The Arty Semite

Filmmaker Made Public Humiliation His Muse

By Curt Schleier

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Independent filmmakers can face many discouraging obstacles on the road from concept to screen. But Seth Fisher found a way to make sure he would not abandon his first full length feature along the way: his fear of public humiliation.

“As soon as I started writing ‘Blumenthal’ I started a blog called watchmemakeamovie.com,” he said in a telephone interview with the Forward. “Every day I’d post what I did that day. I figured if I was going to announce to the world that I was going to make this movie, I would have to see it through to the end. It would be embarrassing if I stopped.”

That was back in November of 2010. Now, more than three years later, “Blumenthal” opens in New York on March 28. with more cities added in the coming weeks. The movie, already a Jewish film festival darling, is about the family of successful playwright Harold Blumenthal, who dies while laughing at one of his own jokes.

His survivors are a younger and jealous brother, Saul (Mark Blum), Saul’s wife Cheryl (Laila Robins) and his son Ethan (writer/director Fisher). As Saul grapples with his angst, Cheryl deals with aging and Ethan with trying to find the perfect woman.

Fisher spoke to the Forward about where the film came from, why the characters were Jewish, and what Tom Stoppard told him about Jewish characters.

Curt Schleier: I found the film very enjoyable, but I wasn’t entirely sure what you wanted to say. Can you explain?

Seth Fisher: I like to say it was more what I was trying to explore then what I was trying to say. I was interested in exploring people in different stages of their lives across gender in this period of American history. They all seem to be prone to looking at their lives and asking, is this enough? Could I have more? And could I be better off? And all of this is at the expense of living in the present.

Where did all of this come from?

It came from a couple of places. I worked as an actor in the New York theater scene and was lucky enough to work with some pretty recognizable and famous people. Every day, family would show up, and I started wondering what it would be like to be Arthur Miller’s least talented brother. (Not that I worked with Arthur Miller.) Or what would it be like to be Steven Spielberg’s nephew, to have the name but not the talent. So that was the catalyst. Also, I had characters similar to Cheryl and Ethan in short films I’ve done. I wanted to explore them more. Saul’s story is really a brother’s story. I have an older brother who is very successful. So this part is drawn from my own experience, though it’s worth stating that my brother is not a writer. He’s a venture capitalist in Israel.

Any particular reason the Upper West Side family is Jewish?

I just did a Q&A at a Jewish film festival where someone asked me if this was a Jewish movie. I didn’t see the movie in that light, but now the logic of it crosses my mind. I think Jews are questioning people. It’s a very Jewish thing to question everything, success, failure, how you look. Everything that comes in front of you.

Something I just thought of. When I appeared in “Rock’n Roll” (on Broadway), I asked [playwright] Tom Stoppard why he made the character who returns to Prague Jewish. He told me, ‘I thought about it. I’m Jewish so I’ll make him Jewish.’ It was just mechanics. He then told me how he only found out about being Jewish when he was about 40.

Tell me a little about your background.

I grew up in San Antonio. My family is South African Jews. They immigrated in 1976. I grew up in a Conservative household and yes, was a bar mitzvah. My brother obviously made aliya and is in Israel.

Were you one of those kids who ran around with a camcorder?

I wasn’t. I was the kid who would frustrate his siblings and rewind every VHS movie we watched and watch it again. As a kid I was less interested in the concept of movies than in stories. I loved watching plays and the idea of actually getting behind the camera didn’t occur to me until later. I was into still photography for a while and then started with short films.


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