If you’re reading this, you may be vastly more experienced than I was on November 9, 2019, my first day on a film set. I was directing my debut $5 million feature iMordecai, starring Judd Hirsch as my dad, Carol Kane as my mom and Sean Astin as me.
As the early morning Miami haze revealed over 100 crew members assembled for what we called “The Jeep Scene,” I was brimming with confidence after six weeks of pre-production. Director of photography Will Turner and I had exhaustively cataloged 674 shots for our 22-day shoot.
The Jeep Cherokee, which matched my father’s plumbing work car, was in position, with actors inside the vehicle. Time for seven setups in four hours. Piece of cake, Marvin.
“iMordecai Scene I, Take One…”
My father’s life story was coming to fruition. Then, all hell broke loose. Due to a miscommunication with our locations department, the cops gave us just 40 minutes to wrap.
Seven setups in 40 min!?! Deep breath. We got the wide shot, but the A/C wasn’t working in the Jeep, the windshield was fogging up, and the rearview mirror fell into Judd’s lap. Sean Astin wiped fog from the window with a towel. Oh, and the seat springs were ramming into our actors.
It was time to shoot Sean’s medium. I walked over to offer notes.
“Judd, can you show us you’re angry at Marvin? You lent him money and you’re pissed!”
Judd growled, “What the hell are you talking about? The camera’s on Sean!”
We sort of completed five of the seven setups and were still rolling as the cops escorted us off the location. I had no idea if we had the footage we needed for this pivotal scene that established the characters. I walked around the corner and puked my brains out. Welcome to directing!
How to Become a Film Director, the Unconventional Way
By now, you’ve gotta be thinking: How did this guy direct these iconic actors with absolutely zero experience? The short answer: An amazing team, money, and a gargantuan set of balls.
Four years earlier, I had just sold my cigar company and my wife Netta had given birth to our twin daughters. Our joy was shattered when my mother, Fela Samel, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I was devastated. To cope, I began writing stories about my family.
After I had 40 pages of vignettes, a friend — without my permission — sent my stories to an Oscar-winning director. I was embarrassed, but my friend emphatically told me the feedback was that there was something there. I should write a screenplay!
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Newly emboldened, I began writing, with the Good Will Hunting, Terms Of Endearment, and Almost Famous scripts as my guides. I wrote the finale first. I knew that if you were moved by the final moments after spending nearly two hours with my family, this was all that mattered.
But I needed a script doctor, stat. Luckily, I met my eventual co-writer, Rudy Gaines, and he was integral to iMordecai. Hollywood, give these artists the credit they’re due.
Now, I needed a producer, and in came Dahlia Heyman, who brought on Allen Bain as EP. Without them, iMordecai would never have been made. If you’re gonna give your heart and soul, you need your E Street Band with you every step of the way.
Next, we needed a director. I was just about to send my script out when Dahlia and Allen called.
“Don’t send the script, we found our director,” one of them said.
“Who,” I asked.
Why I Made iMordecai
I thought about the heart of why I was making this film, which was to tell a story about a Holocaust survivor, my father, as a comedy from a POV not seen before. And I realized they were right. Unless I was the director, my vision was going to be in someone else’s hands. I had no choice, and began studying online how to be a director.
Nuts, I know.
By day seven, we felt like we were hitting our groove and on our way. Part of my inexperience led to me questioning the tried-and-true practices of filmmaking. I was shocked to learn that large portions of the cast and crew (day-players, technicians, etc) don’t read the script, relying rather on sides.
Because iMordecai is such a personal film, I asked every cast and crew member to read the script. Almost everyone did, which led to an incredibly collaborative set where everyone was all in.
My mom succumbed to Alzheimer’s on July 17, 2019. iMordecai has tested my strength and my sanity, and forced me to exchange years with my real family for my movie family. It’s impossible to convey the sheer terror of writing, producing, directing, financing, and self-distributing a film.
The odds were always and continue to be stacked against us, but I don’t regret a minute of the last eight years. Stallone sold his Butkus making Rocky. My family’s story had to be told as a feature film, and nothing in this world was going to get in my way, not my inexperience and not the price tag.
When audiences laugh and cry, I feel like I’ve won the Oscar for Best Director.
iMordecai is now streaming.
Main image: (L-R) Marvin Samel, Azia Dinea Hale, Judd Hirsch, and Dahlia Heyman celebrate the final shot of iMordecai.