May 22, 2019

Judaism Meets Science in Unorthodox Comedy ‘To Dust’

Matthew Broderick (left) and Géza Röhrig in “To Dust.”

Jewish mourning rituals and the science of decomposition are unlikely topics for a comedy, but writer-director Shawn Snyder deftly mines them for dark humor and heart in his first directorial effort, “To Dust.” 

In the movie, a Chasidic cantor, distraught over his wife’s death and convinced that her soul won’t rest until her body turns to dust, conscripts a biology professor to find answers about the science of human decay. The improbable duo embarks on a scientific quest that involves grave-digging, a pig and breaking into a forensics “body farm.” Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig (“Son of Saul” — see our Q&A with him on Page 62) plays the cantor opposite stage and screen star Matthew Broderick as his reluctant accomplice.

“Are the questions of religion and science diametrically opposite or two sides of the same coin? To me, they’re more similar than we think,” Snyder said in an interview with the Journal. He said he got the idea for the film when he lost his mother to cancer 10 years ago. 

“I have always found the Jewish understanding for grief and the guideposts for grieving to be beautiful, poignant, meaningful and incredibly wise,” he said. “Mourning my mom in a Jewish way was very important to me. I’ve never found comfort at my mom’s grave — it’s not where I feel her presence. But after she died, I did think about what was happening with her body. I never went crazy with those thoughts, but I did think that a conversation between science and religion and emotion was ripe for exploration.”

Raised in a Reform Jewish family in Miami and Cooper City, Fla., Snyder didn’t know much about Chasidic life, so he did research that included talking to members of the community willing to speak to him. Some became advisers on the script and on the set, and Röhrig, who studied at a Chasidic yeshiva and is now Modern Orthodox, provided helpful input, Snyder said. 

“To Dust” contains a fair amount of profanity and some elements that religious Jews may find objectionable, which Snyder acknowledges. “The script dabbles in blasphemy but it was never intended to disrespect,” he said. “It’s intended to deal with the community authentically and also in the spirit of folklore and the Jewish tradition of storytelling. This is a man who wants to reconcile these thoughts he’s having with the beliefs of his community, and it’s an eternal battle to do that. I hope it’s an allegorical and respectful telling of the journey.”

“Are the questions of religion and science diametrically opposite or two sides of the same coin? To me, they’re more similar than we think.” 

— Shawn Snyder

The film’s journey to the screen was a serendipitous one that involved a $100,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds science in the arts, and the participation of actors Emily Mortimer, Alessandro Nivola and Ron Perlman, who championed it and signed on as producers. 

“The film called for an odd couple, and they’re certainly an odd couple, in real life as in the movie,” Snyder said of casting Röhrig and Broderick. “It was always a high-wire act to find the tone and a leap of faith that everything was going to land, but it did beautifully. While Géza appears to be the straight man and Matthew is on the surface the comic relief, what I love about their performances is the ways that Géza makes me laugh and Matthew breaks my heart.”

“To Dust” was shot in the summer of 2017 in upstate New York in a Chasidic community and a Jewish cemetery. It was a challenging endeavor but a dream come true for Snyder, who has wanted to make movies since he was 5 years old. 

After studying religion at Harvard, he became a musician before completing his graduate studies in film at New York University in his early 30s. “I always knew I would move in this direction but it took a long, circuitous route to get there,” he said. 

With his writing partner, Jason Begue, Snyder is working on a screenplay that “continues my interest in existential dread and existential questions and combines comedy and tragedy. It’s about a retired secular Jewish man in the suburbs,” he said. “A lot of the films I’m interested in writing are tethered to religion and our individual and collective search for meaning.”

Snyder and his non-Jewish wife are raising their 4-year-old daughter Jewish. They belong to “a lovely congregation in Brooklyn” that reminds him of the one in Miami where he attended day school and he became a bar mitzvah. He missed having that connection to the Jewish community. “My Jewish journey continues,” he said. “I have an undeniable Jewish ethos. It’s a lifelong, evolving thing.”

“To Dust” won the audience and new director awards at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018. 

“One of my obsessions has always been how we grapple with our cultures of origin, how we search for personal meaning and how we put those two things together in conversation, to integrate them into the belief systems that we grow up with,” Snyder said. “I hope the film asks more questions than it answers. It’s talmudic in that regard. I hope audiences are challenged and moved, and want to continue the conversation.”

“To Dust” opens Feb. 15 at the Laemmle Royal and Town Center 5.