Film, Interview

INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Daniel Raim on ‘FIDDLER’S JOURNEY TO THE BIG SCREEN’

Screening now at Coolidge Corner Theatre

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I recently sat down with documentary filmmaker Daniel Raim to discuss his latest project, Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen. Narrated by Jeff Goldblum, Raim’s film richly chronicles Norman Jewison’s directorial process while shooting the 1971 musical classic Fiddler on the Roof. Through intimate interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, Raim tells the story of Jewison’s considerable task of transitioning Fiddler from a beloved Broadway musical to a feature film in the early ‘70s. Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen is a joyful examination of Jewison’s quest to re-create Jewish life in Tsarist Russia and honor the legacies of all those who made Fiddler on the Roof such an enduring cultural relic.

Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen is currently playing at Coolidge Corner Theatre! After the matinee screening on Sunday, June 5, producer (and former Coolidge Executive Director) Sasha Berman will be present for a Q&A, moderated by film critic and journalist Loren King.

BOSTON HASSLE: I really appreciated how Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen conveyed the personal significance of Fiddler on the Roof to the people involved in its production. So, before we get into your film in more depth, I would love to hear you talk about your own personal relationship to Fiddler on the Roof prior to this project.

DANIEL RAIM: Sure, I’ll go in chronological order. I saw the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof first. One day when I was about 13 years old, my grandparents just put it on – I remember they had the double VHS cassette. I had never seen the play, I’d never heard the music, but I was already very curious about Jewish history and identity. My grandparents had survived the Holocaust, and seeing it with them was transformational. Not only was I totally taken by the story, the music, and the filmmaking, but I was transported to the Eastern European Jewish shtetl life that I had only ever heard about through their stories. It was very meaningful and seeing it with them was an impactful experience that taught me a lot about Jewish traditions and community, as well as cinema.

About ten years later when I was a student at the American Film Institute, my professor was Robert Boyle, who was the production designer for Fiddler on the Roof. I was so excited to learn that among the many Hitchcock classics he was associated with as a production designer, Fiddler on the Roof was his favorite project. Towards the end of my program at the American Film Institute, I started making a documentary about Robert Boyle called The Man on Lincoln’s Nose – it was a short [project] that went on to be Oscar nominated – and through making that film, I met and interviewed Norman Jewison. I talked to him about his collaborative work with Robert Boyle across several classic movies like The Russians are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and The Thomas Crown Affair, then culminating with Fiddler on the Roof.  In that film, 22 years ago, I interviewed them and discovered this fascinating behind-the-scenes story of their journey as artists.

The third thing that really sparked the idea to make a feature film about this was in 2009, I saw [Chaim] Topol’s farewell tour in Los Angeles. It was the first time I’d seen on stage and it was exciting to see Topol in real life. It was also surreal for me to experience Fiddler on the Roof with an audience made up of very diverse ethnic backgrounds. Everyone was dancing, singing, standing, and rocking back and forth to the music and they knew all the lyrics better than I did. I thought, man, there’s something amazing about Fiddler on the Roof that really touches the minds and hearts of people from all over the world. A few months later, I was very fortunate to interview Topol at his home in Tel Aviv, and that was the beginning.

BH: I noticed that some of the interviews in your film were from 2009. It seems like it was a very long process.

DR: One hundred percent, yeah.

BH: People you interviewed talked about their ideas about the [unexpected] universal appeal of Fiddler on the Roof, when it seemed like it would be for such a specific audience. Do you have your own ideas about why it’s so well loved?

DR: I think the creators of the Broadway production were genius to delve into themes of family that we can all relate to. I’m now a father and I can relate to what it means to hold onto your values and ideas and to see your children going in another direction. The pain and the humanity of relationships between parents and children. The tragic themes of Exodus, of the refugees leaving Anna Tevka at the end of the story is all too relatable for people all over the world. I think the other part of the genius that made Fiddler so universally appealing is the incredible artistry – the lyrics, the music, and the story telling. It’s so evocative and so emotional. The beauty and the pain, we can all relate.

BH: Absolutely. It really sneaks up on you. I was reminded of the total shift from the first act to the second in revisiting through your movie. It starts off in a way so joyful, so wholesome, almost and then it really turns on you [in the second act]. Zooming out a bit, can you talk about your creative process as a documentarian? Generally speaking, do you seek out subjects, or let them come to you? How to you prefer to find topics to explore in your films?

DR: It’s hard for me personally to begin making a film knowing what the outcome is going to be. I try to make documentaries as a discovery process and as a way of understanding what I can learn about stories and people and their process, and also learn something about my own life and what it means for me to be an artist and a father and all these things. In this case, Jewish identity and all these related questions that are connected and integral to the thematic plot of what Fiddler on the Roof is about.  I was doing my own soul-searching and started in a very broad place.

I wanted to make a documentary about Norman Jewison because he had been so generous to me with his time and had helped me release my first documentary feature film. I was a fan of his work and wanted to celebrate him and learn more about who he is. It wasn’t until 2015 – when I read his autobiography – that I thought, man, there’s a really amazing story here through Fiddler on the Roof and his journey. I had already thought about making a documentary about him in addition to making a movie about Fiddler on the Roof. Ultimately, when I shot all the interviews over the years, I knew that Jewison and Sholem Aleichem were two subjects that I had particular interest in, and they were both related to Fiddler on the Roof. By the time I really got into the editing process in 2020, I really gravitated towards a portrait of Jewison through his journey making Fiddler on the Roof. In 2019, a documentary actually came out called Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, which really covered the backstory of Fiddler that I didn’t need to reexamine. So, picking up the baton with Norman seemed to be a very meaningful approach.

In terms of process, I am both going with my curiosity, what I think is important or meaningful, and questions I want to explore within myself. I felt that this film could really be a way of coming full circle, as Robert Boyle was my professor and I already had made a film about him, so I had all this rich archival material that I’d never used about his process [working on] Fiddler.

BH: As a director, you seem to be particularly interested in the film industry itself. A lot of your directorial projects are films about films, or important [film industry] players. Is that something you purposefully cultivated as your milieu, or has it just evolved naturally?

DR: It’s a great question. I’ve always been interested in artists’ creative processes. I think if I was making documentaries one hundred years ago in Paris, I would be making movies about impressionist painters. I just think cinema is the greatest art form of the 21st and 20th centuries.

Beyond my feature films, I’ve been blessed to work with the Criterion Collection and make portraits and short subject documentaries about the great cinema artists of all time. I think that it is organic on one hand. I was studying to be a production designer at the American Film Institute, but then I just saw a documentary in Robert Boyle and taught myself to make documentaries. So, I think that I naturally gravitated towards creating portraits of the cinema artists that are often unsung heroes. People like storyboard artists, or film researchers. There’s something about humanizing cinema artists and not taking for granted the work of people who often don’t get credit.

BH: It’s so easy to overlook the contributions of people you don’t see in the finished product. This brings me to a question about Norman, who was essentially the central focal point of your film. The fact that he – Norman Jewison – is in fact a gentile came up a lot. Regarding that, I have two questions. Was there a specific reason you made Norman’s identity a pillar of the story you told? Secondly, I’d love to hear your perspective on the importance, or maybe lack thereof, of the identity of the filmmaker when the film in question is so profoundly rooted in a specific ethnic, racial, or religious experience?

DR: I almost have one answer for both questions. There were two things that were interesting to me on a personal level. One was making a portrait of Norman, who’s not necessarily a household name, right? We’ve heard of Moonstruck, Jesus Christ Superstar, Fiddler on the Roof, and In the Heat of the Night, and it’s like really, that’s the same guy? The Hurricane, really? Painting a portrait of Norman Jewison through Fiddler on the Roof seemed to tie so many aspects of his creative and spiritual journey together into one portrait. As he shares with us, starting at the age of six he thought he was Jewish, because of his last name, and his best friend was Jewish. So, he was sort of already experiencing Jewish culture, as well as antisemitism at a very early age. I think that is inherently part of the story – that years later as an A-list Hollywood director he was asked to direct Fiddler on the Roof. I think that the producers and executives knew he wasn’t Jewish, but that wasn’t their concern. They wanted it to be a film for everyone. It’s also interesting that all the department heads that Norman gathered, such as John Williams and Robert Boyle and Oswald Morris, were also not only not Jewish, but had, like Norman, the openness and sensitivity as artists to to embrace, learn, experience, and celebrate Jewish culture. I believe there’s a universal language of artists. For example, I’m a big fan of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, and I made a short subject about him for the Criterion Collection. The studio was thrilled to have an outside perspective on a beloved Japanese filmmaker.

I think, on the one hand, it’s important to understand the concerns and issues of representation and access, but I don’t think that it was a mistake by any stretch of the imagination to hire a non-Jewish director for Fiddler on the Roof. Especially someone with the spiritual openness of Normal Jewison. Maybe it’s a unique story – I do think it’s important for Steven Spielberg, for example, to have directed Schindler’s List. He brought so many of his questions and cultural background as a Jewish man [to the project]. You can really feel Steven Spielberg in the movie. But I think you can feel Norman Jewison in Fiddler. I think that’s a hidden story. So many people love Fiddler on the Roof and connect their own Jewish identity to that movie, you know? People convert to Judaism watching Fiddler on the Roof. Norman’s never converted to Judaism, but he was married under the chuppah. I do feel there is a universal, spiritual language called being an artist, and that we should all be so fortunate to have the sensitivity that Norman Jewison has.

BH: It’s interesting to reflect now looking back at Fiddler because though I wasn’t around in 1971, I imagine that that kind of conversation was probably less prominent than it would be if this was made today.

DR: No absolutely, I think that today a studio would feel that they have a social responsibility to hire a Jewish director. Which they have, because MGM did announce a remake of Fiddler on the Roof and they tapped the Broadway director of Hamilton, who’s Jewish, to helm the film.

BH: I think it’s relative. I’m glad you brought up Schindler’s List because I think in contrast to Fiddler there’s aspects of that story that if it was not [made by] a Jewish director, there would be a lot to critique in terms of a savior complex. It depends so much on the story and there is, as we’ve discussed, that universality to Fiddler on the Roof. Maybe it almost had the appeal that The Godfather had, you know? It’s about family and tradition.

DR: Somebody recently brought to my attention that both films were made in 1971. Both films are huge adaptations, and maybe the most successful films of that period too.

BH: Speaking of timing, I thought about how Fiddler came out at a pivotal moment for musicals and films in general. I’ve heard it speculated that if Fiddler had been released five years earlier, it would have absolutely won Best Picture. That’s just one person’s opinion, but they were saying it lost to The French Connection at this specific moment where these more mature, grittier movies were coming out. At the same time, Fiddler isn’t just a typical ‘50s, ‘60s studio spectacle. It has that element of realism and in many ways is quite dark, so I feel as if it was maybe a trailblazer and a relic in that moment.

DR: That’s exactly how what I understand, that “New Hollywood” was leaning towards the grittier. I wonder, though, if that informed Jewison’s vision. Because at that point he was a mature artist, we already knew Norman Jewison as someone who gravitated towards social/political issues and leaned into showing, as he tells us in the film, the violence, the exodus, the pain, and setting it in Russia. And that was maybe his way of connecting to an aesthetic of “New Hollywood.”

I also think the casting is brilliant. It was so interesting to hear John Williams say in the film that they weren’t looking for “great” singers. They were looking for three “village girls” – in terms of the actresses playing the three eldest daughters. For me, in the edit, it helped me understand how unique Fiddler on the Roof was.

BH: I was also interested in learning about the decision to cast Topol as Tevye. I know Zero Mostel primarily from the original Producers and I’d heard he had been Tevye on Broadway, but never really considered what it would have been like had he been cast in the movie versus Topol. The difference was very striking. Topol worked so well and captured both the comedy and the reverence needed for that role. Along the lines of casting – I think it’s no secret that Jeff Goldblum has become a bit of a meme. When I read that he was the narrator I definitely chuckled. Was that something that occurred to you when that decision came up?

Daniel: Not necessarily. I was looking down the list of potential actors and that same week, it was reported that he was strolling in a park in Brooklyn and there was a wedding happening and he just kind of went up and sang “Sunrise, Sunset” to the bride and groom. There’s clearly a special place in his heart for Fiddler. He had never talked about Fiddler on the Roof, and I’m a fan, and I thought he could bring something. It’s so interesting, a lot of people have written or told me that they forget it’s Jeff Goldblum. In a way, he met me in the middle in terms of how to approach the narration. It was a joy to collaborate with him.

BH: I can also attest that I forgot it was him. To wrap up, are there projects you have in the works that you can share?

DR: I will be making a feature documentary this year about Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese director. Next year marks the 120th anniversary of his birth and he’s one of my favorite directors. I’m excited to revisit and elaborate on a short that I made for Criterion in 2018.

Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen
2021
dir. Daniel Raim
88 min.

Now playing at Coolidge Corner Theatre
Live Q&A with producer Sasha Berman Sunday, 6/5, 2:00

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