Clash Film Interview: Israel Horovitz

My Old Lady director in conversation…

Adam Horovitz is pretty f*cking cool. He’s a Beastie Boy, after all. But his dad is arguably way cooler. At the age of 75, Israel Horovitz has just written and directed his first feature film.

“I knew I was going to turn 75, and I wanted to do something that would scare the living shit out of me,” he says. He’s speaking to Clash as his film, My Old Lady, which stars Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline and fellow Francophile Kristin Scott Thomas, plays at the London Film Festival.

The film, set in France, is based on his own play which examines the lives of a trio of people thrown together when American Mathias Gold (Kline) is left a Parisian property in his father’s will. Travelling to the French capital to claim his inheritance, Mathias finds that he must also take on Mathilde Girard (Smith), an old lady living there who is protected from eviction by French law. He also comes up against her shrewish daughter Chloé (Scott Thomas) who is distrustful of him and wants him gone.

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My Old Lady, trailer

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His arrival forces them all to analyse their lives and the choices they’ve made, and to confront long-hidden family secrets and the impact they’ve had on their lives.

Israel’s film tackles the pertinent subject of marriage and relationships, and the secrets and lies within – a theme recently explored in David Fincher’s satirical Gone Girl and the forthcoming Men, Women & Children. Why does this issue seem to be trending?

“I have no idea,” he says, candidly. “I don’t know that [My Old Lady] is so much about marriage… I had this idea – and it may be limp but it got me started – that love is a kind of solid substance, and you’ve only got so much to give. So when you give love to somebody new, you’re going to take it away from somebody else. If I fall in love with you, say, somebody’s going to get hurt. If I had to write the fortune-cookie message of my movie, it’s don’t do that to children because you’re going to f*ck them up for a long time.”

Another theme it broaches is nationality. In the film, Maggie Smith’s character utters the line, “When you’re born English, you stay English. Englishness is so obvious.” I ask Israel what that means.

“I remember Maggie Smith also asking what that means,” he says. “There’s something special about English people. They never get over it. No matter where they move to, they’re always English. They just never get over it. They always miss this rock. There’s something that always draws them back here, to the rain. I don’t get it exactly. You very rarely find English people who lose their identity in some new nationality. They just stay very British.”

He also comments on the French in the film and how they turn a blind eye to affairs and infidelity. “It’s just a different culture,” says Horovitz. “When [François] Mitterrand died, there was that picture on the front page of the newspapers of his wife and his children, and his mistress and their children – and French people didn’t think that was crazy. Does it hurt? I think it does. I think you expect loyalty from people – not just fidelity but loyalty, partnership. You expect it, and you need it. But then, is that me bringing my culture to it?”

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Clash Film Interview: Israel Horovitz

Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith in My Old Lady

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One of the strengths of Horovitz’s film is that it doesn’t necessarily present answers. Instead, it asks questions. “I don’t think that’s a job for an artist,” he says. “I think we have to bring comfort to people in some way. I don’t think we have answers [or a responsibility to present them]. If you pose good questions, it can bring a lot of comfort to people to know they’re not alone with those questions.”

To have his first directorial effort exhibited at London’s prestigious international movie showcase must be quite a thrill. He nods.

“We were doing the tech check in the theatre last night and (Argentinian director) Damián Szifrón and the Argentinian ambassador were there just glued to my movie, watching this very dialogue-heavy movie. And I wanted to turn it off and they went, ‘No’.”

The septuagenarian dramatist speaks excitedly. He’s clearly delighted that this notable twosome loved his film, not least because Szifrón’s LFF submission Wild Tales is one of Israel’s personal festival highlights. “Wild Tales is so visual. It’s such a film animal, and it’s so funny. [Szifrón] is going to be a huge star – it’s [the Argentinian] entry into the Oscars, so it’s going to be all over the world.”

Horovitz also acknowledges the journey he’s made to get to a point where he’s bringing a film to an international audience.

“My dad was a truck driver. He came from a little town in Massachusetts, so it’s a weird curve from truck driver’s son, to RADA, to opening a film [at the London Film Festival].”

RADA? “Yeah, I went to RADA in the 1960s”, he says nonchalantly. How the heck did that happen?

“It just happened. I don’t know how it happened. I wrote a novel when I was 13 and it was rejected. It was praised for having a wonderful childlike quality but it was rejected in this letter that my mother saved. So I wrote a play that was put on when I was 17. Nobody said it was a good play but everybody said, ‘It’s a play,’ and I thought, so that’s who I am: I’m a playwright. And here I am at 75.”

Israel hints at a less than happy childhood, admitting that his father was violent and very unhappy. He struck up an unlikely friendship with Samuel Beckett and says it was Beckett who was his father of choice. It would probably be accurate to say Horovitz was keen to take himself far away from his tough upbringing.

Talk turns back to the London Film Festival and that ‘tech check’ moment. Israel is obviously a man who loves life. He’s effervescent and loves to challenge himself. He is a man who loves to learn, and discover new things. Even with the amount of experience Horovitz has directing plays and writing scripts for both stage and screen (he’s penned screenplays for Author! Author!, starring Al Pacino, and acclaimed 1999 romantic drama Sunshine, starring Ralph Fiennes, among others), he still finds himself making revelations.

As Szifrón and the Argentinian ambassador watched his LFF submission, he realised there’s no one way to approach a film. “I think a film can be about anything really,” he says. He watched a lot of films during the festival, and noticed not only how different they all were but also how they were all so engrossing. He cites Casa Grande, My Friend Victoria, Timbuktu and Chasing Berlusconi, as well as Wild Tales and My Old Lady, and suggests that what unites them is that they all have the power to move despite their obvious differences. Some are more visual, while others, like his own, rely on dialogue. “If you can touch people, what else is there really?”

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Clash Film Interview: Israel Horovitz

Israel pictured with his son, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz (via)

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Proud to be married, Horovitz speaks adoringly about his English-born wife. Splitting his time between homes in Greenwich Village in New York and southeast London (“South London’s great,” he says. “It’s real.”), he’s a true family man in spite of his unusual upbringing. And not only is he proud of his high-achieving wife, who, he tells Clash, was a successful marathon runner, but he’s also full of pride when talking about his children.

Most of them have followed him into the entertainment industry and have made successes of themselves. “I just had these wonderfully creative, talented kids,” he enthuses. “My first wife died tragically when she was quite young so those three kids probably bonded more closely than most siblings do because of that, I think. Adam – you know the Beastie Boys? – he was 15 when he started that, and Rachel produced a movie when she was 21. Matthew wrote a novel when he was 19. Oliver, my youngest son – I have 28-year-old twins – has got a hit book out now (An American Caddie In St. Andrews), and his twin sister got out of grad school last year.”

Israel says that despite being hit by tragedy, life for them all growing up was fun, and they’re still closely knit. “We all live in the same neighbourhood in Greenwich Village. My five kids all went to the same school there and now the grandchildren go there.”

Horovitz always encouraged his children, despite having no backing himself.

“You need it,” he says. “You can get there two ways, I think, in life. You can fight against something and say, ‘I‘ll show the son of a bitch,’ or, ‘I’ll show the town’. Or you can be encouraged. I think the sad truth is that the artist is born in the suffering child. That is kind of undeniable. But suffering can come from anywhere.”

So says Israel Horovitz, a man who has turned his own personal suffering into major success.

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Words: Kim Taylor-Foster

My Old Lady is in UK cinemas from today (November 21st).

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