He taught me a lot about what this profession is, what movie stars really do. I didn't know it. I have a new respect.
Lior Ashkenazi as the Prime Minister of Israel
AKT: You have a great cast overall.
JC: We were very lucky. All the other actors were top, top level. That's just a miracle. Buscemi, Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens, Harris Yulin, Lior [Ashkenazi], of course. Josh Charles - two scenes , that's it. Charlotte Gainsbourg, they're all just perfect.
AKT: It's also how you were layering what was in each scene.
JC: Yeah, but when you work with actors who are just great - that's the work. They need something to work with and you feel obligated to give them that and as the conversation begins, the scene rises to the actors. It gets better than what's on the page. The writer has some insight usually into the main character and then he has some insight into what's going on. A fantastic actor brings a whole new understanding of another side of a scene.
AKT: What's coming up?
JC: I'm working on a series for HBO. We're shooting it in late summer. It takes place in Israel.
Read what Joseph Cedar had to say on filming in New York City, production designers, Kalina Ivanov and Arad Sawat creating a Lanvin shop window, his Alber Elbaz Oscar red carpet experience for his film Footnote, defining luxury, and what is and is not a fairy tale.
There will be a post-screening Q&A with Lior Ashkenazi moderated by Anne-Katrin Titze following the 8:00pm screening on Friday, April 14 at Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York.
Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer opens in the US on April 14.