Charles Wahl spoke with Solzy at the Movies about his new short film, The Mohel, ahead of the world premiere during SXSW.
The Mohel is about James (Daniel Maslany) and Lola (Kaelen Olm) as they face family expectations and financial strain upon flying in a mohel (Sam Rosenthal) for their son’s Brit Milah ceremony. For non-Jewish readers, this is what is referred to as the ceremony for one’s circumcision when boys are eight days old.
How thrilled are you for The Mohel to premiere at SXSW?
Charles Wahl: Oh, very thrilled. It’s one of the best film festivals in the world. It’s got a great reputation for curating amazing work. I was there two years ago with my previous film, Little Grey Bubbles. It was one of the best experiences of my life. It’s so amazing to be back there and have the film coming out tomorrow.
In a perfect world, this would obviously be on the ground at SXSW in Austin. What’s the one thing you’re really missing with having to do it all virtually this year?
Charles Wahl: Just the experience of being in the Alamo Drafthouse. You know what I mean? Seeing it in the big screen there. It is such an iconic theater. It just feels really special being there and being with so many other great filmmakers, and just being a part of it. To give them credit, though, with it still being online this year—I don’t know how they’re doing it but they’re still making it feel really special for all the filmmakers that are a part of it. That’s how I’m feeling. But that would be the thing I missed the most—the experience of getting to sit in the Alamo Drafthouse with just a lot of other like-minded people, friends, colleagues, and just watching movies for a week. It’s the best.
What was the genesis behind the script?
Charles Wahl: I was waiting for a screening to start with another filmmaker friend of mine a few years ago, who was also Jewish. His name’s Dekel Berenson. We’re just swapping stories. I was just telling him a bit about what it’s like to live in a community that—it’s a smaller city that doesn’t have a big Jewish community and what it’s like and how it’s a bit different, especially from where I grew up, where it was a very large Jewish community, and just some of the challenges with it. It led to like talking about bigger themes about the religion and things I had on my mind. Within a couple minutes, he was like, “You really should make a movie about this.” I was like, I don’t know if I really want to dive into the religion and things like that. The more I thought about it, the more I slept on it, the more I was like, I do think I can maybe frame something pretty interesting that could make for a very, very profound movie and something that we haven’t really seen before.
I’ve never really seen anything about a Brit Milah before or about a mohelist as well that wasn’t like a joke. You look at a lot of movies or—it’s like, you think of the mohel, you think of the Seinfeld episode, right? Or things like that. I’d never seen anything about that ceremony taken seriously. I thought by framing a story through that, you could really explore a lot of themes that are things that I really want to explore and I think are worth exploring. The big ones being the often transactional nature of religion and especially the ceremonies around it. Also, too, just the challenges of maintaining religion or a lot of old world traditions in the modern world as well. Like a lot of people, we were raised by our parents and they instilled these traditions in us and these expectations of us but we grew up quite often and in much different environments than they did in different times. We grew up different people and so to try and balance that all old world stuff with the new world we’re in is a bit of a challenge. I thought the story of the mohel and especially centering something around a Brit Milah could be an ideal milieu for that.
How did the cast come together?
Charles Wahl: Well, it was through a lot of different ways, actually. Because I received a small grant to make the film, I knew I wouldn’t have enough to like go the traditional route and hire a casting director and search through those avenues. I knew I would have to look through people I knew and through talking to other colleagues I had in the business as well. Once I finished the script, I knew for the part of Lola that I really wanted to work with Kaelen Olm, who I ended up casting in the film and who I’d worked with on my previous short, Little Grey Bubbles, because she’s amazing. I thought she’d be actually the perfect fit for it. I sent it to her first and she said yes after she read the script. She’d love to do it but working out the schedule was a challenge though just because she was in production on a Netflix show at the time. Finding a gap that could work with her was a bit of a thing but we figured it out.
As I started talking to other people as well about who to cast as James, the main character in the film—I started asking around a lot of people and Kaelen is actually the one who recommended Daniel Maslany. I knew who Daniel was through seeing him in Murdoch Mysteries, a TV series in Canada that he’s in, but I hadn’t seen him in much else. I did think he had the right vibe for it so I started researching more of his work and looking at more of what he did and I was like, Oh, wow, this guy could be a really great fit. I was put in touch with them. He read the script and really liked the script. He liked some of my previous work a lot. We’re like, let’s just talk about it. We hopped on the phone, talked about it for a while, and just made sure we’re kind of simpatico about it. By the end of the hour—I think it was an hour we were on the phone the first time we talked—he agreed to do the film. That’s how he came together.
The rest of the cast, it was more also a combination of people I’d seen around in the community that I thought would be a good fit except for the rabbi. The rabbi was actually the hardest part of everybody to cast because he’s the character and the person who comes in and really swings the entire movie. He needs to be an actor with enough presence and gravitas that could a) be authentic but also b) impact everyone else. To be honest, I had the hardest time finding the right person. I was asking everyone I knew and looking around at tons of people that I thought maybe could be good. In the 11th hour, a friend of mine was like, “Hey, have you ever met Sam Rosenthal before?” I was like, “No, I have no clue who Sam Rosenthal is.” He’s like, “Listen, he’s doing this show down to the Eastern Front Theatre, which is like a local theater. He’s the creative director there. You should come check it out. I actually think he might be really good.”
I went and saw the show that night. I looked at this guy and I was like, this guy’s really good but I don’t think this guy’s the rabbi at all. He’s clean shaven, darker hair, nice suit. He’s quite debonair. He had a great vibe. I’m like, I don’t know. I just don’t see it. But anyway, I’m always happy to meet new people. I went for coffee with him. He checked out the script. Within five minutes of talking to them, when he wasn’t that guy on stage and he was just being him, I knew. I was like, Okay, I’ve got the rabbi. This is him. Just talking to me on the level and very naturally, his demeanor was just perfect. I thought that was great. And plus, I could tell he knew it. He grew up in Toronto like I did. He was also Jewish like I am. He’s around the kind of same world I was. I could tell he got it. I can tell he really understood the character. In addition to that, too, I knew he would commit to it. You could tell the script impacted him. It affected him in a personal way as well. I knew he would work really hard and push really hard for and he did. When you see him in the movie, that guy in the movie is a completely different guy than Sam is in person. It’s pretty wild, actually, what he did and the work he put into it.
When did you shoot the film?
Charles Wahl: We actually shot it early last winter. We shot it pretty quickly. We shot the whole thing over two days. Post-production just took a few months because it was one of those things where we were working on it all squeezed within a bunch of other projects that we’re all working on. That one took awhile on the post side of things but the shoot itself was just a couple days and it was early last winter.
What was the most challenging part of the production?
Charles Wahl: My biggest fear was the baby that we had. For a Brit Milah to feel authentic, in theory, the kid should be eight days old, right? Obviously, we’re not going to cast an actual eight-day old baby for this. I wanted the film to be really authentic so I wanted a baby that could maybe—at least on camera—be believable as close to a newborn baby. We were actually able to get a very young baby. I think he was three months at the time but he was a very small three-month old. On camera, again, he’s never gonna look like he’s like five days old or anything like that but he was believable as just pretty new.
Having experience working with kids before, it’s rough, right? I was just terrified this kid was gonna be crying the entire time. We put all these contingencies in place. We had the dummy babies that we would use a stand-ins or in wide shots in case he was acting up but it ended up being the complete opposite. He was incredible. He never fussed, never cried, and he cooperated better than I could have imagined. All these things we put into place just in case the baby was crying all the time was unfounded and ended up being really good. It ended up actually being pretty smooth. It’s one of those production situations where it all came together really well. People just worked really hard and were really prepared.
Again, I’ve got to give Sam a lot of credit. He and I actually went to see a real rabbi. That rabbi actually helped us a lot. He gave us all the proper prayers that we used in the film. He actually even recorded himself doing the prayers so Sam could learn it even though Sam knows how to read Hebrew and say it but so he can do it the way the rabbi would with the right kind of like singing quality to it that you see in the film. He even went down to the props, everything he wore, things we had up on the walls for the ceremony. We worked that all out in advance to make sure it was ready.
I didn’t see the ending coming.
Charles Wahl: That’s good. It’s a tough one depending on your point of view especially but that stuff happens. It’s one of those things that was kind of one of the larger themes I wanted to explore, which is who has a right to tell you what you are and what you believe, right? It’s insane to me that in this day and age, that’s still a thing. I mean, that a person can tell you are something or you’re not something especially when it comes to religion, right? No one has a right to tell you what to believe. You know what I mean? Especially if you’re not harming other people. It’s just your own thing, your own family life. But that still exists. I mean, there are people out there, unfortunately, that unless you live to a certain standard of theirs, they don’t consider you a part of a certain thing.
That was one of the kind of key motivators of wanting to make the film was exploring that aspect of things. I don’t think even just applies just to Judaism. I think it applies to all different religions and different aspects of life. Unfortunately, religious guilt exists everywhere. We all have authority figures in our life whether it’s parents or other people who may have raised us—uncles and grandparents—who have expectations of us. If we don’t live up to those expectations, what that can mean to them, you, the relationship between them. That’s why I think that kind of stuff is worth looking at.
A few years ago, the short film version of Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby launched at SXSW and now we have your film, The Mohel. Are there any other Jewish life cycle events you’d like to tackle?
Charles Wahl: Yes, actually, I do. One of the projects I’m working on right now is—I wouldn’t say it’s an adaptation of the short because it’s a different story. I do really want to explore some of these themes in a bigger way. What I’m doing is I’m working on a script where it explores these themes but actually through the course of a wedding. It’s actually going through the course of a woman converting to Judaism leading up to her wedding with her husband.
Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or not telling?
Charles Wahl: I’m still working on it right now but it would be more conservative at this point. I don’t want to give too much away.
As a screenwriter myself, I get that.
Charles Wahl: Yeah. I don’t want to give too much away. But I do think exploring it through—I mean, I’ve been through it. I’ve so many friends who have been through it. I’ve heard so many insane stories about it, particularly in communities where Judaism isn’t as prevalent. For example, for this feature script I’m working on right now, I actually would want to have it take place in even smaller community than the one in The Mohel, where it’s even harder to go about all this stuff and it’s harder to get acceptance from the big synagogues in like New York, Israel, or whatever. There’s a lot there and I think I think showing that process can be pretty interesting because I’m sure you’ve heard there’s a lot of crazy things that go on there. When you’re in a city where there is a big Jewish community, it’s is different because there are so many synagogues. There’s so many rabbis. You can find the ones who accept you a little easier than in certain other places. It’s a complicated thing like with all religion, it’s definitely not straightforward.
Being Orthodox and trans, the road has not been easy. Thankfully, I’m belong to the one Orthodox shul in Chicago that’s a block away from all the gay bars.
Charles Wahl: (Laughs) Nice. That’s awesome! I didn’t know you were Orthodox.
Charles Wahl: Cool. For you then, at the synagogue you go to, everything’s all good
Charles Wahl: That’s amazing. That’s great.
Right after coming out to myself, I messaged the rabbi and was like, Hey, I’m moving back to Chicago. And oh, yeah, I just came to terms with being trans.
Charles Wahl: That’s amazing. That’s great.
Obviously, I’d be going to shul a lot more often but I have been mostly at home for the last year.
Charles Wahl: I get it. Yeah. So let me ask you then, I’d love to just get your perspective if that’s okay. You’re Orthodox then?
Charles Wahl: How did you react when you saw what happened at the end? How did you feel? I’d love to know your opinion. There’s no right or wrong answer in my point of view. It’s all open to interpretation. How did you feel when you saw the mohel say that to him at the end?
My jaw kind of dropped. It really depends on what community that you’re in. Some Orthodox rabbis—I think they’d accept a Conservative or Reform conversion but other rabbis will make you go through that process entirely all over again. I’ve got some friends where they grew up with one parent being Jewish and other parent not. They decided to go through the conversion process to play it safe.
Charles Wahl: Yeah, that’s interesting. I definitely have my point of view in the whole thing but I want to leave it open to other people to how they interpret all of it so that’s cool.