Interview: “iMordecai” Director Marvin Samel

I was fortunate enough to speak with director Marvin Samel about his film debut iMordecai. We talk about the struggles of directing, having your father over your shoulder, and staying true-to-life for the film.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ben Miller: Congratulations on your film! This is your first experience doing any sort of film directing. In my research, I found that you are a big cigar guy.

Marvin Samel: I founded a cigar company called Drew Estate. It became one of the largest companies in the world. I sold it as my wife gave birth to our twin daughters and it should have been the happiest time in our family’s lives. And then my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. That’s the reason I made this film. The first time I directed iMordecai was the first time I was ever on a film set.

Ben: That’s a very “feet to the fire” type of experience. I say the same thing about parenting. You can read all you want but until you do it, you can’t really figure out what you are actually doing. I imagine it’s the same with directing.

Marvin: With parenting there are some maternal or paternal instincts that kick in. There is no instincts that kick in that our ancestors taught us about directing a feature film. It was nuts. It was really, really nuts. Picture reading a book about being an NFL quarterback by Tom Brady and then suiting up on Sunday and you’ve got 300 lbs. defensive lineman trying to kill you.

Ben: With a first-time directing experience you would expect it to be chaotic, but the film is anything but chaotic. It seemed very controlled and calm. Is that what you were striving for? There’s a light and relaxed feel despite some pretty heavy themes.

Marvin: My goal was controlled chaos. What you see is my diary. It’s about Mordecai from Marvin’s point of view. And Sean Astin plays me, the director. A lot of that I lend to, in terms of that aspect, that tone of the film, I have to credit my editor Rick Grayson, who was the completion editor on Birdman. I had a great team around me. This couldn’t have gotten made without an incredible team around me. It was an extremely collaborative experience.

Ben Miller: I wanted to talk about the animation. The animation is so vibrant and interesting, it took me off guard in a good way. Obviously, balanacing the light humor of the film with the heavy undertones while also dealing with the Holocaust, it was a good way to offset that tone and gives it a fantastical element. Why did you choose animation?

Marvin: Originally it was going to be live-action, but partially due to the necessary of COVID, but there is a [late-film sequence] that was always going to be animation. Had that scene been in live-action, you can’t go back to comedy. The entire history of my father’s life are told in the animation sequences. Really, I wanted to focus on the here-and-now with the background of his life informing you on why does a man act like this?

Ben: How close is this version of Mordecai to your actual father?

Marvin: So close, that when you are in the art gallery scenes, all the art on the walls is my father’s art. All the art on the walls of the apartment is from my father. He just took a hiatus from painting and now he specializes in making birthday and holiday cards.

Ben: Is your dad watching over your shoulder going, “I wouldn’t have done that,” or “Yes, I did that,” the whole time?

Marvin: It was so much worse than that. The making-of is going to be a DVD extra. I had an Emmy award-winning documentarian follow my dad around and tell the behind the scenes from his point of view. The movie’s from my point of view. He was there for the scene where Mordecai is on stage. And my father can’t understand what’s going on. He’s hard of hearing, and he doesn’t listen. The words “quiet on set” never absorbed into my father’s brain. And of course he leaves his cell phone on…at first it was comical. Then after a while my team goes [points to watch] we gotta go. There’s one part where I was having a disagreement with Judd [Hirsch] about blocking a scene. In the back, you can hear my father yelling, “Ahh, Marvin is [bleeping] it all up!”

Ben: Talk about fortuitous casting. because obviously this was well ahead of time, but we’re going to be releasing this film on this date with Judd Hirsch, Carol Kane, and Sean Astin. Then, [the Oscar nominations[ happen…

Marvin: For the record, nothing against the great Steven Spielberg, iMordecai was filmed before The Fabelmans. He was able to get it done faster before I could. You have to understand this is not the kind of film that can afford a Super Bowl commercial. So we’re relying on word of mouth. Please, if you do like this film please post, tell people, because films like these are becoming fewer and far between.

Ben: You talked earlier about the affect your mother’s diagnosis had on you. What was it like having this legendary actress play your mother with your actual father over your shoulder and the emotion behind it?

Marvin: There wasn’t much time to show emotion on set. That’s what made it even harder. What you learn as a filmmaker that when there are scenes that require prop masters and safety people, that’s really the only chance to step back and take in the whole scene. It was a very choreographed scene. When a director is directing a scene like that, you let go and you say, “This is it.” I just took a step back and it was the only time I was really able to get emotional.

Ben: You’ve been trying to get word of mouth going. Tell me about this whirlwind tour you’re on.

Marvin: We are hosting showings on March 10th, 11th, and 12th at the Angelika in Plano called iMordecai on Tour, an unapologetic look at how a cigar maker became a filmmaker. And then the film continues on at the Angelika as long as they’ll have us. Come out, come see me, come meet me and ask me questions. I think this is a film that will move you. It’s not a popcorn movie. It hopefully will make you laugh, make you cry. Hopefully connect you with the deepest emotions of yourself.

Ben: There’s a line from Mordecai that stuck with me where he’s giving a toast and says, “It’s nice to be young…and it’s nice to be old.”

Marvin: He’s actually looking at my father in that scene. There are some Easter eggs in the credits where my father is talking to my Judd and he’s teaching him Yiddish. I’ve gotten some reviews accusing me of being too schmaltz or over-the-top. My real father is schmaltzy and over-the-top. If you want to see where this came from, watch the film and end credits. Unfortunately, Hollywood has watered down accents, but that’s just how my father sounds. I wanted to take a realistic portrait of my parents who grew up in Poland before the war and never lost their accents. It’s not going to water down the accent for middle America.

Ben: The great thing this movie does, it’s unapologetically cultural as a “it is what it is” without being put on a pedestal. It’s a matter-of-factly way of approaching it.

Marvin: The comedy and the pain comes through from real life experience. I tried to approach it matter-of-factly. Whether it’s the laughter from my dad, or whether you’re seeing how Carol Kane portrayed my mother. Carol and I made a conscious decision to portray my mother’s journey. It was so strange and difficult, because one minute she would be fine and the next minute she would forget where she is. And that’s how we portrayed. What I am thankful for is, by and large, the audience has connected with us. I’ve done dozens of live shows where I meet people at Q&As afterwards and they are deeply affected by the film.

Ben: Now this is your first film, but do you already have the next one in mind?

Marvin: Yes. I’ve already started writing the script with my producer Dalia Hayman. It’s a film in which fantastical realism (Field of Dreams, Big, or Splash) meets the mob. So, we’ll see.

Ben: Before we go, please give me a film recommendation.

Marvin: Check out a film called Everything is Illuminated. Started out as a book by Jonathan Safran Foer, and if he ever gets this, he can know my film was an inspiration to go on my journey just how he went out on his. The sole directorial credit of Liev Schreiber. He did a phenomenal job directing. It’s a funny and sad film and it stars Elijah Wood.

iMordecai will be showing at the Angelika Theater in Plano, Texas on Friday, March 10th through Sunday, March 12th. Tickets are available here
Marvin Samel will be in attendance for live Q&As.

Interview: “Girl Picture” Director Alli Haapasalo
Steven Spielberg Gets Lost in His Own Mythology with “The Fabelmans”

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