Albert Dabah Tackles Delicate Family Material in ‘Extra Innings’

He said it was his way of honoring their lives.
September 24, 2020

Writer-director Albert Dabah knows he’s treading in delicate territory in “Extra Innings,” an autobiographical debut film that dramatizes two family suicides, those of his brother, Morris (Robert Ramos), who overdosed on pills, and then five years later, his sister Vivian (Mara Kassin), who jumped off a cliff.

Violating family privacy heads the list of challenges Dabah faced, but he felt compelled to tell his story nonetheless. The movie was not simply a therapeutic outlet for his own lingering anguish; it also was his way of recognizing and honoring their lives, which seemingly were erased almost from the moment they died.

“No one ever talked about them,” Dabah said during a phone conversation from his New York City home. “It was as if they never existed. I think perhaps I’m the only one who ever really knew them, anyway. I had a close relationship with both.”

Set in the early 1960s in an insular Jewish Syrian community in Brooklyn, the award-winning “Extra Innings” is at its core a coming-of-age tale, awash in intergenerational culture clash. Young David (Aiden Pierce Brennan), who attends a religious day school, loves baseball and has his sights set on a baseball career. But his father (played by Dabah) has little tolerance for David’s dreams. His immediate concern is David’s upcoming bar mitzvah, and he views baseball as an intrusion. Beyond that, he expects David to join the family business (though it’s never entirely clear what that is) and marry a Jewish woman. He is not at all pleased with David’s non-Jewish friends (and later, a non-Jewish girlfriend). His mandate is simple: “You stick to your own kind.”

The family also includes David’s beleaguered but empathic mom (Geraldine Singer); a goody two-shoes older sister, Rita (Natasha Coppola-Shalom); Vivian, who is living in Los Angeles, a divorced, sexually liberated free spirit always longing for that elusive love; and, most centrally, Morris, a lethargic round man who speaks in a drone when he speaks at all. A diagnosed schizophrenic and arguably an idiot savant, he is brilliant in mathematics, classical music, literature and baseball. His topics range from Dostoevsky to Ty Cobb.

“Extra Innings” endured 12 revisions over 20 years. Dabah recalled that in an earlier draft, his Jewish Syrian community was almost a character, clearly defined and vividly etched. What now emerges on screen is a Jewish world but one that is not singularly Syrian.

“I wanted the story to be more universal, but I was also sensitive to Syrian Jews being an intensely private community,” Dabah said. “My very religious [surviving] sister who still lives in that world begged me not to make the picture. She has seven children and 61 grandchildren and was fearful that if the suicides in our family came to light, her grandchildren would not be viewed as marriageable. Suicide is still that much of a stigma and therefore not talked about.”

One major reason for making the film was to open up the conversation and help lift the stigma. Dabah was careful not to lay blame at anyone’s feet. The family is dysfunctional, but there are no villains. Even the father, who seemingly is the most disconnected, is doing the best he can.

“Playing my father did not really change my view of him, but rather confirmed what I already knew,” Dabah said. “Yet, when I said the lines to David [the older David is played by Alex Walton], as my father said to me, that he would disown me if I married my Christian girlfriend, I broke down all over again. I was sad for me but also sad for him. He was unable to know me.”

Dabah’s father could not reconcile himself to his son’s love of baseball, early career as a psychotherapist and later his stint as an actor. His son’s disaffection with religion was further alienation, though Dabah said he very much identifies as a Jew.

At 69, Dabah is mature for a first time filmmaker, but he insisted he encountered no ageism. For the past 40-plus years, he has headed Simba, his video production company that creates commercials plus educational and promotional materials, among other services. During the course of his career, he has worked with many major names (Meryl Streep, Martin Scorsese) in front of and behind the scenes. His experience with casting directors, for example, showed him what to look for in auditioning actors, not least the ability to do a scene in more than one way. That was the stumbling block among the actors he auditioned to play his dad. Even if they resembled him, they didn’t have the acting chops.

“Jon Lovitz suggested I do it,” Dabah said. “And once I decided I would, I brought on a co-director [Brian Drillinger]. I didn’t feel I could direct myself.”

Dabah never envisioned himself as a writer and director, let alone a co-producer of his own feature film. But like many new screenwriters, he futilely shopped his script around. Responses (from those who bothered to respond at all) were all over the map. “Typically, they wanted me to tell a whole different story — their story,” Dabah said. “One well-known distributor was turned off by the two suicides. He found it implausible, even though it had actually happened.” In the end, Dabah felt that to tell his story the way he wanted, he would have to make the film himself.

Asked to what degree he reshaped the truth in order to make it believable, Dabah said he changed nothing that was fundamentally significant, though he employed dramatic license in recounting some of the more peripheral details. In an effort to hit a contemporary note, his late sister’s lover was portrayed as a woman when in fact it was a Black man. Dabah felt the lesbian relationship would have greater resonance today than an interracial love story.

Dabah would love to write and/or direct another film, though at the moment none is in the hopper. Recently, he took a life-coaching course, toying with the idea of wearing his therapeutic hat again. His attentions now are focused on “Extra Innings” and he hopes that after viewing the film, people are more comfortable talking about mental illness in general and suicide in particular. It’s not that the pain will go away, he stressed.

“There’s no such thing as closure,” he said, debunking the widely held myth. “But I no longer feel guilty for having survived and having had a good life.”

“Extra Innings” is available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Fandango, Xbox and InDemand. 

Simi Horwitz is an award-winning feature writer and film reviewer.

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