shawn snyder interview

Science and spirituality intermingle in one man’s off-kilter quest for absolution. In this dark comedy To Dust, a Hasidic cantor by the name of Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) pursues scientific answers to his spiritual question. In Shmuel’s Jewish spirituality, the soul finds peace when it decays into dust. If the body isn’t dust yet, then the soul is still around. In his heart and nightmares, Shmuel senses his wife’s soul will suffer for a long time if her body doesn’t decompose soon enough.

Thus, Shmuel ventures outside his community onto a journey of blasphemy to bring himself peace. Hilariously, he ends up dragging along a community college biology professor (Matthew Broderick) onto his quest. With its dose of orthodoxy, To Dust is an unorthodox film about how far one man goes to take his grieving process into his own hands. Director and writer Shawn Snyder discusses the Jewish influences and how Röhrig and Broderick came to be.

Talk a bit about your Reformed Judaism background and how that informed the story.

I have a reformed Jewish background. I have an ongoing journey with my Judaism that waxes and wanes. As a spiritual seeker myself, the movie is about how to find our own personal meanings and build our own rituals around it. That lifelong and continuing journey is largely what the film is about, our right to grieve, to find meaning in that loss, and to have conversations with the cultures we come from. I knew it was necessary to have a degree of orthodoxy. There was a flash in my mind that got dispelled where the story could be about Evangelical Christianity, but that world was so alien to me against my Jewish background. I went down this rabbit hole into researching and making inroads into the Hasidic community, mysticism, and these specific beliefs around death.

Some research included talking to ex-Hasidic people, those no longer in the faith. What insights did they give you for the script?

Throughout the development stage, I met with Hasidic rabbis. I found this community called the Footsteps, a non-profit that helps folks who have one foot in the community and one foot out of the community to navigate their own path.

They turned me onto this Hasidic group that moved around to various location and met late night in meetings that can go till 5 in the morning. The men who run it are passionately religious and open-minded and created this safe space for people who are questioning their faith. It’s a social club, an arts club, and an intellectual club. A lot of active research and ideas made it to the film.

In the film, Shmuel’s sons watch the film The Dybbuk. I first learned about this film through the community because somebody told me that when they were a young child they somehow got hold of a VHS copy, which they called the first secular movie they have ever seen. One of our producers Alessandro Nivola was cast in Disobedience and played a Hasidic rabbi and he found a consultant in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn that trained him for the role. He became our on-set consultant. We actually put his son in the film in as well.

Our film dabbles into blasphemy but has a respect for the traditions so getting it right was important to us. There’s Géza Röhrig own religiosity. He was orthodox and from a Hasidic background.

Speaking of which, how did you know Matthew Broderick and Géza Röhrig were destined for these roles?

They had a lot kindred spirituality and serendipity. How we arrived with the two are two separate stories. Géza had just been in Son of Saul. We have a mutual friend at Sony Pictures Classic who was a mentor of mine and a champion of the script. They had just purchased Son of Saul when I had just finished To Dust and a friend of mine said, we had to meet.

I had a chance to see a press screening of Son of Saul. I was probably the only person in the world trying to see if Géza was capable of comedy. In his performance, I found such intensity and humanity and I also came out feeling he was Kafkaesque in his control of his body and the way he navigated his worlds.

When Géza and I met, we talked about the script and got along. I waited for a week to hear back from him. He finally reached out that he loved the script. He understood it because of his religiosity. The story didn’t offend, he felt it was getting the spirit right, that it was validating.

Over the following month, I found out he was such a humble and beautiful person. I read a New Yorker article that Géza had been a member of a chevra kadisha society. He helped prepare bodies for Jewish burials. Son of Saul is about a man who is intent in a proper Jewish in the most inhumane conditions. As he is a poet, Géza says our movie rhymes with Son of Saul. Géza plays his role in To Dust in a similar way to his character in Son of Saul, a man who is questioning if the proper Jewish burial is sufficient for his intense grief. Both of Géza’s characters in To Dust and Son or Saul do a lot of digging.

As to how we got Matthew Broderick, it started when we got a $100,000 grant. My plan A was to take that $100,000 and go out in the woods with film school friends and make this movie happen. Then the film started to find its champions. It won its award through the Sloan Foundation and up for another award through the Tribeca Film Institute. We were kind of misfiring on finding producers and getting off the ground. I wake up one morning from an email from Emily Mortimer. I was in disbelief. She said, “I was on the jury at Tribeca and I want to produce your film.” We met a week later. They got this project. Then Ron Perlman came on board with his production company. All of a sudden, an A-List became accessible through these networks of actors and friends. They brought in an incredible cast director in Laura Rosenthal. When we stumbled across the idea of Matthew Broderick, it was an epiphany. There’s enough in this film that’s tethered to where we’ve seen him before but it also casts him in a different light.

The two are such an odd couple in real life. That natural organic difference, their personalities, informed the project. When I think about Election with Matthew, I think about this Boy Scout that unravels and becomes this horrendous misanthrope. Our movie is an inverse where Broderick’s character starts as a misanthrope but then gains this curiosity and passion and returns to becoming a Boy Scout.

Géza seems to be the straight man. Broderick seems to be the comic relief. I find that Géza makes me laugh and Broderick breaks my heart.

The film involves Broderick and Röhrig digging, digging, and digging. What measures where taken for safety?

We had platforms in pre-dug graves. We were actually in a Jewish cemetery overnight with rain machines. We had a stunt supervisor, we had prop bodies, and we even had the real-life human in the burial shroud.

Wow, really?

At first it was a random extra we casted, but she was a dancer and she was able to play lifeless in such a way that it seems it would be an easy job except she was water-boarded underneath the shroud. She had such control of her body that it added a humanity to corpse.

So that shrouded corpse was not a dummy?

That was a person inside.

Wow.

It was a decision by our first assistant director John Tyson. He said, we’re going to want a real human, as the dummy wasn’t being sufficient.

The film is about how we grieve, how we honor our dead, how we think of our lost loved ones. I know this was inspired by the loss of your mother. It’s been eight years since my father died. I wanted to ask, what would this film tell to people who are still grieving?

This film is about permission, about our right to grieve in a way that feels personal and organic, whether there are these guidelines. We can rely on our rituals and traditions, psychological understanding, therapy and counseling. At the end of the day, grief is as idiosyncratic as the person who has been left behind and the person who has been lost. That relationship needs to be honored through that grief. Grief isn’t something you get done with. It stays with you and evolves and it isn’t something that needs to be shunned. It needs to be embraced. Whatever works for the person left behind and whatever feels like it’s properly honoring the person who has passed on.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

To Dust will open in select New York theaters on February 8, 2019 with nationwide rollout to follow.

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