April 23, 2019

Filmmaker struck by idea while sitting shivah

As a teenager, Asaph Polonsky had a close friend whose girlfriend died after a lengthy fight with cancer. Even though she had been sick for years, it still came as a surprise.

Now a 33-year-old American-born Israeli filmmaker, Polonsky cracked a wry smile between sips of coffee at a hip Eastside café while recalling a moment that cut through the tension of the ensuing shivah and provided the inspiration for his first film. 

“We’re sitting, and there’s really nothing to say,” he remembers. “Then one guy goes, ‘Do you have some of her medicinal weed?’ That moment, which was so awkward but real, is what really started this idea.”

That moment, after more than a decade of percolating in Polonsky’s mind, led to his debut feature, “One Week and a Day,” which screened at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival, winning strong reviews and a prestigious Critics’ Week prize.

“It was as mind-blowing of an experience as you’d expect,” he said of his time soaking in the scene in southern France, where cinema gems are discovered and careers are launched. 

The acclaimed dramedy follows Eyal and Vicky, a middle-aged couple mourning the loss of their 25-year-old son. The film opens on the last day of sitting shivah. Vicky seeks a restoring of order and routine to cope, while Eyal beelines in the opposite direction, eventually toward a hospital cabinet that contains his dead son’s medical marijuana.

For Polonsky, the film’s two lead characters are composites of what he has witnessed in people — including himself — during times of grief, and neither reflects “the right way to deal.” If anything, he said, that’s what the film is really about — the various ways people grieve, none of them wrong. 

“When you study Eyal and Vicky from afar, it looks like they’re approaching it differently, but when you really examine it, they’re both just running away from it. The core is the same, and I relate to both of them,” he said. “This curveball has been tossed to them and now they’re forced to deal with it. They didn’t choose it. They deal with it in ways that are unexpected for them. A lot of things they do in the film, they probably never thought they’d do in this situation, but they don’t stop to reflect on them. They just keep moving forward.”

Polonsky, who now lives in Hollywood, was born in the Washington, D.C., area and moved to Israel when he was 6. He grew up in Ramat HaSharon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and started making short films and music videos at age 15 after being accepted into a high school with a film program, which he compared to an undergraduate film school. It was during this time that he met longtime collaborator Moshe Mishali, who became his cinematographer on “One Week and a Day.” 

“It was awesome because you had such a small program, like 20 kids or something, and two days out of the week, all we did was film,” he said.

After serving in the Israeli military with a unit responsible for producing media, Polonsky continued to collaborate with Mishali and other artists, making short films in Hebrew. In 2010, with a first draft of “One Week and a Day” completed, he moved back to the U.S. to attend Hollywood’s American Film Institute (AFI), graduating in 2012. Initially, heading to film school in the heart of Hollywood presented its challenges.

“There was definitely a transition involved with going back and attending AFI,” he said. “I lived in the States when I was little, so there was some culture shock, but then again, in Israel, we get a lot of the American culture.”

During his time at AFI, Polonsky went back and forth between Los Angeles and Jerusalem after his “One Week and a Day” script was accepted to the Jerusalem Film Lab, a program that partners promising Israeli filmmakers with mentors of the Israeli film industry to develop material. While writing and rewriting his script at a top-ranked American film school, he resisted making the film in the United States, keeping it an Israel-based story.

“I was writing the movie while I was there at AFI,” he said. “I was thinking I could translate the script and I could make it a Jewish family in America. But I think the characters are Israeli. That, for me, is why I wanted to keep it there.”

Five years after finishing the first draft and arriving at AFI, Polonsky was on set in 2015 for the start of a 23-day shoot in his hometown of Ramat HaSharon with his hometown cinematographer.

“Then, one year later, we were at Cannes,” Polonsky said, still in disbelief. “It’s just crazy. It all happened so fast.”

The heartbeat of the film, Polonsky said, is the strong cast that breathes life and lightness to a heavy situation. The film unites two well-known figures in Israeli popular culture, Evgenia Dodina, a renowned Israeli stage actress, as Vicky; and Shai Avivi, a television actor and stand-up comedian sometimes referred to as the “Larry David of Israel,” as Eyal in his first lead role in a film.

Polonsky described a joint audition as playing out almost serendipitously.

“The industry in Israel is so small, and they’ve both been working in it for 25 years or more. But when they met for the chemistry read, that was the first time they met.,” he said. “They knew, of course, of each other, but they’d never met. But the moment they sat together on the couch was like watching a married couple.” 

Tomer Kapon, who might be the most recognizable face in the film to American audiences after a turn on the Israeli Netflix drama “Fauda,” steals scenes as a shaggy, stoner neighbor named Zooler who tokes with Eyal.

“He told me not to watch ‘Fauda’ so I wouldn’t get the wrong idea about him,” Polonsky said. Kapon, who plays a chiseled Israeli intelligence officer on “Fauda,” began what Polonsky described as the “beer-and-pizza diet” to look like a pudgy slacker for his film. Not to worry, Polonsky said to admirers of the “Fauda” Kapon.

“He quickly got back into tip-top, muscular shape after we shot the film,” he said.

Polonsky currently is writing projects for the Israel and American markets, unsure of what he’ll tackle next. All he knows is that he’s looking for a gut-level, unspoken connection like the one he found with his characters in “One Week and a Day.”

“When I’m writing something, I’m not analyzing and trying to figure out what strikes me about it,” he said. “It has to just click with the characters. I’m interested in characters and their dynamics. With this, I just wanted to tell this story and be truthful.”

“One Week and a Day” opens April 28 in New York and Los Angeles.