Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar talks about his Footnote

Footnote, Joseph Cedar's fourth film, won the award for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2011 and was one of the nominees for this year's Oscar as best foreign film. The film opens in limited release Friday (3/9/12).

But that kind of recognition makes the Israeli-American filmmaker uncomfortable, or so he says. His film - about a Israeli dour academic who is mistakenly informed that he's won a major prize that, in fact, is intended for his son - deals with the cost of acclaim and the similar toll that comes with not receiving it.

Cedar, born in New York but reared in Israel, lives in Tel Aviv. He sat down to chat about his film when he was in New York last September, shortly before its premiere at the New York Film Festival. Here's our conversation:

Q: Where did this idea come from?
A: There was a specific thing that triggered it; the story evolved as it was written and took shape over eight months. It was more than a year after my previous film, which did pretty well. I was working on something else that collapsed. I couldn't find any story that seemed worth it. I thought I wouldn't be able to come up with a project that would be something I could stand behind.

Then I got a call from the cultural attaché at the Italian embassy in Tel Aviv, saying I'd received an award from the Italian government in recognition of the 60th anniversary of Israel. I didn't feel good about it; it sounded suspicious to me. I asked who else was getting this and the list included several serious, accomplished Israelis.

Then it dawned on me: They were not calling for me but for my father and somehow had called me by mistake. And while I was waiting on the line to find this out, that's when the idea for this film dawned on me.

As it turned out, the award was for me, as strange as that sounds. It was an award that made me feel there was some kind of mistake, that I was getting an award I didn't deserve.

Q: Why did you feel undeserving?
A: Recognition is a big part of anyone's ability to work. There's always a price. Either you feel embarrassed that you need it. Or else you feel that it must not be that prestigious if they're giving it to you. Everyone who gets an award has a suspicion that there's been a mistake, that you'll be found out as a fraud. Plus, everybody is skeptical in Israel. Nothing is a big deal, especially if it happens to someone else. Prestige has to be supported by actual content.

Q: Well, your film is in the New York Film Festival, which is pretty prestigious. Don't you feel you deserve to be in the New York Film Festival?
A: Absolutely not.