In October of 1973, a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. Israel’s first female prime minister, Golda Meir, found herself at the center of the conflict. Golda takes audiences into the war room and psyche of the controversial figure behind the difficult decisions Israel faced during 10 days of the Yom Kippur War. An intimate story of a global event, the film is directed by Academy Award–winning filmmaker Guy Nattiv (Skin) and stars an unrecognizable Helen Mirren as Meir. Bleecker Street Media is partnering with Fathom Events on a premiere event two days prior to the nationwide release on August 25. In advance of the U.S. premiere, Director Nattiv spoke with Boxoffice Pro about the ground-breaking leader, the devastating Yom Kippur War, and opening the 40th Jerusalem Film Festival.
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What did the project look like when it first came to you?
In the beginning it was an Amazon project. It was a massive war film, kind of like Fury, but also the story of a soldier. I said, “Guys this is a script that needs to be stripped down.” I felt that it was like other war movies that we’ve seen before. Less is more. If you can make it like Das Boot, if you can contain it in the war room, focusing on her psyche, that will be more unique in terms of getting under the skin and understanding what she went through. Luckily or not, Amazon dropped the project and we had to shrink everything, making it more minimalistic. The budget was cut [by] a third or more. Then [screenwriter] Nicholas Martin and I started scrapping stuff and making it more contained. Nicholas knew that 10 years ago, all the protocols [declassified documents] from the war rooms in the Yom Kippur War were released. So we actually used the voices and the recordings and the [documents] from those war rooms [in the script]. I spoke to Golda’s press secretary, Meron Medzini, the only one who’s still alive. He’s 90 and an amazing man, so sharp. He told me what she went through—all the cancer treatments [Meir was being treated secretly for lymphoma]. It’s called a handkerchief operation. They took her at 2 a.m. to the hospital to get radiology treatments. Then she went back, and nobody knew about it. All of that came to me as a project, with Helen Mirren already loosely attached when I came on board.
What was your initial meeting with Helen Mirren like?
She read the script and said, “I want to meet Guy.” It was a pandemic, so we had a Zoom call, and she said, “You know what? I’ll just come to your home and let’s talk.” She was here in L.A. and came with a coffee one morning while the kids were playing. It was very emotional for me. She said, “You know, I’m not Jewish. How do you feel about it?” I said, “Listen, it’s about the vibe for me. It’s about the soul. If you get it, if you have what it takes.” She was amazing. Helen was in Israel when she was in her 20s. She toured the country, and she had an Israeli boyfriend. All of this was before the Yom Kippur War. So she knew a lot about Israel. From there, Embankment Films and Bleecker Street came on board. Suddenly, we found ourselves in London shooting in the pandemic. It was kind of amazing. So that’s how it came all together. My inspiration was Downfall [2004, about Hitler’s last days] in terms of cinematic approach, as well as Das Boot and [other] one-location movies. And Coppola’s The Conversation, because it uses a lot of sound devices for narrative.
There’s a real sense of that research in the film; everything feels very genuine and rooted.
The approach was not to make a biopic about Golda; that was not the goal. Because for that, you’d need a 16-hour miniseries. You cannot contain that in an hour and a half. In an hour and a half, you can have this older woman basically collapsing with her commanders in a dreadful war that no one expected.
One of the opening shots reveals that visually—that this is the story of the war through Golda’s eyes at a certain moment in time, with the camera inviting the audience into her perspective and experience. What do you hope audiences experience on this journey with Golda?
Nobody knew anything about Golda; she was this nice auntie who smoked. Nobody knew anything about how she felt about what she went through. But she was one of the only leaders that actually took responsibility and said, “It’s me.” Show me a leader that will say, “It’s on me, it’s my mistake.” [She was] an old-school leader like Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. These people had values in a way, and a different approach than what we see today. When I dove into Golda’s behind-the-scenes life, I wanted to bring it to the knowledge of not only the Israeli people, but also the older American audience that really grew up with a shallow kind of perspective of her. I wanted to go under her skin to show the bits and pieces that really built her—the shame, the blame, the humor, the relationship with [personal assistant] Lou Kaddar, and how she stayed strong in front of her dysfunctional commanders. As well as the fact that she was not really a soldier. She didn’t understand anything about war; she was more of a stateswoman. For me, it was like opening a door to the stuff that we didn’t know about her. All those little details, or those truths, all came out. It’s a portrait of a woman in a man’s world.
You were born in 1973, the year of the Yom Kippur War. Has making this film illuminated anything for you about that time, or shifted your perspective?
There’s a very famous song in Israel: “We are the ’73 generation. You promised us peace when we grew up, that there wouldn’t be any war. But you lied. You promised us a dove with an olive branch, but you lied.” It’s a very famous song about the 1973 babies. My mother ran with me to the shelter, and my father went to the war. I grew up on all these heroic stories, but the more I read, the more [declassified documents] that came out, I understand that there was nothing heroic about this war. I don’t want to say it was the Vietnam of Israel, because we didn’t fight in another country, but the devastation of losing so many soldiers over this territory that we needed to give back, Sinai, that’s something that we will never forget. I grew up with that knowledge, and then I discovered a different one. For me, it was important to show that Golda was not the only one responsible for what happened, because it’s easy to say, “Oh, she’s a woman. We will never have a woman prime minister again. It’s not going to happen. Look what happened in the Yom Kippur War, it’s on her.” But it’s not only on her. It’s the whole of the commanders, the old chiefs.
The film conveys the sense of being in a bunker and in the trenches with Golda, trapped in her circumstances, and in the smoke from her cigarettes. How did you arrive at the visual look of the film? How did you decide when to open up her world, as with the scenes on the rooftop?
For me, the smoke was a metaphor for these people who couldn’t see even one meter ahead of them. The smoke that blinds you. You cannot really see the truth. The truth was the lack of information and the fuckups with [government] intelligence. The smoke that chokes them in their own bunker. It was kind of a metaphor of a dysfunctional society that smokes themselves to death. That actually comes from the real thing, because that’s what they did. They just smoke and smoke and smoke and drink black coffee, not even eating. I tried to have that as a metaphor, [along with] the claustrophobic feeling that the only air she can have is on the roof, which actually looks over the landscape of Tel Aviv in the ’70s. And the very, very far away war that you can see from there. That’s the only escape that she has, but otherwise she’s locked in four walls and those concrete corridors. That was really important for me to enhance.
Golda sees a flock of birds on the rooftop. What role do birds play in the story?
It’s called a freedom bird, which comes [to Israel] at a specific time of the year. They symbolize freedom and the soul. These are for me the soldiers that die in the war. The flock of birds that she sees in the sky symbolizes the soldiers.
What was your collaboration with Helen like, leading up to and during the shoot?
Helen has this motto that she repeated: “Be on time and don’t be an asshole.” Other than the fact that she’s a genius and one of the best actors of our time, she is the kindest person. I had the most amazing time. It’s really hard to work with anyone after that, because the level of collaboration is so cool. She told me, “Guy, listen, don’t be afraid to tell me stuff.” And I did. We had some discussions about not walking too fast, because Golda was very slow, like a turtle. It drove people mad. The way she walked, the way she smoked, the way she spoke, everything was like staccato; it was flat. Helen is very fast and she’s very energetic. I pulled her back and I said, “No, be slower.” It was amazing working with her. We became so close. At some point, because I didn’t eat and I wasn’t sleeping, I was in front of a monitor and suddenly I felt these warm hands on my back. I looked up and I saw Golda. She said, “Guy dear, I’m going to go Golda on you, Do you eat well? Do you sleep? I’m really worried about you.” I didn’t see Helen as Helen throughout the whole shoot because she came in at 4 a.m. for make-up. I came at 7 a.m. and I saw her as Golda. [At the end of the day], when I went back to the hotel, she was taking off the makeup—for three hours. For 35 days. I didn’t see her as Helen. I adore this woman and I want to work with her again and again and again. She’s so good. She understands everything quickly; everything is just flawless. And the range that she has: She can be super dramatic and fierce, and then soft and smiley, and then funny. She’s also [constantly] trying stuff, almost like a juggler.
Golda is opening the 40th Jerusalem Film Festival. What is this moment like for you and why is it important for audiences to come together to see this story?
There are only two [open-air venues] like this at film festivals: There’s the Locarno Film Festival, with the Piazza Grande outside, and in Jerusalem it’s called the Sultan’s Pool. It’s a giant amphitheater with 6,000 people under the sky and a giant screen. It’s beautiful, like the old city of Jerusalem [itself]. It’s so symbolic to screen Golda there at this specific time, the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War in Israel. We’re going to have all the veterans of the war that fought and lost their friends, and their families. We’re going to have Golda’s family, the grandkids. Helen is coming; hopefully Liev Schreiber will come. All the Israeli actors will be there. It’s one second from Golda’s original house and two seconds from Golda’s grave, which is on Mount Zion. So for me, it’s going to be the most emotional [screening]. The Jerusalem Film Festival was also the first one that gave me a chance as a student. I brought my films there, and later on my features. It’s kind of full circle. We’re going to have a moment of silence to remember the ones who lost their lives—3,000 to 4,000 soldiers in this war.
AT THE MOVIES
Do you have a favorite moviegoing memory?
My dad used to take me to films. I was a little too young [for some of them], but it affected me tremendously. I remember he took me to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Jean de Florette, and I think a Jean-Luc Godard film. He took me to all these grown-up films, auteur films, art house films. Those were the moments that shaped me as a filmmaker. He’s really had an influence on my childhood. That’s what I want to do with my kids.