Here is my conversation with Antonio Macia, the screenwriter who penned the 2010 Sundance film Holy Rollers. His first film, Anne B. Real, was nominated for two Independent Spirit awards including the John Cassavetes Award (awarded to a film with a budget under $500,000), and Best Debut Performance (Janice Richardson). His film Holy Rollers, newly on Netflix Instant Watch, is a story about a young Hasidic jew (played excellently by Jesse Eisenberg) who is seduced into smuggling ecstasy by his neighbor Yosef (played equally well by Justin Bartha, who's famous for his role as Riley in National Treasure). Expect a review of Holy Rollers to follow in the coming week.
Brandon: You’re the son of South American immigrants, you served a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and you’ve studied in Paris, Madrid and Argentina. You then made your first movie about a young female rapper, which you were nominated for at the Independent Spirits. What drew you to a story of Hasidic Jews in NYC?
Antonio: Yes, I was interested by Hasidism, but ultimately, I knew that I could never do that world justice. I could do my best at ‘getting the facts’ right, but there are so many different sects. I was interested in Hasidism as an insular society, but I’m always asking myself ‘Why?’ I didn’t want to recreate a stereotype, but paint a real family with real problems.
What’s your history with Judaism? What place does religion hold in your life in general?
I don’t have a history with Judaism per say, but I grew up in Connecticut where many of my friends and associates were Jewish. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the community.
Religion plays a vital part of my life. I’m a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. My beliefs provide a great deal of perspective that informs both my art and spiritual nourishment. They aren’t mutually exclusive.
What’s your writing process like? Do you outline? How long did this screenplay take? Do you write carefully and slowly or just quickly write a draft and then spend a lot of time editing?
I write 5-6x a week, treating it like a job. I always tell aspiring filmmakers you have to treat it like a job and not a hobby if you want to be taken seriously. I like to write 4-6 hours a day, tending to write 2 outlines. I like to write a 2-3-page outline to see if there is a film, (beginning, middle, end) and then I develop a 12-15-page treatment. I’d say a script takes 6-9 months to get it into fighting shape. A first draft takes me 8-10 weeks, but that’s when the writing begins.
How involved were you with the production process? What was your relationship with Kevin Asch like?
I was involved in the production in that I was there everyday. Kevin, the director, and I were making final tweaks to the script on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The actors had some great adjustments and so we tried to incorporate as much as possible. I consider Kevin Asch, the director, one of my best friends. We discuss most choices, but ultimately, he’s the Director. He is a workhorse and we both agree that character should dictate every choice. It’s an easy working relationship in that regards. We’re always digging deeper for nuance and choices.
Did you try the true story in different directions, or was the story always going to be about a character like Sam Gold who gets involved with smuggling? Yes, in my view, the story would always be told through the eyes of Sam Gold. He was our way in.
What changed from page to screen?
There were adjustments and compromises made due to budget and scheduling. The third act was affected greatly and we lost some key plot points. Looking back, I wish I would have fought harder to keep those, but we chose character over plot. Ultimately, it really should be a marriage between the two. Specifically, we lost a more detailed look at the ‘demise’ of the operation involving Jackie and Interpol. And secondly, we weren’t able to wrap up his relationship with Rachel, as I would have liked. BUT, choices are made in independent film and I’m very proud of the film. The heart of the story is intact and Sam’s journey is complete.
How did you approach writing the scene with Ephraim when Sam speaks out of turn? I’d imagine it was challenging to gauge how the other characters would react to such a moment. Would you agree that this scene in reality could’ve gone different ways, depending on the mood of the other characters (especially Ephraim)?
Agreed. The scene could have gone in different way, but Ephraim and Jackie are good friends. I never thought it would get violent, but Jackie could have embarrassed Sam.
Ultimately, these are businessmen and their decisions are dictated by money. Sam’s background comes in handy and it pays off for everyone. Ephraim wants to move these pills and using Hasidic youth is a brilliant idea.
If I remember correctly, there are three scenes with Bern Cohen, Rebbe Horowitz, that structure the film into four parts. How important were the scenes with Bern Cohen, and how did you go about writing them?
The Rebbe plays an important part as both a spiritual advisor and leader of the community. I wanted Sam to transform and begin to see the Rebbe in a different light. Sam realizes that the Rebbe isn’t a perfect man. He senses duplicity in him. In earlier drafts, the Rebbe was very complicit in Jackie’s business ventures. Ultimately, we pulled that because it would be deemed too controversial, but my research told me otherwise.
The Rebbe provides the moral framework for the journey with the parable of the Garden of Eden. This spiritual thought was given to me by one of my Church leaders when I was a missionary. It has always stayed with me.
I found Rachel and her role in the story to be somewhat unclear in an intriguing way. How did you envision Rachel? What was her role on the page in telling this story?
Rachel’s role transformed throughout the writing process. She was our “Penny Layne” (Almost Famous). She’s a young girl living the life of an older woman, but ultimately, she’s a kid, like Sam. She recognizes innocence in Sam. It’s self-reflective for her. As I mentioned, in earlier production drafts, there relationship is resolved more clearly.
How does this film discuss the difference between faith and blind faith?
Sam is always told to “keep his head down”. Kevin and I wanted to explore the notion that Sam doesn’t want to keep his head down, but rather ‘take in the world’ and ‘see it’. How does one increase faith? Is it by trial and error? Can faith grow if it’s never been tested? Sam tests his faith. Yes, he makes poor decisions and breaks the law, but where does he end up? Does he have a better understanding of his own faith? Sam felt he had to explore and experience.
What are you working on right now?
I’m putting the finishing touches on an exciting new project called KINGS HIGHWAY for producer Danny A. Abeckaser and Appian Way Productions. I’ve also been developing a TV pilot and will be tackling a new dramatic project set in Miami in the spring for Temple Hill Productions. Kevin and I have also developed a sweet coming of age film called GREAT NECK that we hope to have in production in the late Summer/early Fall.
Learn more about Antonio at these locations:
Learn more about Antonio at these locations: