Arts & Culture

Interview: Alisa Katz, Associate Producer of ‘Defiance’

Daniel Craig fighting off Nazis in the middle of a forest might sound like some kind of fantasy (of my mother’s perhaps), but it’s real life depicted by the star alongside Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell portraying the true story … Read More

By / January 10, 2009

Daniel Craig fighting off Nazis in the middle of a forest might sound like some kind of fantasy (of my mother’s perhaps), but it’s real life depicted by the star alongside Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell portraying the true story of three brothers who not only fought the Nazis, but saved 1,200 people while they were at it.

While associate producer of the film Alisa Katz and I joked about how it’s like James Bond fighting the Nazis, our interview got pretty intense as she shared with The Jew Spot some chilling stories from on and off the set. Alisa, who has worked on films such as Miami Vice and The Clearing, said this was a bit of an unusual project for her – one that deepened her connection to her already strong Jewish identity and heritage. This is a different kind of Holocaust movie, says Alisa. Not one about death and dying, and Jews as victims. But as fighters and survivors; ‘flawed superheroes,’ as film director Edward Zwick has come to describe the Bielski brothers. Read more about the film (in theaters everywhere January 16) here. Thanks Alisa for taking the interview. Can you quickly tell us what Defiance is about? Defiance is based on the true story of the Bielski brothers, three Jewish brothers, who unfortunately experienced the murder of their parents and their family by death squads that were rounding up people prior to the Nazi invasion in 1941. They escaped death by hiding in the forest. There, their group slowly began to grow. These were tough guys, these were fighters, ex-soldiers, guys who were shunned by the bourgeois society their whole lives as ne’er-do-wells, but in the forest they really proved themselves to be strong leaders. During their three years in the forest they created a community which included a school, a hospital an arsenal, a mill and even a synagogue. By the end of the war, 1200 Jews were saved by living in the forest under the Bielski leadership. The film itself presents a huge question – What are people truly capable of in times of extreme challenge? It’s interesting to see Daniel Craig in this role, as he often plays the tough guy, but now in a different sort of way. I think Daniel Craig was really drawn to the complexity of Tuvia Bielski’s character. There was no flat-out command for Tuvia to become a superhero. This man, who wasn’t a leader in the community in which he lived in society, actually possessed all the required skills for leadership in the forest community which he created. He did what he had to do, and had to suppress anything in his personal self that kept him from wanting to fulfill his duties. Tuvia Bielski moved out to New York after the war and became a taxi driver. He never sought recognition for anything that he did. I think Daniel Craig brings that sense of humility with him into this role. What appeared to draw him to this role was the humanistic side of the character he played.

I heard that Daniel Craig’s father was part of the army regiment that liberated camps, so he has a special affinity to these types of stories. I’ve noticed there are quite a lot of movies coming out at this time based on stories from the Holocaust. Perhaps you have some insight into why this is. Personally, I think it’s because we’re in that 11th hour of witnessing the stories firsthand. Those who have direct experience with this period of history will unfortunately not be with us much longer. Defiance is a story most are not aware of. And it’s a testament to the fact that there are a plethora of stories that need to be shared. It’s important to keep going, to keep telling these stories because all of them, every single story I have heard in my experience, all have relevance today.

For every Holocaust film I see, there’s always the question that goes through my mind of what would I have done if I was there?

I am fortunate that my family, by immigrating to America, was able to get through history to make me exist. Is there a scene that really struck you? A line from the movie that got to your core?
There are so many powerful lines and scenes of action and faith that fill me with a deep pride. As well as several moments of quiet and silence where all you hear is just this beautiful violin music and you are punctured, deep into the soul. For me, each time I see the film, I view it from a different character’s perspective or from a different point of view within my own self. I’m looking at this film, and I know the participants. These actors appeared to me as spirits of my ancestors. It seems that this project was a true labor of love. Did you find yourself putting in more hours, more effort, because of your connection to it? On every film, my work ethics take me to overtime. On this film in particular, I really did try to put myself in a position where I would be a resource, for anyone in any department.

For me, it wasn’t like clocking in and clocking out at all. It was a full experience. The essence of the film, the location and the people from Lithuania are all part of life as it exists today. There are issues in this story that face many of us today, decisions we have to make and ethical dilemmas that frame our decisions. It was a very organic experience and it all trickled down into the community we existed in, in real life. You really speak about this movie and your experience filming in Lithuania with such passion. What was unique about being on this set? In the film industry, it’s really rare you have an opportunity that one’s own family heritage is acknowledged during the process of film production. When a film goes into production, it’s like a train that’s rolling and it can’t be stopped. During this process there is little room for personal spiritual/religious practice. I’ve been on films before where there were major production meetings on Yom Kippur. The first week of shooting, I was down on the other side of set when I hear echoing through the forest, people singing. And as I got closer to the sound, I recognized that people were singing in Hebrew. It was the Sabbath Kiddush. It was the first Friday of the shoot and the local extras had brought Kiddush cups and wine and candles. I have chills right now speaking to you about this. This is a unique experience to hear Hebrew echoed through the forest, to see these groups of people standing in a circle and feel their arms around each other, and the candles being lit and the wine being drunk. Not everybody spoke the same language by any means, but everybody understood its meaning.

Coming back to the very spot where people were forced to live for three years in hiding, and saying we are here now and we’re carrying on our tradition and we’re being Jewish and we’re having a connection and we’re living. It rang out through the entire forest. It really permeated the souls of everyone on that set. There was not a single issue of negativity that I dealt with the whole time on this production because everybody truly felt the importance of the story. And with that said…

I really felt I helped to do something for the Jewish community as a whole; to put a story out there that people could actually be proud of. It’s not about death and dying. It’s about respect for human life, survival and the will to live. It’s a story that really needs to have awareness out there, especially now that we’re in the 11th hour. Offset, I definitely feel I have a deeper understanding of my own Jewish place in this world, and my own place in the Jewish world. The film itself, gave me a stronger sense of my roots – of our history, of our traditions and our ancestry.

X-posted on My Jew Spot