By Susan Wilkofsky
I was thrilled to have a conversation with the writer and director of “iMordecai,” Marvin Samel. I had so many questions and he had more answers than we had time for. Below is an edited version of our talk.
I also briefly spoke with Samel’s wife, Netta, who grew up in Dallas! We played a little Jewish geography (natch!) and then it was time for a little Q&A with Marvin.
Susan Kandell Wilkofsky: Everyone will recognize someone in their family — whether an uncle, or family friend who reminds them of Mordecai. So I know Mordecai — I’ve known Mordecais — but none so entertaining as your dad.
Marvin Samel: You were talking about my father, who is a character, and to tell you the truth, people ask me all the time, is Mordecai for real? And my answer is no. I had to tone him down for the movie!
SKW: (I laugh heartily.)
MS: I don’t know if Middle America is ready for a character like Mordecai. Did you watch the outtakes at the end of the film?
SKW: Of course!
MS: They were placed there for a reason, not just for sentimentality. I wanted to show the world who my real father is. I actually tone down the character because nobody would believe my real father would do these things or act that way. And yet, they all happened.
SKW: So, besides being an expert cigar maker, you are a natural-born storyteller. And in the film you share those stories at the cigar events that you attend.
MS: I would host events in Dallas and all over the country and I would tell these stories. You know, you could only hold their attention for so long.
SKW: Especially on the same subject, I imagine. They’ve heard it all before about cigars.
MS: Correct! So I started telling stories about my father, who, as you know, would always supply me with new material. The stories presented in the movie are only two or three examples of them, but I have dozens of stories about my dad. I would even write down which stories I had told.
SKW: So you didn’t repeat yourself?
MS: Exactly! So I didn’t repeat them.
SKW: That was smart! So I understand that you were a film lover — but how did you decide to write this script and, of all things, make a movie and direct it? That takes a leap of faith and a dose of courage.
MS: So, in 2015 my wife, Netta, gave birth to our twin daughters. At the same time, I sold my cigar company and it should have been the happiest time of our lives. When my kids were a couple of months old, my mother was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And instead, it was a very, very difficult time. In order to cope, I started writing down the stories that you see in the film. They were just meant as a coping mechanism. After about 30 or 40 pages of writing, I took a step back and I said, “You know what? These characters are cinematic!” Originally, they were just stories that one day I would pass down to my children. One day, I came off of a plane and I called my dad, and all I got was static — I could barely hear him. He had this broken flip phone for 20 years that had aluminum foil wrapped around the antenna and was held together with duct tape.
SKW: As seen prominently in the film.
MS: Yeah. And he was ready for an upgrade, for sure. I told him that I was taking him to get an iPhone. And he had some colorful retorts, but I took him kicking and screaming to the Apple store. As he’s handed the new phone, he remarks, “Where are the buttons?”
At the time, Apple had a program where you can take private lessons for a fee. I was told that within two or three lessons, he would graduate to group lessons. So I signed him up. Two months later, Mordecai is clocking six, seven lessons a week! I couldn’t imagine what was going on there! So I sneak up on him at the store and there my father is holding court. He’s telling stories. And I see the faces of these young men and women who come from completely different walks of life. They don’t know from the Holocaust. They don’t know from Hitler. And he’s telling them stories. One minute they’re laughing, and the next minute a young girl has a tear in her eye. And according to the regional manager, because of Mordecai, Apple canceled that program. He jinxed the whole program!
This is a thread throughout the film, that Mordecai jinxes many things in which Marvin is involved. This is just one of many.
SKW: Oh, that’s funny. I thought you were going to tell me just the opposite, that they were going to expand the program.
MS: (Laughs.) No, nope. They canceled the program. It’s no longer available. He jinxed it for everyone. They may have reintroduced it. At this point, my father’s pretty adept at using the phone; he knows how to text, take a photograph. He knows how to go on FaceTime. He knows how to call a “phone taxi,” you know, an Uber. Then I thought I had a story here. I gave my story to someone who had a friend who was a two-time Academy Award–winning director. He said, “There’s a story here. Keep going.”
SKW: Well, that advice is hard to ignore!
MS: Right! That gave me the confidence to take the next step and actually write a screenplay. So I purchased copies of a few of my favorite films from a standpoint of writing. And I start making notes, and I placed on my office wall — like the FBI — all the characters of each movie with lines and strings connecting them. I figured, “This can’t be so hard.” Susan, it’s very hard. There’s a program called Final Draft that everyone in screenwriting uses. So after I got stuck, I hired a well-known script doctor named Rudy Gaines. I started searching for a producer and I met Dahlia Heyman and executive producer, Allen Bain. I was about to send the script to a director that had read it years before, but they said, “Don’t send it to him. You’re the only one who can direct this story because it’s so personal.” And I said, “How can I do that? I’ve never even been on a film set before!” But this is the vision I had and this is the story I wanted to tell.
SKW: What was your father’s reaction the first time he saw the film?
MS: So let me take you back to the first time I read my parents the script, the first draft. My mom never learned to read and write because she’s an orphan of the Holocaust. At the time, my mother was still okay mentally. And when I finished reading, my mother hugged and kissed me. My father, on the other hand, looks at me and says, “What are you planning to do with this?” I said, “I don’t know, Dad, maybe I’m gonna take it and turn it into a film.” Which prompted him to say (in his best Yiddish accent), “Who the hell wants to watch a movie about an old Jew?”
SKW: (Laughs.) Apparently many do!
MS: As we were leading up to filming, none of us were truly able to enjoy it because my mom was so ill. My father was watching his wife fade away. And she passed away three months before filming.
SKW: I’m so sorry. She would’ve just loved it.
MS: She would’ve. She would’ve loved it. (Pause)
I had never written a script, directed a movie, financed a movie, produced a movie, distributed a movie. But at that time, in my head, I thought, I can do this in two years. And if I can do this in two years, my mom will still be here. And, you know, it took eight years.
SKW: It’s a process and not a short one. I made a documentary several years ago and when you get into the weeds, you find out what you don’t know.
SKW: Like music clearance! (Laughs.)
MS: Correct! Music clearance. Indeed. I’m glad you understand the challenges!
SKW: So you took master classes with famous directors.
MS: I did. Yeah.
SKW: And I guess it bolstered your confidence, knowing what you needed to do in each step. You were a good student. (Laughs.)
MS: I can tell you that it helped to a large degree; however, it’s like reading a book on being a quarterback by Tom Brady and then marching out onto the field, and you have a 300-pound defensive lineman trying to kill you! It was overwhelming! Yeah. I had a great team around me, but at the end of the day, you’re the director.
SKW: It’s all you, right?
MS: Right! If I knew then what I know now, I might not have done it. I will say this just so that it’s clear to your readers, I would never trade this experience for the world. Bringing this to life was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But also one of the most rewarding, and the look on people’s faces when I am on stage to answer their questions is priceless. And that’s why I’m coming to Dallas! I’m coming to Dallas specifically because this is where my wife grew up. I have many friends there. And we’re doing an exclusive engagement at the Angelika in Plano starting next Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I will be there each day at 6:30 p.m. Then the film continues for the rest of the week, but I unfortunately won’t be there. So tell your readers to come on out. I’ll tell them a story of how a cigar maker became a filmmaker, and they can ask all the questions they want!
‘iMordecai’: coming of age at 86
The indie film hit “iMordecai” tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, born and raised in a different time, who must now face the realities of the modern world. When he’s confronted with an unfamiliar object — an iPhone — it’s questionable whether Mordecai will be able to fit into a world that has changed so much around him.
Written and directed by his son, Marvin Samel, “iMordecai” tells the true story of one man’s journey from Poland to a better life in the United States. Told through a combination of animation and comedy, Samels (a first-time filmmaker!), captures the true essence of his mother and father as they navigate through life in Brooklyn and Florida with heavy accents and a reluctance to embrace the modern world. Doesn’t everyone have an uncle or family friend like Mordecai? But I promise you, no one is as hilarious as he is.
Do you have plans this weekend? No? Well, now you do! Grab a sweater (it’s always cold in movie theaters) and head on over to the Angelika Film Center in Plano to see “iMordecai.” You may even decide it’s time to upgrade to a new iPhone. And you don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy “iMordecai,” but it can’t hurt!
“iMordecai” opens exclusively at the Angelika Film Center in Plano, on Friday, March 10, for a one-week engagement. Friday, Saturday and Sunday’s screenings are at 6:30 p.m. followed by a Q&A with Marvin Samel, the film’s writer and director, and newcomer Azia Dinea Hale. You’ll learn how this love letter to Samel’s family came about and maybe laugh a bissel or shed a tear or two.
3 Stars Jewish Cinema will host a screening for their members on Sunday at the 6:30 p.m. show. Contact Maristella Ostrewich at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and ticketing options for nonmembers.