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Jonathan Kesselman

by: Caroline Westbrook and Leslie Bunder - Last updated: 2003-12-17

Adam Goldberg and Jon Kesselman

Adam Goldberg and director Jonathan Kesselman

The Hebrew Hammer is set to become one of the biggest Jewish comedy films of all time when it opens in the US on December 19. The brainchild of Jonathan Kesselman, it stars sexy Jewish actor Adam Goldberg who has to save Chanukah from the evil son of Santa!  SJ meets Kesselman and finds out more about the film, how it came about and what else he is planning.

Tell us a bit about how you came up with the character – what’s the history behind it?

The first time I applied to film school, I didn’t get in. This irked me, so I started writing a movie idea about two moronic film students that engage in a war of attrition over a screenplay. When we first meet one of the characters, he’s showing his student film, “Maccabee Rising,” a Jewish Exploitation film in class. Later, after I got into the graduate film program at SC, I did a first semester short entitled, “Subterfuge,” in which secret agents working for a mysterious organization pass a package around (and the organization, in a twist of events, turns out to be a porn distribution company). One of the agents was Mordechai Jefferson Carver, and he was a master of disguises. I had a sight gag in which he undresses in the bathroom, all the while as we cut in and out of the stall. The last time we cut back in, The Hammer disguises himself as a black man. The next semester, I set out to write a short film over the break, and the notion of Jewxploitation came back to me. It seemed to be the ultimate comedic discrepancy.


So, I rented every Blaxploitation film I could get my hands on in order to deconstruct the genre, and then I wrote and eventually shot the short film version of The Hebrew Hammer.


How did you end up making a movie? What was your road to the director’s chair?

After I made the short at USC, it became notorious at the school. People kept asking me for copies for their parents in Florida, or their dentists in Ohio, etc. A copy ended up in the hands of my old agency and one of my agents called and asked if I had written anything. I told them that I was finishing up the feature version of the Hammer, and they asked if they could be the first to read it, After I gave it to them, they sent it to a 5 or so production companies in Hollywood to test the waters. A producer at Universal loved it, and wanted to develop it into a Black/Jewish buddy movie. I spent two weeks working for him, and during one of my first meetings with the development folks there, I mentioned that I wanted to direct it. It was made clear to me, that that wasn’t going to happen. About the same time, a copy of the script and my short got into Ed Pressman’s hands. He called me into his office and said, I’ll finance the movie and you can direct it. I was in production 5 or so months later, and began prepping the film as I was graduating from film school.


You got into film school after sending in the same application twice…was it all worth it in the end? How did you enjoy the film school experience?

I still owe over a hundred grand, so ask me again in a couple years if it was worth it. I’ll have a better sense of that then. However, in hindsight, at least for me, film school was definitely worth it. It was dream to make comedies, and I was sucked into a very high stress high paying corporate computer job, and I didn’t have the time to make movies even though that was all I could think about. At film school, your life is making movies. And you make a lot of them. You learn and practice all aspects involved in filmmaking (writing, directing, cinematography, editing, sound design, etc), and get to hone your craft and figure out your ‘voice’ as a filmmaker. Learning all about the craft allows you to collaborate and articulate your ideas more effectively to your crew.


It’s reported the film cost you only $1m to make but it looks like a much more expensive film. How did you achieve this?

Obsessive preparation and serious attention to detail. When I make a movie, I sort of disappear in it. It’s a hard thing to describe. I look back at the photos from the shoot and I have this crazed look in my eye from lack of sleep and stress. I printed a sign and hung it on my wall for my couple months of prep before even moving to New York It simply said, “Be Precise.” More importantly, I had an incredibly talented and passionate crew around me who believed in me, and gave me their all. Some studio a--hole told me before I went off to do the film that I was going to make a sh--ty looking million dollar feature and it would kill my career. I wanted to make him eat his words in the worst possible way.


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

If you’re looking for financing, a short film won’t get you anything except someone saying, “Have you written anything?” Material and actors make everything go round. Barring having A list actor friends whose names greenlight movies, if you aren’t writing, write constantly. When you have a script that everybody wants, you go from having no power or control to being in the driver’s seat. If you can’t write, but want to direct, find a piece of material and get yourself attached to it. Perseverance is everything. Also, if all else fails, try prostituting yourself.


How have you enjoyed the experience of taking the film round the world to film festivals and what’s been your favourite?

It’s been incredible for me to visit some places I’d never thought I’d get the chance to see or experience. My favourite? That’s tough. Watching the Hammer in Jerusalem and in Berlin were both highlights for me.


The film has an excellent website – how important is online promotion to you and has it helped to raise the movie’s profile?

Thanks. The web is crucial I think, and I’ll be able to determine that even more as we near our release. We have no studio marketing dollars behind us, and the site helps us to create an awareness of the film. But in the few months we’ve been online with the site, we’ve been getting some serious traffic.


Do you know what your next project is going to be?

I have a satire called ‘It’s A Man’s World’ that I think is the best thing I’ve written to date that I’m dying to make. A producer by the name of Bill Gerber is attached to it, and we’re actively trying to find funding for it right now. I also have a very Hammer-esque movie called the Foos, which is a take on 80’s Sports Dramas (e.g. Karate Kid, Kickboxer, north Shore), but with Foosball I would love to do.


Having made one film, is it any easier to try and make another film?

The Hammer happened so quickly, I think it spoiled me. The second one is taking much longer than I’d like to get going, and I can’t even begin to describe how antsy I am to make another movie.


Which filmmakers do you admire?

Comedy wise - Mel Brooks, ZAZ (Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker – the team behind Airplane!). Alexander Payne…there’s a lot more but I’m drawing blanks. I also love guys who excel at creating tweaked realities or universes - Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, Barry Sonnenfeld. Also, a huge Peter Weir and PT Anderson fan.


How important is your Jewish background and culture and will this be reflected in your future projects?

I’m sure it will. I write what comes out of me, and I happen to be Jewish. But being a Jew is just one facet of who I am. The film business is a place that tries to pigeonhole you, and I’ve suddenly become the ‘Jewish’ guy. There are other parts of my life and the world I’d like to explore in my work other than being Jewish.


When was the last time you set foot inside a synagogue?

I went to a singles event a girl I dated briefly spoke at. I’ve been to quite a few Shabbat services over the past year at Jewish Film Fests. My friend got married this year in a synagogue. When I was in NYC last year, my orthodox relatives took me to their shul. When was the last time I actively went to services on my own volition? Probably not since my Bar Mitzvah. I am a bad, bad, Jew. 


Related links:


The Hebrew Hammer