‘Hammer’ Time — Again: ‘Hebrew Hammer’ director hopes for sequel

Everyone’s favorite certified circumcised private dick is poised for a big return.

Nearly 10 years after “The Hebrew Hammer” hit theaters in 2003, there’s talk of a sequel featuring the titular Orthodox hero. Filmmaker Jonathan Kesselman, a native of Van Nuys, is eyeing a May shoot for “The Hebrew Hammer vs. Hitler.”

“I’m writing a love letter to Jewish culture,” he said.

To get started on the film, Kesselman is seeking $200,000 through the crowdfunding site Jewcer.com (a sort of Kickstarter for Jewish-themed projects that seeks small pledges from many donors). So far, he’s received more than $38,000 in pledges, which would go toward pre-production costs and making an offer to a “name” actor for the role of Hitler. He has until Jan. 28 to raise a minimum of $50,000.

“Since the recession, independent money is almost impossible to come by,” Kesselman said. “But there are so many fans behind [a sequel] already.”

What a difference a decade makes. Since the first film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, independent filmmakers have endured a recession and the amputation of the studios’ art house arms. “The Hebrew Hammer,” which starred Adam Goldberg, cost $1.3 million, and Kesselman believes a sequel can be made for $1.5 million.

In the original film, the hero’s mission was saving Chanukah from extinction by the diabolical hand of Damian Claus (Andy Dick), Santa’s evil progeny. That movie’s cast featured a who’s who of familiar faces: “Saturday Night Live” alums Nora Dunn and Rachel Dratch, Peter Coyote (né Cohon), former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, and “blaxploitation” genre creator Melvin Van Peebles and son Mario.

In the proposed follow-up, the stakes escalate as the Hammer, a.k.a. Mordechai Jefferson Carver, works to prevent a time-traveling Hitler from rewriting Jewish history. His pitch on Jewcer describes it as “History of the World: Part 1” crossed with “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

Based on a storyline he and Goldberg cooked up, Kesselman’s script promises a cavalcade of notable Jews — Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Albert Einstein, Anne Frank, Philip Roth and Steven Spielberg.

“There’s a scene in which Adam will be playing Jesus, as well,” said Kesselman, who envisions a Borscht Belt “Last Supper” scene featuring Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar and Larry David.

“The Hebrew Hammer” was Kesselman’s feature-film debut. In the last decade, he has gone on to direct myriad commercials (recently, for Red Mango frozen yogurt).

“I’m a better filmmaker than I was 10 years ago,” he said, thinking back to when the then-27-year-old first-time director covered 33 locations in 22 days. “I was so stressed!”

So was the original a box-office success?

“I have no idea,” admitted Kesselman, who never audited now-defunct producer ContentFilm in favor of retrieving the sequel rights. 

He said he would like to reunite some of the original’s cast members, including Judy Greer, whose first leading role was as Goldberg’s love interest in the movie and who recently dazzled critics in “The Descendants.”

Kesselman insists that “The Hebrew Hammer” “wasn’t a parody of blaxploitation. I was tired of the way Jews were being portrayed on screen.”

Since 2003, movies such as “Munich,” “Defiance” and “Inglourious Basterds” have brought empowered Jews to the big screen while cinema has embraced postmodern genre-mashing where cowboys combat aliens, and our 16th president hunts vampires. Additionally, the animated time-travel/Hitler yarn, “I Killed Adolf Hitler,” based on cartoonist Jason’s 2008 Eisner Award-winning graphic novel, is in development.

Kesselman is not discouraged by such trending.

“Charlie Chaplin used Hitler in ‘The Great Dictator,’ ” he said. “As long as they’re making movies, Hitler will always be the ultimate villain.”

At one-film-a-year pace, Woody Allen not slowing down

Funny, serious, and controversial, Woody Allen’s films evoke many emotions—but his Jewish upbringing sticks out in them like a matzo ball in chicken soup.

With Allen’s new movie, “To Rome With Love,” opening this summer and his “Bullets Over Broadway” set for a musical theater adaptation, this 76-year-old American filmmaker is not slowing down and remains at the top of his game.

According to Leonard Quart, professor emeritus of cinema at the City University of New York Grad Center and contributing editor of Cineaste, Allen’s comic style and vision differ significantly from other Jewish filmmakers like Mel Brooks.

[The Woody Allen Israel Project: Help #sendwoody to Israel for his next film]

“Allen, in his middle period, was the more controlled, stylistically rich, and gifted director,” Quart told JNS.org. “His works then seamlessly combined the comic and pathetic, with characters who had internal lives, and weren’t merely cartoons. Brooks is the more manic and anarchic, and he can provoke belly laughs that Allen rarely does. Both engage in social criticism, though Brooks’ use of pop culture makes his work broader and less subtle. For a time, these two Brooklyn products, who did stand-up comedy and wrote for Sid Caesar, were, albeit in different ways, the two best American directors of comedy.”

Born Allan Konigsberg in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn (the son of Nettie, a bookkeeper at her family’s delicatessen, and Martin Konigsberg, a jewelry engraver and waiter), Allen’s parents were born and raised on the lower east side of Manhattan and his grandparents were German immigrants who spoke Yiddish. He pays homage to New York City in many of his films, including the critically acclaimed “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

Bespeckled, diminutive, and neurotic, Allen makes many short lists of the most important comedy directors of all time. A writing, acting and directing triple threat, he has received 15 nominations for Academy Awards, winning three.

For years, Allen has managed to release one film annually, oscillating between brainy comedies and stark dramas, full of funny wordplay and incisive characterizations. According to Foster Hirsch, author of Love, Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life: The Films of Woody Allen, Allen carved out a unique place for himself in American movies, becoming our national auteur as well as the most prolific director in the country, and creating a singular world with each film released since his first in 1969.

Hirsch said he was drawn to Allen’s films when he saw “Annie Hall.” “Something about that film struck a nerve,” he told JNS.org. “In my work I usually avoid comedy but something about his New York Jewish humor I respond to. It’s very fresh.”

Allen’s Jewish background has a total impact on his work, Hirsch said.

“Everything he writes and acts and films has direct roots in a New York Jewish sensibility, which he presents to the world, and he then becomes an ambassador of that sensibility,” Hirsch said. “In literature Philip Roth would be a good equivalent. What does that mean? There are a litany of complaints, grievances, family trauma, the over-possessive mother and the distant father, the feelings of exclusion and inferiority. All of the angst associated with being Jewish is transformed in Woody Allen and lit by his radiant humor.”

Allen is typically inspired by European filmmakers.  When “To Rome With Love” opened in June, he told Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times how profoundly Italian filmmakers influenced him.

“They invented a method of telling a story, and suddenly for us lesser mortals it becomes all right to tell a story that way,” Allen told Itzkoff. “We do our versions of them, never as shockingly innovative or brilliant as when the masters did them.”

Always serious about his art but never self-involved, Allen’s best work, like the masters he idolizes, touches deep human issues. Although rooted in a Jewish sensibility, his subjects are universal. For example, in Hirsch‘s favorite film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the universal issue of self-forgiveness resonates.

“It’s about a person forgiving himself for committing a horrendous crime,” Hirsch told JNS.org. “This is the one film of his that has continuing resonance for me. I cannot get the Martin Landau character out of my mind.”

Additionally, Allen’s “schlemiel” character—the outsider, apparent loser, underdog, and person not part of the dominant culture—is indeed imprinted on our collective consciousness.

“With his figure of the schlemiel, Woody Allen has made a permanent contribution to the history of American film,” Hirsch said. “His artistry is inseparable from his Jewishness.”