March 30, 2020

L.A. story: ‘Dorfman’ screenwriter pens a love letter to her city

“I would like to share the story of how ‘Dorfman’ came to be, in the very location where our mini-miracle occurred,” screenwriter Wendy Kout e-mailed last week. She insisted on meeting at the tiny block on Industrial Street, a revitalized strip in the Los Angeles Downtown Arts District that inspired her to write a movie.

Just a few blocks east of the Midnight Mission, where hundreds of homeless camp on the sidewalks, is a gentrified stretch that seems like another world. Between Mateo and Mill streets, where twisting train tracks serve as a kind of neighborhood border, lies a quiet, medium-scale block spotted with art galleries, chic restaurants and fashion boutiques, a little urban oasis in an otherwise industrial landscape.

“You know the old adage, ‘Let’s put on a play, my dad has a barn’?” Kout asked as she opened the door to a high-ceilinged, two-story condo owned by the film’s producer, Leonard Hill. “In my case, it’s, ‘Let’s make a movie, my friend has a loft.’ ”

Almost every scene of “Dorfman,” a romantic comedy starring Sara Rue and Elliott Gould, who plays Rue’s father, was shot in Hill’s Toy Factory loft, named for its history as a manufacturing site. Hill and his real-estate partners purchased the building in 2002, as part of a preservation project, and converted the space into live/work lofts. Kout was so taken by the building and its role in downtown L.A.’s urban renewal that she wrote the movie around the setting. For a self-described “Valley girl,” it was L.A.’s promised land: Soho meets SoCal, bohemia meets Hollywood.

Indeed, one star of the movie is downtown L.A. itself. When the film’s protagonist, a nebbishy Jewish girl named Deb, gets an opportunity to spend a week at her unrequited love’s downtown loft (she plans to woo him by cat sitting), her ensuing saturation in the new culture becomes a catalyst for her self-realization. In this L.A., people do astonishingly urban things. They walk! They take the Metro! They dine on rooftops! Not a chain store in sight, they buy everyday items at specialty, artisan shops. A trip to the Los Angeles Flower Market, where luscious orchids sell for $10 a pop, bursts on screen in bright, beautiful colors, giving away one of L.A.’s best-kept secrets. Deb’s transformation from an aimless single gal into the self-assured, made-over Deborah, mirrors the transformation of a newly revitalized city, from something known, mundane and expected into a place that is alluring, exciting and new.

Truly being seen, whether it’s cityscapes, other people or even for oneself, is a leitmotif in the film, but it’s also the central challenge for a little independent film like this one (Hill wouldn’t say what the budget was): Will anybody actually get to see it? It screens here on May 10, the closing night of The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by The Jewish Journal, but beyond the festival circuit, where it has been doing the rounds for several months now and has even won several awards, the film does not yet have a distributor.

“Look at this; is this crazy?” Kout said from the Toy Factory’s rooftop pool, admiring its panoramic view of the downtown skyline. I recognize the spot from a scene in the film. “Basically, I tried to use every square inch of this building,” she added. “I knew the locations before I wrote the script — it’s the repurposed, revitalized city.”

Kout had just about given up screenwriting when she ran into Hill, a veteran television producer, across the street from the building, at the restaurant Church & State. They had worked together decades earlier on one of Kout’s pilots that was never picked up, but had since lost touch. “I said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ And he said, ‘Well, I kind of own the block.’ ” Next, Hill invited her for lunch and a tour. “He was all excited and twinkly, showing me his world,” she recalled of that propitious meeting. Then she got twinkly, too, seeing a side of Los Angeles she had never known existed.

“I grew up in the Valley — I would come downtown to go to the Mark Taper Forum. For me, downtown was never a place to live.”

But something about the resurgent city sparked her enough to return to screenwriting — albeit on new terms. “I had given up on all that, because I was chasing the studio model,” she said. Over the years, Kout had delivered countless scripts to some pretty big names, including Barbra Streisand, “Spider-Man” producer Laura Ziskin and screenwriter John Hughes, who penned cult hits “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles.” But none of her screenplays was produced. “Even if I had gotten a movie made in the studio paradigm, I probably would have been fired after the first draft,” she said. So when Hill told her, “You write it, I’ll produce it,” it was an offer she couldn’t refuse.

Circling back across the roof, Kout looked out toward the Los Angeles Times building, a looming presence in the distance. “Where else do you see this much sky and this much city?” she asked. Hill is on the roof, too, watering the plants on his deck. 

“Have you ever seen a Jew do this?” Kout asked wryly.

“And I have power tools!” Hill quipped. As if power tools have any place in the tranquil, almost other-worldly surroundings of this setting, framed by hills and sky on every side.

“Wendy was absolutely Dorothy who suddenly saw Oz in Technicolor — she wasn’t in Kansas anymore,” Hill recalled of the first time he brought her to the loft.

“You mean, I wasn’t in the Valley,” Kout said.

Still, they might still have been in the desert if not for an 11th-hour save by Gould, who agreed to play the part of Burt Dorfman, Deb’s cantankerous widowed father, after a deal with another actor fell through. Hill knew Gould through Hollywood guild politics, and called the actor one night out of desperation, dropping the script on his doorstep hours later and warning that if he didn’t get an answer by morning, the film would be scrapped. As the movie’s sole investor, Hill had decided that if the deal didn’t close within a certain time frame, a cost-efficient production would not be possible. Fortunately, Gould liked the script and asked to meet with the creative team — Kout, Hill and the film’s then-24-year-old director, a graduate of USC film school, Brad Leong. 

Kout remembers being unabashedly star-struck. “As a Jewish woman, I have been in love with Elliott Gould since the first time I saw him on the screen,” she said. She’s not kidding: When Gould arrived that day, Kout nearly ran him over. “I turned into a gushing 15-year-old girl,” she said. She and Hill re-enact the scene when Gould walked in, “kinda shlumpy,” as Hill described it, and Kout ran up to him screaming, “Ohmigod, ohmigod, omigod, I’m so excited, I’m so excited.”

“I could not stop jumping,” she recalled with only mild embarrassment. “I was holding his hand, and I wouldn’t let go! But, let’s face it, there weren’t a lot of Jewish men on the screen [when I was growing up]. There was Paul Newman, who was too old; there was Woody Allen, who I didn’t really have an attraction to other than his incredible brain — and then there was Elliott Gould.”

Gould was gracious about the fandom. “Oy vay iz mir,” he said, remembering the moment during a phone interview from his West L.A. home last week. “Wendy is very enthusiastic,” he said, ever so delicately (he tends to sound like a spiritualist when he speaks), “and I believe that enthusiasm is a gift.”

At that initial meeting, Gould tried to get a feel for the young, first-time director by asking him about his “process.” But as “Dorfman” was to be Leong’s first feature, he flipped the question back to Gould: “Tell me what has worked for you,” Hill recalled Leong saying. With complete sincerity, Gould rattled off a list of likes and dislikes based on his past experiences with other directors — who happened to be the likes of Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman and Paul Mazursky.

There was a time when Gould seemed to embody Hollywood stardom. After roles in Altman’s 1970 Korean war satire, “M*A*S*H,” and an Oscar-nominated performance in Mazursky’s “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” he became a kind of American countercultural icon. It was also during this period that he married Barbra Streisand, his first wife and with whom he has a son. But big-time fame wasn’t his thing.

“At one point, I let a great part of my career go,” he said, a stream-of-consciousness, seemingly random thought that came up just after he had been talking about his parents. He choked up: “Now you can tell I’m being moved,” he said, fighting tears. “I had to give [my career] back, because I knew it wasn’t about being somebody, and I didn’t want to lie, and I didn’t want to be beholden to this great success and have to be fearful that I would lose it.”

Gould’s attitude helps explain why a man who has done it all would take a chance on a little movie like “Dorfman.”

“You always want to work with people who want to work with you,” he said. “I find that ego and vanity is toxic, and I’m exceedingly sensitive to it. And also, even though sometimes it is rampant in this industry, there’s really no room for it.”

Which may be why the role of Burt Dorfman seems so right for Gould, whom The New York Times once praised for his “touching transparency.” Although appropriately cantankerous for an aging widowed Jewish man, Gould plays the role with unselfconscious vulnerability. In 2007, he was described by the Village Voice as helping to popularize the notion of “leading man as schlemiel,” and though he finds that characterization offensive, he said that playing Jewish characters comes naturally to him.

Screenwriter Wendy Kout and actor Elliott Gould

“It is somewhat cultural,” he said. “But being that we have nearly 6,000 years of written history, it’s very deep, and therefore, there’s something more, perhaps, to call on.”

In “Dorfman,” this meant he gets many of the film’s best lines, most of which are Yiddishisms. “This is a farkakteh staircase!” he shouts during his first visit to the loft, which is a little too chic for his taste.

For Kout, the Jewishness was her bottom line. “You know,” she said, “If I had walked in [to a] studio [with] this movie, the first thing that would change is the characters would not be Jewish.” Because “Dorfman” is really her own story, a way of reclaiming her screenwriting voice, authenticity was important to her. Everything from the locations to the actors to the music (10 of its 14 songs are by L.A. indie bands) had to be as authentic as possible. “We read everybody,” she said about the casting process, “but we were looking for Jews.”

At one point, director Leong, who is Asian-American, asked, “What is a flagella?” The script, in fact, read “fagela,” and after a good laugh, Kout remembers thinking, “It’ll be fine. We’ll get him a Yiddish dictionary.”

As the producer writing the checks, Hill was a little more tense about the whole Jewish thing. “Is it any more Jewish than ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ was Greek?”

For Hill, a son of German immigrants who narrowly escaped the Holocaust, the film’s Jewish sensibility comes from “embracing uncertainty.” As the film vies for theatrical release, that’s something he’ll have to do as well.

“Well, we were told our movie would get commercial distribution if we had Katherine Heigl in the lead, but with Katherine Heigl in the lead, it’s not ‘Dorfman’!” Hill said.

After making some 60-odd TV movies, Hill is a big believer in the “engineering of storytelling,” meaning that if you structure a story a certain way, and aim it at the right audience, “There is a way to industrialize the manufacture of mainstream commercial movies done at low-budget levels.

“If we could do it,” he added. “I could really get back to the hobby I most enjoy — making movies.”

For Kout, making this film was enough. She had come to writing late in life and spent most of her childhood wondering, “Where are my stories? Where are my characters?”

“I was very much like Deb,” she said, “living in a world where I was not being reflected anywhere. And then she goes downtown, where differences are appreciated.”

For Kout, the most romantic thing about this romantic comedy is that both its characters and the city they live in have the capacity to change. It’s the central message of the Jewish tradition, I offered. She smiles.

“People think when you say romantic comedy, it’s girl-boy, but this movie is about her journey,” Kout said with such conviction it was hard to tell if she was talking about the character or talking about herself. 

“What’s romantic to me is she learns how to love herself. And because she begins to love herself, she can love another.”

“Dorfman” screens on May 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the Laemmle Town Center in Encino. To purchase tickets, go to or call (800) 838-3006.

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