Confessions of a Shomer Shabbos Hollywood Screenwriter

by | in People

By Robert J. Avrech

portrait

Act I:
Exposition—In Which the Main Characters and Primary Drama Are Introduced

It’s Shabbos morning. I’m in shul, davening with the hashkamah minyan, where an undertone of chatter is definitely not the norm. For me, a frum-from-birth screenwriter, this shul, where my wife and I have been members since we moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn, is my fortress of solitude. It’s where my Hollywood identity is securely tucked away and I can revert to my true self, which is: husband, father and grandfather, shomer Shabbos Jew, Religious Zionist and a man who tries to live a Torah life as best as he can.

In the midst of davening, a friend whispers: “I just saw that movie you made a few years ago. Very exciting story. ”

“Um, thanks so much.”

I figure the conversation is over and go back to davening.

“The thing I was wondering is,” continues my friend, “what’s she really like?” She being the famous and glamorous star of the movie my friend has recently seen on Netflix.

Still from A Stranger Among Us, starring Melanie Griffith and Eric Thal. The film was written and produced by Robert J. Avrech and directed by Sidney Lumet.

Still from A Stranger Among Us, starring Melanie Griffith and Eric Thal. The film was written and produced by Robert J. Avrech and directed by Sidney Lumet.

Several possible answers pop up in my head, as if on a TV game show board:

1. She’s very nice.

2. She’s crazy as a loon.

3. Why on earth were you watching that movie?

I go for number one.

My friend nods his head as if I’ve just explained a difficult Tosafos, puts a gentle hand on my shoulder and says, “We’ll talk more later.”

The purpose of this scene is not to denigrate my friend, who is a wonderful and charitable person, nor is it an attempt to bolster my credentials as a pious man. I confess: I’ve been known to talk in shul on occasion.

This anecdote illustrates the mesmerizing allure Hollywood exerts over, well . . . everyone! Hollywood movies are the most powerful tools of social and political propaganda the world has ever known. Think about it: America wins wars only when Hollywood believes in them and puts itself squarely behind America’s war effort. During World War II, every studio in Hollywood backed the Allied effort against the Axis. Hollywood stars raised money for war bonds, and studios produced films that went all out for freedom and liberty against the tyranny of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Hollywood played a huge role in America’s victory.

Contrast Vietnam. Hollywood, which was overwhelmingly antiwar, produced a series of movies that undermined the American effort against the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. America lost Vietnam. Hollywood knew that with a few clever, glossy films (such as Coming Home, starring Jane Fonda) and carefully manufactured imagery, it could undermine American foreign policy and turn heroic GIs into psychotic baby killers.

More recently, Hollywood has made about a dozen movies that condemn America’s military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not one of them was profitable, but the damage was done: America withdrew from both fronts. Islamic tyrannies will fill the vacuum—and Hollywood will never take notice or assume any responsibility.

Even women’s fashion is a reflection of what they see on the screen. Ever since Manolo Blahnik stilettos featured prominently on HBO’s hit show Sex and the City over a decade ago, middle-class women have been willing to walk through fire and water for a pair of Manolos—at something like $900 a pop!

Act II:
Conflict—In Which Our Little Drama Is Developed Into a Narrative Arc

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In A Stranger Among Us, Melanie Griffith plays a New York cop who goes undercover as a ba’alas teshuvah in order to solve the murder of a Chassidic diamond merchant. In this scene, Griffith enjoys a Shabbos meal. On Griffith’s lap is Aliza, Avrech’s daughter, playing a role in her father’s film.

Let’s be clear: Hollywood influences practically every aspect of life in the United States. As an award-winning screenwriter and producer who has been working in Hollywood for over twenty-five years, I can claim an authentic knowledge of Tinseltown and the people who make it work.

And I am here to tell you that whether your head is inside a Borsalino or under a kippah serugah, Hollywood is inside your head. And there, slowly but surely, it is executing a brilliant, insidious stealth attack on the core values that make up not only the bedrock of Torah Judaism, but also the foundation of American culture.

Here’s one example from my life as a screenwriter. A few years ago, a big studio hired me to write a drama about the dangers posed by Islamic terrorists. The studio executives wanted me to write the script because they knew it would be not just entertaining but also a cautionary tale for modern times. Still, one studio executive took me aside and whispered a warning: “Just don’t, y’know, malign all Muslims.”

My script was a beauty. Lots of action, a romance between a rugged American CIA agent (think a young George Clooney) and a beautiful Mossad agent (imagine Charlize Theron as a brunette), a few killer car chases, an evil Muslim terrorist and a decent Muslim kid who gets blackmailed into becoming a suicide bomber. A few weeks after I handed in my first draft, a studio executive called me and said that the studio was not going to go ahead with the project as currently written.

“We feel it’s too controversial. It might be seen as anti-Muslim. Now maybe if you turned the Muslim terrorists into Christian terrorists, we might reconsider.”

“Christian terrorists? Like whom?” I asked.

The studio exec said, “Oh, y’know, you can just make it up.”

“Christian terrorist organizations do not exist. I have done the research.”

“Yeah, well, there’s another problem: the stuff about Israel, your Mossad character. What about the Palestinians? You really have to present their side of the story.”

“The character of the Mossad agent is there for romance and to emphasize the global nature of Islamic terrorism,” I said. “It is, after all, Palestinians who invented modern jihadist terror.”

The studio exec sighed. “Robert, what can I tell you? You’re a great writer, but this script—well, unless you turn it inside out, it’s dead.”

TV is also the place where . . . children are either preternaturally wise or sadly jaded—sometimes both—but they never turn to their parents for advice or guidance.

A few days later, an inside source at the studio told me that someone had slipped a copy of my script to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an American group that presents itself as a civil rights organization but is actually a front for the Muslim Brotherhood. CAIR read my script and put pressure on the studio to drop the project or suffer some unnamed consequences.

My script was dead, killed off by a new set of values that have colonized Hollywood the way cancer cells multiply and devour healthy tissue. If you go to the movies, Islamic terror barely appears. And when it does appear, it is so tentative and mild that you would think that Muslim terrorists were an aberration on the world stage.

Hollywood sells glamour and sizzle. The women are beautiful, the men are handsome and the plot lines are, one hopes, clever and compelling.

Still from The Devil’s Arithmetic, starring Kirsten Dunst and Brittany Murphy. The film garnered rave reviews and earned Avrech the Emmy Award for best screenplay.

Still from The Devil’s Arithmetic, starring Kirsten Dunst and Brittany Murphy. The film garnered rave reviews and earned Avrech the Emmy Award for best screenplay.

But Hollywood also sells a set of core values.

Turn on the TV and you will see happy gay couples on almost every show. Since most of Hollywood believes that gay marriage is a human right, writers, producers and stars inject gay characters and couples into their storylines in order to convince viewers that gay couples are just like straight ones. Look at the ABC hit sitcom Modern Family. It’s clever and touching, and who in his right mind is going to object to the lovable gay couple who are featured players on the show?

TV is also the place where Dad is a clueless, lovable buffoon while elegant, long-suffering Mom puts up patiently with his childlike behavior. The children are either preternaturally wise or sadly jaded—sometimes both—but they never turn to their parents for advice or guidance. Watch a few hours of TV and you will come away believing that the nuclear family does not really function, if it exists at all.

Here are a few more messages that Hollywood endlessly projects:

1. No one goes to church or synagogue. Any character who worships is the butt of jokes. Exceptions are made for Buddhism, ill-defined spiritualism and, natch, Islam.

2. The greatest threats to our planet are overpopulation and so-called global freezing/global warming/climate change. Mankind is doomed because selfish people—that’s you and me, not the Hollywood elite—do not separate their trash with proper devotion.

3. Republicans are stupid, nasty bigots, usually with very bad skin.

4. Democrats are glamorous, brilliant, tolerant and the saviors of mankind. (Try telling that to Detroit, which has been ruled by Democrats for more than forty years.)

5. A woman’s place is in the workplace. Motherhood is sooooo Leave It to Beaver.

6. There are no Torah Jews in the greater Hollywood imagination. If we do show up, we are usually there for stupid bris milah jokes.

7. Zionism is invisible. When it does appear, it is usually treated like the plague.

Hollywood glamorizes and sells its values. These values make their way into your home—if you have TV, if you go to the movies, if you watch online—in such a way that you do not even realize that your gray matter is gradually being shaped into the fashionable conformity that animates Hollywood.

Movies are a moral landscape where stories convey powerful messages. Every movie begins with a script. Here is a sample page from Avrech’s Emmy Award-winning screenplay for The Devil’s Arithmetic. Photos courtesy of Robert Avrech

Movies are a moral landscape where stories convey powerful messages. Every movie begins with a script. Here is a sample page from Avrech’s Emmy Award-winning screenplay for The Devil’s Arithmetic. Photos courtesy of Robert Avrech

From where does Hollywood get its values?

Almost every Hollywood executive, director, producer and writer I’ve ever met has attended an Ivy League university where secular, leftist thinking dominates, and where genuine education—the search for knowledge—has been replaced by a not-so-subtle intellectual brainwashing.

A few months ago, a frum high school girl and aspiring screenwriter came to me for advice. She mentioned that she loved Modern Family and would “love to write stuff like that.” This girl is from a solid Torah family. She’s active in Bnei Akiva and volunteers with Bikur Cholim—an admirable young woman in every way. I asked her what she thought about gay marriage. She knew exactly what I was getting at. Smiling self-consciously, she said that she knew it was wrong, but she really loved the gay characters on the show and would feel as if she were betraying them if she came out against gay marriage.

“They’re not real,” I chided gently.

“They’re real to me,” she said.

The gay characters on a fictional TV sitcom have become real to this fine young woman and to millions of viewers around the world. The fantasy world of television and movies that emanate from a giant screen, TV panel, computer, tablet and smartphone have become a simulacrum of the real world—a parallel world that worms its way into our consciousness, replacing traditional morality with alien values disguised as the new normal.

None of this happens by chance. We who write movies and television shows weigh each word and image with excruciating care. I have managed to inject my values into several films and get away with it, even winning an Emmy Award for The Devil’s Arithmetic, a time-travel Holocaust drama. But I and a few like-minded friends are in the minority, outgunned and outnumbered.

Act III:
Resolution—In Which a Satisfying Closure Is Achieved

At the shul’s kiddush, my friend comes over to continue our discussion. Mostly, he wants to hear about the star. He’s delighted that I know her, that I know and have worked with dozens of stars. He thinks it’s just great that a guy from shul hangs with Hollywood royalty.

“What are they really like?” he asks.

I decide to tell the truth. “Not one of them is anything like they seem on screen. Mostly they are self-absorbed narcissists who can barely make their way from their limos to the sidewalk without powerful pharmaceuticals. If you spend ten minutes with any one of them, you would be shocked at how shallow, ignorant and one-dimensional they are. What they do well is act. They are actors. Without a role, without someone like me to write their dialogue, they practically cease to exist.”

My friend is shocked and baffled. Am I joking?

“Don’t make the mistake of confusing reality with a carefully-tailored image. That blurring can warp the mind.”

That’s when he asks the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.

“Then why do you do it?”

“Because I love movies—and I know the difference between reality and fiction.”

He smiles, nods and heads off to Daf Yomi.

I walk home. In my head, I’m already plotting my next script.

Robert J. Avrech’s numerous credits include A Stranger Among Us, directed by Sidney Lumet, and The Devil’s Arithmetic, starring Kirsten Dunst and Brittany Murphy, for which he won the Emmy Award for best script. Avrech has just published How I Married Karen, an ebook memoir that received a rave review from Kirkus, the bible of the publishing industry. He writes at his award-winning blog, Seraphic Secret.

Listen to Robert Avrech speak about Hollywood at www.ou.org/hollywood-screenwriter.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2013.

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