AN INTERVIEW WITH DANIEL VITAL, DIRECTOR, WRITER & PRODUCER OF "THANK YOU REBBE"
Winner: Best Jewish Film - July 2021 Edition Nominee: Best Indie Short Film, Best Spiritual/Mystical Film, Best Director Indie Short, Best Soundtrack
DIRECTOR, WRITER & PRODUCER
Daniel VITAL is an Italian filmmaker who emigrated to the U.S. He is best known for his short film "Thank You Rebbe". His first short film "Il Giudice di Linea" (“The Line Judge”) was produced in Italy, and was broadcasted on RAI 3 national TV during the transmission “Blob”. In 2020, he received a Chicago/Midwest "Chapter EMMY" nomination. Daniel has a growing reputation as a narrative director and socially focused storyteller.
Hello Daniel, thank you for your beautiful film. What pushed you to make your first film?
I decided to write and direct this short film as a tribute to my friends who lived the events narrated in the film. My wife and I lived next to them the joy of the birth of their twins and tragically also the loss of their boy just a few months after his birth. I wanted to honor them.
I felt the best possible way was trying to share their story. I have to say that what started as a tribute for them quickly became a life-saver for me. It kept me busy and creative during a challenging time of my life.
I was living in the U.S. with a visa that allowed me to stay but not to work. I was taking care of my 2-year old daughter together with my wife Rossella who instead was working full-time. And I was diagnosed with cancer in the bone marrow. It was a very long chemotherapy during which I wrote and rewrote the script over and over. Each time I thought I nailed it but I also wanted to slightly change some concepts, every time. I think I was quickly evolving as a person; therefore, the script changed as a consequence. I ended up with a very different script compared to my initial one.
"Thank You Rebbe" was shot in 2016. Have you made more films since, as a Director, Writer and/or Producer?
Unfortunately, once I completed "Thank You Rebbe", I had a late side effect from the chemo and suffered heart failure just after finishing the film's edit. That took me another 6-months to get back on my feet. Literally. Then I started to freelance in the non-profit world.
From 2018 to 2021, I worked full-time as a Video Director for one of the major Midwest Non-Profit organizations. I had the honor and privilege to tell real-life stories of a community, the challenges, and successes. We received a "Silver Telly Award" and an EMMY nomination for a P.S.A. (Public Service Announcement), I wrote and produced – a testimony to the great work our team was able to produce.
Today I'm working as a freelance again. I'm writing my first feature script, "Recycle Me", and I'm at the beginning of my indie documentary production entitled "Colors of Judaism".
You were born in Europe, Milan Italy to be precise, and are now living in Chicago. Why the choice to migrate to the U.S.A.?
My family moved to the U.S. when I was a child. I lived in Houston and New York from 5 to 9 years old. It was the mid-seventies. I still remember sitting in the backseat of my dad's old Cadillac listening to ABBA, my first movie "Grease", my New York Yankees jacket, my 3rd-grade school visit to the top of the Twin Towers, and many other moments of that experience.
When we moved back to Italy, the U.S. were already inside me. Almost three decades later, when my wife and I decided to get married, we also decided to experience life outside Europe. The U.S. was a giant leap of faith, but it also felt closer due to that childhood experience. We took it one step at a time, with no real long-term plan.
12 years later, we are still here. I love this country and its people, even with the eyes of an adult. Despite its harsh reality, contradictions and challenges, to me it still embodies the ideal of working for a collective better tomorrow.
You manage to give the viewer an impression of your character's entire lifetime wrapped up in a pretty short narrative —film-lengthwise. This appears to be your initial idea. What choices did you have to make, as a Writer, to deliver such a thorough yet "condensed"
(for lack of a better word) story?
I had to split the narrative into three levels. There is a “real-time” level where we see the character waking up, walking to the Chabad House, and writing his letter. The “flashbacks” level brings us to specific anecdotes, alternating emotions in a believable fashion. And then there is the voice-over level, that ties everything together, helping the audience follow the story. Juggling these three elements allowed me to share a story that is not typical for a short film structure. Then I used additional visual narrative levels in the background, probably noticeable only to the audience familiar with Jewish customs.
One of my favorite scenes is the “coffee shop” scene – when Dan and Esther meet for the first time. The more they talk and the closer they get to each other. At the end of their conversation, the waiter in the background starts to erase a vertical white line on the blackboard featuring the menu.
In the cinematic composition, that line was in between the two characters, a metaphor of a mechitza (a separation), and its elimination represents the two characters are about to become husband and wife. I tried to do my best– sometimes, I feel the film is still a bit cryptic here and there.
Still, I believe it was definitely an experience that made me grow as a storyteller and director.
In the overview —as confirmed, presumably, in the dedication made in the end credits-, it is stated that your story is "based on true events." Would you care to give us a little insight on this aspect?
Before writing the script, I interviewed the couple. I did not want to be too invasive about their medical history or the SIDS (Sudden Instant Death Syndrome). I wanted the film to focus on the core of their Ba'al Teshuva values and strength. Ba'al Teshuvas are individuals that go from a secular lifestyle to a religious practicing one, literally meaning “Master of Return.” They shared many meaningful moments of their lives with me.
I had to “pick” some that allowed the film to keep that energy of being meaningful and tense, but without becoming sad. One scene is actually a funny one, with the policeman trying to ticket Dan because he “jaywalked” (crossing the road outside the pedestrian crosswalk). The problem was that being a Saturday (observant Jews are not allowed to write on Saturdays), Dan couldn't sign the ticket. This episode happened in real life.
Another important fact that I did not include in the film is that their boy passed away on a Jewish holiday night called Simhat Torah. This holiday celebrates the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings and the beginning of a new cycle. On this day, God commands all Jews to “be happy”. So each year, while remembering their son, they feel God is next to them, telling them to stay happy. I did not include this fact in the film, but I did try to be faithful to the sentiment.
I would probably need to write a feature version of this short to share all their stories, teachings, and meaningful moments. I did my best trying to make 14-minutes meaningful and keeping the right energy and mood.
These friends of mine were the first to watch the film inspired by their own life. They loved it, which I consider the most important success to all of this. Once the film went public, many other people reached out to me, saying they found the film soothing, making the film meaningful per se. I feel it brings all this filmmaking experience to a different level and beyond my expectations.
Chicago is a special place for Music and Film. What can you tell us about the creative scene/s in your city?
From musical to visual arts, you can feel Chicago's artistic heartbeat by going to its beautiful theaters or enjoying some live music by its local bands. It is a city that has a long tradition with beauty and arts —from street photography to architecture, from blues and jazz to big Hollywood productions, from its urban planning to a landslide of T.V. series. You can really sense artistic energy around you.
From a producing point of view, you're close to seasoned T.V. series professionals, many actors, artists, and many locations that are often part of L.A.'s bigger productions.
In addition to this, "The Art Institute and Columbia College" are also contributing each year with some new talent on the market; very well prepared youngsters, eager to work on projects and build their portfolio.
I connected to an excellent creative network, "The Foxhole Chicago", that I hired to help me produce my short film. With them, I also directed a music video later on. I connected to companies as "The Onion Production" (I used it for the main casting of "Thank You Rebbe") and a local non-profit organization called "Chicago Filmmakers" (where I met Tim Coghlan, who I decided was going to be the DoP for "Thank You Rebbe").
Chicago was an important chapter of my life. I just moved to Carmel, California, a couple of hours south of San Francisco. It is a very different location, with different energies. I'm very grateful for what I received and the new opportunities I will have here.
As a filmmaker, do you believe that audiences are still keen on going to the theater to see movies? Do you want to make movies for the theaters, or do you think that we are now way past this debate?
As a former advertiser, I know the mantra is “go where your customer is” and movies are no different. Moreover, the pandemic scenario accelerated this dynamic. Technically, the debate theater vs. V.O.D. is probably already over. But as a filmmaker that grew up watching Bergman, Truffaut, Bertolucci and other masters, I still hope audiences will keep going to movie theaters, at least on certain occasions.
Besides the different audiovisual experiences, most importantly I find the film-audience relationship to be different as well. By walking into a movie theater, you decide to step out of your comfort zone and give up any form of control over the movie. It is a voluntary “act of surrender” where you decide to dedicate a couple of hours of your time to experience “something different.”
In exchange for your trust, you'll be deeply immersed in a different world. You won't miss a frame. You'll be able to appreciate all the different narrative levels that enrich that movie. You'll connect closer to the actors and be able to fully enjoy all the artistic work, from cinematography to score, from costumes to all the craft behind the film. Walking out of the theater, you'll bring back to your daily life what hopefully was a meaningful experience, both artistically and socially.
The feature film I'm writing juggles between surreal and real narratives. While writing the script, I imagine the same kind of movie-audience relationship in a movie theater.