A smash hit in Israel and winner of the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2014, Zero Motivation is a unique, sharply observed, sometimes dark and often hilarious portrait of everyday life for a unit of young, female soldiers in a remote Israeli desert outpost. Pencil-pushers in the Human Resources Office, best friends Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar) spend their time playing video games, singing pop songs, jousting with stationery and dreaming of Tel Aviv. If this sounds boring, the film is anything but. With shifts of tone that go from slapstick to satiric to horrifying with fluid ease, and with a superb supporting cast of characters, Zero Motivation is one of the most original films of 2014.
Below is an interview with writer-director Talya Lavie taken in LA in January 2015 on the occasion of the film’s theatrical release in US cinemas.
Dana Knight: Congratulations on a very funny, witty and refreshingly unusual “army film”. Where did the inspiration come from? I suppose it has a lot to do with your own service in the military?
Talya Lavie: During my mandatory military service as a secretary, I dreamed of making an army movie with the pathos and the epic proportions of classic war-films, but about the gray, mundane service that my friends and I had, with hardly ever getting up from our office chairs. I was inspired and amused by the idea of using envelopes, coffee cups, office intrigues, staple guns and Solitaire in order to create a female response to the Israeli male-dominated army-films genre.
Knight: Although set in the war-zone, the action is restricted to the administrative office, the sealed world of secretaries who don’t risk their lives although they could easily die of boredom. What elements of the characters’ lives were exaggerated for the purposes of comedy and which aspects are more true-to-life?
Lavie: The setting of the administration soldiers is very true to life. Although the film has some imaginary and surrealistic elements, it’s actually very authentic. The characters are not exaggerated, but they are extreme. Being in the desert area far away from civilisation can sometimes change your perspective about things. The conflicts between the characters, who are so different from each other and yet stuck together, is what makes it funny.
Knight: I think you made a very brave and risky choice in introducing the subplot of the suicidal girl into a film whose tone is generally satiric and light. How did you manage that feat?
Lavie: The film is defined as a “dark comedy”, but while writing the script, I didn’t want to lock myself into a specific genre. I put a large scale of emotions in it, and was interested in mixing the different spirits. Ultimately my greatest challenge was to maintain the specific subtle tone of the film; to balance the transitions between humour, sadness, nonsense and seriousness. I felt like an acrobat in a circus walking on a rope, trying not to fall off, while keeping the film’s free spirit.
Knight: This is an army film with an almost all female cast, which is very unusual and also very ironic. How did the casting go?
Casting this ensemble was quite a complex puzzle. I had the privilege of working with one of the most accomplished Casting Directors in Israel- Orit Azulay. We auditioned over 300 actresses and ended up with extremely talented comedians and actors.
Dana Ivgy, who won the Israeli Academy Award for leading actress for her role as Zohar, is a very well-known actress in Israel- It was her third Academy Award. The other actresses were a little less known before the film, but now they are stars. Nelly Tagar (Daffi) and Shani Klein (Rama) were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress Award (which was given, by the way, to Dana Ivgy for an appearance in another film in the same year).
All the actors of Zero Motivation were extremely devoted to it. It was nice to see that although the film is all about ranks and hierarchy- none of that existed on set. They helped each other and created a terrific ensemble.
Knight: Could you talk about your creative process of writing this film and the aesthetic choices you had to make along the way?
Lavie: After 2 years of writing and rewriting the script, I was very lucky to have my project selected for the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors’ Labs. Beyond being a significant experience for me as filmmaker, I believe it also helped secure the funds later on.
The hardest part in bringing the project to life was, naturally, raising funds. Many of the first readers had a hard time accepting a black comedy taking place in the Israeli army, while having little mention/ excluding references to the of occupation, combat, or other aspects of the tough reality – and so had difficulty putting the film into a specific category.
But it was important for me to keep the story confined to the walls of an office, apparently disconnected from the world outside and even escapist, but actually giving an authentic glimpse into the characteristic-militaristic society from a different point of view.
Another interesting challenge was creating a low-budget army film without any actually help from the army, nor any possibility of using any of the real Israeli-army bases for filming. The assembly of all details and locations to seem like a single and specific desert base was a complex effort that required all the crew’s creativity. Also, since the story takes place in 2004, we were surprised to discover how many things had changed over the last decade, but most were gadget-related, or had to do with older computers etc. The feelings and personal stories and dramas didn’t seem to change at all.
Cinematically, I wished to keep the monochromatic palette of the army base, its grey structures, crowded offices and rundown living quarters, set against the beautiful desert scenery of the south of Israel, with its warm colors, constant changing weather, and sense of freedom.
I can’t talk about all that without mentioning the wonderful crew I had on board: Eilon Ratzkovsky the Producer, Yaron Scharf the Cinematographer, Arik Lahav-Leibovich the Editor, Ron Zikno the Production Designer, Ran Bagno the Composer and many others. And of course the wonderful cast I mentioned before.
Knight: I had the impression that the mise-en-scene was very well thought-out and that you left nothing to chance, is that correct? What is your preferred manner of working on a film?
Lavie: We rehearsed a lot, also on location. We had a very short time for the shooting so I wanted to be as prepared as possible. Years ago, before I went to film school, I dreamed of becoming a comics-artist. So I guess I’m very influenced by graphic novel aesthetics, in terms of squeezing many details- stories, jokes and information- into every frame, as if somebody’s going to pause on each shot and take a longer look at it.
Knight: The film was enthusiastically received on the international film festival circuit. How was it received at home?
Lavie: Zero Motivation was released in Israel six month ago and was very well received, much more than we could have imagined, it broke box-office records in Israel and won 6 Israeli Academy Awards (for best script, best director, best leading actress, best editing, best casting and best original score) and the Israeli Critics’ Award for best Israeli film. It has a strong effect in Israel and I’m happy about it. Now we’re very excited to have it shown in the USA. The mandatory military service is a very local aspect of the Israeli culture but it’s used in the film as a platform to tell a universal coming of age story, about friendship and about being a young woman.
Knight: What is next for you and is there anything you would like to add?
Lavie: I’m working on my next feature film, which is a contemporary free interpretation of a short novel by Sholem Aleichem, transferring its plot from 19th century Eastern Europe to present-day Brooklyn. We’re now starting to raise the budget for its production. As I learned, those things can take a while, so in the meantime, I’m very proud and excited that Zero Motivation is shown in LA, I believe it could be interesting and entertaining for the American viewer and hope that people give it a chance. I know I like to walk into the cinema next to my home and find myself in a whole different world.