Jonathan Kesselman Talks The Hebrew Hammer vs. Hitler

Adam Goldberg and Jonathan Kesselman.

Writer and director Jonathan Kesselman joined Cultured Vultures on Friday for a phone interview to discuss the equity crowdfunding campaign for The Hebrew Hammer vs. Hitler.

Thanks for joining Cultured Vultures today. How are things treating you?
Thank you. Things are great. I’ve got no complaints. Life is good. Family is good. Work is good.

The Hebrew Hammer premiered back in 2003. Why wait so long to revisit the story and give us a sequel now?
In 2005, Adam and I sort of both got this subset that it had become something. A lot of people were starting to constantly approach him on the street. People who knew I had done the movie were approaching me, talking to me about how much they loved the film. It had become one of those things that we could feel that it was becoming a cult film.

We were excited about it so we kind of talked story then. We broke a story. I wrote the script. For whatever reason, we were both busy and it just didn’t kind of happen. Then about 2012, I made an attempt to kind of get it going. I had to deal with rights issues because I didn’t finance the first film so I had to get the rights. So I did this small crowdfunding thing, without Adam, on this site called Jewcer. I raised enough money to deal with all the rights, hire lawyers — basically, do budget and schedule. All the things I needed to do to get it going. I thought it was happening because, at that point, I’d attached a couple names around Adam and Judy for the other parts. One of those people was Tracy Morgan and he ending up having an accident right after we did that. All the money that sort of felt like it was happening and coming together sort of fell out and took the wind out of sales. I got busy again with other projects. I directed another movie, an Ang Lee movie, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Really, around the ascent of Trump a year and a half ago, Adam reached out and was like, are you seeing what’s going on? He kind of pointed me towards his Twitter feed. It was insane. I had never seen anything like it. It was the most vile anti-Semitic stuff coming to the surface with his rise. We were both like, we should do something. There’s not a better time to bring him back. We spent the last portion of the year; we tried initially to do it in the most traditional way. It’s the same old story — it’s not a studio movie. Indiegogo, after the last campaign was sort of saying, come and do it with us. So finally, Adam and I sat down with the head of film there, Marc Hofstatter. He was like, Come and do it with us. We can make it happen. He pitched us on this equity crowdfunding campaign, which is a new way of doing it. We had to spend months basically filing with the SEC because it’s an actual investment. A lot of legwork before we could up and talk about it. That’s where we are now.

How has the antisemitism rise impacted on the film’s story?
So one of things that Adam and I kind of talked about when we got together was the story was always Hammer chasing Hitler through time with his partner, Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim — sort of like the Black Muslim and the Jew—kind of chasing Hitler through time, rewriting history as Hitler’s changing it. But when Adam and I sort of sat down after the trump of it all, we decided we should re-contextualize the story a little bit so we have this thread in the movie that it acts as a catalyst really for them to go back into time for them to go after Hitler. There’s a Trump surrogate that we’ve introduced that plays throughout the movie. It’s not Trump per se, but it’s a stand-in for him and talks about what’s going on.

What was the writing process like for the sequel?
Both the first one and this one, they came very quickly for me. The first one, I think I wrote in 17 days when I was in film school — just this sort of I had to get it out of me thing. This one, Adam and I broke the story first. We spent a week or two talking about it in terms of story ideas. Then I went off and wrote it in a month or two. Over the course of the last ten years, there’s always been changes with any kind of script or project—things change constantly because history changes and new ideas come in. In this last iteration, we sat down and bashed ideas around and I off and wrote it so that’s where we are.

Adam Goldberg

It’s going to take $3 million to make The Hebrew Hammer vs. Hitler and $1 million of that is going to come from crowdfunding.
So yeah, legally, it is crowdfunding but we’re the third film to ever do this. It’s a new thing called equity crowdfunding. About a year and a half ago, the law changed and the Jobs act happened. Prior to this, there were other ways — if you were a tech company or a restaurant, you could actually raise equity and people could invest in your thing, but films were not allowed to do so with the SEC and equity crowdfunding. In terms of anybody investing, we can only raise up to $1 million per just the world in general. After that, it’s accredited investors—that means people who have a high net worth and have shown that they are savvy investors.

Do you see crowdfunding as being the future for independent films?
When Mark Hofstatter talked to me about equity crowdfunding, I was like, this is going to change things because I’m sure as you know from covering films, independent movies are in a weird place right now. If it’s not a mumblecore-level budget or a $100 million Marvel movie, it’s hard to find middle ground for anything. It’s really hard to get an independent film made these days. TV is now the new movies in the sense that people have these great opportunities to watch these serialized shows on Netflix and so forth. Movies have been in a weird place. The models have all been changed with the advent of the internet so it feels like it.

I’m finding out now what sort of things are working or not working with the equity crowdfunding platform. For example, it seems that people are wary of putting in their social security number into a site, which makes sense, and it has to happen because it’s SEC-backed. It’s an investment so it’s like opening an E-trade account. There’s certain things that the government and Congress, I think, need to do or change so it’s as easy as going to Indiegogo and donating with the click of a button. We’ve raised $52,000 so far and we’re not even halfway through our campaign. People are expressing to Adam and I that they’re wary: they don’t want to invest, they just want to give. Whether it’s less than $100 because that’s the minimum on the equity crowdfunding site or they don’t want to give their social. A friend of ours, who’s a fellow filmmaker, wants to give us $1,000 but doesn’t want to invest. We’re working out those kinks with Indiegogo right now and we’ll be announcing about that in a week or so.

I’m sorry I’m rambling but I do think if this can get worked out, I definitely think it will change the way things get made. There’s another project that I want to do with a comic — a really brilliant guy. He’s got millions of followers but for whatever reason in the indie film world, he doesn’t have value, which is ridiculous because he’s got such a big fan base. There’s hesitation to finance around him. If he were to be interested in doing this with me, then there’s a faster way to actually make this project with me. I’m learning about that as I go along, too.

When you all released the first film, did you expect that it would develop a cult following?
I believed. obviously, I’m the writer/director so I’m biased but I wholeheartedly believed in the film. When the film first started coming out —before it came out in theaters or on Comedy Central— going to the festivals around the world and seeing the response. I remember going to a festival in Toronto, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which they had at the Al Green Theater, an 800 seat theater, and there was lines literally around the block like insanity. They had to open up a second screening because people wanted to see it so bad.

I saw it when I first traveled with the movie. We were kind of — the way it was distributed the first time was not good at that time. It was day-and-date release before it even existed. Essentially, Comedy Central paid $500,000 to put it on television six times before it came out in theaters. When it came out in theaters, there was no P&A, which is print and advertising, so there’s no marketing money. It was literally $1,000 for all of marketing. It was on 8 screens and nobody really saw it in theaters but it was on Comedy Central and that’s where it got a following. In a weird way, I guess it’s kind of a cult given that it didn’t really get a shot in theaters but was kind of discovered later after the fact on television, which I guess is what cult is.

I remember watching it day one when it premiered and laughing up a storm.
God bless you. Thank you so much.

Outside of Adam Goldberg and Judy Greer, has anyone else signed on for The Hebrew Hammer vs. Hitler?
We’re all waiting. So in the last iteration of this when Adam was on but he was not filling in like he is now, I had other people attached. When he and I decided to do this as a team, we were going to partner together and he would going to produce with me. The idea was, let’s just kind of wipe the slate clean and clear off attachments. Let’s cast this the way we want to do it, cast the people we want to cast, and not just which actor means value. Let’s raise the money first and then deal with casting after, which I like because that’s how the first one was made. I was given money to make it and I cast Adam. We cast the rest based on who was best for the part. It makes for a better movie.

I remember meeting Rachel Dratch back in early April at the Chicago Improv Festival and telling her that I loved The Hebrew Hammer.
That’s awesome! I love Rachel. She’s great. Years ago, we became friendly after the movie. I was teaching at Yale many years ago. She came down and spoke to my class. She’s a brilliant actor and nice person. I actually want to figure out a way to put her in this one, too, which reminds me but thank you.

Thanks again for your time.
Thank you for doing this. I really appreciate it.

Click here to check out The Hebrew Hammer vs. Hitler.

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