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Nicholas Racz

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2004-07-20

Scene from The Burial Society

The Burial Society

The Burial Society is fast establishing itself as a cult classic. SomethingJewish's Caroline Westrook meets director Nicholas Racz and finds out what inspired him to make a film about a bank clerk who needs to take a career change and ends up joning a Jewish burial society.

US audiences recently had the chance to see The Burial Society, the debut film from Jewish director Nicholas Racz. A comedy thriller which has been a critical hit in the US, the film follows the fortunes of Sheldon Kasner (Rob LaBelle) a mild-mannered bank clerk who takes refuge in a Chevrah Kadisha (Jewish burial society) after stealing two million dollars from his crooked employers. However, matters are complicated when he comes up with a scheme to fake his own death.

Here, Racz talks about the process of making the film (including portraying the Chevrah Kadisha on screen for the first time), his influences, his Jewish background, and dropping out of medical school in favour of a career in film.

When did you come up with the idea for the film, and how did The Burial Society setting come about?  

The original idea for the script emerged around 1996. I was interested in doing a story about a criminal – but one that actually captured their inner conflict and rationalization and madness, rather than simply portray them in monolithic black and white terms – as they are in most films.  And I was searching for an interesting setting, and my girlfriend’s mother mentioned one day that she was feuding with her local Synagogue because the funeral home wanted thousands of dollars for her father’s headstone unveiling, which she found outrageous given that he’d devoted 25 years of his life to the Chevrah Kadisha. I asked what the Chevrah Kadisha was, and she set out to describe this amazing tradition of Jewish burial societies that I’d never heard of before. And the more she told me, the more fascinated I became. It seemed like a world that was a natural setting for a movie.

What kind of research did you do for the film? Did you visit any burial societies?

A huge amount of research. For one thing, this is the first time the Chevrah Kadisha has been portrayed in film. In fact, we couldn’t even find documentary footage of the rituals. So there were no references or precedents. So we were determined to make this one flawless.  We visited a number of Chevrah Kadisha, including the largest one in Canada, which is Toronto. And also several in Vancouver, where the film was shot. I spent a lot of time at the outset talking to a local rabbi, who’d belonged to a burial society. And once we began prepping for the film, we consulted with a local burial society, and had one of their people on set when we were shooting the rituals – just to make sure that we portrayed everything faithfully. That said, people from different parts of the world still see the movie (the film has played at over 50 film festivals worldwide) and find some fault with the tradition, claiming that we didn’t show a ritual correctly. But those are just regional variances. Everything we portrayed is accurate. But there are differences in the way each Chevrah Kadisha does things. Some use shrouds, others don’t. Some use electric baths, others manual ones. And so on. 

There are some very famous names in the cast (David Paymer, Seymour Cassel etc.) – how long did it take to get the cast together? 

We were casting for a long time before the film’s financing came together. Jan Rubes had seen the script a year before we had our money. Others even before that. But most of the actors in the film were actually cast in the 3 month period immediately preceding shooting, once we had our money and were able to commit fully.

What’s the reaction been like to the film so far?  

The reaction has been amazing. The film has been an official selection to over 50 film festivals worldwide. We’ve won awards at a number of festivals, including Milan International Film Festival. We won best Feature and Best Screenplay at several festivals. And we’ve been picked up by an American distributor (Regent Entertainment) and are being released in the United States. For a modest independent film – and a first one at that – it’s been a pretty happy ending so far. 

Are there plans to release it in other countries, including the UK?

It opened in parts of the U.S. in May, and will be opening in more and more cities across the states over the next four months. I’m not sure what will happen in the U.K. I would love to see it released there. 

Based on your experiences, what advice would you give to anyone else who’s thinking of making a film?

Be tenacious. And look for truly distinctive and intelligent material to work from and with. If this film had been just another routine caper flick, it wouldn’t have been a success. 

How important is it to you to include Jewish themes and issues in your work and will this be reflected in your future projects?

To be honest, not very. I’m fascinated by religion and belief and faith and destiny and most every other manifestation of the human condition – including crime and sex and betrayal. I obviously have a stronger kinship to Judaism than other religions given my background. And my humour is unmistakably Jewish. But as a subject for films, I don’t feel confined in any way.
How did you end up making a movie? What was your road to the director’s chair?

I bailed out of medical school at McGill University three days before the first day of school – I’d graduated with an Honours Degree in Biochemistry, Physiology and Immunology. And got into advertising as a copywriter. Then I started directing TV commercials, then short films, then this. It’s not the most logical path. But there’s really nothing logical about becoming a filmmaker anyways. So…

Which filmmakers do you admire?

The ones who know how to tell a great story and transport me to a different world. That’s a pretty long list. Coppola, Scorcese, Bertolucci, Caro and Jeunet, Jean-Claude Lauzon, Adrian Lyne, Gus Van Sant, Roland Joffe. And so on. And so on. And so on. There are some brilliant people out there. 

What’s your next project?

That is for the Gods to decide. I’m working on a bunch of different projects, including an insanely funny and sexy cinema verite story of bigamy. And a big-budget Hollywood thriller set in Istanbul and Nigeria. And I’m now part of a host new commercial directing team called SICK. We’re doing work all over the world, including the U.K. Very edgy, funny and outrageous ads. So there’s a lot going on.

Related link:

The Burial Society