Hasidic cantor Shmuel (Géza Röhrig, star of the devastating Hungarian Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, Son of Saul) hasn’t felt like singing since his wife’s death and burial. He worries that her soul is suffering and becomes obsessed with learning how her body will decay in her grave.
Although he believes he is sinning, he goes outside his Hasidic community (in upstate New York) and seeks scientific answers from an unlikely source, a divorced community college biology professor, Albert (Matthew Broderick). Bumbling amateurs, one Jewish and the other Christian, they research the process of body decomposition and then take the leap to morbid hands-on experiments, including on a dead pig. As their odd friendship grows, they venture into the woods (where they discover that the soil is better than where Shmuel’s wife is buried), into the cemetery, and even to a body farm (such places do exist!) in Tennessee. Will Shmuel find the answers he seeks, and will he and his dead wife find peace?
I met up with the engaging Shawn Snyder and Géza Röhrig. Snyder spent most of his twenties on the road as a singer/songwriter (which explains why music is so significant in this film) and as a teen Röhrig was in a punk band and they seemed so connected that I could picture them touring together and providing traveling music for Shmuel and Albert on future escapades.
We had this conversation about their one-of-a-kind movie, beginning with Snyder discussing its unusual origins.
To Dust won the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation $100,000 First Feature Award at NYU because of its scientific content. Do you consider it a scientific film?
Shawn Synder: Very much so. It’s a scientific/Hasidic/Borscht Belt/“B” horror/buddy dramedy about grief. It’s amazing to me that I won that award because I come from a Humanities background and don’t have an innate scientific inkling. What I do have is a persistent curiosity about the world and all the seeds of this idea were planted throughout my circuitous artistic journey and life. The opportunity that the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provided was the prompt for me to think about telling a scientific story.
As your unusual script circulated at NYU/Tisch, were you getting positive feedback or were people cautioning you about the tricky religious-collides-with-science subject matter?
SS: It was developed on paper at NYU and I was getting great feedback from my professors and mentors; and the overseeing people at the Sloan Foundation had faith in the project. Obviously because I was dabbling into blasphemy and bizarre genre-bending, and was walking on a tonal tightrope, I always felt the need to be intensely accurate and respectful to both the religion and the specifics of the science in the film.
Did you have to assure people that you’d be respectful?
SS: They took me at my word. A few days ago, somebody asked me, “How did you go about pitching this film?” Pitching it would be difficult because it’s so strange and hard to encapsulate, and if you pitch it one way and people think, perhaps, that it’s morbid then you have to promise them it’s actually a comedy. Fortunately, we didn’t have to pitch the script that much because of miracles and luck and serendipity. Every time we moved on to another round of development, I was the one questioning others, “Are you sure we’re adhering to your mission and that we’re delving into this with enough respect?” This wasn’t a historic biopic about a hero who struggled and then made a discovery that made a profound impact on the history of science. I wondered if there was catharsis in the minutia of the science in our film, but somehow the Foundation felt the film suited its mission albeit in a very strange way. We got the opportunity to have the script read in its entirety by people who ultimately came on board to champion it.
How did Emily Mortimer come in as producer?
SS: She was given the script by the Tribeca Film Institute. I woke up on a Saturday morning – my daughter was about to turn one, so maybe I was already awake – and there was an email from Emily that said, “I read your script. My husband and I want to help you produce it.” Her husband is Alessandro Nivola, and I revered their acting careers, so I couldn’t believe it. A week later we’re sitting across from each other, talking about the possibilities for the film. Through another avenue, Ron Perlman read it and also came on as a producer. So, people actually found our script before we pitched it.
In her Producer’s Statement in the Press Notes, Emily Mortimer says, “Shawn’s movie helps us understand that there’s no wrong or right way to come to terms with death.” I think that is the major theme of your movie.
SS: Yeah. A major reason Emily wanted to produce the film is that she connected to it. She had lost her father not too long prior – during the course of the development of the film Alessandro lost his father, too – and she identified with that theme and said, “I had these thoughts and thought I was weird.” She said that the script was forgiving because it gave us permission to grieve for someone we loved in our own way. Despite the movie’s oddness and specificity, it’s that universality that made so many people back our film. It was a magnet for people who had recently experienced grief.
It’s touching that your film is dedicated to your mother, Linda, who passed away years before. Had you wanted to dedicate whatever your first film was about to her or did you want to make a first film that had to do with her?
SS: Yeah, a film specifically about grief, as I continue to grieve her loss ten years on. The opportunity to process that grief through art is such a privilege. I’m grateful that I have art to process tragedy.
Géza, I know you live in New York now and not your native Hungary, but how did you become involved in Shawn’s film?
Géza Röhrig: We met through a mutual friend at Sony Pictures Classics, and then I asked to read the script. The script interested me because it was so creative in how it brought together all these odd, unlikely elements and dimensions, mainly science and religion and death and humour. It was all about the balance and if the details and proportions were off, I knew it could end up terribly.
It could have been a disaster.
GR: Exactly. That’s why it was important for me to ask Shawn questions. When he had detailed answers, I felt everything would be okay. For instance, he already had developed ideas of what the viewers would hear, and one of the strengths of this movie turned out to be the music. I was in a band and flailed about but he is a serious musician and cared so much about the music. He wrote the script and it was a real personal journey for him to get it made. If this movie was so important to him, I believed that was the key to it being done correctly. All great art comes from it being important to the artist.
I read in the Press Notes that you studied for two years at a Hasidic yeshiva in Brooklyn and earned an MA in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. And Shawn earned a BA in Religion.
GR: He studied religion at Harvard!
So, did you not have to talk over the religious elements in the film because you have the same sensibility or did you talk endlessly about such things as sin, an afterlife, and burial?
SS: Both happened. Our film got pushed back and since Géza came in so early in the process, for more than a year we were able to develop a relationship in which there was an ongoing conversation as well as short-hand. In so many ways we just got each other but at other times we kept talking and diving into something over and over until we got to the set and then we were able to have that implicit understanding and do short-hand so as not to delay the shoot.
Was there ever a moment of tremendous conflict because what the two of you studied didn’t match?
GR: I don’t recall any deep conflicts. But it’s interesting, now that I think of it, the settings of our academic religious studies were very different. I don’t view religion as a purely intellectual exercise. I’m more interested in what the masters have to say in person. Instead of reading a book, I’d rather spend that time with a person who has the reputation of being a sage or mystic. To me, religion is by far more practice and experience than knowledge and information.
Did you two see the connection between your characters in To Dust and Son of Saul, although they are completely different films?
GR: The similarities and the differences.
SS: I say one film is the photonegative of the other and Géza says that the two rhyme – that’s the filmmaker and the poet. They’re dealing with the same themes. Son of Saul is about the insistence on a proper Jewish burial in the most inhumane of circumstances; our film is about discomfort with a proper Jewish burial in more comfortable contemporary circumstances. Both films are about the extremes his characters go to follow the rules and break the rules.
There’s an obsessive element in both as Saul and Shmuel insist on performing a burial ritual.
GR: Son of Saul is about a collective tragedy and this is about a private, personal tragedy. I felt lucky in both cases that I didn’t have to get out of my skin to play Saul or Shmuel. I had traits that allowed me to morph into both roles.
In Shawn’s “Scientific Statement” in the Press Notes, he talks about Shmuel’s “descent into madness.” I didn’t think he was mad, just persistent beyond reason and a bit out of it. Do you really think he descends into madness?
SS: Yes. It was my search into forensic anthropology and learning about the science that directly informs Shmuel’s journey and descent into madness. We bring in the 1937 black-and-white film, The Dybbuk, and it has a very similar: “Don’t look into the Kabbalah. You’ll go mad if you do.” And as that movie plays out, you say, “Yep, don’t look into the Kabbalah.” He looks into the science.
GR: I totally see that madness. He lost the love of his life and he’s going off-the-beaten path and into unchartered territory. He is young and she died young and left him with two young boys, and that’s a tragedy that happens once in a lifetime. He does spin out from the boundaries of the road plan, and though Judaism offers him a very nice way to relieve his pain, the pain is still there. And it is a madness.
SS: In regard to his descending into madness, we think of the expression “the only way out is through.” Maybe a Hasidic will watch this film and it will have enough ambiguity for him to walk out and say, “Shmuel shouldn’t have gone into science because look at how that unraveled and drove him crazy.” But that madness leads to healing.
GR: I view this story as one of healing through friendship. There are times in our life when we can’t find God in ourselves. But then we are reminded by God that His place isn’t in each of us but between each other, in relationships. I don’t think God wants human beings to be praying to Him 24/7 on a mountaintop. He takes a lot of joy in how we relate to each other and wants us to multiply and be fruitful. We will have an eternity to be with Him, but we’re mainly here to take care of each other, play with each other, sing with each other. If someone is in trouble or is in physical or emotional pain, we have to be in service to that person. Shmuel and Albert step out of their comfort zones for each other.
They both are lonely until they meet. Albert’s divorced and Shmuel is a widower.
GR: Yes, they’re both lonely. They clearly don’t have much to talk about because they come from completely different cultures and attitudes. So, it’s beautiful that they both gain tremendously from this relationship.
Did Albert have to be divorced to show that they are connected in that they both lost the woman they loved?
SS: That was in the original script. Albert is a lonely, lost soul who experienced his own form of loss and grief, flailing in the aftermath of his divorce. That is part of the alchemy of why he is compelled to help Shmuel.
Was it your idea or Mathew Broderick’s that Albert wears a female nightgown around his empty house?
SS: Mine, but it was originally a kimono. Sometimes I answer that question and sometimes not, because there’s an ambiguity to it. It’s simultaneously one of the most absurd and ridiculous things in the film and one of the most tragic if you start to think about what it means to him.
GR: We agreed that it’s his wife’s nightgown. It is the same colour as the pig.
SS: Which was a deliberate choice.
Géza, you and Matthew Broderick formed a natural comedic team as Shmuel and Albert. What was it liking working with him?
GR: Ohhhh, I was so fruitful acting with him. He is a born actor. He’s a different kind of actor than I am so I was trying to learn all his tricks. He’s a very humble guy and if I would ask him to teach me, he would say, “What do I have to teach you?” So, I just watched him.
Shawn, you made sure your film is respectful to the Hasidic community, but you are jabbing it a little by making it obvious that the isolation and seclusion of the community is foolish. We see that Shmuel finds comfort outside the community from his new Christian companion and even the Christian security guard at the body farm who tells him Jesus loves him and what he really wants to hear: “May He rest her soul.”
SS: Ambiguity is super-important in art for me and I deliver purposeful ambiguity in this film. You say “jab” – obviously my own feelings and opinions can’t not be outed by the film to some extent. But I think mostly I leave a lot of questions unanswered and people will have their own interpretations.
You have Shmuel’s boys secretly watch The Dybbuk to try to understand what’s happening to their father; and when Shmuel and Albert dig up bodies, you’re referencing Igor in Frankenstein and Burke and Hare. You have obviously been influenced by horror movies, a genre that was banned for decades in England and elsewhere for its “blasphemous” elements. Was it always your intention to portray blasphemy with gravedigging images taken from horror films?
SS: You nailed it on the head with Igor and Frankenstein. Jason Begue, my writing partner on To Dust, and I are both in love with genre films and the idea of genre-subversion and trope-subversion. I always knew this film would have horrific elements and be dark as well as comic, but I thought only I would recognise it. However, when I pitched it to Jason, he said, “This is The Body Snatcher. This is a Val Lewton film!” It was incredible how [in the 1940s at RKO, producer] Val Lewton took the horror genre and turned it into poetry, as with The Body Snatcher. Lewton’s The Curse of the Cat People gets taught in psychology classes studying childhood trauma. You take this notion of genre tropes and how you can separate them and play with them and bend them and mash them up together but if you’re not doing it with an emotional or thematic purpose as Lewton did, it just becomes a gimmick. What Jason and I thought was that Shmuel and Albert should take turns being Igor and being Dr. Frankenstein. One eggs the other on, they switch positions, and meanwhile you are seeing these images that come straight out of horror movies. So, we’re looking at them and saying, “That’s strange. Somehow they’ve been reconfigured into poetry and emotional catharsis through horror imagery.”
In addition to the horror inspiration, were you also looking, in order to achieve the proper tone, toward Theatre of the Absurd, primarily to buddies Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot?
SS: Definitely there’s that Beckett element, that absurdist-surreal-vaudeville element. I always knew the script was funny and as we were writing it, Jason and I had each other in stitches, but we didn’t know if it would be funny to anyone but us. A lot of that comedy and absurdity actually came from my research into the Hasidic world and putting that into conversation with the scientific world. Wait a second – science uses pigs and we have a Hasidic man who wants to know how the science works; and body farms actually exist, so how can they not travel to one? We are reminded of the absurdity of the human condition – we love only to lose and we live only to die. Grief and loss are absurd and comedy provides catharsis.
In comedy twosomes, both characters are usually losers who build up each other’s egos through their mutual admiration. In To Dust, Shmuel is just a cantor but Albert calls him “Rabbi” and Albert teaches at a community college but Shmuel calls him “Doctor.” Did you two talk about how Shmuel fits in as a member of a comedy team, yet is experiencing the type of grief that no one in a comedy team ever went through?
GR: I have to say that Shmuel remained an enigmatic figure to me. Shawn and I had a lot of conversations about him. As I was growing my beard for the role, and it took a good year to do that, we talked about how knowledgeable or scholarly he would be. We decided he’d be an Average Joe, sort of layman, not a mystic or holistic guy with a 10,000 I.Q. He would be someone with intuition, but not superbly well-read or studied. That’s what we ended up with but not in a decisive way.
SS (to GR): Is he a holy fool? We talked about that.
He has the name Shmuel, which sounds like the Yiddish word schlemiel. And I was thinking of that word while watching the character, more as an underdog than a fool.
GR: Right. In Hungary, my home country, To Dust was screened once. Two people came up to me after the movie and said, “I find your movie slightly anti-Semitic.” I said, “What are you talking about?” They said, “It seems that Schmuel is an imbecile, like a Village idiot.” Let me say that before the Holocaust there were many more blue-collar Jews, but because so many were murdered most of the Jews there today are in law, medicine, and other white-collar jobs. So that’s the Jew the Christians know in Hungary. I said to the people at the screening, “You have to forget the stereotype of Jews as people who wear glasses and have degrees and are in high positions because most Jews around the world are like everyone else.”
Shmuel comes across as being meek with a bad temper.
GR (laughing): Yes, it could be mine.
SS: His temper bubbles up, it’s not always there.
I doubt if it was there as often when his wife was alive. His two boys are very sweet, the product of loving, gentle parents.
GR: In Son of Saul, Saul says, “This is my son, not from my wife.” I think the anger Shmuel has in To Dust is for the same reason. We didn’t want to create a too sympathetic person, and show him as only as a wonderful, broken man. We wanted to show him in a real, human way. He’s just like all of us, an average, flawed person. He’s no saint.
As Géza mentioned before, a striking feature of the film is the terrific soundtrack, including tracks by Jethro Tull and Tom Waits.
GR: And we had a composer, too.
SS: Ariel Marx, who took Tom Waits and ran with that aesthetic. [Ariel Marx said that Shawn Snyder brought her a quote from Tom Waits that she came to adore: “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”]
The mournful sound?
SS: The mournful, gravely, earthly, lived-in sound of Tom Waits. We joked that we actually were going to get Tom Waits for the movie and get him to re-record his songs in Yiddish. At the end of the day, I wrote him a letter to simply ask for permission to use ‘Blow Wind Blow’. The music was essential to the tone.