At 32, Michal (Noa Koler), an Orthodox Jewish woman, is finally looking forward to the comfort and security of marriage, when she is blindsided by her fiancé’s decision to call off the wedding with only a month’s notice. Unwilling to return to her single life, Michal decides to put her trust in fate and continue with her wedding plans, believing Mr. Right will appear by her chosen date. Confident she will find a match made in heaven, she books a venue, sends out invitations, and buys a wedding dress, as her skeptical family and friends look on with trepidation. During Michal’s month-long search for a spouse, she enlists the help of two different matchmakers, goes on a series of disastrous blind dates, and finds a very unexpected connection with a charming but utterly unsuitable pop star (Oz Zehavi) — all the while dismissing pleas by concerned friends and family members that she reconsider her crazy plan. As the day of the ceremony grows closer and no suitor appears, Michal puts everything on the line to find happiness.
I spoke with the talented Rama Burshtein, the world’s only ultra-orthodox female director and screenwriter, a few years ago about her wonderfully poignant film, Fill the Void, and was thrilled to sit down with her again in Los Angeles to talk about her delightful new romantic comedy, The Wedding Plan.
Danny Miller: I love your movies because they provide a window into your world that is so different from other films made about your community. I’m so impressed by the lead performances in both films. Noa Koler give a true star-making performance here — how difficult was it to find the right person to play Michal?
Rama Burshtein: I didn’t use anyone from my community in this film — there aren’t any professionals because people in my world don’t really study acting. For Fill the Void, it wasn’t so complicated because the main character was a young girl of 19. I found a wonderful young actress who hadn’t gone to acting school, who was still in the army, but I knew I could work with her. This time it was much more complicated — the character of Michal is in her thirties and has to be able to move you very deeply and also make you laugh. We have many talented actresses in Israel but this was something very special and I couldn’t find the right person, I was looking and looking. She couldn’t be too young, she couldn’t be too beautiful, there were a lot of considerations. And then, all of a sudden, Noa walked in and auditioned with a very complicated scene and just blew me away.
She’s fantastic. She kind of reminds me of the kind of women you’d see in American films in the 1930s.
Yes! Noa was a theater actress but you know, no one had ever given her a leading role, can you imagine? To be honest, we had some people who were not sure she’d be able to do that role, for it to be believable that all those guys would go for her that fast. But I wanted to take a gamble on her, and she was perfect. The audiences buy it completely.
Do you find it necessary to steep your actors in your religious world before you start filming so they fully understand that lifestyle?
You know, when I was making Fill the Void, I did try to do that — we were depicting a Hasidic world that our actors knew very little about. But here it was different. Michal is a baal teshuva, someone who has become religious later in life. Her mother is not religious, Michal has friends like her who don’t necessarily seem like religious women but they are, so it was different. But I worked very hard to get all the small details right.
I love the scene where Michal goes to the burial site of the Rebbe of Breslov, the spiritual leader of the group she’s part of, to find some guidance. Did you really go to Ukraine to shoot those scenes?
Yes, all the way to Uman. Of course we were only able to shoot the outside scenes there, we couldn’t bring cameras inside Rebbe Nachman’s grave, we did that part in Israel. But Noa was great in those scenes. She had to learn a different way of thinking and talking in the world, it’s not just a question of talking to God — when you’re in that mindset, it affects how you talk to others when you meet them. As I say, I don’t really look for religious actors, everyone’s ready to be religious for a little while in a film, that’s not a problem, but, forget religious, if someone is a nonbeliever — someone who thinks he has all the answers for everything and isn’t open to anything else, then I’m not sure I could work with that person. It just wouldn’t work with the dialogue that I write. Even the rock star in the film, who’s very secular, his thoughts about spirituality needed to ring true.
Have you found that any of your actors became more religious after appearing in your movies?
I’m not sure about religious, I don’t ever look for that, but I can definitely say that they all become believers, however that works in their lives. Noa is a very interesting example. For her, right after making this film started landing role after role. Her career really started at the age of 36!
I think there are a lot of misconceptions people have about religious communities, especially the roles of women. Being Jewish myself, I know that women are hardly subservient to men in Jewish households, and your films feature such strong female characters, but do you ever worry about how the outside world is going to interpret such things such as Michal’s intense desire to find a husband?
Not really, I find myself thinking more about how much we all have in common as human beings. People are people. It’s not so much about “getting married,” but who doesn’t want to find love? Everyone is looking for truth, everyone is looking for love. So if we all want the same thing, why aren’t we more united? One of the things that I’m trying to say with this film is do you believe that you find love? Do you believe that it’s possible?
That’s a life lesson that can resonate in all areas of our life, not just love.
I think the ending of this film will spur a lot of discussion between people — which is a good thing, of course! Kind of like the ending of The Graduate that a lot of people still fight about. Will Benjamin and Elaine really be happy? At the end of your film I didn’t have any doubt that things would work out for Michal — but I realize I might have had a very different reaction if I’d seen the film 10 or 20 years ago.
That’s very interesting because I do feel the film is like a mirror. Some people tell me that they think the ending is a little cheesy, and then we talk and I realize they can’t imagine such an ending in their own lives. Others think it’s the perfect ending which then tells me a lot about where they’re coming from.
And, of course, even in Michal’s world, a lot of people think her wedding plan is a bit nuts, to say the least. One of the best things about this film is that we don’t really see where it’s going, at least I didn’t. I found myself very surprised by the specifics of the ending. When you were writing it, did you think about possibly going another way where Michal doesn’t find what she’s looking for?
(Laughs.) I love that question, because you’re asking me if I went through the same process that you did as a viewer. I find that very complimentary. But in truth, this story was a puzzle that required me knowing exactly where it was going from the beginning because there were a lot of pieces that I had to build in very carefully. I love that the film causes viewers to have this dialogue with themselves. How will it end? Who will she be with? Will she find someone? What’s her most important lesson? In a way, that dialogue is the same one that we all have every day with the Almighty, with the Creator as we live our own lives.