It’s fair to say that ‘Hasidic Jews’ and ‘drug smugglers’ are two ideas that you generally don’t see together in, well, anything. However, new director Kevin Asch has crafted an award-winning film based around this unusual premise with his independent drama Holy Rollers. Based on true events in 1990’s New York, the film sees a young rabbi-in-training becoming drawn into the seedy world of Ecstasy smuggling. Starring Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland, The Social Network) and Justin Bartha (The Hangover), it’s certainly not one to miss. We spoke to Asch to find out more.
Holy Rollers has a pretty unconventional plotline. What was it that attracted you to the project?
Our producer, Danny Abeckaser [who also plays Israeli drug dealer Jackie] brought us the story. As he was telling it I saw the image of a young Jew in a nightclub, and the juxtaposition of those two worlds, the Hasidim world and the world of Ecstasy smuggling, within that one image. It was so unique and specific – something that I haven’t seen on film before. The fact that it all really happened grounded it, and made it feel real.
Like Sam, the main character, you were a Jewish youth growing up in New York at the time of these events. Did the story strike a personal note with you?
It spoke directly to me. I grew up in a predominantly Jewish community - not sheltered, but I certainly saw myself in Sam. I related to his purity and morality in a world that judges him for it - that was the kind of perspective that I wanted to journey through, through these innocent eyes. I spent a lot of time in nightclubs taking Ecstasy in the ‘90s, and have a lot of the footage on video; I showed my actors so that they’d get a sense of what it looked like. The first time I [took E] I ran across the Brooklyn Bridge with my friends, which is a scene right out of the movie.
I think that personal angle really comes across– especially with your technique of shooting hand-held.
My cinematographer Ben Kutchins has an amazing ability to get inside the emotion of a scene with hand-held. I wanted to create a gritty, realistic ‘French Connection’ perspective through a hand-held ‘Cinema Vérité’ style: French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism and films like The Bicycle Thievesand The 400 Blows inspired me.
Holy Rollers received extremely positive critical acclaim for a debut film – not least two awards, as well as a Grand Jury Prize nomination at Sundance. Did you expect the film to have the reception that it did?
Yeah! I probably sound like a jerk, but I dreamt of this. I’m making movies to get across to as broad an audience as possible, and to get the honours that come with it – but for it to actually happen is a surprise. Hearing your name when you win [an award] in a world of people that you’ve looked up to all your life - that’s just magical.
It’s also a pretty impressive coup to nab such a prolific rising star like Jesse Eisenberg to fill the lead role. How did he become involved in the project?
Jesse got attached back in 2007, a few years before we shot the movie. He loved the script, and came in to cast for us. I couldn’t believe it, because I already had him on a shortlist of three prospective actors for the lead role. You need a lot of luck making these kinds of movies, and that was by far the luckiest thing. When we wrapped Holy Rollers he went to go shoot Zombieland, and two months later went to go make The Social Network, so we enjoyed being connected to him and his success.
How was Holy Rollers received in Jewish communities?
Really positively. It’s a reverent film, and one that could be equated with a fable from the Old Testament. Yes, it’s a controversial story, yes, it’s maybe something that at the outset might make Jews look bad – but on the inside it’s a very beautiful story about somebody leaving The Garden, and finding their way back on their own terms. I think that’s what most people take away from it when they share the journey of the film.