Israel’s Etgar Keret takes on Hollywood

Despite their focus on death and suicide, the stories of celebrated Israeli author Etgar Keret keep finding new life after publication – from foreign reprints to reimaginings as graphic novels and films. The latest of those incarnations, the award-winning independent …

Despite their focus on death and suicide, the stories of celebrated Israeli author Etgar Keret keep finding new life after publication – from foreign reprints to reimaginings as graphic novels and films.

The latest of those incarnations, the award-winning independent film Wristcutters: A Love Story, has finally landed US distribution with After Dark Films, which has a limited release slated for August 31 and is on sale for international distribution at the Cannes Film Festival, May 16-27. The debut feature film from Los Angeles-based Croatian director Goran Dukic is based on Keret’s 1998 short story, Kneller’s Happy Campers, a surrealist road story following three suicide victims searching limbo for a lost love.

The film chronicles the travels of pensive Zia (Patrick Fugit), Russian blowhard Eugene (Shea Whigham) and winsome hitchhiker Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), through a bleak, oddly comic purgatory reserved for people who have ‘offed’ themselves, in search of Zia’s ex-flame Desiree (Leslie Bibb), who has also done herself in.

Despite a seasoned cast – which also includes Tom Waits and Will Arnett – a premiere at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, solid reviews, and several awards and nominations from the film festival circuit, a distribution deal remained elusive.

“I think it was because the topic – young people who commit suicide – is very controversial,” says Keret, who at 39, is Israel’s top young literary star as well as a popular writing professor at Ben Gurion University.

“Distributors thought people would be offended. But, if anything, it’s a commercial for life – that suicide doesn’t solve your problems. But when you’re dealing with a taboo subject in a different way, people don’t bother trying to understand it first. The irony is that I didn’t write it out of despair, but when I was finding my connection with life after a period of feeling lost,” he told ISRAEL21c.

Keret first met Dukic in 2001 at his LA book signing of The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, his first collection of short stories published in the US. By the time he asked Keret for the film rights more than a year later, the novelist was in negotiations with an established French director who was much more likely to get the film made. But despite having no funding or feature film track record, Dukic kept at it – sending Keret a spec script of his story and a short film he’d done as a film student. Keret was impressed with both and finally relented, even though his agent thought he was nuts.

“I said, ‘If it gets made, I know he will do a good job,’ ” says Keret. “And, against all odds, he made it.”

Save for a few suggestions about the script, Keret left Dukic alone to shoot his own interpretation of the story. He used music from musicians who had committed suicide and worn-out props – chipped cups, dented cars, and uneven table legs – to give the sense of the characters ending up in an even worse place. He instructed actors not to laugh or smile, as a way of transmitting their deep trauma. The result was quirky and deadpan.

“I loved what the story had to say,” says Dukic. “Appreciate life when it’s there and don’t give up when you have problems, because wherever you go, you’ll only take those problems with you.”

That a French and Croatian director could vie for an Israeli story and the film ultimately be made in America typifies the universal appeal of Keret’s stories, which often focus on people’s attempts to fit in. A 1998 recipient of Israel’s Prime Minister’s Award for Literature, Keret’s stories have been published in some two dozen languages.

As far as Keret knows, his story Busdriver is the only Israeli-authored book published in the Palestinian territories since the second intifada began in late 2000. He has also written for Israeli television and movies, garnering a 1996 Israeli Academy Award for his short film, Skin Deep, which he co-wrote and co-directed with documentary filmmaker Ran Tal.

Most of his literary work has made it to the US: The short story compilations The Nimrod Flip-Out and The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, the children’s book Dad Runs Away with the Circus, and the graphic novels Jet Lag and Kamikaze Pizzeria.

And he is one of 34 writers from around the world in the running for the UK’s prestigious $48,000 Frank O’Connor Award for the best short story collection, for Missing Kissinger (not published in the US), which will be announced in September.

Meanwhile, Keret seems to be seamlessly stepping into the role of auteur. Two more films he’s involved with will be out in the next year. The first, Jellyfish, which Keret and his wife, actress Shira Gefen, co-directed from a script she wrote, premieres at the Cannes Film Festival this month. The film involves three intertwining stories revolving around Tel Aviv beach culture.

The other, slated for next year, is 9.99, a clay animation feature from New York-based Israeli filmmaker Tatia Rosenthal, primarily based on his story For Only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage), but also containing elements from four others. The film, which Keret co-wrote with Rosenthal in English, is currently shooting in Sydney with voiceovers by Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia.

Keret, ever the wry and unassuming observer, regards this flurry of international attention like some amusing adventure. His unorthodox path across mediums not to mention the gut feeling that aligned him with Dukic has long been part of his process.

“Most of the decisions I’ve made in my life were along this route,” he says. “If you do the thing you love the most, then if it fails, you can say, ‘Well, at least I tried to do the thing that’s best creatively’. There’s something ridiculous about experts making calculated decisions when it comes to art. An artistic attempt is not something you can analyze. It’s like love. Matchmakers can’t really computerize it. You just have to go with your heart.”