Filmmaker writes from experience for post-Holocaust drama ‘Mighty Fine’

Filmmaker Debbie Goodstein has taken to heart the adage, “Write what you know.” Her 1989 Holocaust documentary, “Voices From the Attic,” recounts her mother’s years of hiding in a garret where snow descended through slats in the roof, a baby died and food was scarce.

The film also chronicles Goodstein’s own journey as a member of the “Second Generation” — a daughter who inherited her mother’s fear of cramped spaces as well as the drive to re-enact her family’s experience by hoarding food.

Now Goodstein has written and directed a semi-autobiographical drama, “Mighty Fine,” opening May 25, which explores the second half of her childhood equation: how her father’s unpredictable rage terrorized the family as his garment business foundered — it was not until he sought psychotherapy that healing could take place.

In an interview from her New York home, Goodstein, 49, said she embarked upon the film only after seeking her father’s permission. “I had been intrigued by the film ‘The Great Santini’ because the father was such a great, complex character, and the effect he had on his children was so complicated, horrific, but also wonderful on another level,” she said.  “My father was, on the one hand, a very strong and courageous person — even the fact that he’s supporting the film — but on another level he was very scared and vulnerable. He had been abandoned for a time by his parents during the Depression and grew up dirt-poor with strangers,” she added. “I think his rage came from a deep fear that he would not be able to care for his family in the way he wanted to, and not be the man he hoped to be.”

“Mighty Fine” follows Joe Fine (Chazz Palminteri) as he moves his wife   (Andie MacDowell) — a Holocaust survivor — and his two daughters from Brooklyn to New Orleans in the 1970s. Even as he showers his family with lavish gifts, he is domineering and manipulative, responding to perceived challenges to his authority with bouts of explosive temper. His edginess escalates as his business declines and he seeks loan money from the Mafia; while his oldest daughter, Maddie (Rainey Qualley), rebels against Joe’s iron fist, his younger daughter, Natalie (Jodelle Ferland), internalizes his anger to the point that she becomes painfully introverted and fearful. Joe’s wife, Stella,  meanwhile, is paralyzed between supporting her husband — the man who gave her a new life after the Shoah — and protecting her children.  “It was almost as though if she said anything against him, she’d wake up back in her hiding place in Europe,” as Natalie says.

In real life, the shadow of the Holocaust amplified the tensions within Goodstein’s childhood home: As in the film, her mother viewed her father as her protector, and Debbie, also protective of her mother because of her wartime experiences, was loath to speak up lest she cause additional pain. “My mother had been so used to living with danger that the sense that anything could happen at any time was ‘normal’ to her,” the filmmaker said.

Goodstein’s father never dealt with Mafiosi — that part of the film is fiction — but Goodstein did develop such an intense fear of authority figures that, as a student at Columbia University film school, she shrunk away from the visiting film luminaries. 

She was inspired to make “Voices From the Attic”  when her aunt brought her to Poland, where a farmer hid 16 members of her family in the low-slung attic of a cottage, without plumbing or electricity.

“It was a much more sympathetic tale to tell than my father’s story,” Goodstein said.

Because “Mighty Fine” was so close to her own life story, she could tackle it only after she was married with two children and had numerous television movies under her belt. Four years ago, memories flowed onto the page, and, Goldstein said, her first draft “came out like a cork” over the course of a two-week period.

MacDowell quickly signed on to play Stella and Palminteri to play Joe; MacDowell — whose real-life daughter, Rainey Qualley, plays Maddie in the film — said she has been fascinated and horrified by the Holocaust since perusing a book on the subject on the sly in her family’s living room when she was 4.  “I remember the images so clearly of the victims: the piles of people, the emaciated bodies, the bones,” she said during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel recently. 

“My own mother was bipolar and an alcoholic, and my role in the family was to keep the peace — I could draw on that for my character,” MacDowell added.

Palminteri, who told his own story of coming of age amid Mafiosi in his play and film “A Bronx Tale,” has played his share of tough guys. “I’m good at going from zero to 60 in two seconds,” he said of the scenes in which Joe’s temper erupts. “I’d ask for a five-minute warning before each scene, and that’s when I’d start working on it —I would just sit there and brood. Even in scenes where I was not outwardly angry, the rage was always there, underneath.”

“Mighty Fine” has already received attention for tackling the issue of emotional abuse and bullying within the home: Last week, Goodstein was scheduled to be interviewed by a psychiatrist on MSNBC, and reviewers praised the film during an interactive session with 100 “mom bloggers” this month.

“My hope is that my family’s experience can shine light on a subject that’s not often enough discussed,” Goodstein said.

“Mighty Fine” opens on May 25.