By Scott Bayer

The essence of dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated. When you say something directly, it’s simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves.Stanley Kubrick

Tiger Within (originally completed 2020 but release delayed to 2023 due to the Pandemic), features an acting performance, by the late great Ed Asner, that’s worth the price of admission all by itself. It is a film layered and replete with duality. The 89 year old Asner plays the 90ish Samuel, a Holocaust survivor – a widower, living a lonely life in Los Angeles for who knows how long. His polar opposite counterpart Casey is a 14 year old homeless recent runaway from Ohio; post-punk post-rave, Bladerunner-ish blonde, played by Margot Josefsohn. It was Asner’s last major role. It is her first and reminiscent of Brooke Shields in the original Pretty Baby (1978). He has lost his entire family. She deliberately left hers.

Asner delivers a nuanced and restrained but powerful performance with an aura of stubborn persistence, yet with subtle shades of almost spiritual sorrow beneath the surface. Margot gives a vivacious and compelling frenetically charged portrayal of precociously, disillusioned and alienated teenage angst. Zielinski’s directorial style and production approach derives from three decades of helming commercial movies and TV films, while at the same time being an independent filmmaker who has directed several festival favorites and art house films. This extensive dual experience of mastering making movies on set, as mettier en scene, and immersing the action, in a conceptually advanced yet naturalistic and inevitable cinematic mise en scene, as an auteur, enabled Tiger Within to be delivered as a completed film for an indie type $300,000 budget, while simultaneously projecting on screen with production values and theatrical qualities matching commercial films, costing five times as much. Thematically the movie, written by Gina Wendkos – {Coyote Ugly (2000), The Princess Diaries (2001), The Perfect Man (2005)} – over 25 years ago, resonates with far greater relevance and currency today than the period of its creation, which was almost prescient. A further dichotomy that contributes to the effective impact of the film’s underlying messaging and charm of the story results from the film’s smoothly understated, but sensitive presentation of the extremely serious issues of Holocaust denial and antisemitism while raising uncomfortable realities such as homelessness and family breakdown. Still, despite its depiction of current society’s dysfunctional, often self-defeating and self-serving, almost nihilistic ‘solutions’ to such problems, Zielinski and Wendkos manage to ultimately craft an ending of hope and forgiveness. A final duality, accompanying Tiger Within, results from its approach to distribution and exhibition – throughout the art house circuit coterminously with its launch on most major streaming and VOD platforms. This strategy, which is becoming more common, should finally put the ‘theatrical window’ debate to bed, except for a small number of Hollywood type blockbusters and tent pole movies.

Our exclusive conversation with Rafal Zielinski follows:

Rafal Zielinski

SB: The concept of a TIGER WITHIN comes from the ancient Chinese?

RZ: Absolutely! Embracing the tiger, embracing your fears and having the courage to move forward – it’s a proverb that’s very powerful and very timely.

SB: Well you were certainly in touch with your tiger within, being brave (or crazy) enough to finance this film yourself!

RZ: That’s true. It’s not an obviously commercial film since it features a young teenage character and an old man who is in his eighties or nineties. The big mainstream audience that wants to see movies is considered to be from 18 to like 35. This project sort of falls outside of that. And though people loved the script, and they loved the story, no one committed. I decided I had to become my own producer. That was the only way it was going to happen. So, then I started pitching it, looking for financing, sending it all over, trying to put it together in many different ways – through foreign, through co-productions, through trying to cobble together a slate of films, private investors, you know, everything. Well, the independent film world is very complicated these days. Theatrical distribution is pretty much impossible and it’s very difficult to get people to come to the cinemas. I remember when I was beginning, I would live in the repertory cinemas, literally.

SB: Now you’ll have to try to find these non-mainstream films on some streaming service and hopefully there will finally be a scenario in which indies get a fair shake. One with reasonable revenue sharing and data transparency, from the studios and streamers, in addition to actual promotion of their films to viewers on the platforms that stream them.

I go way back with streaming. I was in charge of the multimedia section of the New York Production Guide in 1997 and was putting together the listings for streaming vendors when the owner of NYPG said to me: “We don’t need this section. Nobody streams video files – there’s not enough bandwidth. They have to download them.” And I said, “Don’t worry they will and it’ll be big.” So I’ve seen these streaming guys come along for years and they used to ask filmmakers to sell them their films for a share of the revenues based on how many people saw their work. But they didn’t have any idea of the actual numbers of viewers and where revenue was really going to come from. These people today DO have an idea. The ones in Hollywood, but they don’t want to tell. They think they can get away with not revealing who’s watching individual films after all these years. They shouldn’t be able to continue with that any longer. We’ve been like really tolerant of that, you know? But now there’s a strike going on that’s finally addressing these issues. And the studios and conglomerates are going to have to come clean. Or the writers for sure aren’t going back. We don’t want to hear, “Oh, well we took your film at a low price (because that’s the market numbers these days) and who knows how many people saw it. We thought it may have been somewhat successful, but…” So the checks, sent to the filmmakers as well as the writers and actors, are now miniscule in comparison to the residuals that they received from the traditional business of TV, cable and overseas companies.

RZ: Yeah. They’re very secretive and in this world where everything should and can be tracked. We can go on our bank’s website, you know, and see every transaction. There’s no reason this can’t be all transparent. I mean it’s all digital everywhere else already.

SB: That’s because they like having the upper hand in the relationship. They can’t do things that way any longer and get away with it. They didn’t get a totally free ride in television or movies. They have to say what the gate is, what the receipts are, what the Nielson numbers are – right? Even if they take a little off the top. They surely don’t want to deal with Uncle Sam, I would think. You know even NASA launched their own streaming service recently.

RZ: Right. Exactly. I hope the world will be changing and there will be transparency, honesty. Money is not everything. Our existence is so fleeting, why corrupt it by lying, cheating and stealing. It could haunt you for eternity, depending on your belief systems.

SB: Well, according to legendary Indie Producer Ted Hope, speaking at the Locarno Film Festival recently, that just may be “doable” if the studios are able to grasp how important the issues, which WGA & SAG/AFTRA are contesting, are to the future sustainability of the film and content creation industries (in America particularly).

Regarding transparency of data he said, “We need to own the data of the work we create. If we don’t have this, we as artists and entrepreneurs can’t course correct when we make a mistake. We can’t say we didn’t connect with an audience with this film.”

As far as our share of the pie as creators he declared, “Denying back-end participation is a violation of human rights. I think this is a place for government. Sharing in the success is an absolute necessity for what we do.” Right On, Ted!

RZ: Maybe there’s room for these boutique streaming services now. In fact, I’m just beginning my own, I am in the process of re-releasing all my art house films that I’ve directed and produced, Hey Babe! (1983), Ginger Ale Afternoon (1989), FUN (1994) which won a special Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, as well as two previously unreleased movies – Age of Kali (2005) and 1001 Nights in Bohemia (2011), and of course Tiger Within in foreign territories, in several languages. I think that hopefully they’ll attract a new audience since they haven’t dated. I go back to watch these films and they just feel so contemporary. I think maybe it’s possible.

SB: I think that for an independent filmmaker, that’s one of the things they should always try to do – make their films evergreen, vintage, classic, future proofed…

RZ: That’s right. I really try to do that. Ginger Ale Afternoon which first showed at the Sundance Film Festival, it’s timeless. You don’t sense when it’s taking place. It’s in a sort of white trash trailer park environment. And the argument that this couple has is so universal. It could be happening right now. FUN feels contemporary because the wardrobe in the prison is exactly the same. And a prison is a prison. What kids are going through today are the same issues that they were going through at the time when we made the film. These two received a limited theatrical release, but at that time there was no streaming, so these films are largely undiscovered by the mainstream audiences.

SB: At any point, no matter how much technology or newer technique you take advantage of – immersive, AI, whatever you’re putting up on the screen, it still comes down at some point in the movie to where there’s two people just talking to each other and/or fighting it out, working it out, discussing things… And that’s timeless. It goes back all the way to the Greeks and likely well before.

RZ: Yes, and showing the humanity, the pain, the joy – in search of love, in search for understanding. Transforming darkness into light. Those are themes that really interest me. And when I look at all the films that I’ve done, they’re always about misfits, rebels… lonely souls in search for love. Even in the Roger Corman films that I used to do at the beginning.

SB: I knew you directed some Roger Corman Films but I couldn’t easily tell which ones.

RZ: Yeah. Screw Balls (1983), Loose Screws (1984), Recruits (1986) and ones like National Lampoon’s: Last Resort (1994) – they’re all about misfits, rebels, outsiders, these guys who are just like on the fringes of high school or society. And they were just desperately trying to, you know, achieve their goals and fail miserably. And there was the comedy and the humor and the compassion which I seem to gravitate to. I think Tiger Within is a bit of a combination – both Ed and Margot play very lonely hearts.

SB: You also often take advantage of the Cinema Verité Documentary style in your narrative films.

RZ: My mentor Richard Leacock at MIT, where I studied Cinema Verité, filmmaking, and documentary, taught me so much that I’ve applied in all the films I’ve done. He taught us to be like the fly on the wall and not to interfere with real life. Let life live and breathe in front of your camera and you just disappear. And I’ve used that in a lot of my films, especially in this one, Tiger Within, where I really wanted to just let the magic flow – let these actors pour themselves out. Let’s see their pain and I think it really worked because it amplified their performance. I did that also in FUN. It was a true story of a senseless murder of an elderly lady by two teenage girls that took place in California. We used the Cinema Verité technique in a dramatic context.

I was very fortunate to have spent a lot of time in Asia with my father who was a consultant with the Ford Foundation on low-cost housing, using a light-weight pre-fabricated concrete panel system that he invented. He created housing for victims of flood, famine, and displacement due to political upheaval, as well as hundreds of latrines in the streets. We spent five years in Calcutta, which they say is like the worst place in the world sometimes. The hellhole of the world, you know what I mean? It’s just so much misery and so much homelessness and pain and disease. And then the monsoon comes and everything just floats. You really see the desperation, yet there is joy and happiness. I mean, in a way, the more suffering and pain people go through, the nobler they are – very interesting, yes? There was a sense of joy in the street dwellers. I was so fortunate to have lived in many countries, including Egypt for a year (another Ford Foundation Project), and traversed the globe twice by the age of 14. It gave a global perspective, and the deep belief that we are all one family, and the planet is in a precarious, fragile state.

My father was Polish/Ukrainian. And my mother was Jewish, so when the Nazis came, sympathetic Poles would hide her in the cellars, and they lived in a constant state of fear where my mother and her sister could have been sent away anytime. Anytime. It’s a miracle that they survived. And it’s really marked them – they’re survivors who never went to the camps, they lived in a constant ‘Holocaust’.

SB: Regarding the Holocaust (and even much of the 20th century – forget about the rest of the past three millennia), generations Y & Z seem to have no sense of history and X tends to fudge it when it suits them.

RZ: Right. Well, that’s also very unfortunate and that’s one of the themes in our film, this misinformation, lack of education and even hate speech. There’s so much false information going around, people now can be more easily swayed into believing inaccurate ‘facts’ and outright lies, you know, rewriting history. It’s very unfortunate. And artificial Intelligence, if used incorrectly can have devastating effects.

SB: As Milos Forman said, “Holocaust films will be made and should be made as long as we can’t understand what makes people so cruel to each other.”

RZ: And that’s one of the things we’re trying to do in this film is to educate people. In fact, Gina Wendkos, the writer, has always dreamed about going around to the high schools, to use the screenings as a point of departure for some meaningful discussions.

SB: Let’s get to the story behind the film. It took a long time to finally come to fruition? I kind of got the feeling that it didn’t just happen overnight.

RZ: That’s right. Gina gave me the script literally 25 years ago, and I was very deeply touched by it. Each time I would read it, over the years, the tears would never stop flowing – that is the timeless power of it. It moved me deeply not only because of my own sometimes conflicted background (trying to understand both sides of the equation), but also because of the deep themes expressed in the film, and the rich characters that you felt, especially Casey, who just made your heart open. Themes of forgiveness, of bringing people together, of compassion, unconditional love, which we can extend to our neighbors and with people we meet – trying to love the other, as much as we love ourselves. And the challenge to find the balance, which is very difficult for any human being. All those themes attracted me when I read the script, but it went through a long up and down journey to get it made.

FUN, which I mentioned earlier, was quite a success at Sundance, as well as at festivals across the globe. And it opened doors at every studio. I met with major producers, every studio.

My agents sent me everywhere. I did the whole, what they called the ‘dog and pony show’ and everyone wanted to meet me and talk to me. They would always, present their scripts and their projects and there were a lot of wonderful films that I was up for, which in the end I didn’t get. But they were huge studio films, like Se7en(1995),Scream (1996). Girl Interrupted(1999), and oh so many. A lot of amazing, compelling scripts came through my desk. Everyone always asked, “By the way, do you have any projects you want to do?” I would always relentlessly pitch this one. Tiger Within was one of my three, besides a large scale science fiction film ALieNZ and Bardo Thodol. Bardo Thodol is my ultimate dream project, based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I had discovered as a teenager when we visited Katmandu, at the time we were living in India. It’s the journey we take between Death and Rebirth, aimed for a wide audience, tackling the themes of karma, laws of cause and effect, accountability for one’s actions, words and thoughts.

Anyway, the film took 25 years to make because we couldn’t get the financing. I ended up being not only the producer and of course the director, but also the sole financier. I had to take loans among other sources to make the film, so we took a risk. The script was originally set in New York, and I was concerned that having to shoot in sunny, golden California, would deflate it, lose the grit – but in retrospect it seemed to make it stronger, because hate, antisemitism, racism lurks everywhere, even in these or less expected places, in fact that is what makes it so subversive, in this country and the world at large, in both the physical world and on-line.

SB: But you’re an older guy, you’re not supposed to fall for like mortgaging the house to make a film. You’re supposed to be wiser than that.

RZ: Yeah, I know. But… <Laughs> when you believe in something so strongly and it has a powerful message… life is short, you want to do something that will change the world, improve the world.

I tried to do a Kickstarter. In fact, when you go on the film’s website,, there’s some compelling videos we did for the various Kickstarter campaigns. And they’re so interesting because they’re from 10 years ago, yet they’re so current, because nothing seems to have changed in our world, in fact things have gotten worse, making it a mixed blessing the film got delayed, as now it seems to be even more relevant.

There are videos of rehearsals we did with various actresses and actors and there’s artwork – concept drawings, animations – so it shows the history of the project. It’s almost as if I made the film several times in my imagination. Also, all the research we did about forgiveness, a major theme in the film. It’s a very touchy subject because everyone had different opinions, especially the experts. We interviewed a Rabbi, a Priest, a Buddhist Monk, a Muslim, a Native American Chief, as well as a Philosopher of Ethics, and a Psychotherapist. I also spoke to dozens of teenagers, as well as people of all levels of society, and age groups on the streets of Los Angeles and New York. It became a side documentary project, and you can watch the interviews on the films’ website (forgiveness tab).

Everyone agreed that there was a tremendous self-healing power in forgiveness, my Buddhist inclinations of the laws of karma, cause-and-effect were confirmed, but you will be amazed by the various conflicting concepts, understanding and definitions of forgiveness, ranging from transactional, to unconditional, to honor, to measured. One of my favorites was the Native American POV. We are only beginning to discover the beauty and the power of these cultures which we have almost erased – a sort of slow motion, perhaps subversive, genocide in itself – and similar ones are in the works, look at Tibet and what is going on in China with the Uyghurs. But let’s get back to Tiger.

SB: The dialogue was good. I thought it was strong. I’m a dialogue person. I think that if you’re going to make a narrative film, good dialogue is imperative.

RZ: Well, that’s from Gina Wendkos’s script. She wrote a film that I directed.

SB: You shot the script, but in your own inimitable Cinema Verité style?

RZ: Yeah. Ginger Ale Afternoon that was also her script, her play. The film went on to the Dramatic Competition at Sundance, the very first year, when we were up against Soderbergh’s Sex Lies and Videotape (1989) and independent film and Sundance were put on the map. It was a historic year. Gina is brilliant with dialogue. It comes from her background as a playwright. I would be in awe, how she could write an argument between a couple that would go on for an hour, on a bare stage, yet it took you on a roller coaster of emotions, humor, empathy and all the colors of the human condition, and you just loved the characters, and saw yourself in them. What I love about her dialogue is that it’s also understated, specific, elegant, economical yet sharp and uncompromising in its honesty and intimacy. That’s power.

SB: That’s why it has bite though, when they’re good lines, they just hit harder.

RZ: That’s right. Every scene is potent, but it’s sometimes done with such elegance – it’s effective and mesmerizing. And in fact, the more you start embellishing it, the less power it has. As you know, often less is more – which is exactly the approach I took in directing here.

I tried to direct this movie by not over manipulating it, not over managing the performances. And I was so fortunate to work with such an amazing actor as Ed. I knew he felt this role. He completely bared his soul, and you feel the pain and of his life, of who he was. And the same with Margot. I just happened to catch her at a time in her life where she was, you know, wounded. She was deep and complex. She had gone through a very complicated childhood. So it was always like raw sorrowful emotions that they both exposed. So, I captured a moment in time between these two human beings and they revealed their souls. You really see deep inside who they are, not just as the characters, but as human beings. And I think that’s why the film is so moving. It really touches people because it’s a small, minimal story, yet there’s such truth in the performances they portray and the underlying thematic conflict. Ed’s acting was transcendental, but I have to add that he was an amazing man too. Encyclopedic knowledge, politics, awareness of the world, impeccable memory, you could have a conversation on any subject, and learn so much, with such clarity, compassion, wisdom, universality, and humor. His humor is brilliant. And physical energy – here we are shooting night scenes, and he is still so sharp and awake, while the crew is starting to fall asleep, and every morning right on time, ready to go!

SB: So, directing Ed Asner and he had so many major roles on television, in movies, and the public stage, an actor’s actor – what was your approach?

RZ: Gina was initially concerned because he was best known as a comedy actor. How can he play drama? But it just worked beautifully because Ed had truly studied his craft and had consciously addressed that dichotomy himself. He put it this way: “In comedy you have to find the drama, and in drama you have to find the comedy, and the best writing and performances come from the marriage of the two. That’s when it becomes very powerful.”

SB: I think he delivered some pretty good black humor at just the right times. Mostly it was visual. It was the way he rolled his eyes and controlled his facial expressions, which is pretty interesting that he could do that. That’s a really good actor who can say things without words.

RZ: That’s right. His performance was so restrained. That’s why it was strong. He was extremely careful not to overact, not to be over mannered and overstate, and keep it deep inside and subtle. And I think that’s the power of it. I had this fear as a director that we didn’t want this thing to become too emotional and too “schmaltzy.” I would say it had to be gritty, real and uncompromising and it must show the beauty, the ugliness, and everything in between. Truth is the most powerful, it doesn’t lie! So, for the performances and how I directed:

I was searching for the truth, the truth in the moment and when I saw the truth, I did not dare interfere in any way. And my job was, in a way, to create a comfortable space where these actors could act and do what they’re best at doing – just act.

SB: It was a heck of an acting job. I think that, the more it gets out there, the more people will look at the performance and say, wow! Yeah. It’s very strong, and you know it holds up with some of the special lead movie roles I’ve seen played by older actors considered to be well past their prime – Robert Mitchum at 58 in Farewell My Lovely (1975), Burt Lancaster at 67 in Atlantic City (1980), Peter O’Toole at 74 in Venus (2006), Christopher Plummer at 86 in Remember (2015) Of course Ed was 89 here.

RZ: Right, but also, I have to say that we spent several years trying to make it with Martin Landau, (who was in Remember with Plummer).

SB: He probably would’ve been good. I can’t imagine he wouldn’t have been. I saw you thanked Landau in the credits.

RZ: Yeah. Because we spent a lot of time with Martin. We were trying to set it up. He tried to get Steven Spielberg to get involved, and he just believed in it. He was such a gentleman, and I had worked with him on a film called The Elevator (1996).And we had a relationship previously from another film, and we’d always meet at Jerry’s Deli or at Mel’s Diner, and we would spend hours and hours in the afternoons talking about Hollywood. Martin would tell us all these stories about everything he went through, including having an affair with Marilyn Monroe for a whole year. I never knew that. But when I asked for more intimate details, he wouldn’t tell me and just smiled. Still, there were quite a few secrets that he did tell us. After Martin had passed, as well as before he became attached, Gina or I had met with a number of actors; there was Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jerry Lewis, Max Von Sydow, Rod Steigerand I remember, I spent a lot of time chasing Kirk Douglas.

But, you know, in the end, there’s no actor in the entire world who could have played this role as well as Ed did. I mean, it was a miracle and such a gift. And I tell you, Ed was the only actor who could have given us this depth, the pain, the intelligence. I don’t know of any other actor who could have done it as well as Ed did, and we were so lucky. And Ed was such a relentless trooper. Once or twice, he was almost on the verge of quitting. He was just like, “I can’t handle this anymore.” But then he stuck with it. I remember once we were sitting in this crappy building with no air conditioning and there was no makeup room. He was basically in this tiny prison like cell, it looked like a squat apartment, sitting there on this bed with no mattress and just the metal chair and it was very grim. But he stuck through it and it was just because he really believed in this project. He believed it had to be made. He felt that this was a tale that needed to be told, because it was a story that would resonate to other cultures, other religions, other nationalities, other groups. When I showed him the film at the end, he said, “I didn’t expect anything. This is actually good.”

SB: Well, it’s unquestionably a well made film, but that’s very nice. A real compliment.

RZ: Yeah, he was very much like his character in the Mary Tyler Moore Show. He was gruff but gruff with love. True Scorpio. We were so fortunate; this was his last major starring role. We captured a legend at a moment in time that will hopefully never be forgotten.

SB: How did you hook up with Ed for the part?

RZ: It was an interesting story. I was driving down Laurel Canyon where I live, and this guy was hitchhiking. And I’d seen him many times walking down. He looked very interesting. Anyway, so he keeps hitchhiking. And I said to myself, what the hell, I’m gonna stop and see who this person is. So, he jumps in and he’s like, in his sixties. And it turns out he’s an actor, a character actor, Todd Hoffman. And he says, “I’ve just written a script and Ed Asner is in it. It’s about him and his dog.” I said, “Ed Asner, oh my god I have this movie about a Holocaust survivor, and my actor just died – Martin Landau.”

He told me Ed would be wonderful in it and might be interested. He picks up the phone, he dials and he says, “Ed, I got a project for you.” And Todd put me on the phone, and I said, “Mr. Asner I’m so honored to talk to you” – this as we’re driving, like about 30 seconds after the guy jumped in my car. And I said to Ed, “You know, I’ve been trying to make this movie about a Holocaust survivor for many years, and would you be interested in reading it? It’s a really beautiful story.” Ed says, “Send it over right now. Bring it over to my house.” I drive over to him, all the way to Encino, and I drop it off underneath his door mat. And the next day I get a call very early in the morning. He said, “I’m in, I’m doing this job.” <Laughs>.

SB: Ha, that’s great.

RZ. I owe getting Ed to Todd. Without him it would not have happened. It was just meant to be. Todd ended up in the movie as Ed’s body double and was Ed’s companion, keeping him entertained in between scenes, so it all worked out. They were always cracking jokes and laughing, two old pals. It was just wonderful, as if by magic. And at that time, I wasn’t even sure if we were going to be making this movie. I mean, there was no actor I was trying to get after Kirk Douglas.

SB: How Long after you wrapped the film was it before Ed passed?

RZ: Oh, it was about two years ago. See, the pandemic threw a curve ball at us, because this film should have come out the year after it got made. But because of the pandemic, all the theaters were shut down. The festivals were shut down, everything was shut down and nothing was going on. So, then I tried to get an Academy Award campaign going because I thought there was an opportunity. There were no major studio films being promoted. There were only one or two smaller independent films. Maybe we had a shot. We did our own grassroots campaign. We submitted it to the Academy Awards. We sent out email blasts multiple times, but it was difficult to get anyone’s attention since the big films get all the promotion and support.

SB: So you had the word already out back at that point. That means when you get to another point, you actually have some seeds planted.

RZ: A little bit. A little bit. But it also hurt us because we had to play it for one week at the Laemmle Virtual Cinema. But then some people saw that as a release.

SB: That was a world premiere. Right?

RZ: Yeah. Some reviewers wrote about it, but it was so obscure, we didn’t get any big reviews. When it came out now, some of the press said that it’s been reviewed already. It’ a movie that was released already. But I tried to tell everyone it was never released and that was just a qualifying run that usually would be done in a theater for a week. But this was done on the virtual platform and almost no one saw it because we deliberately didn’t promote it or advertise it. I didn’t want anyone to see it. I just had to do it to qualify. I would love for Ed to be nominated posthumously. He deserves it.

SB: The film is not posthumous, it’s a live film out there. So why couldn’t he be nominated?

RZ: Now, maybe we will. I’m hoping that maybe this will be the time because, not only is the film so topical now, but since that time the world has had much darkness and so much misinformation and racism is growing and there is increased antisemitism. But anyway, if you have any pull in trying to convince anyone to get Ed nominated again, please give it a shot. Ed deserves to have this honor. He never had an Academy Award while he has had so many Emmys and actually broke all the records.

When I have chosen my actors, I really love them. I always make friends with them, fall in love with them: like a puppet-master that falls in love with his puppets.”Federico Fellini

RZ: Well I’m very honored that the movie is getting such beautiful reviews for Ed and Margot. People seem to just love them. I feel very proud that I was able to discover this girl and it was like a miracle how I found her. I was with my son Noah, and he wanted to get into commercials. He was 13 or 14 at the time. So, we went to a casting agency that was looking for kids and I saw Margot sitting there at the other end of the lobby among a ton of kids, probably like 50 of them. She had these interesting eyes, very deep magnetic eyes, which spoke such depth. And they were huge, and they were piercing, and they were just fascinating. I just was drawn to walk up to her mom and her, and we started talking. I was already, in the thick of trying to put Tiger Within together, but I didn’t want to raise any type of false hopes, so I told them that I was working on a Kickstarter campaign raising money. I said we needed someone to shoot for a poster, so we could sell the project to investors. I asked her mom if she’d mind if we dressed Margot up as a homeless girl for the photo and video shoot.

After it was agreed, myself and Tara Violet Niami, a super-talented photographer of Iranian Origin, ( whom I was considering as Director of Photography, went around Skid Row and spent the day photographing. Margot really thought it was an exhilarating adventure, you know, and I started talking to her about the character of Casey and what was going through her head. I sort of walked her into the role and she completely understood the character and she became Casey right there in front of our eyes. She wandered through desolate streets, picked up garbage, tried to find food. She just started completely improvising the character. She tried to climb some barbed wire fences. She picked up some shopping carts, and started spinning them around, smashing things and kicking them. Then she just plopped herself down and sat on the sidewalk. She found this old garage, and she lied down and sort of cuddled up, like in her loneliness and pain – perfect! And then she fell asleep. You can see the photos and videos on the film’s website

In the end I felt that it would be unjust to Tara to place her into a nearly impossible situation, of having to shoot her first feature with a reduced crew, almost no money, a heat spell, a limited child-labor reduced-crammed shooting schedule, with a legendary actor who might demand a certain level of experience, and question my judgement. So I ended up working with Helge Gerull, a German born cinematographer, that had worked on another grueling shoot in 35mm, in New York, on my earlier movie Downtown: a Street Tale (2004) ,a film about homeless kids, that premiered at AFI Fest, starring Academy Award nominee Genevieve Bujold. Helge is a deeply sensitive, visually poetic cameraman and photographer, who loves working with natural light, and he was a real trooper, carrying the handheld Arri Alexa Mini, on his shoulder on every shot, in the heat and sweat of the Los Angeles streets. The entire movie was shot handheld and Helge had a sore shoulder throughout, as a result of the ordeal.

Diversity and inclusion is also my concern, and by deliberately choosing to work with an Iranian and then a German cinematographer, on a film that was a Jewish/Holocaust themed story would be a statement that we are all one and we need to come together, build bridges, so the world would be a better, more peaceful place since history unfortunately has a way of repeating itself, in different incarnations and forms. Ed felt strongly about this, and it was one of the reasons he chose to work on this film, because he saw its potential to resonate on a much wider and bigger scale.

As we were shooting with Tara and Margot, I remembered this street in Calcutta – the homeless, the Untouchables. It all came back to me.

I drew on all those memories and experiences. Then I got her to read the screenplay, and she really related to the story and she felt it was her. Next, I did some improvs with her, where I played a school counselor who’s questioning a girl who’s just gotten herself into trouble and she improvised things as if they were happening in high school. That really helped to get her into character. Then I asked the casting director, who was sending me all these actresses who were 18 and over, if hewould mind if we considered this girl who is only 14. I said, “she’s the real thing.” The casting director didn’t like that idea at all. But, at the very end of the last session, I brought her in, and Gina was there as well. She did some scenes from the script, and she was incredible. She went deep inside, there was amazing authenticity, including tears. There were real tears, you know, coming down her cheeks. Gina and I, and Mike Pina, the Executive Producer, and everyone in the room, we were like, completely shocked. She was Casey! I mean, we were so moved we were all crying.

SB: That’s beautiful.

RZ: Yeah. Then she revealed things about her childhood that were quite interesting. She’s had a very complicated life and it all shows on the screen. We just felt she was the one. And she was very natural with all kinds of material dealing with the script. I wanted her to meet Ed before we made a decision, and we brought her to Ed’s house. Ed read with her and they just became the two characters. And Ed was so generous with her. He was so fatherly and so supportive. What clinched the deal for me was when I asked them to take a walk together in the backyard and the way she just picked his arm up, as he was very frail because he’d had a hip surgery, which was so helpful. Then he started improvising, as if they were walking down his street in New York, talking about the neighborhood and all the things where he lived.

She just asked him questions and he answered them. And I videotaped the whole thing – It was just like, scenes out of the movie. We knew then that she had to be Casey.

SB: So how long did it take to make the movie?

RZ. It was so rapid. The whole thing was so fast, super-fast. Because I had so little money, I originally wanted to shoot the whole thing in 12 days. But when I brought a 14-year-old child into the picture, that completely uprooted the whole schedule and plan. We could only work for five hours a day with her, and we had to abide by child labor laws. We had to have a teacher on the set and there were scenes that the union was very nervous about with a 14-year-old. SAG was very nervous about the massage parlor scenes. They wrote a very strict Bible for how we were going to shoot those scenes – she could not be in the presence of any male actor, basically we had her massaging a pillow. Then we brought in a stand in, another actress, who played her part in the massage parlor and I just read the dialogue off camera – then we pieced it together. And we made a pledge to hire a crew that was 50% female, to make Margot as comfortable as possible and to honor our deep commitment to diversity and inclusion in the industry.

SB: Well what the heck, who needs three takes?

RZ: Yes, you’re right. No, we didn’t need three takes. I’ll tell you a story about that. Sometimes there was no time to do multiple takes. To save time, I used all the techniques that Richard Leacock and Roger Corman taught me. My low-budget movie beginnings came in real handy, how to work fast, efficient and maximize production values, wherever possible. Some scenes were completely improvised, and we just filmed them with no rehearsals. In other scenes there was no time to properly shoot them. I would shoot the entire scene and all the coverage without cutting the camera. Normally you would spend four or five hours shooting a particular scene. You would set up different angles and shoot the scene multiple times. We didn’t have that luxury. Basically, I would say, okay, roll camera, we would play the scene. When the scene was over, I would say, don’t cut, don’t cut. Let’s reposition the camera and we’ll repeat it from this angle, then I would ease the cameramen to a new position. Now we re-play the scene. Then we’ll repeat and I’ll move it again, so we would do like 10 different setups. And that really helped us a great deal because, you know, whenever you cut the camera, you lose many minutes, as everything and everyone resets and adjustments are required. It was always a race, the clock ticking as if in slow motion, to make it just before the 5-hour daily limit for a child performer.

SB: Gotcha.

RZ: Yeah. It immediately takes away the 10 minutes waiting. I eliminated all of that and got all the coverage by using this technique. And it worked. It also made the performances roll with their natural rhythm. You know, there’s something about not cutting the camera. Films are done in little pieces, but when Ridley Scott does this, he shoots scenes with multiple cameras and he just lets them flow. So, there’s a very natural rhythm to the performance. And I used it in FUN actually.

SB: And how many cameras were you shooting with – just one?

RZ: Yeah.

SB: Okay. Of course. Just one.

RZ: Yes. Our final coverage was very limited but when we made FUN we literally had no coverage. I said, every scene will be one continuous shot and that’s it. The cameraman would just fly around and some scenes went on for like 15 minutes and the camera would just roll from here to there to there.

SB: Sort of natural. I congratulate you. You don’t see that on the screen. So that’s beautiful that you could do that. it seemed like just regular stuff. Very good. That’s impressive.

RZ: Yeah. It also gives the film sort of a real feel, like you are witnessing real life. Also, we were filming all over the streets, sometimes with no permits, since we couldn’t get them because they were just too expensive. Literally, Ed was walking, entering buses and walking down crosswalks and we were always very nervous because it takes time for him to cross. The red light would start up and we said, “oh my God, he’s gonna get run over!” He was such a trooper. He was so wonderful. We shot all over the place. I wanted the film to also be a portrait of the city. We wanted to show all the colors of Los Angeles, so you wouldn’t feel claustrophobic and the film could breathe, to maximize production values and the visuals. It became a sort of love letter to the City of LA. So, we had Ed & Margot everywhere. There was a major historic heat spell as we were shooting. So, it was tough. It was very tough on Ed to put him through this, and we didn’t have air conditioning anywhere.

SB: You didn’t have a honey wagon?

RZ: Just for him. We had a little camper. You know, then about halfway through the film, we felt so badly for Margot that her mom, (we didn’t have the budget) paid for a camper. So yeah, that’s how low budget the whole production was. I hope I don’t have to make such an extremely low budget film ever again, because it’s rough. It’s tough on everyone. It’s hard on the crew. It’s tough on the actors.

SB: Well, I thought you handled the thing about the mother and the denial of the Holocaust very tactfully and efficiently to get the point across. Collective memories are pretty bad these days, I’ve noticed. I think from Y to Z, it’s nearly totally lost. And X, they’ve deliberately not told Y certain things,

RZ: Yeah, it’s almost like the Holocaust, it’s just become a sort of slogan, but no one really knows the details of the history. And that’s what Gina would love to do through education, hopefully such atrocities will never, ever happen again. But it’s only by knowing the complexity and the details of the history that you realize what human beings are capable of doing and how you can manipulate people step by step. It’s a whole process.

I’m hoping that the film will attract a wider and younger audience. At the moment it’s being marketed towards an older demographic, but people are starting to discover Margot and they see a star in the making. She deserves to get some huge roll out from this and I hope that some major directors see this performance and approach her because of it.

SB: She played her age, basically – right?

RZ: Yes, that’s right. She’s 19 now, so she could easily play, you know, 19. And there’s plenty of roles for the 19, 20-year old’s now.

SB: What’s the date that you opened in NYC?

RZ: It opened July 28th in New York at the cinema that’s called, New Plaza Cinema. It’s a boutique theater on West 67th Street. They’re playing lots of cool movies. The distributor, Menemsha Films, is sprinkling it out, but it’s catching on at Rotten Tomatoes with an 80% audience score. They wanted Margot to do a Q & A when it opened.

SB: Oh, they always like that.

RZ: But they couldn’t because of the strike, right? Well, I think she’s not part of SAG, but she was under the Low Budget SAG Agreement.

SB: Well, the point of it is, if she’s going to get into SAG, they covered the ground on that. They said: “Oh, yeah. If you do this and you were going to try to get into SAG later, that’s gonna eliminate you.” They got some bite there, you know. Yeah, I’m sure one needs to be so careful. That’s the kind of measure Ed Asner probably would have put in a long time ago, when he was president of SAG, to maintain union solidarity. In 1983; he stood up to the studios just when the technology was changing, and that’s exactly what’s going on now, you know? So now we’re all following in his footsteps. If he was the president of the Screen Actors Guild today, this is exactly the same battle he would be fighting, and he’d be right in the middle of it.

RZ: Same battle, same issues, just the technology, has leaped to a new realm. One ironic thing I should mention. SAG actually shut the film down halfway through. They said we were taking too many risks, shooting without permits, and with no money, or proper security to protect the performers in the streets. It was a disaster. I thought I’d lose all my money, the film would never be finished, and it was all over! Then Ed, being a sophisticated political negotiator, wrote a letter of apology to the president of the guild, stressing how important the film and the subject matter was, and how he would make sure we all took the necessary precautions from then on.

We waited. A week went by. Then by miracle the guild relented. We were allowed to continue. I started with a $100,000 budget. When I chose to work with a child star, the budget increased to $200,000.

Now I had to find a new crew, because several left to work on other projects, and had to increase the budget to $300,000.

I was the director, the producer and the sole financier, together with my wife (Vally Mestroni). I had battles within myself carrying these multiple hats, which typically are at war with one another. I could not sleep at nights. I’m so grateful for my wife, who is an artist and shares the belief that sometimes we need to be bigger than ourselves, despite the financial struggles.

SB: What about the rest of the cast? It wasn’t a full ensemble because they were all in separate places, but you had a good set of secondary characters that I thought were very solid.

RZ: Yes, they were. For example, Taylor Nichols, who plays one of the customers in the massage parlor, was a star in a film I made called Age of Kali. And he did a few Whit Stillman movies. He was in Barcelona (1994).

SB: Whit Stillman was so hot, and then he was just gone.

RZ: I think he’s still trying to make films through Kickstarter. I’ve noticed him raising financing there.

The mom played by Erica Piccininni was marvelous. A young mother who would transform like a chameleon often depending on what her character’s emotional state was in that scene.

SB: She was very good. She went from being like almost hideous in one shot to being really sexy in a few others.

RZ: And they’re all unique and surprising in their own ways – we had a very accomplished casting director, Brad Gilmore. I wanted to use famous actors in cameos to play all the parent roles, to boost the marketability of the film – (my producer hat), but Brad felt strongly we needed just talented actors who were not recognizable faces, he won and he was right. But he lost the battle over Margot. Casting an authentic 14-year-old was the right choice, although I was disappointed when we approached Billie Ellish who turned the project down because of touring obligations, but we tried.

James Victor, (the dad) and Jennifer Christopher, (his wife) were true finds, that played with such authenticity. Jonathan Brooks, the abusive racist boyfriend, was a challenge not to make him seem stereotypical, underplaying the obvious. He pulled it off.

Diego Joseph, the boyfriend, is an incredible actor. He’s been on several television shows, which are all well regarded top quality productions. He was in the Amazon series, Goliath. He’s Latino and I think he was a good casting choice since Latinos are underrepresented in our present culture. Don’t get me started on the Indigenous cultures…

SB: Diego was very smooth in getting through to Margot – a very good supporting role. That’s a good part, right? He looked like someone who wouldn’t miss a beat.

RZ: Well, he was excellent In Goliath, you know and very sweet. He’s so natural and so subtle – a very deep actor and super handsome. All the ladies on the set were completely like into pieces when he would arrive, including Margot. I remember her blushing and she would be like, “oh my God!” She was so shy around him. When he was doing the film, he was like 17. I hope that, through him and Margot, we will attract the younger audience. Jade Webber, the sister, as well as being on her way to becoming a super-model, at 17 was nominated on social media as one of the ten most beautiful kids in the world and is someone to watch.

SB: Yeah. So here again you were spotting talent early?

RZ: Yeah, I love discovering talent. It’s one of the joys of being a director and when you’re doing independent films, you must discover new actors because you can’t easily contract for stars. The movie business is usually a closed business where the agents are very controlling in whom they give access to and who they want to do business with.

SB: Yeah, so the gatekeepers remain, thirty years since Jean-Luc Godard said that “Movies in Hollywood now are made mainly by lawyers or agents” and forty years from when Hollywood had a king. Did you ever read that book?

RZ: No, I haven’t.

SB: When Hollywood Had a King was about Lou Wasserman, the MCA super-agent who took over Hollywood for like 20 years. It’s amazing how he did it, but he was able to be very controlling from one end of the biz to all the others. And he did it with a deft touch usually, except in certain special situations where it could get rather brutal – (he had major influence with the Teamsters as well as most of Hollywood’s biggest stars under contract.) – but mostly deft. They say nobody will be able to do that ever again. Like one man, you know.

RZ: People operate on fear. And fear is very powerful. A lot of our social media is based on fear. The more fear you can spread, the more people pay attention.

SB: The Holocaust was one of the most horrific things that ever happened. But I think you dealt with it in a classy way. I mean, you didn’t hit people over the head. It was within the structure of the narrative.

RZ: The antisemitism was covered in a very minimal way. I didn’t want to hit people over the head because I thought that would diminish the work and make it weaker. By keeping it subtle you can do innuendos and a little comment here, a little phrase here. Because that’s how it works. It sort of crawls under your skin slowly. That’s also how people become programmed and contribute to systemic racism. Human beings are capable of anything. Human nature doesn’t change. That’s why it’s such a precarious world, and that’s why it’s so important to educate the youth. As I mentioned earlier, I can’t stress the fact enough, what’s going on today is suddenly 10 times more relevant to this film than even three years ago.

SB: This reminded me of when I was a kid, we had an ashtray that was like copper, bronze, something like that. And it had a swastika etched in the middle. And there’s this little kid, he’s circumcised, obviously he’s supposed to be Jewish and he’s peeing on it. <Laugh>.

RZ: Oh my God.

SB: Yeah. Well, it was a good ashtray

RZ: Oh boy. Anyway, when I was in India, we saw that symbol. It actually comes from India. Yeah. It goes back. It appears in several places and periods in art history. It has an interesting backstory. But it’s important here that Margot (Casey) saw it as basically a statement of “fuck you!”

SB: In a way, if you were Jewish in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s it sort of was actually. So what about the graphic motif – the doodles and illustrations that are seemingly hand painted into the main action of the film in real time? Did the writer think of that all along?

RZ: No. It’s a very good question. On the first day of shooting, I noticed the assistant in the wardrobe department, Clara Collins, was sitting on the floor, and she was furiously writing in this diary, which was all covered with gold and like little jewels and stickers. And as she flipped the pages, I glimpsed there were all these drawing that were fascinating. I said, “Do you mind if I look through this diary notebook? Can I peek at it?” She said OK and so I flipped through it and it’s like a very intimate teenage girl’s diary. They were all expressionistic self-portraits, but very dark sort of renditions, that were almost like someone who was going through some sort of emotional-blender – portraits, poetry, moments in her life, with poems and illustrations and quotes, feelings bearing hurt and pain, you know, and drawings and drawings and more drawings. I said, “Well, this is Casey, this is her diary. Can we use this in the movie?” And she said it was ok. From then on, we started incorporating the idea that she’s an artist. In her bedroom, we had put these drawings all over her walls.

SB: Right. A natural artist, not someone who’s seriously in the professional art game.

RZ: Yeah. We would always show that she had a notebook with her. And then when we had to show the scene in the zoo, that helped us, because the scene, the way it was originally written was a very grand elaborate theatrical scene where she sticks her hand in a tiger’s cage and the tiger runs up and pounces as if he’s going to eat her hand. But then he stops and just licks her hand. It was just a beautiful moment – very symbolic. But I could never get a permit to shoot in a zoo, which is very expensive. And I could not use a tiger, even a digital tiger, let alone a live tiger, in the presence of a child. The whole thing was just Impossible.

SB: You needed an AI tiger that’s all.

RZ: <Laughs>. So, I commissioned Clara. I said, “Can you just go to the zoo and draw this tiger in the morning? And then we’re going to arrive around lunchtime, and we’ll use the drawings that you created that morning. We’ll have Casey pretend to be drawing them instead of having a moment of meditation on the tiger.” We shot this scene with a little still camera – just me, the cameraman and the actress with no crew, so we wouldn’t have to deal with getting a permit.

Then when we got to the editing, we engaged my wife Vally Mestroni ( who is a ingenious artist and illustrator and Senior Designer at Walt Disney Imagineering. If you go on the Tiger website, you’ll see all the concept drawings she did for the movie before we made it.

SB: Nice.

RZ: She took this idea and created animations. She spent several weeks creating these drawings, expressing the inner monologue of what Casey was feeling. And then we superimposed those animations in certain scenes.

SB: Well, at first it looked a little pretentious especially early on. But once it took hold, then it was part of the look and a character itself. But the things that really worked well were scene transitions. And there were perfect transitions. Perfect.

RZ: That’s right. They helped us with transitions and establishing shots.

SB: You know, there’s not many new ones. Fade in, fade out. Cut, dissolve. Yeah, so that was cool, and it worked.

RZ: It also helped a little bit with the ending because some people were questioning what happens to her after Ed dies. By doing that little portrait of him and then doing a drawing of a Christmas party, it suggests that she might have sort of partially reconciled with her dad’s family – that there was an act of forgiveness there as well. Not necessarily that she’s living with them, but at least that she went to a dinner with them. So it gives an element of hope. And people really responded to that last drawing. They felt there was a bit of closure to the story.

SB: I saw a Noah Zielinski in the credits as photographer – your son?

RZ: Yes and Noah is also in the movie. He makes numerous Zelig like appearances as various characters, because we often could not afford to pay for extras. I dare you to find all his chameleon guises. He was also the set photographer – at the age of 14, because we could not afford one. It was tough to focus him on taking photographs because he was more interested in skateboarding, so he would skate around the blocks and occasionally pop in and take a few stills – but he ended up taking the photo being used in the poster.

He is now at Rhode Island School of Design studying Architecture, but all he talks about is, “Daddy I want to make movies.” And I go: “No, you don’t. I would hate for you to endure the same journey I had to take, and it was not pretty.” Just look at my website ( It shows about a dozen projects, all amazing, wonderful, passion, dream projects that might never get made. Tiger Within was one of them. It was a miracle it ever got made. Filmmaking is a tough journey. I see thousands of college students graduating in film, all with Sundance dreams, yet the brutal reality is only a tiny fraction will ever get through the pearly gates, let alone the Hollywood Studio System. It’s just too painful, to see dreams being crushed.

But if we don’t dream, what is life all about? Maybe he will become a filmmaker and make all these moves on my behalf, or I’ll have to wait for my next reincarnation. But then I might have to make them in a different format, yet to be invented. Perhaps one where you just plug in and the movie plays inside your brain.

SB: How about the music?

RZ: Originally, I had approached Claire Boucher (Grimes) to do the score. I heard her first album around ten years ago in Montreal, when she was just an up and coming garage band. I was mesmerized by the psycho-acoustic effect of her music, the way it almost put you into an altered state and she was studying neuroscience at McGill. It reminded me of the all-night concerts of Classical Indian music that I would attend in Calcutta when I was a teenager. I approached her to score my science fiction project, about a future war between males and females set in space, and I would meet her at various concerts backstage, and gave her the script – (ALieNZ I wanted her to write the music for my films, and when I started putting together Tiger Within, and launching the Kickstarter Campaign, she kindly allowed us to use her tracks in the various trailers and promos (check them out on But then she became a super star, started dating Elon Musk, and I did not want to keep on chasing her backstage at concerts – “please do the score, but I have no budget”, so we lost touch. But I hope to reconnect with her, and if I ever get to make AlieNZ, I think she would create a score that would be mind-blowing.

So, I turned to Mark Tschanz, a Swiss Composer, who scored my film FUN. Mark wanted to make sure the music was minimal and had a rough around the edges feel, to match the documentary, gritty, handheld style of the movie. He wanted it to have violins and electronics, to marry the two psyches and inner life of Casey and Samuel, but not to become overbearing, grand, or over emotional. We would have listening sessions and add in aberrations, random mistakes, introduce random algorithms, to sort of deconstruct the perfection. We tried to make the instruments a touch out of tune and have the electronics sometimes fight the acoustics and the violins not to be perfect – more like a street musician would play it, less is more approach.

Then I approached Tony Knox from the local college station KXLU, to find up and coming Los Angeles bands whose tracks would integrate with Mark’s score. We ended up using Sorry Girls (from Canada) and the rest of the local bands that include Jane Machine, Lucky-and-Love, Band Aparte, Plasmic, The Tissues, and an on camera performance in the club scene by the industrial/synth band, Terminal A.

SB: The way she spray paints the swastika off her jacket, which was originally spray painted on her in the club, also kind of rounds things out.

RZ: Yes. And also the swastika that was sprayed on the synagogue was a real temple in Westwood. They allowed us to do that as long as it was not permanent and we would wash it off afterwards.

SB: It must have been a reform congregation…not even conservative – must have been reformed.


RZ: Well, it was Westwood.