“Keep the Change” | Interview with Rachel Israel

| January 30, 2015

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When casting a film dealing social disorders, there really are only two ways of approaching it: cast an actor  (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man; Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mary and Max) or cast the real deal. Rachel Israel took the latter option. In Israel’s tender and authentic Keep the Change, she depicts characters with autism and social disorders as realistic, well-rounded people. At its core, Keep the Change is really a story about a couple of New Yorkers going about a mundane day.

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Hi Rachel! Can you tell us about yourself?

I am a New York filmmaker and film teacher at Rhode Island School of Design. I received my BFA from RISD and MFA from Columbia University .
These two lovebirds challenge the concept of normal in "Keep the Change."

 Tell us about Keep the Change.

 I wrote and directed Keep the Change as my Master’s Thesis at Columbia University. Keep the Change is a love story set within a community of adults on the autistic spectrum. The story stars real people, first-time actors with autism around whom I wrote the script.

How did you meet your lead Brandon Polansky?

Brandon Polansky has been a friend of mine for over 11 years. I met Brandon the summer before I went away to undergraduate college. I was taking a live model drawing class. In the center of the class was a nude model, surrounded by easels. During class break I noticed this young man circle the room, hitting on every woman in the class. When it came my turn to be “hit on” by Brandon, I declined a date but made a point of being kind, as I had heard such cruel rejections from other people in the class. Brandon asked whether he could still have my phone number anyway. I said sure. Brandon and I became good friends.

Brandon Polansky in "Keep the Change."

Brandon Polansky in Keep the Change.

Tell me about your writing and structuring process. How much of the film is improvised?

The story was fully scripted and went through many revisions. All the cast read the script so that they had an idea of the story but when we went into filming – they were encouraged to put the dialogue in their own words. So most of what you hear in the movie is improvised dialogue. That said, we kept to a tight story structure. In filming we were focused on nailing dramatic beats within scenes.

What was it like working with actors Brandon Polansky and Samantha Elisofon and how was it different from past experiences with your casts?

Brandon and Samantha are both naturally gifted actors – the amount of energy that they put forth in ordinary life to connect emotionally with others comes through in their ability to connect together on screen. In making this film together, they gave a lot of trust to me as a director. It was a privilege to work with them.

Brandon Polansky and Samantha Elisofon in "Keep the Change."

Brandon Polansky and Samantha Elisofon in Keep the Change.

 

Tell me about the production. How big was your crew and how many days did you shoot?

We shot for 5 ½ days. On larger production days our crew was as large as about 15-20 people, on other more intimate scenes we would be as small as 10.

I’m thoroughly impressed by the film’s cinematography. Given the improvised nature, can you tell me about your working relationship with your DP Ming Kai Leung?

Ming Kai Leung was a gift on set. He was tireless and sharp visually – his sensitivity to performance was essential as I needed to direct up close with the actors – I couldn’t reference a monitor so my trust in his watching the monitor was essential. As the staging was often different every take, he knew which performances to follow. Ming Kai Leung also has the patience and adventuresome spirit needed for this type of project.

Hardest part of the production? How about the surprisingly easiest?

The hardest part of this project overall was the screenwriting, getting a story that fit the actors. The hardest part of production itself was to initiate a few of the crew to the different mode of filming – using both a scripted story and improvised dialogue with non-traditional actors. The surprisingly easiest part of the shoot was keeping Brandon and Samantha energized. We had been concerned beforehand on how well they would keep up with the marathon of a 5 day film shoot – 12 hour days, etc. They were so excited to be on set – their energies did not flag.

A smiling Samantha Elifoson.

A smiling Samantha Elisofon.

My favorite cut in the film, and for some reason it has just stuck with me, is when the film cuts from the pretzel truck to a tracking shot of the actors and David makes a racist joke. It’s a simple cut, but a perfect moment, even lyrical. In general, tell us about how much footage you shot and what I assume was a huge job for you and your editor Alex Camilleri.

We had about 48 hours of footage, which sounds like a lot but makes sense when you consider that we were working with two cameras and were getting a lot of coverage to give us options in the edit. Alex Camilleri is a very talented editor. He is intelligent, sensitive and precise. We worked together throughout the edit in one of the most purely enjoyable collaborations that I’ve ever had. When Alex came onto the project I had been working alone for awhile on a rough cut – assembled according to the scripted story – but built around what I considered the performance gems in each scene – the moments where you felt how real these characters were. There was a lot of material that was unusable in the footage – stilted bad acting moments where the actors were nervous and sounded wooden – most good, trained actors won’t ever give you material as unusable as this stuff – but then there were also these golden moments, so real, where our non-traditional actors completely forgot the camera was there. Those golden moments became the tent-poles of our film.

I saw this at the 2013 Columbia University Film Festival with the cast in attendance. I remember them cheering when you picked up your award. What was their initial reaction when you first showed them the film?

That was a great moment – the first time they saw the film was at the 2013 Columbia University Film Festival – a screening earlier that week, before the awards ceremony. So this was all very fresh and exciting to them. It was very special for them to see it on the big screen in such an elegant environment – and to be congratulated by so many people afterwards. I had been looking forward to seeing them see it for a very long time.

The ending still fills me with hope and anxiety. It also feels very methodically constructed and precise. Without spoiling it, did you approach this sequence differently than other scenes in the film?

The ending was one of a few key moments in the film that we knew had to land very clearly in order for the film to work. The ending is also one of the rare moments in the film where the characters are communicating with each other non-verbally, which makes it feel especially tense I believe. There was no place for that improvised dialogue in the ending. The actors really needed to connect without words.

Brandon Polansky during a tense scene.

Brandon Polansky during a tense scene.

You’ve said that David’s first day at the support group is essentially his ‘version of hell’. Can you elaborate on why that is and how you were able to communicate that to the audience?

The character David is not at peace with identifying as a person on the autistic spectrum. For him hell is being categorized with people that he views as low functioning and needy. He is terrified of being needy.

What’s the general response to the film? Have you ever had to ‘defend’ the film, given that the cast has social disorders?

The reaction to the film has been overwhelmingly positive in both the community of people with autism and the wider world. The only aspect of the film that I’ve had to explain at times is my lead character’s use of offensive jokes. Most people immediately get why we include the jokes. Others don’t. Brandon Polansky who was the basis for David uses offensive jokes as a crutch in social situations, as a script that will earn him a laugh, albeit an uncomfortable laugh. Since he has difficulty editing his impulses these jokes also package all of his social awkwardness in a package he mistakenly believes is socially acceptable because he’s observed others telling such jokes. I thought this crutch was very interesting, very sad and also very revealing about his character so I wanted to include it.
It was also important to me that our film not sanitize these characters just because they have disabilities. I find such portrayals offensive to people with disabilities. They are not saints just because of a disability. They are flawed and human.

A scene depicting the support group.

A scene depicting the support group.

When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker? Any particular filmmakers influence you?

I decided to become a filmmaker when I first touched a film camera in college – before that I had been a serious painter and avid reader. For some reason I had no idea you could actually major in film at college. It was exhilarating to be on the other side of that ride. Films had influenced me so strongly growing up. Films fed a lot of my social learning. A few of the filmmakers that have influenced me are Milos Foreman, Woody Allen and Mike Nichols.

You are currently getting funding to develop Keep the Change into a feature length film. What are some new challenges you’re facing in making a full-length film compared to a short?

Money. I funded the short film through personal Bank of America loans. Fundraising requires skills I’m having to learn as a shy artist. Just like my main character, David, I’ve never liked asking people for help. It takes confidence to ask. That said, here’s a link to our donations page: http://fs.artistspublicdomain.org/campaign/detail/3083

Samantha Elisofon and Brandon Polansky in "Keep the Change."

Samantha Elisofon and Brandon Polansky in Keep the Change.

What was your Columbia experience like?

Columbia was awesome, such a luxury to have that focused time to discover what moved me as a filmmaker. The faculty deeply and sincerely care about students reaching their highest potentials. The relationships that I developed with peers are priceless.

Who were your favorite professors and why?

I received great support from my advisor, a very accomplished filmmaker, Ramin Bahrani. His rigor and honesty about work are amazing. He taught me an ethos of inquiry and need for precision as a filmmaker. Eric Mendelsohn was a tremendous asset to my thesis work also. He encourages students to be fearless and seek the core emotion of a work. He’s a brilliant teacher. Other magnificent professors I experienced include June Stein, Tom Kalin and Andy Bienen.

What kind of feedback did you get from your professors and classmates regarding Keep the Change?

Constructive criticism all the way through. The atmosphere at Columbia is supportive, safe and rigorous. We want each other to succeed and we push for the best from each other.

Rachel Israel, second from the left.

Rachel Israel, second from the left.

What advice do you have for student filmmakers?

Follow the subjects that move you the most and don’t be afraid of looking stupid in the process. I come from a family of scientists and I’ve always appreciated the scientific attitude toward creativity, which is all about exploration and discovery. You can’t be afraid of failing.

What’s life like after film school?

It’s a difficult transition out of grad school but it feels good at the same time. It’s been vital for me to stay in touch with my circle of grad school friends who are going through the same transition. The grad school support network has been priceless.

Other than a feature in the works, what’s next?

I’m now teaching film part time at Rhode Island School of Design, which is such a joy and an honor. Teaching plus scaling the mountain of making this feature fill my life. I have a couple other projects in mind for after the feature of Keep the Change. However, from past experience, I know that big projects change you and affect what you will want to take on next. I’m looking forward to being changed by making this next film.

Rachel Israel is a New York-based independent filmmaker. She is now in development on her first full-length feature film, Keep the Change, based on her award winning short, to be filmed Summer, 2015.

Keep the Change screens at the SF Independent Film Festival (SF Indiefest) in the Shorts 1: Personals showcase at the Roxie Theatre on Sat, Feb 7 @ 2:45pm and Mon, Feb 9 @ 7:15pm.

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