The unlikely friendship between Samuel, an elderly, lonely Holocaust survivor and Casey, an angry 14-year-old runaway sex worker with a bad attitude and a swastika on her leather jacket, is the premise of “Tiger Within,” a redemptive story about the power of forgiveness and unconditional love to transform lives and overcome ignorance, fear and hate.
Ed Asner and newcomer Margot Josefsohn star in the absorbing drama, which was directed by Rafal Zielinski (“Fun,” “Ginger Ale Afternoon”) and written by Gina Wendkos (“The Princess Diaries,” and “Coyote Ugly”).
“We tried to make this movie for many years but it kept falling apart,” Zielinski told the Journal. He first read Wendkos’ script some 30 years ago and was touched by the story’s themes of love and compassion. Observing an elderly Jewish man visiting a grave at a cemetery was the catalyst for the idea. “There’s so much anger and darkness in this world that we need more messages like this. It touched me deeply,” he said.
“Anti-Semitism is so strong these days and getting worse,” Zielinski continued. “It’s so sad and tragic. The youth of today is so clueless about the Holocaust and there’s so much Holocaust denial. The racial divide exists all over the world. I feel that the film resonates on a bigger scale. The story could take place anywhere, and I feel that it will touch people from all around the world.”
Over the years, the film was variously supposed to star Jerry Lewis, Kirk Douglas, and Martin Landau. Ultimately, through a neighbor who was making a movie with Asner, Zielinski got the actor’s number and brought him the script. “The next day he called to say he loved it and would play the role,” the director noted.
Shot in the summer of 2018, the film takes place on the streets of Hollywood and around the city and was in post-production for the last two years. Zielinski faced many challenges in getting it made. Asner, now 91, “Has a very sharp mind, but he could barely walk,” Zielinski said. By the end of a day shooting on the streets, “He was very tired and could not remember one line. We shot one line at a time and cobbled it together.”
Casting Casey posed different problems. Zielinski insisted on choosing a girl of the right age, but faced resistance because Josefsohn was so inexperienced. “She had never done anything before,” he said. While accompanying his son to an audition, he spotted Josefsohn and her mother in the waiting room and captivated by her “piercing eyes,” he introduced himself and gave them the script, “not even knowing if she could act. But she came in to audition and became the character.”
When he brought her to Ed’s house to have them read scenes together while videotaping them, he knew he’d made the right choice, even though using her meant extending the shoot and increasing the budget. “You can only shoot for five hours with kids that age, but I believe in authenticity. I wanted to use the real thing, and I fought hard for her,” Zielinski said. Per child labor laws, Josefsohn was body-doubled and not on the set when any sexual activity was implied
Zielinski’s initial budget was a meager $100,000, which became $250,000 by the time the film was finished, but he’s accustomed to working on a shoestring. “I come from a documentary background, I studied with Richard Leacock who used low budget techniques and worked with a tiny crew, and in my youth, I made a bunch of movies for Roger Corman. I learned how to make something beautiful and magical from nothing,” he said.
“Sometimes it was difficult to get permits for the crew and we had to shoot with a tiny pocket camera. We’d shoot a scene that normally took two hours in 15 minutes. When you shoot hand-held, you’re much more mobile.”
Zielinski has wanted to make films since his father gave him a camera when he was seven. Of Polish descent and born in Canada, he spent his youth traveling around the world while his father worked for the Ford Foundation. Always the new kid at school, he hid his awkwardness behind the camera but later realized he wanted a more collaborative experience and pivoted into filmmaking, graduating from MIT with a degree in Art and Design with a concentration in documentary film. “It’s one big family when you make movies,” he said.
For the future, Zielinski has “a whole suitcase of dream projects I would love to make but I’m worried because I’m getting older. They’re grand scale projects and I hope I get a chance to make them,” he said. Topping the list are a futuristic film about the war between men and women and another based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead and reincarnation. He’s a Buddhist, but his mother has Jewish roots and he identifies as a Member of the Tribe as well.
He hopes to show “Tiger Within” in schools and to youth groups “to teach kids about the Holocaust so something like it will never happen again, which was Wenkos’ intention when she wrote it, he said.
He also hopes a bigger distributor will pick the film up after the virtual release on Dec. 18, and help with award season campaigns to “spread the message as much as possible. I hope the film has an illuminating effect. Forgiveness has a tremendous healing power on people. I don’t want to suggest that we forgive the Holocaust, but forgiveness and love will change the world.”
“Tiger Within” begins streaming at Laemmle Virtual Cinema on Dec. 18. Visit Laemmle.com for tickets.