Director Kevin Asch Talks about “Holy Rollers”
The opening night kick off at the Las Vegas International Film Festival, held from June 4th – 6th at the Hilton Hotel, began with a screening of Kevin Asch’s “Holy Rollers” followed by a Q&A with the director. Based on the true story about a group of Hasidic Jews, who smuggled one million hits of ecstasy into the United States back in 1998, the crime drama was an official selection at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Ari Graynor and Danny A. Abeckaser, the script was written by Antonio Macia and produced by Abeckaser, Tory Tunnell, Per Melita and Jen Gatien.
A New York native, Asch was inspired shooting his latest film in that locale. While on a technical scout with his crew he found the street with the look he had in mind for the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where the story takes place. This included the side by side black and white houses that appear in the movie. When told that the owner of the black house didn’t want the property shown and recommended the production company use the modern looking white and tan house next door, Kevin admitted that he threw a tantrum. “You’ve got to fight for what you believe in,” he said. “What was important for me was that the house wasn’t modern and that there was a fence built around it. Fences. There’s some symbolism there.” he added. There’s also symbolism in the shoes his lead character Sam Gold (Jesse) wears. In one scene the rabbinical student turned dope smuggler is given a new pair of footwear by Jackie the Israeli drug dealer (Danny A. Abeckaser) he is introduced to, parties with and eventually begins carrying the pills for. The shoes represent Sam walking into a new lifestyle along with his desire for respect and money that he doesn’t have working in his father’s fabric shop. Referring to the shoes as a motif, Asch recalled of Sam’s old ones, “They had a piece of tape holding together the soul and that says a lot.”
Although the true story happened in the late 90’s, the director first became involved with the project five years ago. Abeckaser, who initially became aware of the details when the story broke in the headlines, caught a television episode made about it five years later. Asch related that this documentary focused on telling the crime from Interpol’s point of view and that when Danny revisited the story, he recognized it as a great part for him playing an Israeli drug dealer. Asch finished, “He saw that this could make a great film and he called me.”
Kevin recalled meeting screenwriter Antonio Macia for coffee to discuss the project. “He told me that he was a Mormon. He wasn’t born a Mormon. He wasn’t born into a religious family. He was born into a Catholic family and not very religious,” Asch described Macia’s background, which the director believes helped the writer understand Sam’s feelings of being an outsider. Two years before production Eisenberg became attached as Gold. Kevin found Sam’s character fascinating because of “the juxtaposition of two worlds and moving into this world of drugs and nightclubs and that was it,” he told us. Jesse brought two other actors to the project, one of whom was Justin Bartha taking on the role of Yosef, the destructive influence who introduces Gold to the seductive world of drug smuggling. Acknowledging how convincing the duo appear on screen, Asch reminded the audience that they are actors, not drug dealers although he jokingly added that people in both professions do travel a lot. “Daniel, of course, became attached playing the role of Jackie Fordham and Ari was the last person on,” he finished. In fact, Graynor was cast shortly before shooting began and jumped into rehearsals.
Early on, before Macia began writing the script, Kevin said they flirted with the idea of telling the story from the point of view of one of the real drug dealers, but quickly decided they weren’t interested in pursuing that version of the story. Ironically enough, a few weeks following the discussion, the man they were speaking with was shot and is now once again in prison. At this point the producers had decided to do their own research and come up with an original story and create something where they weren’t beholden to someone else’s point of view. “It was necessary cause there was just so much information and if you’re interested you can find the same articles that we did by googling Hasiadic Ecstacy Dealers,” Asch explained.
“The budget was one million and we financed it through private equity, six private equity investors, one being my mother, the rest a wonderful group of people that believed in us,” Kevin said when asked how the film was funded. Also, unlike most movies being produced today, “Holy Rollers” was shot in 35 millimeter film rather than using digital technology. Asch commented, “We got a free camera from Panavision during the shoot. We were already going to shoot in 16 before that. I wanted to shoot film. The line producer made that impossible with the budget and then Panavision made that possible with the 35.” Since the events in the film were supposed to have taken place ten years ago the director wanted the imagery to reflect that and promote the belief that the audience is viewing something from the past.
The film premiered two weeks ago in Los Angeles and New York followed by openings in other cities including Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC and is scheduled to open in several more locations between now and the beginning of July. Asch said they went out and found a distributor a few months ago after their win in Park City and he acknowledging that, “Sundance is the place to be if you’re an independent filmmaker.”
As for the film’s title “Holy Rollers”, Kevin explained that it fits, “because they’re holy and they’re rolling. Rolling is a street term when you’re high on Ex and I wanted a title that was inspiring and funny and not somber.”