Cannes' One and Only Stoner-Tragicomedy Director Wants to 'Put Himself in Artistic Danger'
Shooting Cannes premiere One Week and a Day was a marathon for debut director Asaph Polonsky. Here's why.
In the Jewish tradition, there are six, not five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—but first, Shiva. Immediately after someone dies, you can expect hordes of relatives, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and maybe even that guy from the coffee shop to show up at your front door. Over the course of seven days, they'll bring food, condolences, food, mindless chatter, food, and more food. They're there to make the first week of grieving more bearable. But what happens after everyone leaves?
One Week and a Day, which premiered in Cannes' Critics' Week, begins the day after the Shiva, when a grieving family is left alone with the gaping void of the person they loved. For Vicky (Evgenia Dodina) and Eyal (Shai Avivi), that person was their 25-year-old son, Ronnie, who died of cancer in a seaside hospice in Israel. We find the couple at very different stages in the grieving process. Vicky wants desperately to return to normalcy, even if she doesn't yet have the emotional bandwidth; Eyal, on the other hand, would prefer to languish, intermittently lashing out at whoever happens to cross his path at the wrong time. Eyal's bitterness and irreverence are reminiscent of Larry David, which brings us to the film's complex and somewhat unclassifiable tone. When the stoner neighbor, Zooler (Tomer Kapon), teaches Eyal how to roll a joint from Ronnie's leftover medical marijuana, One Week and a Day reveals its true colors: it's a poignant black comedy/dramedy/tragicomedy, and also a stoner buddy movie.
"After you've shot for one day, it's just a mind f*ck. You're dead, basically, at that point."
Asaph Polonsky, the film's American-born, Israeli-raised director, had a hard time classifying it himself when No Film School sat down with him at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. One Week and a Day is the AFI graduate's first feature. With it, he demonstrates the unique ability to bring levity to life's darkest moments. In one of the best scenes in the film—one which Polonsky described as "the most frightening scene to shoot"—Eyal, Zooler, and a young girl from the hospice perform a child's play surgery on a terminal cancer patient, making pantomime incisions to remove her cancer. After, the little girl takes the "cancer" into her hands and releases it into the ocean. It's the kind of cathartic moment that many films aspire to but few actually achieve.
Below, Polonsky discusses the marathon of shooting a feature film, gives a baffling piece of screenwriting advice, and more.
No Film School: How did you become fascinated with the grieving process?
Asaph Polonsky: I got fascinated by the Shiva. I'm not a traditional person, but I think tradition is very helpful. That's why it's there—to help you get to the next phase. But it's a buffer zone and then you eventually come back to your real life. In my experience, it was like, how do we move on? I'm not an expert, but in different religions, you don't have the Shiva. Someone died, and sometimes it takes a while until you bury them, and then there's the wake, and then you move forward. In the Jewish tradition, especially in Israel, when you die, you're buried that day. Like if you died that morning, you'll be buried by the afternoon, and then grief starts. Everything happens really fast. and I was interested in the moment where you're left alone after all that.
"I opened a blank document and I started writing the script from the beginning, not looking at the original."
NFS: How long was the whole process of writing to post-production?
Polonsky: The first draft of the script was finished almost exactly six years ago. I shot exactly a year ago, so there have been hundreds of drafts. Originally, it was written as a short, and I looked at it and I liked it, and but then I decided I should put it aside because I felt there was a feature there. I went on and did another short, which screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival. My two producers saw that and loved it, and they called me up so say, "Okay, what's next?" I had just finished the first draft [of One Week and a Day], and it was a really good connection. They [said], "We saw your short and we know that you can do this [feature]."
I brought it to this screenplay lab in Jerusalem, which has kind of become the Sundance Labs. It's called The Jerusalem Film Lab and some big names, like Son of Saul, which won here [at Cannes] last year, was also there. We submitted and it and was there for their first year.
NFS: What do you think changed in the script, from first draft to final, that was instrumental to the success of the movie?
Polonsky: A lot changed. Characters have been deleted and other things, but the essence is the same.
I wrote the final draft when we were already in pre-production. [After getting financing], we gave ourselves a year before shooting; you can go into development for the rest of your life. I did this experiment which I found to be very helpful— tedious, but helpful. I opened a blank document and I started writing the script from the beginning, not looking at the original script. A lot of things that weren't good got deleted, and new stuff was added, and then I looked at that script, together with the producers, and we decided on things that worked in the experimental draft and things that didn't. With that, I went back to the original script and molded them together and found the sweet spot. I think that was about six or seven months before we shot.
"For me, if the scene is easy to shoot, then it's not interesting. I want to know that I'm putting myself in some sort of artistic danger."
NFS: Did you do any other creative exercises like that during production?
Polonsky: Well, I was warned that when you are shooting a feature it's a marathon, and it really is. We shot for 23 days. You just really have to stay focused all the time. At the end of the shoot day, I would go back home and I would prepare for the next day. I would talk to certain people from the crew and go over where we went during the day and what we need to do for tomorrow. But after you've shot a day, it's just a mind fuck. You're dead, basically, at that point.
The worst thing is not to be prepared. I would do this thing that I always wanted to do in pre-production but didn't have time, so I found myself doing it the night before, where I would go over the scenes, and I would write for each character what they're trying to achieve, why it's difficult for them to do that, and I would email it to the cinematographer. I never really looked at it again. Once I write it, I know that I know it, and then I have it in my back pocket, but never took it out. It was important for me that my cinematographer knew, and that we were trying to achieve the same thing together. It was just between me and him.
NFS: How did you navigate the film's tone? It's being described as a black comedy, but I don't think that's necessarily right. It's more a drama-comedy split.
Polonsky: It's a really dark tale, but it's supposed to be funny. It has to be emotional and it has to be funny, but nothing can be forced. It had to be very subtle and very delicate throughout, and then in some places slapstick. If we have to classify it, I would say it's a dramedy. But drama almost feels like a curse word nowadays. I think it's actually a bunch of stuff. I think it's a buddy movie, I think it's a family drama, I think it's a stoner movie. And then, of course, tragedy.
NFS: How did you overcome some challenges in production?
Polonsky: For me, if the scene is easy to shoot then it's not interesting. It doesn't necessarily mean that it has to be complicated camera movement, but if I know how to do it, then it lacks some energy and emotion and I get bored. I want to know that I'm putting myself in some sort of artistic danger.
Polonsky: There's not a lot of coverage in this film. The film couldn't be three hours, so it was really about getting that pace right. Sometimes, we'd have a two-minute scene where's it's one shot, and we had to do 11 takes. I needed to know that it held up from the moment it started until the moment it ended. The crew can get a little bit tired when you are doing a lot of takes. We barely did rehearsals, because the actors were already really good and I didn't want to overwork it, so it's going to have to happen within the takes.
NFS: How is it being at Cannes with the film?
Polonsky: Being at Cannes really is just the best thing I could wish for with this movie, especially because it's a small movie, and it's an Israeli film. You hope to get in, but you don't even really say it out loud.