Eytan Fox's Cupcakes

Eytan Fox is one of Israel's most celebrated working filmmakers. Born in New York City, he moved to Israel with his family when he was just two. His 2002 feature Yossi & Jagger, about two Israeli soldiers who fall in love, won awards in Israel and festivals around the world. He followed it up with Walk On Water (2004), The Bubble (2006) and Yossi (2012), the sequel to Yossi & Jagger, which picks up the story a decade later. His latest is a light-hearted comedy, Cupcakes, which is having its debut at the New York Jewish Film Festival.

While the charming feature centers on a group of neighbors who find themselves thrust onto the world stage in a Eurovision-style, multi-nation pop music contest, Fox is quick to note the film nevertheless recalls an Israel he remembers growing up as a close-knit country where neighbors knew and supported each other. Set in present-day Tel Aviv, six diverse friends come together to watch a Universong competition on television. Singing along as they watch, they are nevertheless aghast at the winning group. As they watch, one friend admits she's going through a marital crisis and they spontaneously compose a feel-good tune, “A Song for Anat” (written by Babydaddy from the pop group Scissor Sisters), to cheer her up. The song catches on and becomes the anthem of a wildly enthusiastic Israel as the unlikely group head to the next Universong competition.

Eytan Fox spoke to FilmLinc Daily about creating Cupcakes in the wake of Yossi and why recalling the Israel he remembers from decades ago was important. He talks about working with his “supergroup” of actors and how he stumbled on the song that serves as the film's catalyst. Fox also talks about contemporary pop and how he plans to use the music genre in his next project.

FilmLinc Daily: After the drama Yossi in 2012, you followed up with this light-hearted comedy, what prompted that turn?

Eytan Fox: It's funny, the sound mixer is the same for both films and had a similar thought. I mixed the film with him in Paris. He said that he couldn't believe that the man that did Yossi was the same man who did Cupcakes, which was funny. Both films were inside of me, I'm not completely sure. I've made a lot of serious and what they call in the States “art-house” films. 

I have various stories in me. It's just like I can watch a serious Dardenne film and be moved to tears, or I can watch a fun comedy. I actually just watched Four Weddings and a Funeral on television the other day. So I can do both just like I can listen to [classical] music and then dream about going to Las Vegas and seeing Britney Spears. I love the genre and if I had all the money in the world, I'd make a big musical. If I think about Cupcakes, there are undertones of things I have dealt with in other films. The idea of longing for some things that Israel used to be, such as a strong sense of community and the group aspect, common goals, etc. 

Eurovision isn't something Americans are very familiar with, but it was very important to a lot of people when I was growing up. The first time Israel participated in it was in 1973. My American family was the only one that had a big TV in our neighborhood and all the neighbors would come up to watch Eurovision at our apartment. Israel isn't a part of Europe, so I always wondered how we were in Eurovision. But it was because we were a small country with very few friends and Europe offered us a place. So everyone came over and brought food and watched the competition together. Israel has become a very different place, but I wanted to bring that closeness back in this film. And of course I have my agenda in this story—I have gay couples and a lesbian couple as part of this group.

Eytan Fox's Cupcakes

FL: Seeing the closeness of the neighbors in Cupcakes made me notice just how much I don't know my neighbors here in New York. The other day I noticed someone left their keys in the door of their apartment, so I decided to be nice and let them know. I knocked on the door and this guy looked at me strangely and I told him his keys were in the door and then he gave an awkward 'thank you' and slammed the door.

EF: I can empathize with that. The Israel I live in today is an Israel in which I don't know my neighbors. I don't have anything to do with them. It says a lot about how Israel has changed… There was this sense at one time that if you fell in the street in America, nobody would help you. But in Israel there was this sense of oneness and you'd help your neighbors. There were familiar relationships with everyone, but that has changed dramatically. I miss the Israel I grew up in. Today it's very different. There are a lot of conflicts within Israel. 

Similarly, competition within the region has affected Eurovision. It used to be a friendly competition with nice pretty pop songs, but it's completely not like that anymore. It's a trashy circus. It's a big gay Olympics. The [musical competition] in the film is similar to what it was in the '70s.

FL: It's interesting that you point out that there are elements of your past films in Cupcakes because, while watching it, at moments I thought about your film The Bubble (2006) about a group of young Tel Aviv friends who live a fashionable life in the city and are shielded from the political and social conflicts that afflict the region.

EF: I have a group of films that are serious maybe and then there are films that are lighter. They're genre-oriented and on Israeli television. They have a lot of music and The Bubble was a kind of mix of young, vibrant Tel Aviv and the serious world surrounding that bubble. In Cupcakes, I'm in that bubble, but it's more the bubble of what Israel used to be and my memories.

A milestone took place in Eurovision of 1998. We're a very nationalistic country and it doesn't matter what it is—it could be the Olympics, the Nobel Prize or Eurovision—we're competitive. So in that year, Israel sent a transsexual to Eurovision and that was so controversial. Some said, “How can you send a transsexual to represent our 'holy country'?” There were some protests, but she still went. Her name was Dana International and she won!

She went to the Knesset (parliament) when she came back and all these conservative right-wing politicians shook her hand, congratulating her for being the “victorious Eurovision winner.” The night she won was a big deal for the gay community in Israel. After she won, we all went down to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on the same night that an Israeli soccer team won the playoffs. The team that won had this macho, homophobic group of fans and they came to the square, too. But we were all dancing together and hugging and partying until morning. It was amazing!

Recently Israel erected the first monument to LGBT Holocaust victims. So in some ways, I miss the old Israel, but the new Israel has also gone in some good directions…

Filmmaker Eytan Fox.

FL: How did you assemble your group of actors?

EF: This is a kind of “supergroup.” These women and a boy are like Israel's biggest stars in their respective genre. It was kind of frightening to get all these divas in one room, but they realized it was important to create this sense of community. One of the reasons I made this film was to make people happy.

FL: And how did you find your tune that sent this group to for the competition in the film, Universong?

EF: We weren't able to use the Eurovision name, so we made up this international musical competition. But the song was created by the Scissor Sisters, [specifically] Scott (Hoffman) who is called 'Babydaddy' in the band. He came to Israel for vacation one time and one evening, I asked him if he had ever written a fun “Eurovision-type song” that he had never used. And he said that there was one that he had written a few years ago that [he] did one night sitting around while getting drunk. He said, “Let's write an Abba-type song” and they did. We took it and made it our own using Hebrew lyrics and made it a bit more sweet and sentimental… And that was it.

FL: Watching the film, I also thought you were giving a subtle commentary on the music industry. At one point the group is meeting with industry types and they're trying to craft an image for them before going to Universong that seemed so soulless in a way…

EF: There was that, in a way. Pop culture and pop music is made into something not as authentic as I'd like it to be—or personal. Today in my gym, I had MTV on and all the groups and music seemed the same. It's like the people up there making the decisions are trying to break people down into cliches or what is considered “idealized.” The song I saw [on MTV] was sweet and nice actually, but the video was clearly made in a way to sell the song in a trashy way. 

FL: Your partner Gal Uchovsky was a judge on the Israeli version of American Idol. What was his take on this film, which has a musical contest at its core?

EF: Yes, he is also someone who grew up with Eurovision and European pop culture. Europe was very influential with Israelis before America took over [in terms of popular music]. France, Italy, Britain had a lot of pop music [from Europe] played in Israel in the '60s and '70s. He helped me choose the songs including the European pop songs from that time…

FL: Will music factor into your upcoming projects? Give maybe a little hint at what might be coming up…

EF: Yes, I'm doing a biopic about a singer. We see the singer for a moment in Cupcakes actually. This guy was called Mike Brant who left Israel in the early '70s after nobody wanted to listen to him here. He went to France and became a giant star there for three years. Then at the age of 28, he killed himself.

It's a fascinating story because he grew up in a very disturbed family of Holocaust survivors. His parents survived Auschwitz and he was born on the way to Israel in a Cyprus camp. He grew up in a very poor family in Haifa and wanted to escape that. In France he became a very big star, but his many hidden demons tormented him and that came out in a very big depression. The film will be very sentimental and filled with pop songs he used to sing, but it will also be contrasted with the things he's going through. So yes, a lot of music…

Cupcakes screens January 13 + 16 as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival.