A Conversation with Footnote's Oscar Nominated Director Joseph Cedar

A son grows up wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps as a recognized scholar and reaches a level of fame the father was never able to obtain. A father, enraged by constantly being disregarded by his peers bitterly mocks his son’s success. “Footnote” explores the complications that arise when fame enters into this fragile relationship. “Footnote” marks writer/director Joseph Cedar’s second Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film (he was previously nominated for “Beaufort.”) 411 Publishing recently spoke with Cedar about his approach to filmmaking and his dual role as writer and director on “Footnote.”

411: You’ve been both the writer and director on all of your feature films. Do you feel a close connection to your work that makes you want to direct it? Do you have the desire to direct anyone else’s work?

Joseph Cedar: There are many directors that I respect that direct other people’s screenplays. For me, I think the source for any authority on the set has to do with the fact that I wrote the script.

411: A director sometimes has to make particular choices when shooting regarding length, budget, schedule. Having to be faced with those choices on your scripts seems like it would pose a challenge because you have written the material yourself.

JC: I have been really lucky to work with a producing partner named David Mandil who has allowed me to reach the production stage of my films without having to worry at all about the logistical part of it that are outside the creative conversation.

411: Sure, so it allows you to really just focus on the creativity of the script in hand.

JC: Yes.

411: In speaking of that, with "Footnote," it seemed to me you had a very distinct sense of how it would be edited. Were you envisioning the movie as you were writing it?

JC: That’s interesting because there are certain sequences that we storyboarded in a detailed way. We called those sequences footnotes, and those were really well placed in advance. During the shoot, we were so focused on the fragments and the individual shots, not really knowing how well they would cut together. Half of our day in every scene was shooting pov’s of the character that could change the scene completely: change the rhythm, change the pace. Then in the editing room we found ourselves shaping these scenes in a way that really was detached from our intentions at the earlier stages.

411: In looking at some of the other movies you have worked on, I noticed you have had a number of different crew members: cinematographers, composers, and others. Is it comfortable for you to get used to the rhythm of working with a number different people?

JC: That’s an interesting question. There is always this dilemma about what to do. On one hand you could work with someone you have grown comfortable with, and someone who you have learned together from mistakes with. On the other hand, you get inspired by working with someone who has some different viewpoints. So with this film, I was working with a cinematographer after having worked together (with the previous dp) on three films. He really did inspire me and bring in new references that I didn’t have. At the same time I went back to an editor I worked with on a previous film. There is a sound designer I’ve been working with regularly in almost everything I do, and he is a solid partner, and he has helped me find composers that are right for each film. His name is Alex Claude, and he’s been a big part of what I’ve been doing at all the stages, not just the sound stage. He’s one of the first people to read the script. I know for many films the sound stage of the production is a technical stage, but for me it is always the most enjoyable part because there seems to be an absolute freedom in it, and the sound designer I work with is a great artist. I always look forward to getting back to his work station.

411: The music in “Footnote” seems to be a helpful tool for setting tone. I noticed there are long periods without a score at all. Was that something you carefully worked out about the audio?

JC: I’m against music that apologizes for being there, and hides itself underneath something else. A melody or a tone or something that is there and lingers on and manipulates the audience without presenting itself and declaring that is what it is doing, somehow I’ve grown to resent that. One of the things that I decided with this film, and maybe for future films as well, is in the places where the music is there, it is there. And where we felt we don’t need the music, or that the music is interfering, then there is no music, there is nothing at all.

411: “Footnote” offers a lot of scenes in very confined spaces. What is it like working with your crew in these conditions?

JC: Well, the office scene in this film was shot on a stage and we built a set that allowed us to have some flexibility as to where we placed the camera. But, shooting a scene like that over four days in such a crowded environment influenced the performances. It does something; it becomes intensive, it becomes obsessive.

411: Do you do a fair amount of rehearsal before you shoot? Or do you prefer to have a brief rehearsal, and then capture the emotion from the moment it arises?

JC: I spend a lot of time with the actors before we shoot. We go over the scene, sometimes we do the scenes, but it is not a rehearsal in the technical sense of doing something that we then do it over again when the cameras are running. It’s more of an opportunity to discuss the scenes and see if we can make them better, and see if we can understand them in a different way. Each actor has his own needs that I try to answer to. I guess it’s called the rehearsal period, but rarely do we actually stage a scene.

411: I know you were born in the US then your family moved to Israel. You returned to the US for film school. What are some of the differences in working in film in between the US and conducting productions in Israel?

JC: The truth is I don’t really feel that I know what it feels like to work in the US, not professionally that is for sure. As a student, every student makes his own film and creates his own working environment. I’ve been asking myself what the differences might be, but I don’t know what they are.

411: Do you have the desire to make a film in the US, or are you quite happy working with the crew and actors and environment that you live in?

JC: I have a desire of making a film that will reach a larger audience. I don’t know if that necessarily means making it in the United States or somewhere else. There are things that I am attracted to in the American industry, and I’m trying to find a way to enjoy that without really moving too far from my cultural center.

411: It seems to me that the culture is very important to you in the topics that you have chosen to focus on. Do you have the need and the desire to explore history a bit more in your filmmaking?

JC: Ah, just the opposite. I’m finding myself interested only in character, and less and less in what surrounds the character. It’s hard to separate these two things, but recently historical films have lost some of their interest to me, and films that are finding their way to give the audience a subjective experience have become more interesting to me. The audience involvement in a story needs to be connected to what a character needs and is feeling, and the other things are there and they enrich the experience, but it is not what creates involvement.

411: As a director, what is your favorite aspect of production?

JC: There’s one movement in the process which is the most relaxing for me. I don’t know if it is my favorite, but it the one I remember as a rare island of calmness. When the script is ready, I go to the office and I print it out, and waiting for the pages to come out is the best 15 minutes of the whole process. I turn off my brain, and the screenplay that I have been really struggling with finally exists on actual paper, and it’s right before all the new problems arise: how do you make it, how do you finance it, how do you cast it. It’s a small tiny piece in the process that has no anxiety, so I like seeing those pages come out of the printer.