Randy Schoenberg, Matthew Mishory talk Fioretta

Randy Schoenberg and Matthew Mishory spoke with Solzy at the Movies about the new documentary, Fioretta, opening in theaters.

The film traces back through 500 years of Randy’s ancestry across various countries in Europe. It says something about how the Jews were forced to move around from one country or another because of antisemitism. I had a lot more to say about the film in my review, of course. If you’re not familiar with Randy, he was previously portrayed by Ryan Reynolds in Woman in Gold.

Fioretta will be opening this weekend at a pair of theaters in Los Angeles for its Oscar-qualifying run. Both subject/executive producer Randy Schoenberg and director Matthew Mishory will be on hand after select screenings for a Q&A. Audiences can watch the film on December 1 to December 7 at the Laemmle Royal in Sawtelle or on December 3 and December 5 at Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino.

There are some light spoilers during our very lengthy conversation.

It’s so nice to chat with the both of you today. Randy, I must add that it’s so nice to finally talk face to face, albeit virtually, after years of knowing each other through social media.

Randy Schoenberg: Right, right. It is good eventually. I’ve just met someone else like that. I only know her through emails and stuff. I’ve known her 20 years but I’ve never actually been in the same room. I just saw her tonight. Anyway, how are you doing? Everything good there? I’m gonna need a little bit.

All things considered, I’m doing well.

Randy Schoenberg: True with all of us. Vienna is nice. It’s cold, but nice.

I’m in Chicago where it’s freezing.

Randy Schoenberg: Yeah. Okay, so same as Vienna type of thing. Maybe even colder.

Matthew Mishory: Hey Randy.

Randy Schoenberg: Hi Matthew.

Matthew Mishory: It’s sunny in Los Angeles. Apologies

Randy Schoenberg: I’ll be back on Friday for the screening.

Matthew Mishory: Yes, that’s right. Theatrical release beginning Friday.

Randy Schoenberg: Danielle, you remember the film? You saw it so long ago.

It was a different world when I saw it.

Randy Schoenberg: Yeah, that’s true. Matthew and I, we were in Tel Aviv right before we were going to show it around on October 7, as Matthew said, it was my first time to the rocket rodeo.

Matthew Mishory: It was not my first time but this was an unprecedented flare up in many regards. But please, you have questions, we might have answers. We’ll try. We’ll do our best. Randy usually has answers and I often nod in encouragement.

What was the genesis behind Fioretta?

Randy Schoenberg: The genesis was a trip I took with my family to Italy. It was after Covid came out but the second summer when we could travel and visited my aunt Nuria and cousins Serena and Sylvia. As I sometimes do, when I’m with my family for a long period of time, I mentioned the genealogy stuff, usually bores them to tears and really don’t care. I probably had mentioned this before but I said to Serena I said, it’s neat, I think I can trace our family back through Prague all the way to Venice. She’s from Venice and this time, she said, Oh, that’s so interesting so that can make an interesting movie. She’s made some movies herself. She makes some art films in Venice and as a painter, as you saw. I didn’t really think too much of it. But I thought, okay, who’s gonna watch this movie about my genealogy when I can barely get anybody even to listen to me.

On the way home, we were in Cincinnati and I got a text from Brad Schlei, who I went to high school with, who’s a producer and I’d kept up with a little bit over the years. He said, Oh, are you available Monday? I was coming back on Sunday and I said, Well, I’m coming back Sunday. I guess I have nothing planned for Monday. We’ve been gone for four weeks. What’s up? He said, Well, we have this film that I’m making and I need someone to talk about German Jews and you’re the perfect person. I said, Well, I don’t know anything about your movie. It doesn’t matter—you know plenty, you’ll be fine. Just come over. I flew home on Sunday and I went over to his house on Monday, where they were filming this film and they told me a little bit about it. Matthew was busy filming someone else and Brad sort of told me about Who Are The Marcuses. Have you seen that movie?

I still have the screener and I still need to watch it.

Randy Schoenberg: Okay. It’s about this elderly German Jewish couple who had escaped the Nazis. They had a little extra money to invest in the 1950s and so they invested it, and then they retired out to San Diego and lived in a little condo. Their neighbor had a fundraiser come over from Ben-Gurion University. The neighbor said, oh, you should meet my friends, the neighbors, the Marcuses, so he went next door, he dropped off a brochure. They took the brochure, they were in their late 80s. They talked to each other and talked to their daughter and decided they’re gonna leave their estate to Ben-Gurion University. When the last one died, and she was 104, or something so it took a long time, Ben-Gurion gets this check in the mail and it was like $500 million. I don’t want to spoil the movie for you but that’s what it’s about.

Ben Gurion used it to investigate water conservation. Matthew and Brad were making this movie called Who Are The Marcuses about this couple because no one knew them, of course. They were living just like normal people and what had happened was they had invested by accident with Warren Buffett and of course, never touched the money because they’re German Jews. Why would you ever spend any money? They kept it and it exploded into this enormous amount. They needed me to talk about this family, which I knew nothing about, but I said, Okay, I can say some platitudes about German Jews. They’re frugal, they like education, charity, and things like that. Anyway, while I was waiting for them to set up, I think the power went out. Rght, Matthew?

Matthew Mishory: Yeah. I guess I can kind of take over the story. As often happens on film sets, there was a technical delay. I believe the power went out. We blew the circuit in this nearly 100 year old house of questionable electrical wiring. As we were waiting for the power to be restored, the lighting to go back on, and filming to resume, Randy casually mentioned that he had just taken this family trip and he was looking into his family story a little bit, and that it could make for an interesting movie. I innocently asked, just how far back does this family story go, thinking optimistically, I don’t know, 100 years, 150 years. Randy said 500 years, all the way to the formation of the Jewish ghetto in Venice. That was the moment that the proverbial light bulb went off and Brad and I turned to one another and had the inkling of an idea that this could indeed be an interesting film.

Randy and I went to lunch a couple of times and talked about it more. He had copious documents and research. It was very clear to me, very quickly, that this was an incredible story—that it wasn’t really just the story of Randy’s lineage, it was really the story of the Jews in Europe over 500 years. That was really the story of Western civilization and European society over these 500 years through the very specific lens of one family. I think as much as the highlights of that lineage, from the rabbi who writes an opinion for Henry VIII about his impending divorce to Arnold Schoenberg, who reinvents music, the ordinary people interested me equally. The specificity of the information that Randy had uncovered about people whose lives would have essentially been forgotten in any other context, as a backdrop to this 500 year story about society, culture, and history. I thought that was just irresistible. We had the basis of a great story with interesting themes. Of course, the devil is always in the details. Who are the characters and how to tell the story?

Randy and I were able to answer those questions by taking a scouting trip together in early 2022—the dead of winter—through places like Bohemia, Vienna, and into Venice. Randy introduced me to this fascinating cast of characters—his investigative team that accompanies on these trips into dusty archives and through cemeteries. I often say these are the characters Brad, our producer, referred to as the Wes Anderson potions. These are the guys with corduroy jackets with elbow pads, who inhabit these archives, write books about old Viennese families, and dig up literally dig up tombstones that had been buried underground. Once I met this group of really fantastic people who, Randy would say, are just actually his friends, and realized what great characters they would be, that’s when I think we really had a sense that there was a special movie to be made. When I saw the locations where we’d be filming it, I very quickly had the sense that I could turn this into something cinematic. That’s a very long answer to a very short question but that’s how it came about.

When it came to editing the film, were there scenes or sequences that you kept trying to fit in but couldn’t find the right spot?

Matthew Mishory: Yes. As is often the case, especially in a film that was shot over some nine weeks in dozens and dozens of locations in five countries, there were so many moments and sequences that we just didn’t have room for. The film is, I think, a pretty quick two hours, but it is two hours. My producers really did not want it to be any longer than that. We cut a lot of babies in half, proverbially, in the editing process, while still sticking to our plan, right? The way I make documentaries—I collaborate always with a co-writer—in this case, Rob Levine—we write the movie, I shoot the movie, and I write it again in the editing room, though we have more or less a narrative structure for the film. Randy was very insistent, and correctly so, that the archival and genealogical elements of the story, the bare facts, be laid out in a way that was completely accurate because, as he put it, people who are really into this kind of thing are really into this kind of thing. They will be watching and scrutinizing very carefully and freeze framing and looking at documents to make sure that they match what characters are saying.

Randy Schoenberg: I know because that’s what I do when I watch Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates whenever he has a Jewish guest, and they they skip over it. I’m like, oh, no, wait, I gotta look at that and see, is that really what it says? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. I wanted ours to be accurate. I didn’t really see the film until Matthew had really almost finished it. I had imagined it differently. Not being a filmmaker myself and not involved in it and knowing the standard genealogy film is like sitting and doing interviews and zooming in and out of documents. Of course, this is exact opposite of that, in some ways, in the filmmaking of it. It was different than I originally imagined it but but I liked it very much.

When you talk about scenes, I think that’s the only thing I insisted that he reinsert into the film—one of the things we found and it’s just like a second and a half that’s in there now but it was important to me. We’d found this Torah curtain that the family had donated to the Pinkas Synagogue and 1697. It’s almost like a birth certificate because it’s a gift of the grandparents to the grandchild. It has all three generations basically written on this Torah curtain and it’s huge and gorgeous. It didn’t really fit in the narrative. And I said, No, we’ve got to have the Torah curtain so he slid it in as a breakaway. Other than that, I left the editing up to Matthew completely and trusted him. I think it’s a wonderful job that they did. I mean, it was what, over 80 hours of film or something like that.

Matthew Mishory: It was a huge amount of footage and so to stay true to the narrative arc of the story, which is one of the strongest narrative arcs you can have as a filmmaker making a film, which is a father and son journey in which both characters sort of change in meaningful ways. Staying true to that and then also ensuring that we were completely accurate in our historiography, was a challenge when we had so much great footage. I think we ended up in good shape.

Joey and Randy Schoenberg in Venice in Fioretta.
Joey and Randy Schoenberg in Venice in Fioretta. Courtesy of Rubber Ring Films.

How has the reception been on the festival circuit?

Randy Schoenberg: Good. The screenings we’ve had all been filled except for Zurich, where they put us in an amazing theater that had 550 seats, with no advertising beforehand so it was not filled there but we had 100 or 150 people.

Matthew Mishory: We all enjoyed seeing it on a gorgeous Dolby Digital screen.

Randy Schoenberg: It was awesome. It was sad that we couldn’t bring—and also, the Jewish community in Zurich is a little weird so we thought more people would come. But it’s small. No, but everywhere else, I think Matthew had the greatest comment when we first had had a screaming, he said, I’m used to people fleeing from the theater for my other films.

Matthew Mishory: Brad and I have have made some, shall we say, edgier films earlier in our careers. I’m accustomed opening night to people fleeing the theater in terror. This is the movie that—I’m growing to like this—this is the movie that audiences at not only seem to really like, they want to stay afterwards and talk about it.

Randy Schoenberg: They don’t even go to the bathroom. Very few people have even gone out to get popcorn or anything. I remember in the first one in Sarasota, I went there and we didn’t really know anybody so I was just gonna witness and someone said, oh, listen to how quiet it is, that’s how you can tell how people are reacting. I got some popcorn. I was just sort of sitting there and I couldn’t even eat the popcorn because it was so quiet in the theater. Everybody was just gripped by the whole thing. It’s been a very good experience screening it. I’m hoping people come on Friday and next week, when it’s when it’s being shown in LA. In LA, it’s a hard market to grab attention so I’m hoping people hear about it and come out and see it. Everybody stays to the end. Everybody stays through the Q&A so we haven’t had any problems.

Matthew Mishory: It’s been fun to do what I guess is genuinely a crowd-pleaser so that’s been fun. I’m sure that the people who don’t want to see anything that could be construed as Jewish content, maybe they just stay away from the outset so that hasn’t really been a problem yet. The people who come are open to the story and seem to love it so we’re having a great time taking it around.

Randy Schoenberg: As you know, because you’re in this field, the festival circuit is a racket to begin with. It’s been interesting to me to see which festivals wanted it and which didn’t. Some of the festivals we didn’t get into, I would write to them, and they said, oh, that movie sounds great. I’d write to the head of the festival afterwards. They said, oh, that movie sounds great, you should submit it next time. Sorry, it’s too late. I’m like, we did submit it three months ago. No one watched it, right? A lot of the festivals, I think don’t even watch the films so they trust teenagers to watch it and who don’t. We’ve had to face that a few places. We were very happy to have it premiere in Woodstock and then in Zurich, two terrific festivals. We got very unexpectedly into DOC LA and had those awards. You say that awards don’t really matter and then then you get one and you’re like, Oh, that’s really that’s really neat, it makes you feel good. It’s nice. We got three awards at DOC LA and now I’m really eager to get it out to people so they can actually see it. A lot of people been asking, as you’ve seen on our Facebook group, when is it going to Chicago? When is it going to DC? All those type of things so we’ll see.

Matthew Mishory: It would be great film for the Siskel Film Center in Chicago, by the way. I’ve had some other movies open there in the past and I really liked that theater.

Being someone that’s into genealogy myself after my father and I took over when my great-aunt passed away in 2002, what would you say was the most fascinating discovery that you made?

Randy Schoenberg: I’ve been doing this a long time. There are a bunch of them. I mean, okay, so that scroll in the Medici Library, nothing’s gonna really top that in terms of a family document. I do love that Torah curtain, which is like a birth certificate from 1697 in a textile form. Finding the grave in Vienna in the wrong cemetery was an amazing, amazing thing I would say. Of course, Fioretta and finding her grave in in Venice, not to spoil the ending for people, but to be able to find a remnant of the family from 500 years ago, like I say in the movie, it just gives you this amazing feeling because you know that the family was there with that object, It’s not just an abstraction of the names and the dates anymore. You’re actually in the physical place with them and somehow, that gives you a different different feeling. I learned that actually, when I was putting together the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles, that, you could teach the Holocaust by having people sit in a theater and watch Schindler’s List if you want to teach 13-14 year-olds. It’s super powerful and they would get a lot out of it but there’s something to being in the physical room with a physical object from the time, not a recreation, not a facsimile, but an actual object that was there at the time that gives you that tangible connection to the historical event. As you can see, in the film, we have just one after another of those type of things so it’s hard to say which one is my favorite. (Laughs) They’re all my favorites. It’s like picking your favorite kid.

I ended up doing the deep dive after watching the film and found out that I descend from Rashi.

Randy Schoenberg: See. There you go. Whether you can prove it or not as a different question.

Matthew Mishory: I look forward to your in-text, Torah commentary, soon to be published.

Randy Schoenberg: (Laughs)

Yeah. The fun one was finding this one ancestor but then there’s two completely different sets of parents listed.

Randy Schoenberg: On Geni, what happens sometimes is you get merges that are incorrect and have to be a merge. Sometimes the name is the same, Joseph Levy, and two people think they’re the same and they are. The good thing is all the mistakes can be fixed. It’s one of the really paradoxical things about Geni is that it gets a lot of criticism—you can see some blogs I wrote a bunch of years ago about all this—but people will go online and they’ll say, Oh, I found a mistake. See how horrible it is? That’s actually a feature and not a bug. It’s the fact that you, all of us can go on and find and correct mistakes is what makes the tree actually much more accurate than anything you have on your laptop at home or on a sheet of paper at home, that you don’t let anybody else see. We often can’t see the mistakes that we make. You need to have someone else come in and find the errors. The fact that you see something that could be a mistake is actually why Geni works, because ordinarily, what you should do is contact the managers and say, Hey, there’s two sets of parents. There’s obviously a problem here. Curators like me or other people will come and fix it and make it more accurate.

I think I may have messaged you the link to the page in question.

Randy Schoenberg: Okay, well, if I missed it, it was probably because I was traveling or maybe trapped in Israel at the time but I’ll look it up. Send it to me again if there’s a problem. Sometimes there there are—with the deep genealogies, there are conflicting sources, usually secondhand sources, so people have tried to piece together family trees guessing and two different guesses. Sometimes, it’s difficult to sort those out but I think I did write to you that I was going to and I was just traveling. Now I remember. I did respond and say I’m about to travel and I’ll look at it. I think I remember looking at it and looking and seeing it was really hard, and I didn’t know how to do it and then didn’t get back to you so I could take another look.

What do you hope people take away from the film?

Matthew Mishory: Well, I think two things. The first is that, as one of the supporting characters in the movie says towards the end of the film, the Jewish story is one of perseverance. I think that we don’t shy away from the persecutions and the difficulty of Jewish history over the 500 years we cover in the film. We also provide some context through this grand sweeping arc of history and the arc of Jewish history is very long. To paraphrase an often quoted adage, it bends towards the return of Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel. Many things that are that our ancestors over those 500 years could not have imagined could ever be accomplished, including the flourishing of Jewish life in the United States, which, of course, they had not even heard of. I think in covering that long stretch of history, we we really emphasize the perseverance that got us to where we are now and the perseverance that we will need to continue persevering through the challenges of the next generations.

Randy and I experienced some of those challenges firsthand in Israel when we were there to screen the film. I think perseverance is one as both a Jewish value and a trait, a Jewish trait that I think is just so important. The other is maybe a bit subtler, but it’s the idea that over these 500 years, Jews were central to almost everything that was happening in Europe and were not necessarily just these ancillary characters on the shtetl hanging out in their villages, disconnected from society. Just in Randy’s family lineage, that point is repeatedly driven home from Rabbi Chalfan and his proclamations and rulings on behalf of kings and popes all the way through to to Arnold Schoenberg. Jews were very much a part of creating what we call Western civilization, Western culture, and I think that reclaiming that history in that context is one of the important points of the film.

Randy Schoenberg: I hate takeaways, I have to say. It’s always very hard because I think people—when I did our museum also had the same issue. I like to build things that people can take many different things away from so it depends on what you bring to the equation. You’re not just a receiving vehicle but as a collaboration when you do things like this. I’m hoping that it will inspire people to look into their own history or to think about where they are in this continuum of history—even if they just focus on themselves—and give some perspective to that because I think it’s important. That’s what history is for, it’s what memory is for, to give us that ability to look backwards and then project forwards based on the information that we’ve learned about the past. I think it’s a very natural thing. As I say in the film, a lot of us do genealogy, initially as a narcissistic pursuit, what can I learn about myself, but when you really dig in and learn about these other people, it’s not just about yourself, but it’s about this whole thread of humanity that we are all a part of. If we’re alive today, we all have millions and millions of ancestors who made us who we are and led us to this day and we’re part of that same thread, that same rope of humanity that’s going to go forward into the future. I think it’s inspiration and perspective is what I would hope people take away from it.

Matthew Mishory: What I took away from it just on a personal level is what an incredible and defining experience it was to work on this film. As is often said, the entire Jewish people is a family really, is an extended family and this film was a deep dive into our family story. But film crews also become sort of like families. Films are very complicated and difficult to make and they take a long time and they force people together in all sorts of uncomfortable environments and situations and working with this team and this cast of characters was one of the real pleasures of my career to date. I just had such a great time doing it.

Randy Schoenberg: I thought you were gonna mention that while we were working through it, the largely Czech crew started looking into their own family history because they were learning about how you can actually do this and that there might be something interesting to it. We heard from the cinematographer, who was close to all of them, that he was listening to their conversations and they were all starting to talk about their own family history as they were working on the film. I thought that was that was sort of neat.

Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure getting to chat with you this afternoon.

Randy Schoenberg: Yeah, anytime. I hope we can continue on the genealogy path at least.

Matthew Mishory: Thanks so much, Danielle. We so appreciate your lovely review of the film a few months back. Those those help people discover the movie so thanks for doing that.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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