7 Questions with Robert J. Avrech, award-winning Hollywood screenwriter

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1. How did a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn become a Hollywood screenwriter?

I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a screenwriter. One of the things my father used to do when I was young was take me to the movies. I just really loved the movies. And I loved television, especially the westerns that were on when I was a kid. All movies are moral landscapes in one way or another, but westerns are a very specific moral landscape where good struggles against evil, and usually good triumphs against evil. I was especially drawn to that landscape. I started writing stories when I was very young. I wrote stories, I wrote poetry…I wrote all sorts of things. And then at a certain point I learned about screenplays. I began with little short screenplays. They got longer, but they were all pretty terrible because I had no craft. There was nobody to teach it to me. So what I would do is just go to movies all the time. I would go to the same movie over and over. I studied the movies the way I studied Gemara. I broke it down, I saw the structures. I realized there was act one, act two, act three. I realized there was always a main character and the main character had conflict. And I also saw very quickly that almost all movies in one way or another were a love story. I began to understand the basics without the craft.

I didn’t go to Yeshiva University because they didn’t have an art department. They couldn’t teach film there. I got a partial scholarship to a secular school called Bard College, and I went there even though it was a really difficult environment for me as a frum Jew. I learned about film and about art, and I wrote quite a few screenplays. I learned the craft. I learned about filmmaking. Then after college I went to Israel for a year. I was there during the Yom Kippur War. I wrote a movie called Geshem Barzel, The Steel Rain, which is what you call incoming artillery. It was actually a very good screenplay. I knew it was the best thing I’d ever. When I got back to America, I started sending this specific screenplay to every agent in the world. You have to understand, I was still unsophisticated when it came to the film business; I was still basically a Yeshiva kid. I just sent around this screenplay to everybody. No one responded. I didn’t get rejection letters – nothing. I was so naïve, I didn’t realize that this was just not the way to do it. But then, about a year later, I got a call from a famous director named Brian De Palma. And he said that he had read my screenplay and really liked it, and he wanted to talk to me. Brian lived in New York, in Greenwich Village, so I went to his office. We met and I asked him how he got my screenplay, and he said, “Well, my agent got it and he really liked it and he dropped it on my desk.” So Brian liked my screenplay. He didn’t want to make it, but he thought I had the right sensibility to write a movie that he was thinking of. He hired me to write a movie that a few years later he would direct called Body Double. That was a big hit and it propelled me into the front ranks of Hollywood screenwriters. So it was a combination of tenacity, talent, and a lot of luck. Before Body Double came out, they asked me to come out to California to write more movies. So Karen and I packed up and came out to California, and we’ve been here ever since. That’s how I came to be the first shomer Shabbos screenwriter in Hollywood.

2. You mention that movies are moral landscapes. Is this true of all film and television?

In the golden age of Hollywood, where people would go to the movies, they came in with their ideological defenses completely down because they went to be entertained. They went to a movie starring Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, or Douglass Fairbanks or Cary Grant. And they went because it was fun and it took them out of the world for a little while. Usually they projected their own fantasies onto the silver screen. That’s how it was for me. But that’s no longer true. At a certain point, secular ideology found its way into Hollywood in a big way. And so people still go to movies with their ideological defenses completely down, and they are assaulted by a brand of thinking which is woven into the storylines, skillfully and brilliantly, that teaches a certain morality to the audience. And the audience, whether they know it or not, soak it up and project it into their own lives. I’ve been in enough story conferences, and been with enough producers and directors and actors, to know that this is now done deliberately. And I think, ultimately, it’s dishonest and destructive.

3. Is there a remedy?

First of all, people need to be aware that it’s happening. I think awareness is the most important thing. If your kids go to a movie or are watching television, talk to them about it. Be aware of the writing between the lines. What’s the ideologically driven message? You even have to be careful with Sesame Street, which was not the case when my children were young. Now Sesame Street has turned very hard left. One has to be aware of the messages being driven home by Burt and Ernie. It’s become a mouthpiece for radical leftism. That is antithetical to the frum Torah lifestyle.

Second of all, we need to get more people like me into mainstream Hollywood so that we can make the films that we want to make as a counter to the other ideological message. It is no longer tenable to make movies that are pure entertainment. Look at a show like Friends, which was pure fluff. It was wonderful fluff. But they were still the first people on Television to show gay marriage. Now, that did more for gay marriage than all the activists in the world. There is no such thing as fluff anymore. There’s no such thing as ideological-free entertainment, or if there is, it’s very rare. And as long as they are putting out leftist propaganda, then it’s incumbent upon us – the conservative or religious or both – to do the same thing. I’ve done that in my career. If you look at Stranger Among Us, it’s an antidote to a lot of other movies. If you look at a film like The Devil’s Arithmetic, the film that I won the Emmy Award for, again, it’s a very conservative and religious message. So I try to counter this in the movies that I do. But I’m only one man. I’m now trying to train the next generation of frum writers. I volunteer at YULA Girls School and I teach a screenwriting course. I have a very small class – only three girls. It’s the same course I would be teaching in college or in a master’s program. It’s a very challenging course, but the girls I’m working with are incredibly talented, and who knows? Maybe one or two of them will become screenwriters.

4. Do you ever feel pressure to change your writing? How do you maintain your message?

Each film is different; each production is its own universe. It depends on the studio, the network, the producer, the director. It depends upon the actors. You’re always balancing different things. There is no general rule. You have to be very nimble and you have to know who you are and what you believe or else you’ll get steamrolled. So there is no one answer except to do the best you can. I also turn down certain projects if I feel their underlying ideological message is something I simply can’t get behind. The problem is that another writer will take it, do a good job, and that message gets out there. One can make the argument to take the job and put something subversive in it, but I found that that never works.

Look, it’s a constant battle. It’s the religious Jews against the Maskillim in 19th century Europe. It’s the religious Jews against the burgeoning Communists and Bolsheviks, who were 80% Jewish. Jewish history is tediously repetitive. It’s the same thing over and over and over again. The Maccabim were fighting Jews much more than they were fighting the Greeks. It was much more of a civil war than anything else. And it’s the same thing now. Who am I fighting? I’m fighting with secular Jews in Hollywood. It happens to be that my best friends in Hollywood are very religious Catholics and Mormons. I have much more in common with them than the secular Jews who are the majority in Hollywood. Basically, we’re still fighting the wars of the Maccabees. The good thing is that we’re not murdering each other in the streets. That is some progress. They won’t work with me, but at least they’re not slitting my throat.

5. Does being Orthodox hinder you at all in your business?

The truth is, not at all. That’s because I’m a screenwriter. People hire me because I’m a proven talent. Screenwriters make their own time. Things would get more difficult if I were a director. Directors have to be away from home all the time. I want to be with my wife and my family, so it just doesn’t interest me. But as a screenwriter I produce my own material. By the time I’m in the environment of production, which is really 24 hour a day work, the people I work with know me well enough to know that I don’t work on Shabbos. And they work around it, one way or the other. It always works out. People are incredibly respectful. Nobody has ever badmouthed me or given me a hard time. If by any chance a yom tov gets in the way, I work twice as hard to make up for lost time. The only time I ever ran into a problem was when a Jewish producer scheduled a meeting with me on a particular yom tov. I said, “I can’t do it, it’s a holiday.” He said, “That’s impossible. I know that Rosh Hashana’s over, Yom Kippur’s over, Sukkos…What are you talking about?” I said, “It’s Shmini Atzeret.” He said, “I’m a Conservative Jew, I’ve been going to synagogue my whole life. I never heard of that.” I said, “Go look it up. I promise you, Shmini Atzeret is real.” He called me back an hour later, said, “I’m sorry, you’re right. Have a happy shmini whatever.” And ever since then, every time I see him he says, “Have a happy shmini whatever.” So it’s simply not a factor. People are respectful. It’s not a problem for screenwriters.

The real problem is social. Many people in the Yeshiva world have very low social IQs for the outside world. There is a specific Yeshiva world that we’re all aware of and have affection for. However, once you step outside that world, it is a very large, complex, and varied world. Many people who were brought up in the Yeshiva environment are simply not socially sophisticated enough to swim in the complex world of Hollywood production. I know this for a fact. I can’t tell you how many Orthodox people come to me and they say, “I have a great idea for a movie, all I need is somebody to write it.” And I ask them what it is, and it’s always the same story: a bal teshuvah, and how their life is so much better than people who are not religious. And when I try to explain to them, when I ask them if they’ve gone to the movies recently, if they’ve seen a real movie, they all say that they don’t go to the movies. This is delusional. It shows a complete lack of awareness of the world out there, and of Hollywood. There are only certain kinds of people who become sophisticated enough to step outside the Yeshiva world. To retain their Yiddishkeit and also talk about the cinema of Carl Dreyer or Akira Kurosawa or John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock. It takes a certain kind of personality to be able to sit in the morning at Daf Yomi and learn Yoma – which I’m learning now – and then in the afternoon to screen Lawrence of Arabia. And it’s not common. It’s not natural to the environment.

I think this stems from a basic distrust of secular knowledge. And with good reason. The college that I went to was filled with Leftist Marxist professors. They didn’t teach – they indoctrinated. Education is no longer valued for education; it’s become indoctrination. And that’s just evil. It’s Orwellian. At UCLA now, they no longer learn Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, or Petrarch. What you do learn is gender studies and colonialism. That is the road to ignorance, the soft tyranny of academia. It’s very dangerous to liberty. I understand all the problems. Listen, my children all went to yeshiva. My daughters went to Stern College, my son went to Yeshivah Gedolah and then to Ner Yisroel. Yet there are certain people, like me and other people I know, who could not stay in the beis medrash. It wasn’t tenable; I just wasn’t a good enough student for it. I needed to go out into the world and do different things. And I think the Orthodox world has changed quite a bit, for the good. Certainly, the average programs are fantastic. Aish HaTorah, Chabad, all these other groups…they’re absolutely fantastic. And they give people like me the space to move in which is absolutely invaluable.

6. Can you share a Hollywood experience with us?

One of the things I don’t do is kiss and tell. Hollywood is a varied place. I’ve had wonderful experiences, and I’ve had some really weird experiences. But on the whole, I’ve found that the best kept secret in Hollywood is how very hard people work. I don’t think people realize what a grind Hollywood is. It seems glamorous. I’ll tell you one story that sums it up for me.

Working on one of my movies, I met a star. I came into her dressing room; she wanted to talk to me about rewriting some lines for her. She was in a robe and slippers, she didn’t have her makeup on, and her hair was pushed back and uncombed. I looked at her and almost said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not you.’ Of course, she was just a normal little skinny girl. She looked like every other schlub in the world. It shows the power of the Hollywood image that even I, who was somewhat aware of Hollywood power and glamor, could still be shocked by reality. It’s all an illusion. It’s an amazing illusion – that’s why I say that it’s the most amazing propaganda tool in the world. We have to be aware of that. America only wins wars when Hollywood is behind those wars. Hollywood was behind WWI. Hollywood was behind WWII in a big way, and we won that war. Hollywood was not behind Korea, and Korea came to a terrible stalemate which has led to the most repressive government on the face of the earth. North Korea is now one gigantic gulag. Hollywood was not behind Vietnam and we lost Vietnam. Hollywood was not behind Afghanistan or Iraq and we lost both those countries. And let me just say that Hollywood is not behind Israel now, and America’s current president is certainly not a friend to the Israeli state. He is very closely aligned with Hollywood, ideologically and financially, and that is a huge problem. If you work in Hollywood you understand one thing very quickly: there are certain no-go zones. One of those zones now is Israel. The last pro-Zionist film made in Hollywood was Cast a Giant Shadow. And that wasn’t even a big movie. The bigger movie was Exodus, and that was 50 years ago. There has not been a pro-Zionist movie made in Hollywood since then, but a couple years ago a Jewish actress gave a Golden Globe award to an Arab filmmaker, who made a film that glorified homicide bombers. That’s how far and how low we’ve come in 50 years. It is not just disgraceful, it is dangerous.

7. You recently wrote a book about your love for and courtship of your wife. Tell us about How I Married Karen.

Pretty much at the same time that I fell in love with the movies, I fell in love with my wife. We both attended Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, and she came into school in 4th grade; she transferred from Yeshivah Ohel Moshe. I saw her on the first day of school standing in the schoolyard, with a white linen handkerchief pressed to her mouth, and I fell in love with her. There’s no way of explaining it – I was nine years old. And it was a love that animated my soul and my imagination for as long as I attended Yeshivah of Flatbush, and continued through my childhood and young adulthood. She was not only the prettiest girl in school, she was also really smart. She was in the A class and I was in the dumb class. And unlike the other alpha girls, Karen was never immodest. She never played the all the cruel games which so characterized the pretty female creatures of that particular class. And Karen didn’t know that I existed all those years. She had no idea. I’ll skip forward. At the age of 26 I spotted Karen at a Jewish street festival on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My knees turned to liquid, and my feelings for her were exactly the same. So I screwed up my courage and approached her. We talked all afternoon. We started dating, And I discovered that Karen was exactly who I had imagined. When I told Karen – and this was the turning point in my life – when I told her of my Hollywood ambitions, she didn’t say, like so many other Orthodox girls, “Is that a parnassah?” or “Is that realistic?” Karen said, “I think that’s wonderful. I have faith that you’ll achieve exactly what you want.” And what I wanted was Karen and Hollywood. A year later Karen and I were married, and we’ve been married 38 years now. Without my wife I’m absolutely nothing. I’m a very lucky person.

The book came about because I felt that I wanted to write a great love story. I was looking around for a screenplay to write, and then I just started fooling around with my recollections about Karen. It just came pouring out of me. I realized that was the love story that I wanted to tell. Here’s a halacha of great movies: Every great movie is a love story at the core. And I always want to write a great movie. So I ended up writing How I Married Karen and I’m actually working on the screenplay. I want to make it into a movie. It presents difficulties because since it’s a story of Orthodoxy, it takes place in a very closed milieu. How do I make that happen? But I feel I made it happen with Stranger Among Us, so I can make it happen here also. But it’s also not just the story of one man’s love for a woman, it’s the story of my love for the movies. So it’s basically two tracks running along at the same time. It presents many challenges, but it’s my current project. I think if there’s one thing that people adore it’s a love story.

The other thing is that there is a certain kind of Orthodox literature that has been accepted, that I think means well but is not helpful. They present perfect figures, which are basically unattainable. Jews don’t believe in saints. We see people and society as flawed, which is why we need 613 mitzvot. These books tell stories that are so modest that we don’t recognize people in them. And of course, there are no grand love stories. Now, none of us can live without love. So one of the things that I wanted to do was tell the great Orthodox romance, which was my feelings for my wife Karen. You can tell this story and still be a Torah Jew. I think people should know these stories, not just in the outside world but in the Orthodox world as well.

To read more from Robert or purchase his book, How I Married Karen, visit http://www.seraphicpress.com/