By Timothy Gillis
PORTLAND – Even after ten years, director Jonathan Kesselman still gets nervous when screening “The Hebrew Hammer,” his shocking comedy that’s sure to offend just about everyone. One Longfellow Square was packed with film fans of all ages Monday night, but when the director took the stage during closing credits, a few folks headed out. It turned out to be more a matter of crossed wires than audience distaste; in fact, fans laughed heartily (and at the right times) throughout.
Kesselman took questions from those who lingered, “the frozen Chosen” as he called them. One man joked that he represented people from the two or three tiny nations he failed to offend in the film. Another asked him what he was working on next. “Some short films, commercial work. Some pretty cool stuff for Nintendo that I can’t talk about,” Kesselman said.
A woman asked him if her mother was proud of him. “She was proud of me at first. Then she disowned me,” he said. “But she was proud of me when she disowned me.”
Kesselman was on-hand to discuss his film, shown as part of the Maine Jewish Film Festival which runs this week. He loved being in Portland again, and said this city’s restaurant compared favorably with those back in his East Village, New York, neighborhood. “Yeah, I hate to admit it, but your food’s better here.” Kesselman had only been in town a day and had already dined at David’s, Caiola’s, and El Rayo.
Billed as the “godfather of the Jewxploitation film, Kesselman was born and raised in the mean streets of the San Fernando Valley,” according to the Film Festival’s program guide. “The Hebrew Hammer” had its world premier at the Sundance FIlm Festival in 2003, and played a number of international festivals before being picked up for theatrical distribution (Hanukkah 2003) by Strand Releasing in conjunction with Comedy Central and Paramount Home Video. The director said reaction to the film was nerve-wracking, at first. “The Anti-defamation League in Chicago had wanted script rewrites until after a screening convinced them it was not anti-semitic,” he said.
The film opens with the kosher crimefighter’s theme song, sounding like “Shaft” and featuring lyrics Kesselman wrote himself. Michael Cohen composed the music. The film’s soundtrack also features Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and klezmer music, a Yiddish style of high clarinet sounds. “It was a challenge to blend klezmer and funk,” he said.
The film, considered a cult classic and listed by Vanity Fair as a top-five holiday movie, has a star-studded cast, featuring Adam Goldberg as Mordecai Jefferson Carver, the title character, and Andy Dick, as Damian Claus, Santa’s evil son. Peter Coyote plays Chief Bloomenbergensteinenthal of the Jewish Justice League and Mario Van Peebles plays Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front. Peebles father Melvin was the original Sweetwater from the films Kesselman owes an allegiance to, and he makes a cameo appearance here, along with his grandson, “to pass on the damage.” When asked how a young upstart was able to land such great actors for a new film project, Kesselman credited the content. “If you want good actors, you need good writing.”
Kesselman made the movie a decade ago, after he was rejected by USC. “I didn’t get in to film school, and I was pretty angry at the process.” He wrote the script in seventeen days, in a creative flurry he describes as different from his non-fiction work. “I could see three scenes ahead.” Much of his other writing, like a documentary he made about his father for the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, is more methodical, since “you already know where you’re going.”
Mordecai’s character actually appears earlier, in a short spy spoof called “Subterfuge,” before expanding into “The Hebrew Hammer.” The director was asked to discuss how he made his comedic hit. “We filmed in New York – thirty-three locations in twenty-two days, all over Brooklyn, Queens. The Jewish Justice League was at Grants’ Tomb. When we were filming, a real pimp saw the Cadillac and said, ‘All right! A Jewish pimp!'”
Kesselman has finished writing and will direct “The Hebrew Hammer 2: Hammer vs Hitler.” He won the 2009 Simon Rockower Award and the 2009 Gold Medal IPPIE award winner for best multi-media feature for his series, “Writing in My Father’s Footsteps.”
Kesselman also completed production of the television pilot, “Grow,” a dark comedy that explores the world of a Los Angeles Medical Marijuana Dispensary, starring Fran Kranz, (currently in “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway) and Jamie Hector (“The Wire”). Kesselman says the show is like HBO’s hit series “Weeds,” only “darker and funnier.”
Kesselman wrote the script for “Grow,” as well as directed it. “At one point, the characters are in a bar, and one says “You know, this place reminds me of Cheers.” The other one says, “Yeah, but here, no one remembers your name.”
Someone asked what’s on-deck for the director. Next week, he begins filming “Sexy Daddy,” a gay, incest comedy for Will Ferrell’s website “Funny or Die.” The script was written by Kevin McDonald. Dave Foley rewrote it and will play the title role. McDonald and Foley are of “Kids in the Hall” fame. “I like saying dangerous, uncomfortable things that make people laugh,” Kesselman said. “I like things that push people’s buttons.”