Interviews

INTERVIEW: MENAHEM GOLAN

By • Aug 20th, 2008 • Pages: 1 2 3 4

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Golan grew up in Tiberius, a city located in northern Israel, on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee. He starts the interview by talking about his love for film as a child.

Menahem Golan: There was a film theater in Tiberius that screened 3 or 4 films a week and I wanted to see them all. I didn’t have any money so the projectionist agreed that I turn the subtitles, he thought I understood English. Back then subtitles were not attached to the negative, there was another wheel that had to be turned simultaneously with the dialog. But my English wasn’t very good and I would stare at the film and forget to turn the titles. I still remember the shouts from the theater: “Menahem, subtitles!”

We had an attractive Home Economics teacher in school, she was about 40. She sat on her desk on Fridays and lectured us. We would take a steel rod, attach a mirror to the edge and push it forward, placing bets on the color of her underwear. One day she complained and our teacher punished us – Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR was coming out that Saturday night and we were forbidden to go to the cinema for a whole week. Of course I went to see it anyway. I didn’t realize the teacher was smarter then me and hid in the back row and a day later, in class, he asked me where I was last night, I said I was home and then I got the strongest slap of my life. I was expelled from school and it took my dad two weeks to convince the teacher to take me back. But I got to see THE GREAT DICTATOR!

Oren Shai: You got into theater before film. How did that come about?

MG: Around 1949-1950, after I was discharged from the Israeli army, my father gave me $10 and with that I left Israel on a ship. I reached Genoa, Italy and from there took a train to Paris, where I had friends. In the train, I held onto my money, not spending it on food even though I was hungry as a dog. In front of me sat a French nun, I will never forget her, she asked me, “Why aren’t you eating?” She taught me that a hungry man should put some white sugar on his tongue, because it depresses the hunger. She gave me a bag of sugar. I got off the train in Paris, starving, opened up the bag and there, on top of the sugar, laid 10,000 Francs. She gave me a gift and I lived in Paris off that money for a month.

I continued to London where I got a scholarship at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA). I started directing students and eventually they sent me to study direction at the Old Vic Theater. I spent 3 years in England.

When I returned to Israel I started working for various theaters where I directed adaptations of American musicals.

OS: And after a few years you went to film school.

Directed by Roger Corman. Behind the scenes: Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Towne and Menahem Golan

MG: When I was about 30-32, I moved my family to New York so I could study film. I took classes at Columbia University and New York City College. I did that for 3 years while working at the Israeli consulate.

Then I heard that Roger Corman was traveling to Europe to film THE YOUNG RACERS (1963). I wrote him a letter and asked to join the production, I didn’t ask for any money. He responded that if I can be at the Palace Hotel in Monte Carlo on June 6th, I could be his driver.
On the first weekend Roger got the crew together and said “tomorrow we have to shoot the winner of the race receiving his flower wreath.” This is Saturday evening and we are shooting on Sunday, and there is no prop-master on set. He asked who could find a wreath and I volunteered. But how do you get one at 10pm in Monte Carlo?

I found a flower shop that was closed. I looked inside and all of a sudden a police car pulls over and French policemen jump me as if I was going to rob it. One of them spoke English and I explained the situation to him.

They ended up being pretty nice and drove me to the mountains, where the owner lived. We drove back to his shop and worked all night, preparing the wreath. At 7am I was on set, ready to go. Roger Corman called the whole crew and said: “Look at this guy, he is the first producer I’ve met who will be better then me.” And I became one of his assistants.

OS: What did you learn from Roger Corman?

MG: I learned that nothing could stand against the will of the producer. If the producer can’t work according to the plan and schedule he created, he will fail. Working with Corman was a production school; he is a man of great cinematic stature.

OS: Francis Ford Coppola was the soundman on THE YOUNG RACERS.

MG: I once asked him, “Do you know anything about sound?” and he answered, “No, I’m looking at the manual.”

I told Corman about EL DORADO, a script I wrote with Yigal Mosenzon during my last year in the US. Theodor Herzl said that if we had a Jewish cop, a Jewish thief and a Jewish whore, we would have a country. So I was going to make a film about a cop, a thief and a whore. That was the story of EL DORADO.

I said, “Maybe you can help me? I need money to make this film.” He asked how much and I threw a number, $30,000. “What will I get from it?” “You’ll get the whole world, all I want is the rights in Israel.” Francis Ford Coppola sat next to us and told Corman, “Are you crazy? I will make you an American film!” Corman said, “but he came with a story and a script.” Coppola said he would bring Corman a script in the morning. Our rooms were right next each other and all night I could hear him typing on his machine. The shoot continued to Liverpool and Coppola crossed the channel to Ireland and got to make his first film, DEMENTIA 13.

After the shoot I returned to Israel and approached Mordechai Navon, the first producer in Israel, he agreed to make EL DORADO if I worked for free and took a percentage of the gross. It was my first film and it brought 600,000 viewers to the theaters.

Since then I made movie after movie in Israel. When SALLAH (1964) came around, my cousin, Yoram Globus, joined me and we started our production company, ‘Noah’, named after my father. By 1979 we had made 49 films.

OS: SALLAH was the first film you produced for another director.

MG: Yes, the reason was that Efraim Kishon, the writer, wanted to direct it. But I liked the script and agreed to produce with him as director. My contribution was bringing the cinematographer, Floyd Crosby (HIGH NOON, THE YOUNG RACERS), his wife (who was the continuity girl) and the rest of the crew, all who had worked on my previous films.

SALLAH was the first film from Israel to be nominated for an Academy Award.

OS: In 1968, TEVYA AND HIS SEVEN DAUGHTERS, which you directed, was in the official competition at Cannes. That was the year of the May crisis and the festival closed down in support of the strikes and student demonstrations.

MG: We were in the competition next to big films like Sergei Bondarchuk’s WAR AND PEACE and Milos Forman’s THE FIREMAN’S BALL. There was a meeting one morning, all the directors whose films were in the competition participated. I felt pretty small next to Forman and Bondarchuk. In this meeting we decided to shut down the festival. I had to vote for it because they wanted to, as a gesture of support for the students.

OS: You weren’t really for closing it down?

MG: No, I wanted my film to screen! The strike broke on the night of our screening; Godard ripped the screen and yelled to close the festival. But we did manage to screen the film at midnight. Then there is the story of WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE.

OS: Do tell.

MG: We went back to the hotel when our screening was over and in the elevator someone overheard my wife and me speak Hebrew. It was a group of British people; one of them asked, “Are you connected to this movie?” He presented himself as Tony Tenser, “I’m a producer from England.” I told him what I always say, “Let’s do a movie together.” He asked, “Do you have a story?” “Of course I have a story!” He told me to come up to his suite, we’ll have a drink and I will tell him my story.

During that drink I invented a story about a bank clerk who travels to a convention in Brighton, picks up an 18-year-old hitchhiker and starts living as if he was 18 himself. Tenser thought it would be a great idea for Norman Wisdom, who was a huge star in England. If we get Norman Wisdom, we can make the film.

I get up early the next morning and there are no trains, no buses, everything is on strike. I hail a taxi and ride to Milan and from there take a train to London. Somehow I tracked down Norman Wisdom’s address through the British actors union. I go to his villa in central London and his maid comes out, asking if he is expecting me, I say, “Tell him there’s a director here from the Cannes film festival.” He comes down wearing a silk robe, I tell him my story and he likes it. So I asked if he could write on a piece of paper that he agrees to do the film and he did, if he gets his salary.

I got back to Cannes a day later and everything was still closed. I looked for Tony Tenser and found him on the beach, “I called you yesterday, where have you been?” he asked me. I told him I went to London, “Impossible” he says.

“I have a note here for you.”

So that’s how that film got made, it was an international hit.

OS: Which films influenced you the most?

MG: Italian Neo-Realism had a great influence on me.

OS: Any specific ones?

MG: Pietro Germi’s SEDUCED AND ABANDONED, Vittorio De Sica’s TWO WOMEN and MIRACLE IN MILAN. These films were inspired by the poetics of the people. I come out of the assumption that a filmmaker, a film director, is like a storyteller who sits in a market with his mandolin or guitar, singing about a better life, about princes and princesses, about kings and queens, an imaginary better world.

Spielberg’s E.T. also influenced me later. I think we live in a sad world, always searching for creatures in the universe that have some of us in them, the human brain. These things are all looking for happiness in another life, a better world. That is where my cinematic conscience is, I want to entertain people and offer them a better world, one they will see and think, “This is how I want my life to look.”

OS: You sold a few of your Israeli films to American distributors. FORTUNA (1966) was sold to Sam Arkoff (American International Pictures).

MG: We held a screening at his house and he said, “Look, it’s not a film for America. It’s too Jewish, but I’ll give you $10,000 as a donation.” I said I don’t want a donation, if it’s not good he shouldn’t buy it, so he ended up buying for $10,000, but I don’t think it was ever screened.

OS: KAZABLAN (1974) was sold to MGM.

MG: We invited their President of Distribution to the premiere in Israel and sat him in the theater next to the Israeli president. He was impressed by the film and said he would give us half a million dollars, an amount you didn’t even dream of back then, in order to make an English version. I had already shot the film in English as well, and he invited me to Los Angeles to re-edit it. It was a hit in a few countries.
[OS note: KAZABLAN was nominated for Golden Globes in both Best Foreign Film and Best Song categories].

OS: In 1975 you directed LEPKE in the US.

MG: The head of the ABC Theaters chain in California, a man named Plitt, rang me up when I was in Los Angeles, “I watched KAZABLAN yesterday and they gave me your number, but MGM won’t let my chain distribute it; they are going with my competitor. Can we talk?” I came to his office at Century City and he told me he was the biggest donor to Israel in Los Angeles. I spoke to everyone at MGM and eventually they agreed to give ABC the film.

I suggested to him, “If you really like this one, let’s make another film.” He asked if I had a story so I said I’ll have one tomorrow. I went to a bookstore and bought an encyclopedia of crime in America. I figured I should find something I know about – a Jewish criminal. I found Lepke Buchalter, who ran a Brooklyn company called ‘Murder Inc.’ He would kill anyone for money.

A day later I gave Plitt a synopsis I wrote and he questioned, “Do you really think there will be an audience for a film about the Jewish mafia?” I answered, “Why not? The Italians are making blockbusters.” He agreed to invest $300,000. I called Yoram and we got another $700,000 on loan from the bank. Tony Curtis starred as Lepke, and Warner bought it from us.

OS: But you had a lot of problems with the Hollywood unions.

MG: They held the film from being released for 2 years. The major studios had contracts with the unions, so on one hand we were signed with Warner and on the other we didn’t have union permits. We ended up paying a fine for it.

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7 Responses »

  1. Excellent interview with Menahem Golan,for he truly is a film industry great who’s often overlooked and underrated and I’m glad to see your interview giving Mr. Golan the major proper respect that he does deserve,as well as widely recognizing him for being an innovative and entertaining filmmaker with quite a legacy in both his directing career and his Cannon Films library.

  2. […] שי, במאי בדרך כלל, ראיין ארוכות את מנחם גולן לאתר Films in Review שהוא שותף להקמתו/עיצובו. רוב הסיפורים (למשל על רוג’ר […]

  3. Words can’t describe how awesome this interview is!

    Congratulations from Brazil.

  4. Great interview! Thanks for posting it.

  5. for 15 years I mailed cassettes to hollywood to get a film where I could write the music for and one day I got a fax from menahem telling me he wanted me to write the score for his next movie “the finest hour. I was very happy I asked 10000$ he gave me 25, so I did my first score with menahem, it was a unforgeteblel experiance!I can not thank him enough

  6. Manahem Golan has an incredible drive and passion for cinema. Having just read this interview I am struck even more with his cinematic verve. Both successes and failures are acclaimed in this interview with him. He developed the fine art of guerilla film making and turned out some amazing pieces as he became larger and more successful. I was fortunate to be in several of his films, including, “Over the Top,” “Schizoid,” and one that did not sell in Cannes that was shot in Minsk, Belarus, entitled “The Road to Glory.” I remember sitting next to him at a birthday dinner in Minsk, where he made the statement, “You don’t have to have a box office winner to make money.” Truer words! I would love to do another project with Manahem, any time! He was always very good to me and gave me chances where others did not. I have great appreciation for him. May he make many more films!

  7. I was lucky to have the privilege to meet this great and most famous director very closely when he came to India to shoot a film- Open Heart in Bombay. I was a unit Doctor for about one month . He also offered me a small role to play in the movie. It was the most exciting movement of my life to act in a film with this great director . i wish to meet him again and if permits wish to work with him again in his films.

    Dear M Golan, i wish and pray God for your long health life. God Bless You.

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