Reel stories – Interview with Yair Hochner
By Alon Adar from "
Haaretz" weekend magazine
Just before the first "action" call on the set of the film "Yeladim tovim" ("Good Boys"), the phone of its young director, Yair Hochner, rang. On the line was the lead actor, who was to play an escort boy who falls in love with a male prostitute. "I can't take the pressure," he said. "I won't do a good job."
Hochner, who deep inside believed that the actor rejected the part because of its charged subject matter, had nothing to say. Anger was also not an option. The talented actor did not have a contract. His work was to be done on a volunteer basis - like that of all the other actors, cinematographers and crew members involved in the film's production. Hochner was not upset at being stood up this way. When you decide to direct your life's dream at a cost of $500 - most of which is devoted to buying food for the actors, gas for the cars and cigarettes - what's the big deal about getting stuck without a lead actor? As it was, the director had broken pretty well every industry rule in the course of the production. When you take into account that the average cost of an Israel film is $1 million, Hochner's figures look unrealistic at best.
But instead of waiting for years to get negative replies from the funds that support Israeli films, courting rich producers or staying home and moaning that there is no way to make movies in this country, he bombarded Internet forums with want ads, recruited friends and still continued, at night, to grade the exams of his students at a Netanya high school.
Two years after he started the project, the results are already visible: The 75-minute film was invited to 20 international film festivals, won several prizes and filled the Tel Aviv Cinematheque week after week. (The film's English-language Web site is www.goodboysfilm.com)
Welcome to the underworld
Hochner started work on "Good Boys," which is about the life of escort boys in Tel Aviv, with empty pockets. "I said Allahu Akbar - what will be, will be," he says.
Initially he did not plan to make a film at all, but wrote a screenplay that was submitted to his friend Tomer Heyman (a highly regarded documentary filmmaker) and to Keren Yedaya (who directed the feature film "Or," which won special mention at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival). "They told me, 'Yair, you have to make this film,'" he relates. "I studied screenwriting, not directing, at the Camera Obscura school. I wrote a few scripts that became graduation-project films and obtained budgets and were shelved, because the directors ?shelved? themselves. I told myself that if the only directors I trust are not ready to do it, I will direct."
Hochner skipped the frustrating stage of applying to film funders. He did not believe there was any real chance that they would support a highly charged film, filled with harsh sex scenes, violence and rape.
"When I was 17 I saw 'My Own Private Idaho,' with River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, and the world it showed shocked me," he recalls, explaining the germination of the idea for his film. "I started to research the subject of prostitution. I read professional literature, I spoke with people. Even now I am surprised and shocked anew. As I was working on the film I went on studying the subject. I got to boys who work through Internet chat rooms and forums. Gila Goldstein, the transgender figure, became a kind of second aunt for me, one I love and appreciate very much."
Is the brutal worldview that the film shows - including the rape of working boys, the murder of clients, abandoned children, single mothers working the street and scenes of alienated sex in basements and in the bathrooms of clubs - actually close to reality?
Hochner: "What the film shows is nothing compared to the reality. I kept many of stories out of the film because they are too harsh - clients' requests that I thought would be too much for viewers to take."
Production got under way after Hochner met and recruited for the project the cinematographer Ziv Berkovich (who had been his student in high school), whom Hochner describes as "gifted," and Yonatan Prizam, his friend, as executive producer. They placed want ads on the Internet and announced they were holding auditions. A hundred people showed up for the first audition. Amazingly, quite a few of them were professional actors.
How did they react to the brutal materials of the film?
"Some said they would be willing to strip and sleep with the director just to be in the film. People think that the moment you appear on the screen you become a millionaire. Others said, 'There's no money, we have to strip, there are gays - good-bye.' Some professional actors said it was more than they could handle, but most were willing to try. We approached a few agents, but some of them did not send us their stars because they were afraid that they would be identified with the subject of the film. After the lead actor disappeared we cast Daniel Efrat, a graduate of the Beit Zvi acting school, who had appeared in musicals such as 'Hair' and 'Chicago.'"
With a little help from ...
After putting together the cast, most of whom were graduates of acting schools, Hochner recruited Danny Lachman, who helped found the committee for the war on AIDS and who, with the late esteemed director Amos Gutman, co-scripted "Nagua" ("Afflicted"), the 1983 film about a gay love story. Also recruited was Gal Uchovsky, the screenwriter of the highly successful 2004 film "Lalechet al hamayim" ("Walk on Water," which, Hochner says, is at the polar end - at the Hollywood, "family movie" end - of the "Israeli gay movies" spectrum?), who helped Hochner with foreign
The next stage was to bring in a soundman, an editor and a lighting designer, all of whom arrived with equipment from home. The locations that were chosen - apart from the murky streets of Tel Aviv - were Hochner's place, his parents' living room and a huge villa that belongs to a relative. The interior sets and props were authentic and not tampered with. The artist Rafi Perez also volunteered his home after hearing about the film. One of the most powerful scenes in the film was filmed there, against a backdrop of walls covered with paintings. It shows a young client beating one of the boys with a Barbie doll during the act of sex and delivering a Marquis de Sade-style harangue.
"I didn't feel that money was needed," Hochner says, "and we did not get stuck because of that. We knew from the beginning that there was no money. The
production people did a terrific job. Everything was ready for shooting. We did not run into critical problems that prevented us from shooting. Everything flowed. There were no taxis; the actors arrived on their own. This is what is so exciting about independent cinema: Everyone in the production is committed to the film. There is an agenda. Because of the charged subject matter, people felt that making the film was a mission. They got totally into it. They felt it was art."
With a collection like this of volunteers and improvisation, what did you spend the $500 on?
"A monitor, a spot for lighting a discotheque and payment for the makeup woman. The rest of the money went for food, drink and cigarettes."
How do you explain the fact that so many people are ready to work under conditions like that and for free?
"There are so many creative artists in the market and they cannot prove themselves. People want to create a portfolio. After you have already edited or shot a film, they will come back to you over and over."
The shooting lasted 16 days, during which Hochner was unable to sleep because of "excess adrenaline." When he need professional advice he called Yedaya, who was then shooting "Or." After the editing stage Hochner submitted the film to Shatz and to the director of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, Alon Garbuz. They were impressed, but said it needed color and sound corrections.
"I didn't have the money for that," Hochner relates. "Luckily for me, Garbuz was on the committee of one of the foundations and persuaded them to give me NIS 50,000, which is the budget for a 15-minute student film. After the corrections they informed me that it would be screened in the Cinematheque."
In the first weeks only members of the gay-lesbian community came to see the film, parts of which still look unfinished, a quality which perhaps characterizes most independent films, but also imbues them with the charm and singularity of unpolished works. The gays and lesbians "didn't like the film," Hochner notes, "because they wanted to see hotties and muscle-bound types on the screen. Afterward, straights and movie buffs showed up, after hearing that the film was unusual and violent and pulled no punches."
The film had some good write-ups in the press (apart from Meir Schnitzer, the veteran film critic of the daily Maariv, who didn't like it). "'Good Boys' is quite a courageous film, an impressive personal project that does exactly what an independent film is supposed to do: It doesn't please everyone and it doesn't appeal to every taste," the film critic Yair Raveh wrote in the entertainment weekly Pnai Plus.
Copies of the film were sent to several festivals and Hochner was invited to screen it at Outfest 2005, in Los Angeles, where it garnered the Outstanding Emerging Talent award, after which requests poured in from dozens of places. To date the film has been shown at some 20 festivals, has won more awards and continues to be in demand. By now Hochner has learned to insist that festival producers cover the expenses of shipping the film, even though the cost is quite low - but with the accumulated tens of dollars, he can make a short film.
This story has a happy end: In the wake of the film's success, several American independent filmmakers have shown an interest and negotiations have begun on cooperative projects. "I tell the young filmmakers not to wait for the messiah," Hochner declaims, "but to do what they want to. Let them hit their heads against the wall. If they give everything of themselves, they will make it."
This is only one part from the article "Reel Stories" about Israeli indie film makers.