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A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of screening of Tatia Rosenthal’s $9.99, set to hit theaters on June 19th. Based on the Short Stories of Etgar Keret, and adapted for the screen by Etgar Keret and Director Tatia Rosenthal, $9.99 is a surreal, existential tale of the meaning of life.
It follows a rich cast of neighbors within one building including an unemployed 28 year old who still lives at home, an old man and his disgruntled guardian angel, a magician in debt, a bewitching woman who likes her men extra smooth, a broken hearted man who befriends a group of hard partying two inch tall students, and a little boy who sets his piggy bank free. Their stories are woven together, examining the post-modern meaning of hope.
I caught up with Tatia Rosenthal and had a chance to ask her some questions about the film to share with our readers.
Matt Lambert: What is your background and how did you first get into film?
Tatia Rosenthal: I grew up in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. My love for film and animation started in high school. I was interested in all sorts of artsy endeavors, but it was only when I watched ‘The World According to Garp’, which combined live action with wonderful animation by John Canemaker, that I first became interested in film and animation as a potential dream career.
ML: How did this project start? Can you talk about the development and funding for this project?
TR: It took ages. The script was around for seven years, winning grants and fellowships, but it was too expensive for an indie animation for grown-ups. We were asked if we could make it for under $1 million. The short of it was, no we couldn’t. It wasn’t until Australian producer Emile Sherman met with Etgar Keret in Israel, in hopes to make the first Australian-Israeli co-production, that financing became viable.
Etgar pitched “$9.99” to Emile who loved it. Meanwhile I had just finished “A Buck’s Worth” which was a short proof of concept for “$9.99” I was at Annecy showing it when Emile met with Etgar, it was the perfect timing. Once Emile was on-board he joined forces with Israeli producer, Amir Harel, who was producing Etgar Keret and Shira Gefen’s Jellyfish. They had the film financed in less than a year.
ML: How was the experience collaborating with Etgar and what was your involvement in the script’s development?
TR: It was a fantastic experience. Etgar had asked me to pick my favorite stories. We then paired them down to six, based on their thematic connection (all having to do with yearning).
I knocked out a first draft, which was very close to the stories. Next, I went to Israel for a few weeks where Etgar and I met daily and turned the script into a real cinematic piece. We merged characters from the various stories and gave them a fuller life. I’ve learned an immense amount from working with Etgar who has infinite brilliant, funny ideas and a deep understanding of compassionate storytelling. By the end of it, I could see how the script was becoming incredibly strong because we only put in things we both really loved.
The third draft came after our Sundance screenwriter’s Lab where it came very close to its’ filmed version. We wrote it during the festival after the lab, while Etgar was healing from a foot injury he acquired in the Sundance snow. The next rewrite was done for Film Australia (the major financier of the film) which mostly involved “Australianizing” the film and a few last touches to connect the story-lines.
ML: Switching gears a bit — I find a lot of films that are rooted in a specific technique can sometimes let this technique overpower the story. However, this film views like a drama. Stop-motion becomes secondary to the story once you’re about ten minutes in. Was this something you were aware of?
TR: Interesting point. I didn’t set out to make a stop-motion film and then found Etgar Keret’s stories — the stories came first and then the search for the right medium in which to visualize them.
I found Etgar Keret’s stories absolutely brilliant, bitter sweet and exacting. But I didn’t know yet that the best way for me to visualize his stories was through animation. I was trying to find the right tone with which to convey the stories. It was just after I took a stop-motion class that I realized – more instinctively than theoretically- that stop-motion animation was a fitting companion to his matter-of-fact expression of a complex reality through everyday situations and magical realism. The stop-motion world is a step removed from realism. The controlled, sparse nature of the environment and expression of the “actors” allows an observational distance from reality, letting the audience find what it is that makes the stories and characters, in fact, human.
For me, stop-motion ended up being the natural companion for Etgar’s dramatic world – I was never afraid to overwhelm it.
ML: So you thought about this being live-action at one point?
TR: Early on, $9.99’s script got accepted into the Sundance filmmakers’ labs. Both Etgar and I went and one of the central questions at the lab was “why not live action.”
We considered it, and also got the chance to shoot live action scenes from the script. Etgar knew all along that he preferred animation for “$9.99.” But I was happy to experiment until Frank Oz, who was one of our lab advisors, told me that I hadn’t yet found the right directorial tone. He was right.
Once I considered the film in term of its tone – the road back to stop-motion was very short.
ML: The film still does feel very cinematic. Were there any live-action films that helped inform yours?
TR: I think Robert Altman’s Short Cuts was a very clear inspiration in setting out to write this multi-storyline script in the first place. Once Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia came out we were further encouraged in thinking that our film has a place in the world.
ML: The characters each have such strong personalities and their ‘acting’ has a visceral quality to it. Can you talk about the development of the characters?
TR: You can trace the characters aesthetic roots to my early paintings, then evolving with Crazy Glue (latex skin on mattress foam), improving immensely in A Buck’s Worth (foam latex puppets – Thanks to Kathy Zung’s excellent video) and finally with the amazing talent and craftsmanship of Phil Beadsmoore our silicone puppet master on “$9.99.”
Phil’s team did an amazing job building and detailing the characters based on a jumble of references and designs – we used drawings by Melinda Doring and Shira Derman – our brilliant production designer and concept illustrator, photos of friends, strangers, magazine clippings, and Lucien Freud’s paintings. It was a very tight production schedule, with no do overs (well one do over) and I’m really excited about what they were able to achieve.
ML: And to finish off with something a bit more technical — How many animators did you have and how long did the production take? How long? Any technical challenges?
TR: Nine animators altogether, with six stages operating simultaneously. Technical problems? Galore. Really it’s a question of making a stop-motion feature on a shoe-string… Nothing is easy for anyone involved. But the crew stuck to it for a long two years, and Ta-Da… I can’t speak for everyone…. But I think it was well worth the effort.
ML: So what’s next in store for you?
TR: I’m back in NY, which I’ve missed terribly while being away for the two years of “$9.99″s production. I’m freelance animating and directing while developing a couple of projects, one animated and one live action…
$9.99 is set to open on June 19th. You can visit the official site for more details.