Not many actresses can star in a billion-dollar space epic and earn a degree from Harvard at the same time. Those are just two of the accomplishments of Natalie Portman, who has also won a best actress Oscar, for her performance in "Black Swan" (2010).
So when Portman decided to direct her first film she didn't take on something straightforward and easy. She chose to adapt Amos Oz's 600-page autobiographical novel, "A Tale of Love and Darkness," a labyrinthine magnum opus about a child growing up in Jerusalem during the birth of the Jewish state in 1948, a book that is not only a profound bildungsroman but subtly intertwines a family history with that of a people.
On the phone from Los Angeles last week Portman discussed her challenging choices.
Q. What was it about the book that compelled you to make it your first film?
A. I read the book in 2005 or 2006 and immediately saw the film. His writing was so vivid. And I contacted him about getting the rights to make it. He was very nice. I was very lucky to get to know him during this process. He is a very wonderful man, and his wife is also wonderful; and they have been very supportive.
Q. It would have been difficult to come up with a more challenging book for a directorial debut.
A. It was certainly difficult to decide which parts of a 600-page book were the most important to put into an hour and a half film. Of course, a lot of things had to be left out and you have to make sure there is a narrative. But I also felt very encouraged by some of my director-mentors to take my own path in terms of storytelling and not try and fit into the typical structure that people tell you screenplays have to be. Instead to have it more to do with how I experience the world. So the narrative structure has to do more with my own emotional arc, I guess — how I feel the story moves.
Q. Which directors gave you advice?
A. I've been really lucky to work with great people, both directors and cinematographers, especially in recent years I've been able to question cinematographers more about why they use the cameras they use. The lenses and angles they use. And find them really helpful.
The directors I learned so much from were Mike Nichols, of course, who was both a mentor and a friend and who emphasizes story all the time and to name the key moments in the film and talk about it with the cast so everyone is on the same page. "This is the moment they fall in love, this the moment she realizes he is cheating."
And [Terrence] Malick was especially influential. I worked with him just before we started filming. He always talked about painting from life. Putting down your own experience and the way you experienced it, not taking it from other films. Which was really illuminating. And also his openness to accidents, that they were often a beautiful thing. You spill a glass of water in a scene and everyone's reaction to it in character can actually be shockingly beautiful. Or it starts raining and you continue shooting in the rain. Rather than try to control every detail.
The glass of water didn't happen, but we had a huge storm and we went out and shot in it and some of the most beautiful shots of the river overflowing came from that. A lot of the reactions of the boy [Amir Tessler, who plays the Oz character] were things he did between takes while the camera was still rolling. They were really natural, beautiful moments.
Q. Lots of directors hesitate to work with kids.
A. I love working with kids as an actor, and now as a director, because I believe they are so natural they bring the best out of you. They only know how to be honest.
Q. To add to your challenges you have made the film in Hebrew with subtitles. Did anyone try to talk you out of it?
A. People did try to convince me to do it in English. But I believe you have to make the best movie you can; and for me the best movie was in Hebrew. And when you make the best movie it will always connect with people in a profound way. People can sense authenticity. When you make a movie in a country in a language they don't speak you right off the bat are lessening authenticity.
Q. Another challenging thing about the film is the love and the darkness. Did you try to figure out why the mother was so depressive and acted the way she did?
A. It was interesting. One of the things Amos asked was don't try to explain why she does what she does. People have tried to adopt the book before and create an easy explanation — so you have an easy sense of satisfaction at the end that you know what happened. But it is really a mystery. It's still a mystery to me and to respect that.
Interview was edited and condensed.