At this year’s Tribeca International Film Festival, Rachel Israel took the top prize in the US Narrative Competition for her film Keep the Change. The film about adults on the autism spectrum looking for love in New York City debuted to high praise for its honest, funny and compassionate approach. Israel, a graduate of Columbia University, originally made an award-winning short by the same name, starring many of the same actors from Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center (JCC). Israel cast her friend Brandon Polansky in the lead as David opposite Samantha Elisofon as Sarah.
We spoke the day before she won the Founder's Award for Best Feature Film and Best New Narrative Director award, as well as special mention as a Nora Ephron Award contender.
Lesley Coffin: How did you first meet Brandon? Did he introduce you to the JCC?
Rachel Israel: I meet Brandon about 15 or 16 years ago and we’ve been good friends for a long time. And he met his first serious girlfriend at the JCC. So that was my introduction to his world and I was so inspired by their love story, I started writing a feature about it. Originally, the film was focused more on his family, but when I got the chance to make a short film, the most compelling element of the story became their love story. So, I focused more on that when I made the short, and then rewrote the feature to focus on their love story and pushed the family storyline to the background. Through the process of making the short, I got to know the people at the JCC who are in both films. And the more of them that I met, the more I wanted to keep the short contained to that world.
Lesley Coffin: How were you introduced to Samantha Elisofon? She’s lovely in the film and a natural on screen?
Rachel Israel: She was at the JCC as well. We initially considered casting a professional, neurotypical actress. I’d worked so hard on the script and thought casting a neurotypical actress opposite Brandon would be easier. But we auditioned dozens of women and none of the felt right, which made me open my eyes to the world and saw Samantha sitting there. I knew her a little bit, and I knew that she could just light up a room. So I brought her into audition and it felt right.
Lesley Coffin: When it came to casting, what were the biggest challenges and benefits of having a cast with neuroatypical actors who’d dealt with these issues?
Rachel Israel: The thing that was unique, not good or bad, was that every actor I hired required a completely different approach. That’s the case when you’re directing neurotypical actors as well, a director should always cater to the needs of their actors, but it was more heightened on this film. Brandon can read a script and say the dialogue verbatim and give a reading in a fresh way every time. Samantha read the script once, but we used the script more as a blueprint, because she can be a perfectionist and get flustered if she doesn’t get something perfect.
So, I had her read it once and then we just talked about it in order to keep her loose and fresh. Nicky Gottlieb played the big flamboyant play director and was so taken with the task of directing a play he wrote for the film, he didn’t read the script at all. Will Deaver, Samantha’s first boyfriend, is super intellectual and understands story, so he wanted to discuss the character from a personal place but also step back and think about how his character served the overall story.
Lesley Coffin: How did that directing approach change when you had Brandon and Samantha working with the actors who played Brandon’s parents (Jessica Walters and Tibor Feldman)?
Rachel Israel: We only had Jessica and Tibor for a couple of days, but it was awesome having them there. They’re pros and such great actors, and really loved working with and playing off of Brandon and Samantha. And they were great at playing with improvisations and were so generous. So those scenes were so much fun for me to direct.
Lesley Coffin: The characters are struggling as adults living neuroatypical challenges, but they also have universal flaws. David has a bit of an ego and desire to fit in. How important was it to you to make a film people who were both neuroatypical and neurotypical could connection to on a universal level?
Rachel Israel: What initially inspired me about Brandon’s relationship was that when he was with this new person, a lot of the self-consciousness which had been a burden in his life went away. He was free from that, because when you’re in a relationship and not chasing one down, you have to take care of someone else. And when he was taking care of this other person, he didn’t have the energy to focus on those anxieties. I noticed he didn’t apologize as much or get as flustered. And that true in any good relationship, that’s a universal experience he had. What was interesting was, once we cast Samantha, the film was freed from that relationship, because their relationship would be very different from the relationship he had. But I’m glad the general public feel that they can connect to the characters, because that’s what I wanted.
Lesley Coffin: Of course the hallmark of a lot of great romantic comedies are about people dealing with discomfort, having to get over it in order to have a relationship. Did you look at any classic romantic comedies to draw inspiration for the film’s visual and tonal approach?
Rachel Israel: I watched so many films while writing the screenplay, and a lot of them were love stories. Oddly, I watch a lot of Saturday Night Fever and Fame, because those are both about people with a lot of talent who feel a need to prove themselves. Those were influential. I remember watching Cassavetes a Woman Under the Influence, that was a visual inspiration.
Lesley Coffin: After you finished the script and started production, was it hard to accept the fact that a lot of the lines you’d crafted wouldn’t make it into the film because you were going to give yourself over to this improvisational style?
Rachel Israel: Not at all, actually. I developed the script while meeting with the cast, so I was kind of doing what they did on set beforehand. They’d say something funny or insightful and I’d add it to the script. And a lot of what was in the script stayed in, but I knew that they’d say things that were fresher and more real than what was written. As long as we knew the purpose of scenes, I was very excited to see what would come out spontaneously. It really was a fun collaboration.
Lesley Coffin: I read that you initially studied art before taking up filmmaking. What drew you to filmmaking?
Rachel Israel: I went away to undergraduate art school at 22. I’d been homed schooled and didn’t feel the need to go to college initially to study painting. When I went to art school, expecting to be a painter, I found myself in a school with 17 or 18 majors, and felt like a kid in the candy store. At the time I didn’t realize you could major in film. And I’d always loved film, it was my social life as a homeschooler. So, when I saw I could take classes, it was intoxicating to be on that other side. And I took a leap and decided to major in it, think it would be a fun way to spend four years in college. And I’ve never looked back.
Lesley Coffin: Do you find that having that background in painting helps you as a filmmaker?
Rachel Israel: It does, particularly when I’m developing the script. Anytime I start feeling like I’m getting too intellectual, I get down and make collages or sketch the scenarios out. I use it a lot for problem solving, because I know something isn’t working when I can’t visualize something. I feel like my mind flows best when I’m painting, and it helps when I start feeling myself getting a little dry working just with the words. And of course when I’m working with the camera, I have confidence in my visual instincts that come from my experience as a painter. I know what I’m looking for. What’s interesting is, on a film like this I had to give over a lot of control to our cinematographer. We shot with two cameras and had to make some simple choices early on, and still allow ourselves to be fluid in order to capture what the actors were doing.
Read FF2 Media's full review of Keep the Change HERE.
© Lesley Coffin (5/5/17) FF2 Media
Photos: Sarah (Samantha Elisofon) is charmed by David (Brandon Polansky) in Rachel Israel's Keep the Change.
Photo Credits: Giacomo Belletti, Salem Street Entertainment, Tangerine Entertainment