"Maybe in Five Years I'll Want to Direct Wonder Woman 4": Nadav Lapid Interview

Daria Postnova,

Synonyms, the winner of Berlinale-2019, is now in cinemas. Yoav, an Israeli, comes to Paris with the goal to completely forget his past and "live and die a Frenchman." On the very first night in the city, all of his belongings down to his underpants are stole, and the next morning a neighbouring couple finds him almost frozen to death. Emil and Caroline provide Yoav with a basic set of necessary things, and the newly-born Frenchman begins his journey to a new nationality and a new life.

Yoav's story is based on the autobiography of the Synonyms director and screenwriter Nadav Lapid: in 2001, he fled to Paris from Israel without money or papers, and decided to become a film director. In 2011, Lapid's first feature film — The Policeman was released, shortly followed by The Kindergarten Teacher in 2014, recently adapted by Netflix. Daria Postnova sat down with Nadav Lapid to discuss French myths, immigration, first dates, and big studio films.

Photo / Berlinale / Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

Synonyms seems to be a very autobiographical film. How did you transform your own story into the script, how did you decide which parts of your experience to include, or to cut off, or to invent?

— Yes, as you said, it's a very autobiographical film, but I was never specifically eager to make films about my own private life. My desire is to try to, in the most general way, the truth of existence, the truth of the contemporary, the truth of this specific moment in time. In a way I feel that each human being could serve me as a window through which I could observe existence. Me and you could talk, I don't know, for one year, two years on a daily basis, till I know perfectly your life, your story, and then, maybe, I could also use your story for a film in order to achieve a more or less similar effect.

But of course, my story I know better and in a more intimate way. I know the exact dose of tomato sauce that they use for the deli pasta, I know these details, I know these feelings, these sensations. It wasn’t comfortable for me to use my life story, but at the same time I felt very free to play with it because, again, the aim wasn't too to recreate historic events. I have no interest in recreating historical events, that's also why I never thought even for a second to place the story in 2001 or 2002 when it really took place — instead it happens in our days.

There’s always this gap between the way life happens and the way it could have, should have, would’ve been. More inspiring, more powerful, more cruel, more, if it would happen like this. And certainly, like anyone else, I’ve had events in my life which I could have easily just put on screen — they happened if they were scenes, as if they were written by the best script writer. And It's not always looking for the most dramatic things, but maybe for vibration. Synonyms is a vibrant film. It’s crumbling, shaking all the time.

— And not only the film is shaking — I mean, Yoav is a very physical character, in my opinion.

— Yeah. Even when he's talking, he's talking also with his body, with his shoulders, his arms, torso, hip muscles, all the time.

Photo / Berlinale / Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

— You told me that the events of your life which you transformed into this film happened around 2001. Do you think your memories transformed after all this time, did they feel different from how you felt back then?

— Of course, I feel a certain distance now towards those events. Now I can put into words, analyze and explain things that back then were only pulsions, instincts, emotions, desires, sensations. And Yoav, just like I was, is in a way, an emotional, existential character much more than a psychological character. Even when he gives ideological statements, it's much more an expression of feelings, of forces that he feels inside his body, than the expression of real political ideology.

Coming back to those memories was easy for me, because today I'm still totally agitated by these questions, by these issues. When I think about it, when I put myself in this universe, I feel it in my soul and my body. Analysis might be helpful sometimes, but again, Synonyms is a film in permanent movement. And when you move all the time, you don't have the time to analyze.

Photo / Berlinale / Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

— Do you think you could work with someone else’s scripts then, only do a director’s job?

— Do you have a script to propose to me? (laughing)

— Not yet.

— I must say I get lots of suggestions. My agents send me from time to time scripts from America, from Europe. Theoretically, why not, but I guess, there is a reason why till now we rejected all of these suggestions, and some of them were very seducing, financially, production-wise.

I think, in a way, I'm the director of mise en scène. I try to treat mise en scène in the widest meaning of this term. Usually by mise en scène we mean the pulse, the heart of life, but I’m trying to touch the truth behind life — because we live, we die, but very often on the surface. I feel that mise en scène can reveal the truth behind the daily gestures, and my scripts, in a way, enable this, they create the place for this work of mise en scène. If I’ll make someone else's script, I don't know to what extent I'll be useful.

If there's a script another 300 directors can do, why it should be me?

I've always believed that you should aspire to direct exclusively the films only you could create. If there's a script that another 300 directors can do in a reasonable way, I don't understand why it should be me. So, maybe when I’ll find a script towards which I’ll have this feeling, this connection, maybe then. Till now it’s indefinite.

— I should note that the word mise en scène never sounded more French.

— How is it in Russian?

— Мизансцена [mizanstsena].

— I’m asking because it doesn’t exist in Hebrew. I discovered cinema, films, writing about films in Paris — before I didn't know much. I started to understand what it means to be a director, and it is there where I discovered mise en scène. And I was so disconnected from life, I was so inside of myself, that I really thought that people are getting up in the morning and talking about mise en scène, you know, with a coffee, like that is the most common human activity.

And when I came back to Israel, I was shocked — the way they treated cinema was totally different, and they didn’t have the word mise en scène. It doesn’t exist in Hebrew, and I think it is a huge influence on the profile of a national cinema. So that word became kind of a small souvenir for me, like something you have in your pocket that proves that it wasn't a fantasy, that I was in Paris, that all of that really happened.

Photo / Berlinale / Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

— In Synonyms, the language is one of the most important things — Yoav fully refuses to speak Hebrew. You know, there is an expression “How many languages you know that’s how many people you are”. Can it be applied to this character?

— Yeah, it makes sense to him. He takes on himself a huge existential project to stop being the person he was and to become someone else. To abolish his past and to become only present and future. To die as an Israeli and to be reborn as French. In an instinctive and unconscious way, you realize to which extent this project is almost undoable — and in the end you will find out that it's really undoable. But Yoav feels that fleeing Israel and keeping on using the Israeli words is a totally counterproductive thing to do. He feels like a single Hebrew word contains these things he wants to abolish, as if with a single Hebrew word he gets further away from his initial aim.

Another thing is that sometimes you feel that in order to reach something you should make a sacrifice. The only meaningful sacrifices are those really important to you — like when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. There are only two things connecting Yoav to Israel: his language and his body. So he sacrifices the language by stopping talking in Hebrew, and then he really tries to sacrifice his body if you think about it. In the first scene he’s almost dying by freezing his body, afterwards he is starving his body, and at the end he’s trying to prostitute his body but the body resists.

— Do you think in real life it's theoretically possible to actually forget your country and abandon your personality, and to become a person of a totally different nation?

— It’s a little bit complicated for me to say. People are moving and immigrating all the time, so to a certain extent people can get used to new places. Afterwards, I think it is connected to two things. First, to which extent you want to transform yourself into someone else. Because, I don't know, lots of Russians move to Germany because salaries are higher there, not because they want to erase their Russian soul, not because they are in desperate conflict with themselves. Second, to what extent the country to which you immigrate is ready to accept you, to integrate you as you are. Immigration is one of the most relevant questions today in the world and in Europe. It's already hard enough to abandon your home, your original universe, your cultural identity, but if the place you're moving is not ready to accept you as you are, but only as it thinks you should be, it's a lost case.

Photo / Berlinale / Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

— It’s difficult to imagine a more stereotypical French couple than Emil and Caroline — I mean, Caroline plays oboe… Did you really see French people this way while living in Paris, or maybe you tried to make them caricaturish?

— I wouldn’t say they were a caricature. Synonyms is a little bit like a myth — imagine a myth about a person who runs away from what he sees as hell, as the worst country possible, in order to arrive in the best country possible. Then a miracle happens: in the first scene of the film, he gets rid of all traces of his past, and wakes up naked as a baby in the bed of the most French people you can imagine.

So not only does he arrive in the best country ever, but he wakes up in the bed of the best people in the best country, and it’s in a way a starting point of the film. I wanted Emil and Caroline to look like a French couple from a French film. Imagine how dull it would be if it was more realistic and he woke up at some real place with some real people. Cinema is also about legends, about dreams, about fantasies. I'm not a sociologist. I don't care about giving a real reflection of the French society of our days.

— In all of your films we see some sort of irony, a caricature of toxic masculinity, and this toxic masculinity often is encouraged by the character’s social circle. How much of a problem do you think it is and how do you deal with it?

— Masculinity is a huge phenomenon. Is it a problem or not, it's a slightly different question. The film is ironic and critical towards masculinity, but at the same time also fascinated by it. There's also a certain beauty in masculinity in the eyes of Yoav. I can talk about Israel only, but I think in Russia in a way it's really similar, and very related, for instance, to aesthetical characteristic points.

I'd served in the army for 3,5 years. I was very young and wondering what I was going to do in the Army, I was dreaming about heroism like lots of Israelis. Today I can have a lot of political rejection towards it, be opposed to this, and see clearly how huge of a manipulation it is, but aesthetically the uniform is a beautiful thing for me.

For the collective Israeli soul there is nothing more beautiful than a man in a uniform

I remember when I arrived in France, I was almost amazed to see to what extent people enlist for a certain milieu. In the Parisian milieu, men in uniform are the enemy: when they see a policeman, they always come with a certain suspicion, or rejection. The film deals with the collective Israeli soul, and for this collective Israeli soul there is nothing more beautiful than a man in a uniform. This masculinity is powerfully simple, joyful, loyal to the country, loyal to the state, ready to fight for it. It is, in a way, the most pure expression of the collective soul. From which Yoav tries to escape, but at the same time is a part of it, — I mean, it's also his own soul.

— Women in your films, on the other hand, are often shown empathetic, thoughtful, and shown as protagonists. Do you think that women, so to say, will save the word eventually?

— Maybe not all over the world, but in my films — I'm only a film director right now, not the President of the United States,— women’s goal is to make a mess. In a good way — to make a positive mess out of this order that was created by and for the sake of men. Maybe in Synonyms you can also see that this male fraternity is — and should be — often broken by women. I think women are the true anarchists of this world.

Photo Berlinale / Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

— In your films, the protagonists are often people somehow connected to writing. It's Shira in Policeman, little Yoav in The Kindergarten Teacher, Emil in Synonyms. Does that indicate that maybe art people, literature people, in this particular case, are more interesting for you?

— You know, it's always like that: they are writing, but they are never artists. You have the 5 years old kid who, of course, doesn't see himself as a poet. Shira is writing manifestos — she sees herself as the revolutionary who was going to change history. So in a way it’s people who try to declare themselves, their real existence through their writing, or through dancing, or through poems. They try to say things, or to express things that they are incapable of expressing differently. I’ve never done a film about any institutional art — only about people who have no distinction between art and life.

— Does it work the same for you?

— I'm trying to be as total as I can. I often think about the Russian model of art — I guess for people like Pushkin the idea that there should be a distinction between life and art would look completely absurd. I think it's a kind of western concept: your art is a joke, or your art is something you do between 10 AM and 2 PM, and then you are someone else.

I always feel that in a way my films are a better representation of myself. That if someone wants to know me really, really, really deeply, they should watch my films. Or, in a way, that the person who watched all of my films knows me better than the person who met me several times but never watched any of my films.


— Would that mean that you prefer to communicate with the world through your art? Does it make you an introvert in a way?

— No, I'm not such an introvert, maybe just a shy person. In my head, when I come to the set, it's like getting married to yourself. Because it's really the place where you can give yourself liberating freedom, go to the edge of your obsessions, celebrate your existence, and make the world turn around those obsessions. That's why you always need a contradictory power in a film. Otherwise, the film might just become your own mirror. I mean, I want to express my being in the most total way, but I also need the contradiction, always need someone disobeying, rebelling. It can be an actor, and editor, the most important thing is to stop me on time.

— Speaking about literature. Are you interested in publishing a book with no films attached someday?

I might, actually. I began as a writer, I published novels before starting to make films anyway. I am still writing nowadays, but for me now the cinema is the most perfect way to express our universe, our life.

— Music for you seems to be not just background noise, it always has a special purpose: someone’s dancing, or the band is playing… What do you try to achieve using music like this?

You know, for instance, when I’m inviting a girl to my place for the first time, I try to put on music that in a way would tell her who I am. It’s a way to say something additional to “Hello, how are you?”. But at the same time, for instance, I know Chet Baker [a jazz musician] wanted to express completely different things with the music I play. So, in a way, in my films music is never external — it’s initiated by people in an attempt to present themselves, to tell to the people around them, tell the camera, tell the public: “That’s who I am. Look at me.” And I think it’s even stronger with dancing. When people are dancing, it’s the main essence of themselves.

Photo / Berlinale / Guy Ferrandis / SBS Films

— Your film, The Kindergarten Teacher has recently been adapted into a big Netflix film. What are your thoughts on the new version and on adaptations in general?

— I wouldn't do some adaptation, but someday — why not? In a way, it could have been a nice game, If people just started adapting each other’s films. There’s something interesting about that adaptation because they used my adapted script, but at the same time it’s a totally different film because of the mise en scène. So I think it’s a kind of exercise on mise en scène.

Are you interested in making a big studio movie someday?

— No… sighs. I mean… no. I'm not. I have no idea who won the last Oscar, and I don't care about it. If tomorrow someone would tell me, “Here’s 60 million dollars, here’s Angelina Jolie, make us a huge movie”, I would, in a way, feel pitiful that they are gonna lose so much money with my film. But why not? Plus, I'm a curious person after all. Maybe in 5 years I will all of a sudden feel the urge to make something completely different and to direct “Wonder Woman 4” or something.

— How do you feel about all the collateral things which come with the popularity — photoshoots, press conferences, interviews?

— I feel like it's a game, and I like it. Making a film is an attempt to dialogue with the world, with the universe, with history, with the present. The press conferences are sometimes shallow, but… I don’t believe there are shy directors. Directors have this tendency to complain about everything, but I think people should always remember that it is harder to work in the metro than to answer a couple of questions at a press conference. It's nice when someone wants to know your opinion about things, record it and then rewrite it in a nice Russian magazine.

Cover Photo Credit: Berlinale