Ecstasy and Piety: “Holy Rollers” Interview

See Holy Rollers in New York City starting May 21 at Landmark Sunshine Theater.

The party pill Ecstasy was in its heyday. It was the late 90s. Drug rings, led by New York and Miami-based Israeli kingpins funneled millions of pills, stamped with Tweety Birds and Superman S-shields, from Europe to America. But the smugglers weren’t your typical drug mules. Many were young Hasidic Jews from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, recruited because their pious dress, black hats and dangling peyos would put them above suspicion at airline border checks. As the drug rings and carriers were uncovered, shockwaves rattled through New York City’s Orthodox Jewish communities.

It was these events that inspired Kevin Asch’s feature film debut, Holy Rollers. The film follows a young Hasid, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who struggles with his faith as he’s drawn deeper and deeper into an Ecstasy-smuggling operation.

I talked with Kevin about how he decided on letting a Mormon write a script about a Jew, how he funded the film (thanks, mom!), and how he scored Jesse Eisenberg, as well as other lessons from making his first feature.

Rooftop Films: You’ve been working in the film industry, in a creative capacity, for many years. What did you do before Holy Rollers?

Kevin Asch, Holy Rollers: I went to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and then I was fortunate enough to work for the Shooting Gallery (the indie production company behind Sling Blade and You Can Count on Me) in the 90’s as an intern, eventually becoming an employee there, working my way through six years of what I call my graduate school. I worked in post-production and then ended up being in publicity and marketing, and learning distribution, and then was a creative executive, developing material.

I ran the gamut of how to make independent films: How to make movies in that way, and understanding the course of it, and seeing the finished product before it’s done, knowing I have to go down that path to make it. Collecting enough skills, that definitely was my hope early on, when I was doing all these other bit jobs in the industry that it would all come to play as a director one day.

RF: You started making films, but not as a director — yet.

KA: Danny Abeckaser (producer/actor, Holy Rollers) and I made a short together, Characters. He’s more known as a nightclub promoter and owner in Manhattan, but he had aspirations of being an actor. In the editing room, Danny told me about the idea of Holy Rollers.

RF: Holy Rollers is based on a true story. How did you go about translating this story — of these Ecstasy dealers, the young Hasidic drug runners, the nightclub scene — to film?

KA: [Danny] knew he’d be able to get financing for the script through a friend who had a film fund. He entrusted me, knowing that I’m his “film guy,” to take this idea and make it into something. Danny gave me the opportunity. And this was his opportunity too. We really went out on this together.

Danny was telling me about the true story, with him wanting to tell the Ecstasy story from the drug dealer’s perspective.

RF: Danny Abeckaser plays the drug dealer in Holy Rollers, but he’s no longer the lead character. How did the story change?

KA: As he was telling me the story, I couldn’t get the image of this young Hasid out of my head. I knew I wanted to tell it through those innocent eyes. The image of a young Hasid in a nightclub, the juxtaposition of those worlds, was distinctly visual and unique. And that was the story. To [Danny’s] credit, he recognized that it was unique as well and that he shouldn’t play the lead — in the movie he thought of!

RF: Then, almost immediately, you’re looking for a writer.

KA: If you’re not coming up with your own material, then you’re going to need to find material that you’re going to want to direct. I write, but I would never write a screenplay on my own. I collaborate. Read! Meet writers!

I remember reading You Can Count On Me (while at the Shooting Gallery), and I’m like, “This is a TV movie.” But I looked at it, later on, as a production assistant on the movie. Seeing [writer/director Kenneth Lonergan] and what he was doing in the rehearsal process, everything, I’m like, “I’m a fucking idiot.” (The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2001 for best screenplay.)

You recognize that, and you start to understand.

RF: How did you meet Antonio Macia?

KA: When I met Antonio, his characters and his themes were so well drawn out in a script that I read, and that’s what I mean. Read! Find that voice that you connect to. You gotta read, you’ve got to know how to read scripts.

[Macia] told me, little did I know, he’s a Mormon. A devout Mormon. He wasn’t born that, it’s something he chose in college.

RF: Find a Mormon to tell a story about a Jew.

KA: He’s very liberal. He’s an artist, of course, and incredibly open minded. The fact that it was something personal in [Macia’s] life, and his journey, was what was I wanted to capture.

RF: But your religion — you’re from Great Neck, New York — played a part here.

KA: Religion’s not a part of my life, in the sense that I’m not a practicing, very religious Jew. Culturally, I’m Jewish, and that is what I wanted to hang my hat on, not the drug and crime elements.

RF: With a story bubbling, how did you bring any actors in at this point, let alone stars (Jesse Eisenberg of The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland, Zombieland and soon, The Social Network, and Justin Bartha of The Hangover and National Treasure) into the fold? That’s an indie director’s dream, to get young name actors.

KA: We didn’t have anyone attached at this point, nor did we have financing — just for the script. We got to a third draft, I made a short list of actors who I thought could play Sam. Very short, like three actors, Jesse being on the top of that. Antonio’s manager at the time repped a lot of New York-centric actors. He never asked us if it was OK to give the script to Jesse, but he did.

Jesse read it and the next thing you know, his agent is calling Danny and he wants to do the movie. This was January 2007. I was ecstatic. I was a fan of Jesse from The Squid and the Whale and Roger Dodger, and he was at the top of my list! He was the only actor in Hollywood who could maybe play a Hasidic Jew authentically. That was the luckiest thing by far.

RF: And Justin Bartha?

KA: [Eisenberg] suggested Justin Bartha, six months after he was attached, for the part of Yosef. I never would’ve considered him for a role like this, because I’d never seen him doing a role like this, nor an independent film. He was doing big blockbuster movies — romantic comedies!

RF: Was there any concern that, you have stars known as comedic actors, but this isn’t a comedy, it’s a drama!

KA: Actors need to know how to play comedy. Comedy from character. Both of these guys understand both of it.

RF: And you’re also thinking simultaneously about you as the director. How is it going to work with me directing it?

KA: When [Eisenberg] was attached, I started a look book, a comprehensive topography of the visualization of the movie. Being a first-time director, that was essential. Articulating your vision is one thing, but being able to make sense of it in a presentation is another thing — for my investors, for myself, for the actors to have them feel comfortable in the quality and the type of film and tone that I’m looking to do.

The look of these communities… I wanted the grittiness of the outer boroughs of New York and Amsterdam. That doesn’t feel glossy to me. The great independent films of the 90s, the great studio dramas of the 70s — I wanted us to fit in that somehow. The French Connections, the Mean Streets, the Midnight Cowboys or the Trainspottings, Reservoir Dogs, Kids — just those movies that feel honest and real, unaffected and not homogenized.

And ultimately it was something that was great to give to all my key [crew members] as a starting point of the conversation of where we needed to go, creatively. I shared it with Jesse. He really appreciated that.

RF: Was it easy at that point, with name actors, to get funding?

KA: We went to the Hollywood Reporter. And… nothing. We were trying to capture any momentum to get financing. We went out with a press release — it was publicly known! The frustration of the time that passes, when these things don’t come together… It’s difficult, I imagine, for them to keep their names attached.

RF: So it’s reality check time. You’ve written a script. Many months have passed, and you haven’t been able to get it financed. Obviously the movie got made. How did you do it? How did you close the gap in funding?

KA: The script was written to be a bit of a bigger movie. And even though I had that faith element, it was bigger. And genre. Bigger set pieces, a lot more scenes.

Antonio and I regrouped and tried to figure out how to make this movie for a lot cheaper, as cheap as we could make it for. It was about a $4.2 million budget at that time. I knew Jesse and Justin were willing to go make this movie if we didn’t lose the quality of what we were looking to do. So with that confidence, knowing they were still there, we tried to rearrange the material. I learned budgeting and scheduling at the Shooting Gallery. We reduced scenes, reduced locations, reduced characters, everything! Reduce, reduce, reduce — without compromising the film we ultimately wanted to make.

That was a very difficult exercise. When we felt like we had the material there, I went out to find a line producer (ultimately, Per Melita, a producer on Sangre de Mi Sangre and Roger Dodger) who could come up with a budget that was close to a million dollars. I knew it was almost impossible. And it’s a lot of money, but still, this a big movie.

RF: You kept a lot.

KA: It is what it is. Making movies is expensive. Traveling from Europe, on planes. And it’s a period piece. And nightclubs. And the Hasidic community…

RF: Even with a budget within reach, at $1 million, it’s still a tough sell, right? Who wants to see a drama about drug smuggling with Hasidic Judaism at its core?

KA: The only reason there’s money in this movie is because they’re my mother, or they believed in Danny. Danny said he could come up with certain amount of money, $900,000, if I could get $100,000. I got the $100,000 from my mother. God bless her, she believed in me. The fact that people wouldn’t get it as a ‘sell,’ or that Hollywood wouldn’t respond to making this, or most financiers or independent producers wouldn’t understand that this is material that could be entertaining and should be made, that can’t hold you back from making your movie.

The crash happened (in September 2008), and we lost a quarter of our financing. I went after every producer that I knew. Jen Gatien, who was an old friend of mine, came in and was able to come up with that last piece, a quarter million dollars, and greenlit the movie.

RF: This is now two years after Jesse Eisenberg first signed up and you’re in production.

KA: We ended up shooting this in January 2009, in the freezing cold, two years to the day, almost, after Jesse was attached to the film.

I know it sounds like it went perfect, it was far from that. It was a difficult-as-hell shoot on this budget level. There’s no trailers, there’s no anything like that on a movie like this. We had 18 days, and two second-unit days, one in Amsterdam. Everyone was passionate about the kind of movie we were going to make. These guys’ voices were in this film — this is their movie, they owned it.

RF: Holy Rollers was picked up after screening at Sundance in January, it opens Friday in New York City. And that brings us here, to a rooftop in Manhattan.

KA: I’m very excited about this screening. If this wasn’t coming out right now, I’d be in therapy. I don’t have to go to therapy now.

“Holy Rollers” played as part of the Rooftop Film 2010 Summer Series. If you missed our sneak preview, you can see the film in New York City starting May 21 at Landmark Sunshine Theater.