Anyone who thinks you need big name stars like Tom Hanks or Reese Witherspoon to get people to believe in the romantic chemistry between two movie characters hasn’t seen Rachel Israel’s debut Keep the Change.
Keep the Change isn’t your typical rom-com, as the film’s two leads, Brandon Polansky and Samantha Elisofon, were first-time actors on the autism spectrum that Israel recruited from the Jewish Community Center.
Brandon plays David, an aspiring filmmaker who thinks he’s above the rest of the community, but when he’s paired with the bubbly Sarah (Elisofon), the two of them begin an offbeat romance that doesn’t meet the approval of David’s mother (Jessica Walter from Arrested Development).
After making a short film with Brandon and Samantha, Israel made a feature, which premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it received a number of prizes including a jury prize and the Nora Ephron award for Israel.
After seeing the movie last year, I was really intrigued by how Israel was able to get such strong performances out of a cast mainly made up of non-actors, but also with most of them being somewhere on the autism spectrum.
The following interview was done over the phone with Ms. Israel last week.
I saw the movie at Tribeca last year, and I really wanted to talk with you about it, because as I was really impressed, and as I watched it, I was trying to figure it out. More recently, I watched the short you made, which I guess you made in film school?
I did. That was my thesis.
What got you started on that? Had you met Brandon and Samantha and wrote with them in mind?
Yeah, I’ve known Brandon forever. I’ve now known him going on 16 years, so he’s kind of like a brother to me. I got inspired to make the film seven or eight years ago when he met his first serious relationship at this community. As long as I’ve known Brandon, he’s been looking for a girlfriend, and he met this person, and it brought up a lot of drama in his life, and also really opened him up in beautiful ways. That was the initial inspiration. I wrote a feature script while I was at Columbia and then had the opportunity to make the short film as my thesis. I always knew I wanted to work with Brandon, and in casting, when I cast Samantha Elisofon, who is also from that community, but she’s not his girlfriend. They didn’t know each prior to working on this project. It really took off from being about Brandon’s personal story and became instead about how these two characters fall in love. That’s what happened to make the short film, and then we just pursued that a little more for the feature and got a nice generous two years to develop that script with Brandon, Samantha, and then with the other cast from the same community. We worked together to develop the characters that are versions of themselves that they play in the film.
I thought a few scenes from the shorts were used as part of the feature, so did you just expand from what the short you made?
We made the short, and I don’t see it as expanding the short, as much as kind of digging into what that dynamic is and trying to do something that was going deeper with those characters. The world gets expanded because characters that appear just momentarily in the short film have their own storylines in the feature. After making the short, I hadn’t known Samantha nearly as long as I knew Brandon, so I spent a lot of time in those two years getting to know her and really developing her character more in-depth. Also working with Nicky Gottlieb and Will Deaver, who play the supporting characters and fleshing out their characters and figuring out how they would fit into the story. Really the casting happened first, and then the story came out of the casting.
But were there some scenes from the short that ended up in the feature, so you used some of the stuff you shot for the short in the feature?
We have one or two shots that we used that was in the short film. When he’s telling his joke, the bad offensive joke, we used one of the jokes that we had in the short in the feature, just because there was something about that performance in the short that we never were able to get again, though we tried, so we thought, “Let’s grab it from the short footage,” but that’s the only place where we reused any footage. Otherwise, it’s all shot fresh for the feature. There are probably a couple of scenes that we expanded upon. In the short, there’s a cousin that he refers to, so I think that’s similar to what we have in the feature, and then the ending bus scene.
Did Brandon write his own jokes? How did you work with him on developing David as a character?
Yeah, in terms of the jokes, that’s an element of Brandon’s character. He’s got this repertoire of terrible, terrible jokes. It’s something that I wanted to keep in there for that character for a couple of reasons. It’s a really interesting coping mechanism to the character that he has these jokes that get him an awkward laugh, but at least he got a laugh. He got some semblance that people were clued in or connecting with him. I also really just wanted to not make these characters saints in any way, so that was an interesting flaw in who he is that I wanted to keep in there.
I remember when I saw the movie last year, at first I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to laugh or not. The movie is very warm and funny, but you don’t want to be laughing at them, you want to laugh with them, if possible. Have you found it’s been tough for audiences to make that distinction, or do they catch on and realize that it isn’t a documentary?
I think that there Is sometimes a little puzzled, but then people quickly get into it, especially if they’re seeing it with an audience, then they feel like they can laugh, and that goes away. I feel like it’s almost inevitable there will be that, because you’re not used to seeing characters [on the spectrum]cast authentically in a piece of fiction, so there’s some getting used to that aspect of this material, but from everything I’ve experienced, that goes away.
When I saw the movie at Tribeca, I had just seen the documentary Dina a week or two before, so it was interesting to see what you did in a similar vein but within the world of fiction, but also working with first or second-time actors. One of the veterans in the film is Jessica Walter, so how did you get her involved? Was it easier to get some of the more experienced actors through the short film?
Yeah, we had a casting agent that reached out to her. She saw the short and read the script, and she liked the script and short a lot, and we got lucky. She was terrific to work with, both she and Tibor Feldman who plays David’s Dad were really terrific and extremely generous with the cast, and pretty quickly got what we were going for in the performance style and staying in character between takes. They did a lot to keep those scenes feeling real.
After making the short with Brandon and Samantha, how did you work with them in making the feature which obviously takes more time and more locations? I guess Samantha does stagework as well?
She is very headstrong about pursuing an acting career. She is also involved in a neuro-diverse theater group called the Epic Players, and she goes out on auditions. She really wants to pursue acting, yeah, and Brandon does as well.
Does Brandon actually make his own films? Was that taken from his own personality?
He does. Yeah, he does. The films that he makes, he will edit together home video footage along with clips from Hollywood movies, and he’ll make these really dark, funny almost autobiographical and experimental films, so we tried to replicate that in what we had David make in the film, which were so terrific. We were limited to public domain footage.
When you set out to make this film, what were your hopes for audiences to get out of it?
I really hope that people would take away the characters from the film and feel a very human connection with the characters. I fell in love with the cast in making the film, and that kind of was the burning thing to me to get it made, because they were such amazing characters that I thought would translate really well to a film, because they’re also so driven. That was not something I think you always see when you see depictions of people on the spectrum. They’re often not driving their own stories in pursuit of love or ambition. Unfortunately, they’re often not portrayed that way, but I thought this was an opportunity to give people something different.
Had you see Life, Animated or Dina while you were in the process of making this or afterwards?
I didn’t watch them while I was working on this if anything did come out. Straight doc like Life, Animated, I didn’t want to watch them while I was working on this, because it would probably be too close to home or something, so I haven’t seen Life, Animated yet.
It deals with some of the same things like sexual and intimacy, so was it hard dealing with that in your movie?
That was also really important that we showed that side of these characters ‘cause it’s a big part of who they are, their takes on sexuality. Samantha herself is very proud of her sexuality, very proud of her femininity, and that’s something I loved in her and really wanted to transfer to her character in the film. Also with Nicky [Gottlieb’s] character Sammy, he’s really out there with his desires, and it includes many portrayals of people on the spectrum you don’t often see.
I’m glad you brought him up, because I wanted to ask about him since he wasn’t in the short.
He appears momentarily in the short. He’s in the background. You can see him momentarily there, but he’s got a large personality. He’s a very affectionate person, very socially outgoing, and I didn’t know, both with him and Will Deaver, who plays the competing boyfriend in the film, I didn’t know how they would necessarily work into the story once I cast them, but I knew they had to be in it. I just knew they belonged in it, and then in the two years having made the short and the feature, we would meet and talk together about who their characters would be, what aspects of themselves did we want in there to shape these characters. Actually Nicky, who plays Sammy, is the only one of the primary cast who didn’t read the script before filming. He knew the outline of the story, but he got so taken with this idea of him directing a play within the film that he just went on that. That and the idea that he would have a crush on David’s cousin, who is a fictional person. We talked about who that would be and the crush that he was going to have, and he got so taken with those two things that I didn’t feel like it would help him to read the script, and he just went and did it. He wrote 100-page script for the play he directs.
I was curious whether there was room to do improve or if it was fully scripted, and how much you wanted the cast to stay on script or be themselves. Did you figure out a lot of that while you were filming?
Yeah, there were like 97 drafts of the script by the time we started filming, and that’s only since I started numbering. I wrote many, many drafts so I felt secure in the material. Except for Nicky, the entire cast read the script. Brandon read it multiple times, but with Samantha we just had her read it once. Brandon and Samantha both knew the content of the scenes very well. In shooting, Brandon might refer to the script more than others, but I really wanted to encourage them to put it in their own words, the scenes. We could fall back on the structure of the scene, but we got a lot of great material by the actors playing on top of it.
Did everyone in the movie go to the premiere last year, and has everyone in the movie already seen the movie, and have they taken part in QnAs?
Oh, yeah. We opened at Tribeca and all the are local, so that was a great opportunity for everyone to come out and we did some enormous QnAs, and then Brandon and Samantha have travelled as well. They both came to L.A., San Francisco and we went to the Czech Republic for the Karlovy Vary festival, which was a really gorgeous experience, and then we’ve done a bunch of travelling to local Jewish film festivals.
So they’re getting used that part of acting—being asked lots of questions about their performances, that’s a big part of being an actor.
Yeah, it is. By bringing them to a screening, I think it’s very helpful for audiences to hear the cast talk about how they worked as actors, so [the audience]understand it wasn’t a documentary and they understand the involvement of the cast.
Keep the Change opens in New York at the Quad Cinema on Friday, March 16, and then in L.A. at the Lammle Town Center and Laemmle Royal Theater on April 20. You can watch the trailer, as well as Israel’s original short below.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor