About this series: Before it was a movie, it was a screenplay. And before it was a screenplay, it was a terrifyingly blank page. Revision History tells stories about one of the least understood but most creative stages of filmmaking: the writing (and constant rewriting) of the screenplay.
The movie: Menashe a Yiddish-language drama about an Orthodox Jewish father and son in Brooklyn.
Coming off of years of shooting documentaries, Joshua Z Weinstein wanted to try his hand at a feature. A secular Jew and Brooklyn resident, Weinstein became attracted to the Orthodox community there. He began hanging out in the community, starting by joining in festivities for the spring holidays of Purim and Lag BaOmer.
A big fan of naturalistic filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica, Satyajit Ray, and John Cassavetes, Weinstein knew he wanted to work with non-professional actors, real people rooted in the Orthodox community. But who should be his film’s protagonist? Finally, someone connected Weinstein to a charismatic young widower named Menashe Lustig. "After I met him, I just knew," says Weinstein.
All it took was one screen test. "You can’t explain why you fall in love."
Now it was time to write.
Weinstein teamed up with a group of producers, including Alex Lipschultz; the group began honing a general concept for a film that would focus on Menashe's quest to reconnect with his son, from whom he’s been somewhat estranged since the death of the boy's mother (Menashe’s wife). Another writer, Musa Syeed, joined Weinstein in the process of beginning to thrash out a rough story.
By late 2014, Weinstein had conducted months of research in Brooklyn, and had in his head a bank of scenes that he’d witnessed that he knew he wanted to include in his movie. Now he and Syeed just needed to figure out how to squeeze all those scenes in, while retaining a loose framework focused on Menashe and his son's relationship. "Finding a backbone to show those moments was really the goal" for this first story document, says Weinstein.
The document that resulted was something closer to a "treatment" or outline than a script, 40 scenes written out over eight, dense pages, with an emphasis on the "emotional beats"—what the characters were feeling—rather than specific lines of dialogue.
Soon, the team had their backbone—focused on a crucial week in which Menashe regains temporary custody of his son from his in-laws. Even though they didn’t have a finished script, they began shooting in August of 2015. While most film productions observe strict divisions between script-writing and shooting—you spend a year firming up the script, then 30 days shooting, say—the Menashe team decided, "for a variety of reasons both financial and creative," per Lipschultz, to mix it all up. "We did it pieces. We’d shoot a week, edit it together, see what works, and come back."
After the first such mini-shoot, Weinstein and Lipschultz decided it would be handy to have something more than a treatment to work from. The two set to work building what Weinstein calls "something more resembling a full script."
As they set about writing actual script pages, Weinstein and Lipschultz got into a series of productive arguments. "The movies is a weird mash of our sensibilities, which I think is part of what makes it interesting," says Lipschultz now. "There’s a big-heartedness and sweetness that comes from Josh being a big-hearted person. Then there’s stuff that has more of a critical distance, which come perhaps from my having a more coolly analytic mind."
Also a subject of debate? A specific, early scene featuring Menashe, his brother-in-law, and a rabbi, which in the finished film explains the basic set-up of the plot: that while Orthodox law technically prevents Menashe from having custody of his son until he remarries, the rabbi will grant a brief exception. For the big rabbi scene, Weinstein was inclined to something oblique and suggestive; Lipschultz, meanwhile, favored erring on the side of spelling it all out. They compromised by writing—and filming—an explicit, explanatory scene, eventually paring it down to something subtler in the edit room.
Lipschultz says that a Boston University class he had taken with the scholar Ray Carney on "John Cassevetes’s Revisionary Process" was influential here. Cassavetes is known for suggestive, elliptical films, spare on expository dialogue. But in reviewing Cassavetes’s early scripts in his course, Lipschultz realized that "the scripts were super talky, very expository"—they explained things to a surprising degree, given the finished films Lipschultz knew. "Then he’d shoot all of it, and cut anything that made anything too clear out. And even when the words aren’t there, the emotions were left in." For certain scenes, Cassavetes's "overwrite, then cut" strategy became that of Menashe as well.
The Menashe team wound up with a story outline totaling some 50 pages—half the length of a typical script, in which the dialogue would all be written out. "Scripts are overrated. Screenwriting is overrated," sums up Lipschultz, in his experience. The real work of artistic discovery, for a movie like Menashe at least, happens on set.
"It’s more natural this way, much more flexible," concurs first-time actor Menashe Lustig himself (who says that when he first saw himself on the big screen at Sundance last month, he was seeing a movie in a theater for the first time in his life).
One of the final storytelling challenges with Menashe was communicating to the non-professional actors that even if the script/outline called for them to say something, it was their character speaking, not the person himself.
This led to conflict one day when Weinstein tried to shoot a scene where a few men argue about some finer points of Orthodox Jewish law. When the men arrived on set, some refused to say the lines Weinstein asked for. "It was hard for them to understand that their character was not themselves," recalls Weinstein. "They think if they see themselves on screen, ‘That’s Shloimi.’ But no, it’s not Shloimi, it’s Ruvelah, and Ruvelah’s not Shloimi."
But with a bit of explaining and tweaking, the filmmakers were able to solve the problem and get their scene.
In January, Menashe premiered at Sundance Film Festival. Its handful of reviews have been uniformly favorable, with The Hollywood Reporter calling it "charming." Hot distributor A24 (Moonlight) scooped up rights, the company’s first foreign-language acquisition. Deadline says to expect a "traditional prestige theatrical rollout" later this year.