The actor turned director talks to MovieWeb about a project very close to his heart.
Liev Schreiber is mainly known as an actor, most recently in The Manchurian Candidate with Denzel Washington.
But in 2004, he embarked on something more powerful than any script that ever hit his desk. He started writing the screenplay based on the novel by Jonathan Safran-Foer called Everything is Illuminated. It was to be the start of something very special. Liev decided to direct the film as well and went on a personal journey to make it absolutely perfect. And he came pretty close to it; the film has more beauty than what you see on-screen.
We had a chance to sit down with Liev to talk about what this meant for him. In some of his answers, his emotions were so strong he had to pause to catch his thoughts. It's probably the quietest room I've ever conducted an interview, but the spirit was certainly there.
As you read his words, you can feel his emotions in the room and while he was shooting:
What was your decision not to shoot the film in the Ukraine?
Liev Schreiber: I did get some location shots in the Ukraine; I didn't spend a lot of money in the Ukraine. I went to Ukraine to scout and the way I chose to do that was to mimic the journey of the characters in the book and my own journey; I went looking for my grandfather's schetel somewhere between Kiev and Odessa. I took with me as close to an Alex as we could find; we hadn't shot anything, but I felt it would be a good idea to shoot as we made the journey, somewhere I knew we could use that. We hired a DP from Ukraine and the footage he shot is in this movie.
So if Elijah's journey represents you, how surreal was that to direct him?
Liev Schreiber: I wish it were surreal; there was nothing surreal about it, it was painfully real the entire time. The only surreal thing that happened was at the beginning of production, I had this idea about a field of sunflowers and finding a way to reveal Lista's house; I knew that was something that was supposed to feel emotionally, spiritually like some sort of payoff. When you arrive at that house, you have to feel like you've just arrived at somewhere magical. I had this idea about putting her house in some kind of sunflower field, but how do you do it. We looked around, we went to sunflower farmers; we learned that sunflowers only last about a week and a half. We couldn't find any farmers to let us cut a portion of their field out and Mark Geraghty, the production designer came up with the idea to build our own, as if it's that simple. So we rented this colossal field, huge field. We found the week that we'd probably be shooting that sequence, and I said, ‘Sh*t, we're not going to shoot this in a sunflower field.' I have to think and believe into what they're talking about; I thought we'd have to shoot Lista's house in the middle of a hay field. So we shoot for about a month and a half, I forget about the sunflowers; one morning they bring me out to the field and they're all smirking and smiling because they know what they've got and you've seen what they got. I'm convinced I need to be ready to re-shoot this; we pull up and it's just exquisite, they had planned it to a day. The next morning, the sunflowers sagged and they were brown.
Can you talk about the casting and how was it to have your directorial debut half in Russian?
Liev Schreiber: The placement of character is very important, especially in this. It's a stranger in a strange land basically, and that place has to be wonderful. For me, that meant hiring real people, as many as I could and letting them speak their language and it meant more for me that they looked real and felt real even if they weren't actors, which was rather naïve but I think worked for me. It took much longer cause I had a harder time communicating with them. When I eventually did communicate with them, I had to deal with the curvature of acting, which none of them had done before.
After directing this film, do you feel you want to direct another one?
Liev Schreiber: My favorite quote about this is asking a mother who has just had a cesarean birth if she wants to have another child. (lots of laughter) This was such a personal story to me (long pause as Liev looks down at the table) and had it not been for my own attachment to my grandfather and my own (another long pause almost as if he's too emotional to finish) - my own – I had to finish, because if I didn't finish, I had to answer my family and I don't know if I would have if I didn't have something like that motivating me and I don't understand how professional directors do this. It's some hard work; I would look over at the actors sometimes with their late's, pretty girls putting make-up on them, and I thought ‘what the frick am I doing? This is awful.' It was really awful, 500 questions a day and I'm not a very social person; it was not something that I really should have done.
What does Elijah bring to this movie? What was it like working with him?
Liev Schreiber: Elijah is amazing, he grew up making movies so he has an incredible vocabulary of film, he knows what's going on always, he's aware of the cameras, the needs of the day, the schedule; he's very proficient and he's very professional. That was a bonus because I had to spend so much with the actors so I needed someone who could just find his place. But the reason I hired Elijah is because I started talking to Jonathan in the fall of 2001, right after September 11th; I had been working in Europe a lot and was hearing a lot of derogatory things about Americans, not that I had ever identified myself as being American, but when you find yourself abroad you realize ‘oh, I am American.' So what I was really interested in and as I read Jonathan's book, what I was really interested in in a lead actor was somebody who could break some of the stereotypes and the molds. And I felt that in this time in our nation's history, the most important thing we could represent was a character who was vulnerable, who was flawed, who was open, who was nostalgic, who was defeatable, but more important than anything looking for his history beyond the boundaries of his own country. Because what had moved me so much in Jonathan's book particularly was the recognition, the awareness that we are closer, the oceans aren't that wide, and historically, we are much closer than we know. There is a sort of short term memory in America and if you go to Europe, you realize the war was fought on European soil, people have a more acute sense of history. Where if you come to America, most Americans are Eastern European, Latin American, Asian; what's an American? It's an immigrant, but part of the ideology of this country, and I'm not saying that it's a bad one, in fact it's an effective one is that we come here and we re-invent ourselves. And what I liked about Jonathan's book - to homogenize with the American nation – is in a certain point, he asks ‘what's the cost of not knowing your history' and one of the costs that became prescient to me is we feel no connection to any other country and in fact there's a psychopathy that develops. I love the fact that there's a white Ukrainian kid who's obsessed with the Black American culture and a neurotic American kid who's obsessed with Eastern European culture; there's future in those two, there's a future there. And for me, there's a kind of openness and sweetness there, that people have been exposed to as an element of our character and I don't think there's anyone who embodies that better than Elijah Wood.
Have you made peace with your history or do you still have questions?
Liev Schreiber: I never found my grandfather's village; I never had time. Have I made peace with my history? Yes, and I owe that to Jonathan and I owe that to this experience because part of the illumination of this process for me is that a past lovingly imagined is as valuable as a past accurately recalled.
The film stars Elijah Wood and European actor Boris Leskin. Newcomer Eugene Hutz makes his big screen debut. Eugene also has his own band, Gogol Bordello - they'll be touring across the country soon.
Everything is Illuminated is rated PG-13.