In Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, an understated rivalry between father and son plays out under the most intellectual of circumstances. Eliezer Scholnik, an Israeli Talmudic scholar whose life has consisted of monastic study and an unparalleled love of truth, is passed over time and again for the public recognition which his son Uriel, also a Talmudic scholar, gets heaped upon him. Uriel’s popular approach to a naturally isolating subject is the very thing that allows him to succeed–and the cause for his father’s disdain. New tensions in their relationship arise over the announcement of the recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize, for which both father and son have, unwittingly, been entered as competitors.
Cedar’s story is, in addition to being one of the most intelligent films you’ll see all year, easily the most original. Filmed as a sort of thriller, with a score of strings and high dramatics to compliment it, Footnote is a challenge to the legions of filmgoers who believe that the only stories worth telling are the universal ones. Here, Cedar weighs in.
I’m obsessed with footnotes as a storytelling format.
That’s something we have in common.
Like that Nicholson Baker book (1), that’s entirely made of footnotes—
And there’s a book about the history of footnotes (2). There’s a lot of discussion about what footnotes are, how they started, what they do—footnotes in the age of internet, how it’s completely different.
A link is basically a footnote.
Or is it? I don’t know—it’s a kind of footnote. It’s a way to sway from the primary text. But what you reach at the end is not a footnote, it can be another primary text. It’s not a footnote in that sense, it just changes the linear way of reading. A footnote is an interesting concept.
Having made a very honest film about academia, why do you think there are so few films about academia itself?
There are films that take place in the world of academia but they’re never about them, about the academic field. It’s always about some affair that’s happening between a professor and a student, or something. For me, this was not a film that takes place in the world of academia. The profession of these people, and the field of their research, is such a big part of their personality and their motivations and their objectives in life, that there’s no real separation between the world that takes place and the human story that unfolds.
But since it’s in the world of academia, it asks questions that only academia is asking and it brings them to the table as if they’re completely relevant to the entire world, which is great, because people think of academia as this insular world where you’re taught stuff that doesn’t apply to real life. Like the metaphor of the pot(3). Malcolm Gladwell is one of those people who ‘makes a pot.’ He’s not too historically concerned, but it’s not important to people to criticize him for that. In this film, it was an accusation.
I’m always afraid that I’m making empty pots. But I think that’s what storytellers do. They put together pieces that don’t necessarily have to fit together, to make a pot that has some appeal. Even if it has no truth to it.
So are you more sympathetic to the son’s school of thought?
I’m torn between the two. I hope I’m a little bit of the father, in his relation to truth. I’m definitely like him in some of my human connections with people. But my profession is a profession that requires what the son has. An ability to communicate and keep things relevant and pleasant: harmonious.
It was hard to empathize with one over the other. You can see how the son’s approach makes more sense, but the father’s work was sort of what allowed the son to be able to make the pot in the first place.
And the father ends up endorsing an empty pot at the end of the film. His own empty pot.
I loved the film’s score. It reminded me so much of Bernard Herrmann.
It’s music that isn’t apologetic. I’ve become allergic to scores that make believe they don’t exist. I’m slowly figuring out what I’m doing with music in films, so each of my films have had a bit of a different approach. But music is a big part of Footnote. I needed to make sure I wasn’t hiding it. It’s there, we’re not apologizing, it’s part of how the film is being told. It has tymphanies and trumpets and tubas, it’s not sentimental but it’s very present.
How did it come about?
I was working with a few tracks from a composer called Alfred Shnittke who’s this neoclassisist—he basically does cover versions of classical music with classical instruments, but at some point just lets go and it gets out of hand. So we worked with a few guide tracks from him and then we brought in a composer who worked in that style and created a style that’s more accurately fit to the film. Because it did have to fit, we couldn’t just buy a track.
You also said something interesting about universal stories, that you don’t trust them.
There are some universal stories that aren’t bad. But there are too many that you can feel them sweating to be universal at the expense of anything really interesting.
Do you like characters who are strange in that way? That you can’t relate to unless you really do some work?
Part of the film has to be relatable, otherwise you don’t get involved in the story. But I enjoy finding out that the characters I’m working with are so specific that this story can only happen to them. It’s not always like that—but when you feel that the story you’re telling could only happen to the person it’s happening to because of his combination of flaws and traits, that’s a good feeling—because then nothing’s random. Everything is a result of who this person is, the actor knows what he’s doing, everything comes together.
Because Footnote isn’t telling a father-son rivalry story that you usually really see—most films about male rivalry center around sports.
It also has to do with those universal themes. There are some stories that can happen to anyone. And it’s a legitimate structure: you take the everyman, and put him in a position that’s suspenseful or dramatic. A lot of American cinema is like that. I think it’s a little less satisfying for the actor if that’s what he has to do.
So do you see yourself as an actor’s director?
They’re definitely in my mind—an actor is more than someone who just performs a script. An actor becomes the helm. In the end, what you’re shooting is someone’s face, and you can’t really control that face—you can’t tell it what to do, the actor is the film. It’s a real collaboration—even if everything the actor is doing is written in the script, it’s still the actor who’s the film.
(1) The Mezzanine
(3) In the film, Eliezer Scholnik compares his career of meticulous research to his son’s career of accessible book writing and a more popular spin on Talmudic studies, in a metaphor that goes:
“You have a bunch of potshards on the ground. One person decides to categorize the potshards by date, find out as much about them historically as possible, and to catalogue them as artifacts. Another person looks at them and says ‘I can make a pot out of this’. It doesn’t matter if they’re all from different time periods–to him, it can all be combined into one pot.”