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“What happened to Yossi?” Famed Israeli director Eytan Fox was asked that question again and again as he taught film classes at the NYU-Tel Aviv campus. Inspired by his students who were curious about the fate of the remarkable title character of Yossi & Jagger, Fox decided to revisit the character he introduced to audiences in his 2003 film. When we first meet Yossi (played in both films by Ohad Knoller), he is a young Iraesli gay soldier who falls in love with another soldier, Jagger, while both are serving in the military. Tragically, Jagger is killed in battle, leaving Yossi heartbroken and alone.
Thankfully, Eytan Fox and Ohad Knoller began to discuss the character of Yossi and decided to revisit their creation nearly a decade later.. The result of this renewed collaboration, Yossi, premiered to acclaim at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Not surprisingly, Yossi is a film about second chances that proves that it’s never to late to start again. We were lucky enough to speak to Fox over the phone shortly before last year’s Festival.
Yossi can be seen starting today in limited release at two theaters in New York City: downtown at the Angelika Film Center and uptown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Don’t miss your chance to see or re-see one of the most celebrated films at TFF 2012.
Note: This interview originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Tribeca: Tell us a little about Yossi. How do you describe the movie in your own words?
Eytan Fox: Well, Yossi is a follow up to a film I made 10 years ago called Yossi & Jagger. It’s a character study of Yossi, of his psyche and soul. As the film starts, he is still suffering from post-traumatic stress due to the death of his lover during the war. He remains in the closet, so he also at war with himself. As a cardiologist, he has essentially exchanged one army for another, because being a doctor also involves consistently dealing with crises and difficult issues. You even have a uniform!
Ultimately, the film is about Yossi eventually processing the horrible things that have happened to him, things he has long repressed, and finding ways to escape the very difficult places that he has been in for years. He finally discovers a new way to define himself and create a new life.
Tribeca: What inspired you to revisit the character of Yossi from your previous film Yossi & Jagger?
EYTAN FOX: It was actually my students who inspired me. I teach a master class in cinema at NYU–Tel Aviv—one of NYU’s satellite campuses. In all my classes, I show my film and television work as teaching tools. When I showed Yossi & Jagger, the students asked me “What happened to Yossi? Who would he be today?” So I got to thinking about Yossi 10 years after I made the film and realized that the whole world has changed. I asked myself whether Yossi managed to change with the world and, if so, what happened to his gay identity. I had to get to know Yossi all over again.
I’m close with Ohad Knoller, who played Yossi in the first film, and I started working with him to see where Yossi was today. That was very interesting. Ohad was hesitant to return to the character at first; however, we both realized that we had a very deep connection with Yossi. We could imagine him in a very bad place, and we wanted to help him reach a better place.
TRIBECA: Ohad Knoller won the Best Actor Prize at Tribeca in 2003 for his role as Yossi in Yossi & Jagger, so choosing him to reprise the role was inevitable. Could you talk about the rest of the casting process for Yossi?
EYTAN FOX: I was determined to surround Ohad with the finest actors in Israel today. We just had such a terrific cast. One of Israel’s most prominent actors, Lior Ashknazi, who did Water on Water with me and appeared in the Oscar nominated Footnote , plays Yossi’s colleague. Oz Zehavi is Israel’s newest heartthrob and is a very good actor as well. I knew that he’d be great as Tom. I could go on, but I'll stop myself there.
TRIBECA: Speaking of Tom, Tom and Yossi had such an interesting, complex relationship. Tom was so open with his sexuality, while Yossi still had the same mindset as he did when he was in the army 10 years previously. Can you talk about the development of these two characters?
EYTAN FOX: Israel has changed. The Israel that I grew up in was a very macho-military state. Going into the army was a part of everyone’s life; you were expected to become a tough Israeli solider. That was part of our upbringing and identity. There was no way out of it. You were usually sent to a fighting unit, like Yossi, like Jagger, like Tom. You had to be tough, you had to be strong, and you had to be straight. The possibility of being gay was not even considered.
In Israel today, the army itself has changed. Now there are openly gay commanders in the army, and Yossi & Jagger actually has become one of the films that soldiers watch during basic training. Yossi & Jagger did a wonderful job of opening people’s minds and making the army more tolerant. In many ways, I think that the film has allowed a character like Tom to exist as a different soldier. He’s an openly gay man and very sure of himself. He’s part of a group of soldiers who are really macho, and he’s able to hold his own and bond with them. He’s not looking for anyone when he meets Yossi, but gradually the two begin to form a bond.
TRIBECA: Describe your collaborative process with screenwriter Itay Segal. Why did you choose him to write the second part of your Yossi series?
EYTAN FOX: In all my films, I usually come up with the story and characters, and after that, I bring in a collaborator to write the screenplay. I followed this process in Yossi as well. Itay is an amazing writer and friend, and we worked very hard to find the story, characters and structure together. He is a television critic for one of Israel’s biggest newspapers, but he assured me he could find time to write the script. When we got close to the day that shooting was to begin, I had not heard from him. I told him, “This is not going to be like one of your columns where you finish it and the next day it will be published. A screenplay has to be close to 100 pages!” Itay said that he was very used to deadlines, and very soon after he presented me with a 90-page screenplay that is almost exactly what we shot. He did a very good job.
TRIBECA: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?
EYTAN FOX: First of all, I don’t want to insult any other actors of mine or characters of mine, but I don’t think I’ve ever loved a character as much as Yossi as played by Ohad. I’m so proud of our accomplishment together as actor and director. When I came to the editing room, I saw things that Ohad did that I didn’t even notice on set. Actually, the first scene we shot in the movie was that sequence where Yossi is sitting in the bar, listening to this wonderful Israeli singer, his eyes filled with tears. Then Oz comes and sits next to him, showing that Tom has chosen Yossi over his partying fellow soldiers. I said to Ohad, “If you become this teary before Tom sits next to you, people are going to think their story is over. Don’t become so emotional.”
I was worried that we still had more story to tell before the two ended up together! Ohad said, “It’s not about Tom. It’s about Yossi processing the story of Jagger. Will this new life be with Tom? Maybe, but it’s not yet decided.” We finally came to a compromise. I don’t know if you noticed, but in that scene, Ohad tears up just a bit and then represses the emotion almost instantly. When that is happening, Tom sits down next to him. Therefore, it’s not the end of the story. There is still that question of “Will they or won’t they?”
TRIBECA: One of the recurring themes in Yossi is that of journeys.What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
EYTAN FOX: I think most American films are big on taglines, so I have some for Yossi. “It’s never too late to start your life” or “It’s never to too late to start again.” These might seem like clichés, but it takes a lot of hard work to change your life. You have to understand what you need to change, be brave and work to love yourself.
TRIBECA: As a returning TFF alum, what are you most looking forward to at Tribeca?
EYTAN FOX: Well, I was born in New York, so it’s just a great excuse to visit [laughs]. It’s such a fun Festival. I love Tribeca. Yossi & Jagger was my first time here in 2003. In 2007, I was here with Bubble, and it’s always interesting to see how the Festival keeps evolving. I saw the program for this year and think it’s just wonderful. Plus, this is my first world premiere at Tribeca. The idea of seeing Yossi with Ohad and the rest of our collaborators with an audience at Tribeca for the world premiere is thrilling for me.
TRIBECA: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?
EYTAN FOX: This is a difficult question. Robert Altman would be one. I remember seeing Nashville and McCabe & Mrs. Miller as a child and knowing that I wanted to direct films when I grew up. Even though she’s not a filmmaker, I would love to share a meal with Pauline Kael. I grew up reading her film criticism. My mother used to get The New Yorker from the States when I was a child. In Israel, it would come by boat almost two months after the issue was published, but we didn’t care. I used to read the movie section so that’s how I learned about film.
TRIBECA: What’s your favorite New York movie?
TRIBECA: What would your biopic be called?
EYTAN FOX: My real name is Ethan Samuel Fox, and when we moved to Israel, my mother used to call me Sam. Sammy was not an Israeli name and kids used to make fun of me when I was growing up. So I decided to go by “Eytan” which is the Israeli version of Ethan. There was this book I had when I was growing up called What Makes Sammy Run and that would make a good title. Fantastic Mr. Fox was made already, so I couldn’t use that. [laughs].
TRIBECA: What makes Yossi a Tribeca must-see?
EYTAN FOX: How would you answer that without sounding pretentious [laughs]? I would say they should see it for Ohad Knoller’s performance. I’m just so impressed and moved by what he did with the character of Yossi again, ten years later.
Eytan Fox was born in New York City and relocated with his family to Israel as a child. He studied film at Tel Aviv University. He has won much acclaim for his films Time Off, Song of the Siren, the TV drama series Florentine, Yossi & Jagger (TFF 2003), Walk on Water, and The Bubble, which won more than 20 jury and audience awards.
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