Zero Motivation fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. I hope that will happen soon because the US distribution rights to the unique debut feature of Israeli director Talya Lavie were recently sold to Zeitgeist Films. This follows its overwhelming premiere at TriBeCa Film Festival, where it won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature and the Nora Ephron Prize.
Lavie described her zany, savvy, sometimes dark military comedy in its press notes: “During my mandatory military service as a secretary, I dreamed of making an army movie with the pathos and epic proportions of classic war films, but about the gray, mundane experiences that my office mates and I had, hardly ever getting up from our chairs. Like most girls during their two years of service, we didn’t risk our lives. But we were definitely in danger of dying of boredom. I was inspired and amused by the idea of using envelopes, coffee cups, office intrigues, staple guns, and Solitaire to create a female response to the male-dominated army films genre. Israeli women may of course serve in more glamorous roles, like pilots and tank crew instructors. But I wanted to focus on us office girls, the unseen and mostly-ignored majority whose contribution is lacking any social of symbolic value.” Lavie’s female soldiers may not win any accolades from their superiors but they are fabulous movie characters!
For once, I agreed with TriBeCa’s choice for best narrative film. And it wasn’t because I have a rooting interest in Lavie. However, I do like to claim that, in America, she is “my discovery,” because back at the 2006 TFF, I championed her splendid short, The Substitute, which she has now expanded into Zero Motivation. Journalists at festivals rarely bother to interview directors of shorts, but I did a long, rewarding one with Lavie about her short and creative career. Here, in Part One, is an excerpt about The Substitute from that 2006 interview that I believe is relevant to her new feature. It is followed, in Part Two, by a interview I did with Lavie eight years later–at this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival–about Zero Competition.
Excerpt from a 2006 TFF Interview with Talya Lavie on Her Short The Substitute
In The Substitute, the terminally-bored, constantly-complaining Zohar (Dana Ivgy) hopes that the new recruit she’s in charge of, Libby (Shiri Ashenazi), will replace her at the base. But she doesn’t realize the girl is suicidal.
Danny Peary: You made shorts prior to The Substitute. Sliding Flora starred Shiri Ashkenazi and you say she inspired you to make The Substitute.
Talya Lavie: Shiri is indeed an outstanding actress. I met her during the auditions for Sliding Flora, and we became good friends. Subsequently, the role of the dejected woman soldier, Libby, in The Substitute was written with her in mind.
DP: When we talked informally about The Substitute, you described Libby as “a problem.” Can you explain what you meant by that?
TL: I had a general idea about the film I wanted to make, I had the vision of locating it in an army base and the sense of the characters, but I still lacked a storyline. About Shiri, I kept imagining her as being “somebody’s problem.” We created her character, Libby, primarily from body language and facial expressions, and chose to leave her personality unresolved, yet quite comprehensible to her own self. In essence, the role of the protagonist, Zohara, and other characters were built around her.
DP: I am impressed by the strong, “real” performance by Dana Ivgy as Zohara. Tell me about her and how you got her in your movie.
TL: Dana is a famous, highly-respected actress in Israel. I had tried for the longest time to reach her, but somehow never succeeded. And then I sent the script to an acting student who I thought could play the role of the medic. He turned out to be Dana’s boyfriend! She read the script and called me to say that she really loved it and wanted to play Zohara, and that was the first connection between the two of us. Later the production was delayed because of various issues, and Dana became extremely busy. So again I found myself with no lead actress with just a short time before filming was set to start. Out of total despair, I decided to stalk Dana everywhere, until I found myself in her house. She made some phone calls and turned things upside down in her schedule in order to make herself available for the period of the filming.
DP: Were you comfortable directing a star?
TL: The fact that Dana’s such an experienced actress was perhaps a bit threatening at the beginning, but that passed very swiftly. It was wonderful to work with her and the rest of the cast. They were all extremely talented, modest, and prepared to work their hearts out.
DP: Your film is about women in the Israeli army, far away from any fighting. Talk about how your own two years in the army relates to your film.
TL: Most of the military films I’ve seen placed men at the focal point. For a long time I had wanted to make my own army film, which would have a non-heroic plot. It would take place in an atmosphere not charged with intensive combat and battle missions, and place the most lackluster, least heroic characters at the forefront of the story. We tried, via small hints, to give the impression that important, fateful events were taking place behind these characters, but they were occupied with no less dramatic matters.
The story is fictional and scripted, but the one thing that is completely autobiographical is the life of the army clerk. Zohara’s role was identical to the one I played during my military service. Beyond that, I drew inspiration for creating the characters and the atmosphere from my own army stint. The movie was filmed at the exact base where I served, and since the story is quite extreme, we were careful to pay attention to the authenticity of small details—the set, the uniforms, the language.
DP: I laughed the beginning when Zohara tells Libby she can vary what she will be doing as an army clerk—opening all the mail either at once or one at a time, a numbing routine.
TL: That segment just accentuates the appalling waste of time the work really is. But it was important to me that this text be spoken seriously, not cynically. That’s because the absurdity is even greater when we the viewers see it and the characters don’t because they’re so used to thinking that this is what they’re good at. Still—this may sound strange and contradictory—I sincerely believe that you must not belittle any work that you do, even if it’s stupid.
DP: You told me that the movie depicts “humiliations” that you felt at that outpost. Talk about the line said by the young medic to Zohara when he’s trying to seduce her: “In the desert, every thorn is a flower.” Is that a compliment or a humiliating line?
TL: This is a line that’s usually part of a men’s joke. It’s never been used casually by a man trying to make it with a woman. The fact that he utters this sentence in a complimentary tone confuses Zohara about how to respond and what to make of it. She pegs the medic as a problematic type, yet a specific one with his own, not necessarily “bad” personality.
DP: Talk about your Israeli film title, Lonely Soldier, in relation to the characters, including Libby, who says she feels she doesn’t exist, and Zohara, who seems to have had no friends before Libby. The other women do nothing of consequence and seem to be living like prisoners. I think you’re saying that female soldiers in remote posts feel that way because of loneliness, isolation, and doing unnecessary tasks.
TL: My first night at that base felt like my first night in prison. Eventually matters improved, but even after a year-and-a-half of serving there and things looking different, I was still engulfed by that “prison” feeling etched in my brain. Through the character of Libby, the new soldier, I wanted to convey that feeling in the girls’ barracks, which even architecturally resemble most of the prisons I’ve seen in movies.
As for the title, in Hebrew it’s “Lonely Soldier,” which in army terminology refers to a soldier with no family in Israel—or at all. It’s a very common and cold term, but I’ve always felt that it’s a poignant juxtaposition of words. I adopted this for the title of the film because despite there being no information in the script about the girls’ families or backgrounds, there’s a pervading feeling that they are quite alone.
When translating the film to English (which, by the way, was quite complicated), we decided that the literal translation “Lonely Soldier” didn’t express the same sentiment as the Hebrew (where, as we said, it’s an army term). Somehow in English it had the sound of a Vietnamese war movie. So we decided to title the English-language version The Substitute. This name we also deliberated over a great deal. We were afraid it had the connotations of a substitute teacher, but a friend who’s a native English speaker convinced us that this definitely was not the case. If you disagree, take it up with him…
DP: Do you think Libby has attempted suicide before arriving? When she and Zohara bond does Zohara think she will be happy and never commit suicide again?
TL: Libby is depicted as a depressive individual, and while the army did not trigger her deep depression, it certainly exacerbated it. When I was writing the script, I monitored internet forums for soldiers suffering from depression. I think that an acute depression leading to suicide begins at a much earlier stage. From the beginning, Zohara never believes that Libby wants to commit suicide. She is so self-centered that she assumes everyone else harbors selfish priorities. She is sure that Libby is feigning suicide in order to get released from the base, which is exactly what Zohara would have done.
DP: Do you like Zohara or Libby, and do you relate to them?
TL: I’m very attached to both characters. I think that they’re quite similar, yet they represent two contrasting options for relating to life. Each of them lives in her own world, without much awareness of her surroundings. I identify with them both, despite their differences, and I think that I succeeded in expressing myself through them.
DP: Do you think there are universal themes or do you think Israeli women will relate to your film much more than anyone else?
TL: It’s hard to answer that. While I was writing the script, I imagined an audience made up of people I know who are somehow connected to me. And they’re Israelis, of course, mostly IDF veterans. (It’s important to note that the army is a very individual, different experience for each soldier). Naturally I had no intention of focusing only upon the very limited audience of Israeli women soldiers. So not everything in this movie necessarily relates to army service, and the military is in some ways an excuse to talk about other structures in life. Also, I never considered that the film would be screened in many places outside Israel, nor could I know whether its themes would be understood internationally. I still contend that it speaks differently to an Israeli audience that understands the army culture from up close and can catch details and codes that are transmitted to those in the know. However, of course I’m delighted that the film is being shown in places across the world I’d never imagined, with positive reviews.
DP: With your camera placement, you made some interesting choices. What were you thinking in regard to a style?
TL: The decisions about the filming style were shaped by loads of restrictions. The film was extremely low-budget, with serious time constraints. We couldn’t afford the luxury of having complex camera movements or complicated shots of any type. But I actually like these kinds of limitations—they arouse great creativity. We attempted to keep to a limited spectrum of colors in the film and dim lighting to set the proper atmosphere. In essence, I think that this is the type of film whose simple filming style doesn’t attract attention, leaving the stage to the actors’ work.
DP: Do you think your film is political?
TL: I think that it’s indirectly political. Through a story that doesn’t touch the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any way, we get a glimpse of the place where decisions affecting human life are made by people too young and sometimes unable to comprehend the extent of the responsibility on their shoulders. This, as well as cases of different sorts, can lead to tragic consequences.
DP: Tell me about your TriBeCa Film Festival experience and what has happened to your short since it played there.
TL: Since then “The Substitute” was accepted to some more film festivals such as one in Melbourne. It also won a special mention in Japan and first prize in Barcelona. So it’s an exciting time! The TriBeCa Film Festival was a great experience. I especially enjoyed the vibes and the special energy of NewYork. Besides that, a lot of people talked to me about the film and were interested in my work, and I had some interesting meetings. I still don’t know if anything will come out of it in the future, but I don’t think that is the main reason to go to events like that. Having conversations with interesting people, getting to know different points of view and seeing films that I couldn’t see anywhere else was very fulfilling. I had a lot of fun and I hope that I’ll have the chance to visit the TriBeCa Film Festival again.
2014 TFF Interview with Talya Lavie on Her Feature Zero Motivation
In Zero Motivation, the even more rambunctious Zohar (Ivgy) doesn’t care about leaving the base herself but sabotages the efforts of her only friend, the sweet but naive Daffi (Nelly Tagar), to transfer to Tel-Aviv. Their harried commanding officer, Rama (Shani Klein), would love them to be separated so her chances for promotion will increase. Daffi hopes that the mysterious new recruit, Tehila (Yonit Tobi), will replace her–she doesn’t realize that Tehila has a surprising motive for being there.
Danny Peary: Returning to the TriBeCa Film Festival must be exciting for you.
Talya Lavie: We are so fortunate to premiere Zero Motivation here. Eilon Ratzkovsky, the producer, and two of the leads, Dana Ivgy and Shani Klein, are here too. We’re all very excited.
DP: When we talked in 2006, you spoke about coming back to this festival, but has it been a goal of yours?
TL: When you make a film, you’re too occupied with production and artistic challenges to have goals additional to finishing the film. Once the film was finished, we applied for TriBeCa and I was, of course, very much hoping to get in.
DP: And here you are with a feature that is an expansion of your short, The Substitute, which played here eight years ago when we met. Were you already thinking of making Zero Motivation when you were here last?
TL: I actually don’t view it as an expansion of The Substitute. Looking at filmmaker’s work one can probably often see connections between different projects, and the connection between The Substitute and Zero Motivation is indeed clear. But for me, Zero Motivation is connected no less to my other short film, Sliding Flora. It is true that some of the ideas that ended up in Zero Motivation were conceived while working on The Substitute. After finishing the latter and while working on some other projects, I felt that I really wanted to realize these ideas in the context of full feature film. After writing a few drafts of the script, I submitted it to the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs and was honored to be accepted.
DP: How long were you there?
TL: For the Screenwriters Lab it was a week, I think. And for the rest it was perhaps a month and a half. The lab took place in the Sundance resort, and I met some extraordinary people there. We had wonderful American actresses playing the roles. It was interesting and productive for me to explore the script in English. When you lose the local (Israeli) dialogue nuances, you find yourself truly dealing with the essence of the drama.
DP: When you had completed the final script did it take long to get funding?
TL: It did take some time, but thankfully the film got funded. It was supported by the Israeli Film Fund, and the Israeli HOT TV broadcaster. We additionally had an Israeli-French co-production with the Haut Et Cour Production Company. We were also supported by the CNC and The Match Factory.
DP: Did you film this on the same base as The Substitute, your base when you were in the army?
TL: No. The Substitute supposedly took place on an Air Force base, whereas Zero Motivation occurs on an Artillery base. (You can indeed see that they wear different uniforms.) Unlike The Substitute, Zero Motivation wasn’t shot in a real functioning army base. Both films, however, have the same landscape.
DP: I’m interested in the evolution from a short to a somewhat different, more complex feature.
TL: I’m not sure that writing the short film was easier. Despite the added complexity, I felt more comfortable writing in bigger scale, analogically to other army and war films that typically have large proportions. I was amused by the idea of giving the same epic proportions to a military film dealing with female secretaries who are not related to combat in any way. I’d like to note that, while not shown in the film, there are a lot of female soldiers in combat positions or in other significant roles in the Israeli army, doing interesting and exciting stuff. But the secretaries—who’s going to make a film about them? Well, I figured I would.
DP: Have you gotten a lot of responses from women who thanked you for making a film about them?
TL: We had some pre-screenings, and I was really touched by some girls in the audience who recognized their service time in the film. They felt that they finally get to see a representation of themselves on screen, and this was really rewarding to me. It reminded me of a nice story I heard. A friend told me once that he traveled to Australia for some convention, and that in one of the lectures he saw a big map of the world hanging on a wall. We all know how the world map looks like. But on this map Australia was right in the middle. At the beginning, he thought that it doesn’t make sense. But he quickly realized that it does, and that it’s just a matter of perspective. So in a way, in this film, I put “Australia” in the middle. I took the characters that we’re used to seeing on the side or in the background and put them at the front.
DP: As you did in The Substitute. You have more girls than in your short and they are more uncontrollable, particularly Zohar.
TL: Previously to writing the script of Zero Motivation, when I worked as a hired screenwriter for some TV series, people involved repeatedly told me to be careful that what I write shouldn’t be too much this or that. I don’t remember the specifics, just the words “we should be careful not to” repeated too many times. So when I wrote the script for my own film, I put a note on my computer display saying “do not be careful.” I wished to keep the writing free-spirited and give my characters full liberty.
DP: I’m guessing that you’re now friends with Dana Ivgy, and that she liked the short so you didn’t have to stalk her to be in the feature.
TL: She liked the short, and I love working with her. In Israel, she’s a well-known and respected actress; she won the Israeli Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the film Or by Keren Yedaya, and played in many acclaimed films since she was a child.
DP: Of course, there was no need to audition her to play Zohar again. What about all the other actresses?
TL: In fact, I auditioned her for the role of Rama, the officer in charge. But then it was obvious that she’s Zohar. Besides her, the casting director (Orit Azulay) and I auditioned about 300 actresses for the film. Casting this ensemble was quite a complex puzzle. We ended up with extremely talented comedians and actors.
DP: Have they all been in the military?
TL: If not all, then at least the overwhelming majority. But this wasn’t an issue on set. All actors were devoted and committed to the film. We rehearsed a lot, and they were very much prepared. Moreover, the girls who had to be friends in the film really became friends before the shooting in real life, which was beneficial for the film, because I think friendship is hard to fake.
DP: I felt I knew Daffi and the super actress Nelly Tagar already from The Substitute, but that character wasn’t in it! So the Daffi/Zohar relationship wasn’t in your short either, but for the longer feature you wanted to create a friendship.
TL: As I noted earlier, a lot of things were different in the short. The two are by no means the same. The feature film enabled me to develop more stories and deal with other, completely different issues. One of the things I was intrigued by most was telling a story about female friendship.
DP: They’re like sisters, I think.
TL: Definitely, they take care of each other. The army is a good platform for this kind of a connection.
DP: Yeah, these are great characters. Rama is the officer in charge of the girls. Zohar never listens to her. Do you sympathize with her all the way through?
TL: Very much. I sympathize with all the characters. When someone asked Shani Klein (Rama), “How was it for you to play the antagonist?,” she said she didn’t feel like an antagonist at all. She’s right, I also didn’t write her that way. Rama has a job that puts her at odds with Zohar and Daffi. By the way, this is Shani Klein’s debut role in cinema. Yonit Tobi (who plays the new girl, Tehila) also did her first cinematic appearance in this film. I am convinced that for both of them it is just the beginning of a great career. Yaron Scharf (the DP) and I were so impressed by their professional work and by how quickly they acquired the skill of acting in front of a camera.
DP: Another performance I really like is by the actress who plays Irena, the stern Russian soldier who becomes haunted by a ghost; and then is funny as she follows Zohar around like a puppy; and finally is a strong, feminist protector of Zohar.
TL: Irena has a lot of things that she’s hiding. I wanted to show that she had some kind of history of violence that she has never talked about. The character is played by the super talented and diverse actress, Tamara Klingon, who has been in movies and on television in Israel, and, together with Dana Ivgy, is also a member of a theatrical comic group called Tziporela Ensemble. It’s a smart and hilarious group of actors and writers who have a large and devoted fan base.
DP: You made an interesting choice in regard to Irena. You could have made the ghost who climbs into bed with Irena be seen through Irena’s eyes. But we see the ghost climbing into bed with her through our eyes. Talk about that choice.
TL: As I said before, I had this sentence Don’t be careful in my mind at all times. I didn’t intend to make an interesting choice. That’s just how I imagined the scene. I followed what I sensed was right for the story, and I wanted to see the ghost coming into the room, realistic and abstract at the same time.
DP: You have said this is a coming-of-age film. Your short wasn’t. I guess you’re talking about both Zohar and Daffi.
TL: Yeah, well, I’m still coming of age, so I guess they are, too!
DP: I hope to see you again at TriBeCa with your next feature—but not have to wait another eight years!
TL: I hope so too. And thank you for following my work. I already have a new script ready and I hope that getting it funded will be easier this time.