Thursday, April 6, 2017
Joan Micklin Silver on "Hester Street"
How did you find Abraham Cahan’s novella (which was the basis for the screenplay) and what attracted you to it?
JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: One of the films that I made for the educational film company was on immigration. I read just about everything I could find on immigration and one of the things that I read was the novella by Abraham Cahan called Yekl.
I was really floundering around and wanting very much to make my own films. My husband, Ray, who was a real estate developer, told me that if I could do a film that would not cost very much, that he would try to raise money from some of the investors that he'd been going to for real estate deals. And that was how we did it.
Frankly I didn't think I'd ever get to make another film. I was pretty discouraged about it all. My family were immigrants and I wanted to make a movie that would count for them. Was the story in the public domain at that point?
JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: Yes. And that was one of its attractions. What challenges did you face in the adaptation?
JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: Well, the story itself is more the husband's story. I think what grabbed me about it was what happened to the wife. So it was really just telling the story from the point of view that interested me. The challenge of it, of course, was to try to make it authentic.
I felt that because my father had told me so many stories about his life as an immigrant boy from Russia, I knew that language was a huge factor in getting along or not getting along. He told me stories of not quite knowing English and once leaving some money on a bus; he was a paperboy and he had made some collections and left the money by accident on the bus. He thinks people were trying to tell him and he didn't understand what they were saying. He got off the bus and then realized it -- things like that. Knowing the English language was extremely difficult.
And also both my parents were Yiddish speaking and I can remember dinners at our house with all sorts of relatives and wonderful stories being told and then punch lines coming out in Yiddish and my mother turning to us and saying, "You know, it doesn't quite translate." She would try to translate it, but never could quite do it. And I associated that language with something very rich and interesting and enjoyable. Were you worried about breaking some of the cardinal rules of low-budget filmmaking: You don't do period pieces, you don't do something that's half in English and half in Yiddish?
JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: I didn't know enough to know that I was breaking cardinal rules and that's the truth. I had to tell this story and I had to do what I could to tell it. Did the fact that you knew you wouldn't have much money to shoot this movie have any impact on you while you were writing the script?
JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: Constantly. I was constantly thinking, for example, about how I could do Ellis Island, things like that. It was one thing after another, just constantly trying to figure out how I could tell the story without having a budget that would have allowed me to tell the full story, where you could recreate the Lower East Side, like they did in Godfather II.
We used one street, Morton Street, and we could only shoot in one direction, because that direction faced Bleecker, where the streets formed a "T," so that you only had to create the look on Morton up toward Bleecker.
If we faced the other way, it was Seventh Avenue and obviously we couldn't close Seventh Avenue, we didn't have that ability. In Godfather II, they had street after street, traveling shots that were gorgeous. So we just did what we could and everything was written and organized with that in mind.
My own experience in writing low-budget films is that you often have to do a part of something; a part has to stand for something larger.