Everything Is Illuminated by Liev Schreiber

A Star Director Is Born

Quirky and highly original, “Everything Is Illuminated,” actor Live Schreiber's impressive feature directorial debut is one of a kind: a road comedy of the absurd that pays the most respectable tribute to the Holocaust!

Based on the critically-acclaimed novel by Jonathan Safran Foer of the same tile, the movie depicts the quest of a young man named Jonathan (Elijah Wood) to find the woman who had saved his grandfather's life in a small Ukrainian town that was wiped out off the map in 1942 by the Nazi occupation.

Originally published as a novel in 2001, the story came to Schreiber's attention as a piece of short fiction in the New Yorker. At the time, Schreiber was acting in a stage play in New York and doing a reading series for the magazine. He was immediately attracted to the material. Coincidentally, Schreiber was already writing a script about his late grandfather and the Ukraine, when he read the story in the New Yorker.

On the Novel

When I read the short story, I was very moved by it, and at the same time, I thought it was the most hilarious thing I had read in years. It's really about people's need to be connected. We follow these two people from vastly different cultures, who should have absolutely nothing in common, but come to realize that there's deep connection between them that is emotionally and spiritually binding.”

Personal Connection

When my grandfather died, I became curious about his history in the hope that it would somehow inform my own. I started to write a lot more and in particular about Ukraine. When I read Jonathan's story, I felt deeply connected to it. What's more, he had done in 15 pages what I had been trying to do in about 100, and he had done it with humor.

Meeting the Author

I had arranged to meet him in a bar in New York and at the time I knew nothing about him. I imagined some 90-year-old Jewish man from Nantucket who only communicates through his agent. I walked in, and there was this 20-something kid with glasses waving and smiling at me. I remember thinking this must be some guy who's seen Scream' or something, but he kept waving at me, so I went over to him and it was Jonathan. I was blown away. We ended up telling a lot of jokes, drinking, talking about women, the book, our grandfathers, the Ukraine, and what it means to be Jewish.

Getting the Book's Rights

We had gotten along well and had a great time, but I still didn't know if I would get the rights, then Jonathan turned to me and said, yeah, yeah go ahead.' I though wow that was quick, but then he handed me his agent's number. There was a little more work to do, but basically I left knowing it was going to happen.

Writing the Screenplay

I always knew I wanted to write the screenplay and didn't consider asking Foer to write it or be a co-writer. The whole process was relatively short. The screenplay came out of me very quickly. I didn't try to adapt the whole book. The impetus for my script was the short story, titled “A Very Rigid Search,” not the published novel. Initially, I tried to incorporate some of the fantasy and sense of humor that he has in the 18th century world of Trachimbrod that exists in the second story in the novel. But I decided it was too big a project to do a period film that goes back and forth, so I concentrated on the first story of Jonathan and Alex.

Directing

Once I started writing the screenplay, I knew I had to direct it. It was a natural progression. I was primarily interested in writing, but as an actor, I have always approached my work as being a part of the whole picture. That awareness of the larger picture is what made me want to direct, but I never imagined anyone who would say yes. Visually, I knew the kind of movie I wanted to make even before I could the book. I like movies with pace and visual excitement to them. I had been thinking for a long time about how to execute that. Jonathan's story was the ideal material for this.

Finding a Producer

After the screenplay was written, the development process slowed down, as I searched for the right producer who wanted to make the movie. Although people loved the novel, they struggled to see it as a film.

Casting American-Ukrainian Film

What I wanted to do was to go to the Ukraine and hire a bunch of Ukrainians who had never acted before. I was a big fan of The Gods Must Be Crazy,' I was very impressed that the lead had never acted before. He gave the film a sense of authenticity that just can't be acteda lot like the films of Emir Kusturica, which are somewhat between the world of documentary and feature.

Elijah Wood as Jonathan

I had always seen Jonathan, both literally and figuratively speaking, as the eyes of the movie and I just couldn't think of anybody in showbusiness with better eyes than Elijah Wood. But this was a small-budget film and I found it hard to believe that someone in his situation, having just come off The Lord of the Ring' trilogy, was willing to do it.

Wood does remind me of Jonathan, particularly in his emotional maturity. Jonathan's actually a real goof ball in life and can seem like such a kid, but then he writes like this wise old man. Elijah has this quality as an actor. He's so youthful and innocent in many ways, but is also incredibly professional, mature, and experienced.

Alex, the Ukrainian Guide

I was convinced that I didn't want an American actor to play Alex, the Ukrainian who becomes Elijah's guide. I felt there was a quality to that character that had to be real, otherwise he could run the risk of being a clown, so it was important he was rooted in some kind of reality. The difficulty was finding him, but after a search that took us across Eastern Europe and beyond, we finally found what we were looking for, by accident, in New York City.

We had heard about a band called Gogol Bordello,' billing itself as a Ukrainian Gypsy Punk band. We discovered they were quite well-known in New York. We listened to the
CD, and we loved it, so we brought it the front guy, Eugene Futz, to meet and talk music. In the screen tests, Eugene proved the camera loved him. We worked on some scenes together and he was amazing, better than we could have ever imagined. Eugene is the perfect blend of someone who is this trickster clown guy who has this routine in his pocket for years, but who underneath is a guy from Ukraine who really wants to be a star, and those are definite Alex qualities.

Casting the Dog, Sammy Davis Junior Junior

The dog, Sammy Davis Junior Junior, is this crazy seeing-eye bitch and he is really the fourth character in the movie. I remember saying I would give up my entire salary to make sure we have the right dog. We had to get the best dog in showbusiness, so we went to the best trainer in the business. We got two border collies called Mickey and Mouse, both sisters. I divided up the work so that one dog was almost a stunt double. Mickey's the face and Mouth is the stunt dog, and we were like stage mothers.

The Visual Look

I wanted Matthew Libatique to photograph the film but never imagined I could be able to get him. When I heard he was interested, I literally almost did a back flip over my desk. Matty has an incredible eye, and that perfect blend of chaos and creativity that makes him the obvious choice for the movie. Ive worked on a lot of films but I don't think Ive ever experienced the kind of artistry and passion that he brings to a set.

Looking Back

It's been a really steep learning curve, but had the right people around me to keep my head above water. I don't think any of it would have been possible without Matty Libatique. I think his work in this film is incredible, and it's a testament to the visual genius that he is. There were situations where I felt that in terms of narrative, I was falling short, and Matty would come up with visual interpretations of the text that just completely transcended anything I could have hoped for.

It's like a duelif you survive, don't do it again!