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Henry Bean

Henry Bean is a scriptwriter and has worked on a variety of Hollywood films over the past 20 years. We talked to him about The Believer, his first film as a director, is an intelligent and brutal examination of the gap between one Yeshiva scholar’s Jewish faith and the neo nazi beliefs he adopts when he becomes involved in an extremist right wing organisation.

The Believer is your first film as a director; did this pose any difficulties for you, and did it change the way you look not only at film (in general) but the way you look at your films?

The two chief difficulties were, first, the shift from the privacy of writing to the publicness of directing. I was used to making things up in the solitude of my office with no one around to judge the product until it was carefully shaped and no one to make me self-conscious about the inherent grandiosity of the enterprise. Directing, I was compelled to do all of this in front of a crew of 40 or more, and much of the time I simply couldn’t do it. I felt somewhat comfortable with the actors, much less with the camera, lights, etc. Second, though [cinematographer] Jim Denault and I had story-boarded every shot (not that we necessarily shot them), in retrospect I hadn’t thought things through enough. I wasn’t clear enough to myself about what I wanted “directorially.” Has this changed the way I look at my films? Well, in one sense, despite feeling unqualified as a director, a number of the more extreme ideas I had seemed to work, particularly the thought that I could get away with a great deal of dialogue about fairly abstract matters and that I could over-pack the film with contradictory emotions. In this sense, the fact that “The Believer” works in some way has given me more confidence in my ideas and trust in the emotional spectrum I’m going for. But I’ve also realized how little I actually thought my film as film. I don’t mean even in the profound way that someone like Antonioni or Chantal Akerman “thinks” in film, but in the simple, craftsman sense of how one visualizes a story. I used to think that because I saw s when I wrote that I’d visualized the thing; now I see that that is almost unrelated to what making a film entails. And, like most people who do this, I’ve come to see the value, the necessity, really, of simplicity — and, of course, how difficult simplicity is.

What kind of opposition did you encounter when the film was being made? Were you surprised by the reaction of some (in particular the Simon Weisenthal Center) who said that The Believer was anti-semitic?

In making the film I had almost no opposition whatsoever. I put up a substantial portion of the budget myself, and Peter Hoffman, who found the rest, and Susan Hoffman and Chris Roberts, who produced the film, made suggestions that were invariably intelligent. Jim Denault, who shot the film, would rarely comment on any script matters, but when he did, that, too, was invaluable. So people only helped me, no one got in my way. In terms of the reaction, when we went to Sundance, we had no idea what audiences would think. When they seemed to like it, we thought that all our problems were solved, that everyone would see our “good intentions” and that, therefore, there was no danger in showing the film to the Wiesenthal people — who had somehow heard about it and asked to see it. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how politically conservative they were, that Rabbi Marvin Hier had attended the Republican convention the previous summer and so forth. If I had, I wouldn’t have shown it to them. I would have contacted the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith, as we subsequently did after the Wiesenthal screening. The ADL approved of the film — they want to show it to a youth leadership group — but by then the damage had been done. Every time I’ve shown it (only in festivals so far) there are people who talk about the possibility that it will be misunderstood or misused by “certain groups,” but I haven’t met anyone who actually misunderstood it in that way.

In an interview in The Face, Ryan Gosling said that The Believer was “about loving something so much that it makes you weak, and hating that”. Is he right?

“The Believer” exists on its own, so anyone’s opinions of what it’s “about” have as much credibility as mine. That said, I agree with Ryan, though perhaps I’d rephrase it a little: that we always hate the things we love, that we hate them because we love them, because we need them and are vulnerable to them, because we lose ourselves in them and have to push them away to assert our identities, and so on…

Judaism comes across as a pretty forbidding religion; at one point, Daniel says something along the lines that it’s a religion of action, or of doing, rather than a religion of belief, and at another point, when he and Carla are talking, Daniel says that there’s the Torah, the word of God, and that’s it; it’s “nothingness without end”. To which Carla says God might as well not exist. It seems to be an odd conception of religion, to have a nonexistent God (forgive me if I’m talking nonsense; I’m not particulary knowledgeable when it comes to Judaism), and one at odds with the standard belief now—especially amongst Christians, though maybe less so in Islam and Judaism—that religion should be a comfort, rather than something to be feared/respected/held in awe. What’s your take on Daniel’s interpretation? He seems pretty extreme.

First, Judaism, like any religion, is different things to different people. In the film, I try to talk about what it is to me, a vaguely observant, vaguely knowledgeable Jew. The idea that Judaism is “a religion of practice, not of belief,” is fairly common among observant Jews. In fact, Jews (in my experience) don’t talk much about God, who He (She? It?) is, what He is, whether He is. I recall hearing two converts from Christianity saying that the great appeal of Judaism was that as Christians, when their faith wavered, they felt lost; as Jews, when it wavered, they lit candles, said prayers, observed the mitzvot (commandments that make up the religious law) and faith returned. My own thinking about his has been influenced a great deal by the contemporary Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz who stresses that Judaism is “submission to the yoke of Torah,” which is to say, keeping of the commandments as laid out in the Torah, regardless of what one feels or hopes to gain personally. I find this very pleasing and convincing and extrapolate from it to the notion that Judaism works perfectly well without God; one celebrates the holidays, keeps the Sabbath, observers the dietary laws and so on. One doesn’t need to believe. Now why would one accept the yoke of Torah if it weren’t handed down by God? Well, perhaps, as Carla says in the film, “because God commands it whether he exists or not.” Or one might do it to maintain an ancient tradition and one’s own connection to that tradition. Or one might, as the philosopher Emanuel Levinas has done, simply declare that the law is God. For me, at least, a faith that doesn’t require faith, is both beautiful and useful.

For most of the film, Daniel is trying to reject Judaism intellectually, in sharp contrast to most of the other skinheads he knows, who just hate without really knowing why; were you aware that putting such stridently amti-semitic arguments in the mouth of a character would be controversial?

Well, of course I was aware that saying those ideas at all went against acceptable discourse. Putting them in the mouth of a Jew made it look like “self-hatred,” but putting them in the mouth of a rabbi-manque made them, to me, a form of prayer. (It’s also true that virtually all of Danny’s anti-semitic remarks can be read ironically, as a mockery of anti-semitism, even as they are, also, instances of anti-semitism.) I took it for granted that no one would seriously believe that a publicly shown film would, itself, espouse these ideas.

In the aftermath of the events of September 11, how do you feel about the film? In the article you wrote for Sight And Sound, you said at one point that you had a “terrible thought: I shouldn’t have made The Believer.” Are you worried that the film will be marginalised because it’s too close to the bone, in that it deals with religious fundamentalism (if you can call Daniel’s brand of Judaism fundamentalist), violence in the name of ideology and suicide bombing, or do you think it’s now maybe more relevant than before?

I am worried that it will be marginalized. In the present war, and with the current U.S. administration, the country seems to have little patience for complexity, irony, nuance. Perhaps this is, for certain people, one of the benefits of the war. One could say, of course, that these events have made the film all the more pertinent, that it offers an insight into the mentality of fanaticism, of people who follow the internal logic of an idea without lifting their heads to take account of the worldly consequences. I suspect that that’s so, though whether it will pay off at the box office remains to be seen. But, finally, I’m relieved that I made the film and finished it before all this happened. The film has a truth, I believe, that is just as true now as ever. Among other things, it is a plea for tolerance of the forbidden, for seeing the love that often lies behind hatred. It’s possible, of course, that some people might take the film the “wrong way,” but that seems to me unlikely, and, in any case, I suspect that in the end it would do more good than harm.

How did writing the script (and directing the film, for that matter) affect your own view of Judaism, if at all? And if it did affect it, was it in ways you expected or not?

It didn’t, really. Judaism affected the writing and directing far more than the reverse. I suppose in the writing I was startled to discover the exuberance of my own anti-semitic invective; it seemed I could have written that stuff to the end of time. And yet I never worried that I was an anti-semite or a self-hating Jew. (A self-hating human perhaps.) I always felt that those outpourings were, really, of love, however demented.

Is it difficult to be political within the confines of the film industry? And on a related note, have you had any success finding a US distributor yet?

IDP (a consortium of Fireworks—who financed “The Believer”—Goldwyn and Stratosphere) will distribute the film theatrically in the U.S. after it shows on Showtime (now scheduled for March, the planned September premier having been delayed by the attacks). Political in the film industry? It’s very difficult. Producers, studios and so on are frightened of offending any constituency whatsoever, and particularly the more vociferous ones — often more worried than the groups themselves are. It’s an inevitable result of trying to market to everyone. I thought “Three Kings” was a very interesting film politically (and in other respects) as was, in a completely different way, “Dazed and Confused.” But, more deeply, America tends to be, or tries to be, a resolutely “apolitical” nation. That is self-deception, but it means that to address the movie-going audience politically one generally comes at it obliquely. I’m presently writing another film that is all about politics yet, I hope, won’t look like it.

Why is Carla so drawn to Daniel (apart from the better sex and the “tragic dimension”)?

Well, that’s a lot. But, also, I think she feels that he is serious and very demanding of himself in a way that she respects and is drawn to. I think that there is a direct line from telling him, “Hurt me,” to her wish to “submit to God.” She is a willful creature who is searching for something larger and more powerful than herself. At first she thinks he might be that something, then she finds in him a way to another alternative.

And finally: could you could look on Daniel’s nazi beliefs as being the ultimate test of faith? Is this how far he is willing to go to test his religious commitment?

I think that’s a good way to put it. There is something in us that wants to speak the unspeakable, to hold up for inspection and consider seriously the most hated ideas. We want to get past our reflexive, culturally-learned reactions and see what we really think if our minds are open to anything and everything. I think we also sense that whatever the culture has categorically and collectively rejected must have some tremendous appeal (or why would they have martialled their forces against it), and we want to see for ourselves what that is. In the end, Danny’s Judaism is stronger, more vital, more living because of his Nazism than it would have been without it. Danny wants the impossible (to be a Jew and a Nazi); it destroys him, but for a period it gives him true life.

Posted at 3pm on 16/01/03 by Leon McDermott to the interviews category.
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  1. where i can find henry bean scripts?

    Posted by greg at 11am on 19.04.03

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