The mys­ter­ies of a New York fixer

Joseph Cedar talks about the enig­matic char­ac­ter at the cen­ter of ‘Nor­man,’ his first English-lan­guage movie

The Washington Post Sunday - - MOVIES - BY MICHAEL O'SUL­LI­VAN michael.osul­li­van@wash­

“Nor­man: The Mod­er­ate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” is set in the Man­hat­tan busi­ness world, and yet it has the fla­vor of Washington. The ti­tle char­ac­ter, played by Richard Gere, is a grat­ing yet dogged go-be­tween, shut­tling from politi­cian to banker to diplo­mat to re­li­gious leader and other muck­ety-mucks. It’s the first English-lan­guage film from Joseph Cedar, the Is­raeli-born, U.S.trained di­rec­tor of the 2011 Os­carnom­i­nated com­edy “Foot­note,” and Cedar says he moved to New York while writ­ing and film­ing so he could bet­ter un­der­stand his Amer­i­can mi­lieu.

“I came to New York to work on this film, not know­ing what this film would be,” Cedar said dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view while in Washington to pro­mote the movie. “It evolved from the things that I ab­sorbed while I was there.”

The 48-year-old film­maker, now liv­ing in Tel Aviv again, calls “Nor­man” a char­ac­ter study of a quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can type: the some­times sad but al­ways fas­ci­nat­ing mid­dle­man who makes a liv­ing by bring­ing peo­ple to­gether, even if his method­ol­ogy isn’t al­ways clear — or eth­i­cal. Cedar spoke about why that role fas­ci­nates him.

Q: “Nor­man” is partly set in Washington and the world of pol­i­tics. How fa­mil­iar are you with that world? A: There was one event that I was in­vited to. It was a re­search trip for me, but it turned into a key to un­der­stand­ing some­thing about Nor­man. I came to the Na­tional Prayer Break­fast a few years ago, which blew my mind when I learned what it ac­tu­ally is.

Q: And what is it? A: There’s a spir­i­tual agenda, which brings peo­ple from both sides of any po­lit­i­cal ques­tion to­gether around some form of prayer. But it’s also an ex­cuse to get many other peo­ple — who are not nec­es­sar­ily there for the prayer — un­der the same roof with politi­cians, diplo­mats, busi­ness­peo­ple who oth­er­wise would have a hard time be­ing in the same room. It’s that kind of situation where some­one like Nor­man flour­ishes. Where the func­tion of get­ting the right peo­ple to speak about some­thing that both sides have an in­ter­est in . . . cre­ates a need for some­one like Nor­man. On the one hand, it’s a prayer break­fast. On the other, it’s a na­tional con­ven­tion of Nor­mans.

Q: Nor­man is what in Yid­dish would be called a “macher” — some­one who makes things happen — al­though the term may not be uni­ver­sally fa­mil­iar. Why did you change it to “fixer”? A: I sug­gested “macher.” The word “fixer” came up for the rea­son you just gave. Any­one who knows that word knows that “fixer” is a sub­sti­tute, just like “New York” is a sub­sti­tute for “Jewish.”

Q: Wasn’t the char­ac­ter of Nor­man also in­spired by the anti-Semitic car­i­ca­ture of the his­tor­i­cal court Jew, the Jewish banker to roy­alty? A: The court Jew isn’t it­self an anti-Semitic car­i­ca­ture. The court Jew is a real thing that served ac­tual needs, and in many ways mod­ern­ized Europe. If it weren’t for the anti-Semitic an­gle on it, it would be seen as a very pos­i­tive func­tion. Part of what drew me to this func­tion in the world is to try to cor­rect that anti-Semitic spin. Peo­ple who have char­ac­ter traits that would make them a good macher — some of them are not pos­i­tive, but a lot of them are.

Q: Are there real-life Nor­mans? I was grate­ful when Char­lotte Gains­bourg’s char­ac­ter, the pros­e­cu­tor Alex, asks Nor­man to ex­plain ex­actly what he does. Like her, I just didn’t get his busi­ness model. A: That was my ex­pe­ri­ence, too. There are a lot of peo­ple around me who do some­thing that is hard to ex­plain.

Q: Peo­ple in the film busi­ness? A: In any busi­ness. Peo­ple who are in the mid­dle of two sides: the per­son with the idea and the per­son with the money. It’s com­pli­cated. There’s a mantra

that I’ve taken from “Nor­man.” To­ward the end of the film, some­one asks him, “Why isn’t any­thing ever sim­ple with you?” and he says, “Who says sim­ple is good?” Some of the best things that I en­joy in life are ex­tremely com­pli­cated.

Q: Such as? A: Hu­man needs are not sim­ple.

Q: Com­plex­ity makes a bet­ter story. A: I see why there’s beauty in some­thing sim­ple. In farm­ing. you plant a seed. It grows into fruit. You eat that fruit, and that’s your life. But then there’s a whole other side of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing life that’s ex­tremely com­pli­cated, and around that one seed are 50 peo­ple who are try­ing to find the same hole in the ground to put in dif­fer­ent seeds.

Q: Is Nor­man home­less? We never see where he lives, and in one scene, he’s eat­ing her­ring out of a jar on a Ritz cracker. Yet he wears a nice camel-hair coat and car­ries an iPhone. A: I can an­swer any bi­o­graph­i­cal ques­tion about Nor­man.

Q: So then why don’t you, in the film? A: Be­cause the peo­ple who en­counter Nor­man don’t know those de­tails about him and are afraid to ask. Be­cause he’s forced to lie in al­most ev­ery en­counter and re­la­tion­ship he has. Most peo­ple don’t ever want to get close enough to Nor­man to con­front him with his lies and ask for the truth. I know peo­ple around me who are like that. I don’t un­der­stand ex­actly how they make a liv­ing. They’re alone in the world. I’m pretty sure they’re okay. I’m not pos­i­tive. I don't know where they go to at night. They go some­where. Alex is the one per­son who asks Nor­man, who wants to know. And once he re­al­izes that she’s aware of him ly­ing, it cre­ates a close­ness he doesn’t have with any­one.

Q: What did you do to Richard Gere’s ears? A: We’re not go­ing to re­veal ex­actly what we did, but we were look­ing for some­thing that would change how he looks, with­out be­ing too in­tru­sive. We changed the way his face is shaped, in some sub­tle ways. We played around with his hair. It’s very dif­fi­cult to dis­guise Richard. There are ac­tors who give them­selves to ex­treme makeup, like Daniel Day Lewis. But there’s some­thing about Richard that any­thing too ag­gres­sive sud­denly calls at­ten­tion to it­self. The pri­mary ef­fect of it is how the ac­tor sees him­self. There’s some­thing a lit­tle goofy about his look in this film.

Q: Is your cu­rios­ity about Nor­man an­thro­po­log­i­cal or per­sonal? A: Some­thing about Nor­man says some­thing about my iden­tity. I’m em­bar­rassed by Nor­man at times, and many times I feel real pride in what I think is his ge­nius. The em­bar­rass­ment comes from Nor­man’s ac­tions that are things I find my­self do­ing. Nor­man is an ex­treme ver­sion, al­most a fairy-tale ver­sion of this char­ac­ter trait.

Q: Things you have to do as a film­maker? A: Ab­so­lutely. Rais­ing money for a movie can never be taken for granted.

Q: This film and “Foot­note” ex­plore the theme of the out­sider seek­ing ac­cess to closed sys­tems. What is it about this that fas­ci­nates you? A: It def­i­nitely does. I’m not sure I can ex­plain why. When I see some­one who feels ab­so­lutely com­fort­able in a cer­tain place that I don’t have ac­cess to, that’s a mys­tery to me. I don’t feel that way al­most any­where.

Q: Not even in the film in­dus­try? A: Ev­ery time I do, I im­me­di­ately ques­tion whether I should or not. Many Is­raelis, for in­stance, feel that. If you’re em­braced by the es­tab­lish­ment, on the one hand, it’s ex­tremely nice, and it al­lows you to do things you couldn’t oth­er­wise do. At the same time, you don’t really want to be that per­son who’s em­braced by the es­tab­lish­ment.

Q: It’s the old joke about not want­ing to join a club that would have you as a mem­ber. What did you mean when you said, in an in­ter­view, that Amer­i­can cin­ema is in a cri­sis? A: I don’t know what the con­text of that com­ment was. But it’s the stu­dio sys­tem. I’ve heard Richard speak about it, and he’s been work­ing in the stu­dio sys­tem his en­tire life. The kind of movies he’s al­ways done are no longer be­ing made by the sys­tem.

“Some­one asks [Nor­man], ‘Why isn’t any­thing ever sim­ple with you?’ and he says, ‘Who says sim­ple is good?’ ” Joseph Cedar, di­rec­tor of “Nor­man”

Q: It was in the con­text of crit­i­ciz­ing the 2017 Os­car best pic­ture nom­i­nees “Hell or High Wa­ter” and “La La Land.” You said, “I’d rather re-watch ‘Sin­gin’ in the Rain.’ “A: (Laugh­ing) Oh, okay. That was an in­ter­view in He­brew. Okay. I did say that. This is true.

Q: Have your words come back to haunt you? A: I stand be­hind them. The stan­dard that I think ex­isted a few years ago — or be­fore I was at a point where I am as crit­i­cal as I am now — was much higher than it is now.

Q: Talk about the po­lit­i­cal themes of “Nor­man.” The idea of a se­cret mid­dle­man — some­one who sets up meet­ings and trades fa­vors — is es­pe­cially timely. Is that an ev­er­green func­tion of govern­ment and busi­ness? A: I think so. State lead­ers have a type that makes them vul­ner­a­ble to cer­tain temp­ta­tions. Busi­ness­peo­ple have cer­tain de­sires that are beyond their bot­tom line, hav­ing to do with power. That has al­ways been the way the world is. If peo­ple ex­change fa­vors, I might as well use it to my ad­van­tage. The re­sult of this isn’t al­ways bad. In re­turn for that fa­vor, maybe some­thing good will happen.

Q: Such as peace in the Mid­dle East, as hap­pens in the film. Is it still a good thing if peace is bro­kered by a cor­rupt politi­cian? A: Is­raelis have had this dilemma the last 10 years or so: Are we will­ing to live with a politi­cian who ap­par­ently is in the gray area of cor­rup­tion, but for­ward­ing a pol­icy that some of us think is good?

Q: What’s the an­swer? A: I don't have an an­swer. That’s what makes a story worth in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

Nor­man: The Mod­er­ate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (R, 117 min­utes). At area the­aters.


ABOVE: Richard Gere, left, as Nor­man Op­pen­heimer and Lior Ashke­nazi as Micha Eshel in “Nor­man: The Mod­er­ate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.”


LEFT: The movie’s di­rec­tor, Joseph Cedar, pro­mot­ing “Nor­man” at a film fes­ti­val in Barcelona on April 21.

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