Published on NewYorkCool.com.
by Christina M. Hinke
New York Cool
September 8, 2005
One epic trilogy star, one epic personality, a dog, a scarred aged actor and a homeless-man-turned-actor share the screen in the ambitious Liev Schreiber film, Everything is Illuminated (an adaptation of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel).
Elijah Wood leaves “Middle Earth” for the Ukraine and shifts gears from the furry-footed Frodo to the quiet fanny-pack-wearing Jonathan, an odd fellow searching for the Ukrainian village his grandfather lived in during the Holocaust and the woman who may have saved his grandfather’s life. Jonathan is aided on his journey through the Ukraine by his hyperactive translator, Alex, played by first-time actor Eugene Hutz. (Hutz is best known to music aficionados as the charismatic front man of the “Gypsy punk” band Gogol Bordello.)
Why would a director hire someone void of movie acting experience to play a leading role in a film? “I just talked to him, the guy is such a natural,” said the thirty-seven-year-old Schreiber about Eugene Hutz. “I knew I had to find real Eastern Europeans. I looked all over the Ukraine for Alex and couldn’t find anybody with that eternal sense of optimism and poetry,” added Schreiber, who was a first-time director on this film. “And Eugene has that quality. He is ridiculous and insane, but he has the heart of a poet,” continued Schreiber.
Schreiber also wanted to cast someone who embodied Jonathan’s many peculiar facets and he felt he found it in Elijah Wood. Jonathan lives inside himself. He collects memories in Ziploc bags and those memories are sealed as tight as Jonathan’s inner self. “I wanted someone who was diminutive, vulnerable, innocent, and in some respects ignorant and cold and empty and stoic and lost and confused,” said Schreiber. “Also when you are trying to articulate a character who is primarily an observer, the eyes are very important. They say that eyes are the portal to the soul and Elijah has garage doors,” continued Schreiber.
And what big eyes he has in Illuminated. Wood wore Coke-bottle glasses with a 10X magnification (he had to wear contacts with a negative seven to counteract them).
That wasn’t the only difficult hurdle the filmmakers had to overcome. The movie was filmed in Prague because they couldn’t get a permit to shoot in the Ukraine. That little detail didn’t keep the crew from getting the footage they needed. “They were literally stealing shots out of a back of a car,” Wood explained.
Adding a demented dog, named Sammy Davis Junior, Junior (played by two border collies named Mikki and Mouse), to the film could have been a recipe for trouble. Yet Wood said, “They (filming the dogs) were probably the easiest part of the film.”
Illuminated certainly wasn’t easy to make - a dog, a road trip movie, and a majority of the peripheral characters were not actors, but rather regular Ukrainian citizens. “Alex’s father was this homeless guy we found in the Ukraine, who was just brilliant. The well diggers were all well diggers; they were all construction workers that we found. Ukrainians do a lot of the manual labor in Eastern Europe. As Eugene indelicately puts it, the Ukrainians are the Mexicans of Europe,” Schreiber said.
Schreiber was lucky to find the Ukrainian actor Boris Leskin (The Falcon and the Snowman) to play Alex’s grandfather, a grizzled old man with a chip on his shoulder who is hired to drive Jonathan across the Ukrainian countryside. The actor Leskin, like his character in the film (the Grandfather), survived the Nazi invasion. “That scar on Boris head is real. Boris survived the war, his brother didn’t,” said Schreiber.
Schreiber survived the film, but he’s not sure if he’ll go back to directing. However, after receiving a twenty minute ovation at the Venice Film Festival he certainly may get a call from his agent. And perhaps there is a sequel in the works. As Schreiber alluded to with a laugh, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the sequel to Everything is Illuminated is about Alex coming to America.”
Copyright 2005 Christina M. Hinke. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.