Natalie Portman says her new film felt like something she just "had to make." It's an adaptation of A Tale of Love and Darkness, the autobiographical novel by Amos Oz, in which he tells the story of his childhood in Jerusalem during the early years of Israeli independence.
Portman, who was born in Jerusalem, directed and wrote the Hebrew language film. She also stars as Oz's mother, Fania, whose family emigrated from Eastern Europe.
Portman tells NPR's Robert Siegel that she could immediately visualize the book as a movie — and she wasn't daunted by taking on a project that could stretch out over time. "[It was] something I was passionate about, and curious about, and interested in, in a way that could be sustainable for as long as it takes to make a film — which is years and years," she says.
And that was a good thing, too — in the 10 years that elapsed since the project began, Portman was busy with an acting career and starting a family. In that time, she says she developed a deep understanding of Fania, who Oz described as having "a romantic melancholy."
On the dissonance of the immigrant experience
When you're learning about Israel in school — or then, Palestine — it's "the land of milk and honey" and then you get there and it's dry and dusty and desert with none of the comforts of the European life [Fania] came from. It's not the milk and honey she was promised. I think it's something that all immigrants experience to some extent, that the expectations and the reality don't measure up — and then when you have this sort of Slavic melancholy that Oz describes — that dissonance is tragic.
On how after working on this film for 10 years, she can better relate to Fania's character
When I originally started I thought that I would hire an Israeli actress to play the role ... being 25 I couldn't imagine playing a mother of a 10 year old, in her late 30s. And as it took longer and longer for me to get my script finished, and my financing together, all of a sudden it became clear that I was getting old enough to play the role.
I feel that it was sort of a fateful thing that it took me that long because I understood so many different aspects of the character and of the story by having life experiences. ... You understand this sort of difference of what the real version of marriage and motherhood is, versus your childhood princess fantasies. ... You can understand that real distance between your childhood dreams and what they turn into.
On turning to experienced directors for guidance
Mike Nichols was a great friend and mentor to me — the biggest influence was that he emphasized story so much. ... He said: Keep reminding yourself and your crew and your cast of the story all the time and name things that are happening. Name: This is the moment when they fall in love. This is the moment she realizes he's cheating. This is the moment he sees his mother as flawed for the first time. And when you name that, you're all on the same page and you can sort of connect the dots of your story — and that was really helpful.
I also worked with Terrence Malick right before I filmed and he was incredibly helpful, too, in constantly reminding me to do it my own way. He kept saying to me: Paint from life. Don't look at other movies, don't try and do what other people are doing. You paint from your experience. And also, that when people tell you: It has to have more of an engine or more of a three-act structure, or whatever banal things they tell you a movie needs, that's not true — every person has a different way of seeing the world and telling a story and you stick to that.
On how her own experience as a child actor informed her approach to directing 8-year-old Amir Tessler, who plays Amos
I was really lucky to find a really truly amazing child — Amir Tessler — who plays Amos Oz. ... I tried to make the set a really friendly and fun environment because I know as a kid, people did that for me and made it feel like a game and not like work. ...
Sometimes when you have to do things many times, that's when it becomes harder for a kid, because repeating the same emotion somehow can make it less natural. So something I actually learned from Anthony Minghella as an adult was that he would have actors opposite me say a different line than they were supposed to in the scene to get a different reaction.
So I would do that with Amir sometimes — when he needed to get really excited running out when he finds out his garden has grown ... I had the actor opposite him tell him there was an ice cream truck outside and his face just lit up and he ran outside. It's a little trick maybe, but not anything cruel.
On her relationship with Oz
He is a truly amazing man — I admire him so much. And I feel grateful he's been so welcoming and warm — he told me from the beginning: This is going to be hard for me, it's going to be hard for me to watch. It's my life, it's my story, it's my mother. But he's been so supportive along the way and he loved the film, and it was kind of the biggest relief to me to have that, because I love him and I love his books so much that it was of course important for me to do him justice. He, from the beginning, said to me: Please make your own film. The book exists — don't just try to film the book. Make something that's your own -- which was wonderful and freeing.