Jewtopia cast
Producer Courtney Mizel, Writer-Director Bryan Fogel and the incredible cast of "Jewtopia" / Photo courtesy of Jewtopia

Finding ‘Jewtopia’

by Courtney Mizel

I sat somewhere between anxious and bored in my seat, picking at the polyester threads as they unraveled from the sleeve of my robe. One after one, my classmates were called to the bimah, and in the same sing-song cadence of their bar or bat mitzvah speeches, they started their presentations which all began (at the direction of our teacher) “I am a Jew because … ”.

Our class was comprised of a much smaller group than had made the b’nai mitzvah circuit 3 years before. Now what remained was a group whose parents either guilted them or bribed them to continue their studies through Confirmation (most of them) and those who actually enjoyed learning more about Jewish heritage, prayer and texts (me). But I played along and rolled my eyes during the boring parts.

The Rabbi called the name of one of my classmates once, twice – but no one appeared. “Bueller, Bueller,” the class clown said just loud enough to send a wave of laughter through the room. Suddenly, our giggling was interrupted by what sounded like elephants clomping up wooden stairs.

“I can’t believe he showed up!” Someone exclaimed as our classmate, shirt untucked, hair umkempt and kippah holding on by a half of a pin for dear life, clamored up on stage to give his speech.

He pulled out a piece of crumpled paper from his pocket..

“I am a Jew because my mother is a Jew, my father is a Jew and my grandparents are Jews.” And just as elegantly as he had entered, he exited. And that is how I will always think of Bryan Fogel.

Jewtopia temple

A young Adam Lipschitz (Austin Abrams) flubs a reading at Temple in a scene from “Jewtopia.”
Photo courtesy Le Petit Canyon Productions

So almost 20 years later when I heard Bryan Fogel, the biggest f’up of our Confirmation class, had written and was starring in a hit off-Broadway play called Jewtopia, I was dumfounded. 5 years before I had run into him in L.A. where he was making his way around the party scene and doing something with computers. Meanwhile I was slaving away in acting classes (which I quit) and film school (which I also quit) and Bryan was a star?? I was in NY so I decided to hit him up (on Facebook, since I hadn’t really kept in touch) and see if I could see the show.

My girlfriend Jodi and I went and we were blown away. Of course, Jodi immediately had a crush on this hysterical, nerdy Jewish writer cum actor. Meanwhile, I felt strangely uncomfortable and insecure talking to him, now that Bryan was ‘cool.’ We said hello after the show but he was rushing to a big fancy party.

A couple years later I got an email from Bryan asking me if I would read his screenplay, which was based on the play. I had sworn myself out of the film business after my first film, a huge flop which took almost ten years to get from prep to the screen, but I loved the play, so I figured, why not?

He sent me the script, and I found myself laughing out loud. While the play was a funny series of vignettes, the screenplay provided an equally hilarious but much more detailed exploration of complicated relationships among friends and family.

Jennifer Love Hewitt

Jennifer Love Hewitt as Alison Marks.
Photo courtesy Le Petit Canyon Productions

I strongly identified with the character of Alison (played in the movie by Jennifer Love Hewitt) and when I read her dialogue, it was eerily familiar, bordering on biographical. In fact, more than a few friends who have seen the film asked if Bryan based the character on me. While I would love to take credit, Bryan and I were not in touch when he and Sam Wolfson wrote the screenplay!

In one scene, she is on a first date with Chris (a guy she meets at a Jewish singles mixer who tells her his name is Avi Rosenberg, played in the film by the hunky Ivan Sergei), she lists off all of her post college accomplishments, starting with the statement “After I graduated from Penn…”.  Penn just happens to be my alma mater.

After a few meetings with people who were interested in coming on as producers (none of which actually had money to put in or were willing to raise it unless we took on their approach to the project), Bryan thought it might be a good idea to put the play up in Los Angeles to get attention as well as have a showpiece for investors.

I believed in Bryan’s vision of the Jewtopia movie, and thought this would also be a great way for us to experience working together.

I am left-brained type A planner and Bryan is a right-brained type B creative. This combination can be extremely successful, but also a sometimes challenging relationship to manage. I worked to reign Bryan in, and he worked to put up with my constant nagging. Our 6-week run turned into 6 months, and we only closed the play because we had secured the funding for the film.

When we began the casting process, I was actually shocked to see some big names audition for the film. People who I never thought even read scripts would come in gushing about how funny it was. We had actors whose names and faces I actually knew competing for roles in our little low-budget indie project. Despite my exhaustion (I was also a single mom to a 4 and a 6 year old), I knew we had something on our hands.

Once we started production, some of the early struggles between Bryan and me returned, and sometimes escalated with the time and budget pressure we were all feeling. One scene, which was very funny on paper, involved a very detailed look at nerdy Jewish boy Adam (played by Joel David Moore) manscaping his, uh, manhood in preparation for joining his gynecologist fiancee (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) in bed.

The exchange between Bryan and me went something like this:

Bryan: “But it’s funny.
Courtney: “Yes Bryan, but we can’t shoot that and we can’t show it either.”
Bryan: “But that’s the best part of the movie.”
Courtney: “Bryan, we aren’t doing it. The actor won’t do it and we don’t have the budget for prosthetics.”
Bryan: “You’re killing the scene! You’re killing my film!”

Exit producer.

I was speaking English and he was hearing a strange Aboriginal dialect that made absolutely no sense. Bryan was the visionary, the dreamer, but he had not spent time on a film set nor had he gone to film school. I had done both, and I just couldn’t understand how his creative brain couldn’t grasp what my practical brain was trying to communicate.

However, I have also never written a hit play, a bestselling book or a hysterical screenplay. Neither of us was actually “right,” neither of us was “wrong.”

courtney-bryan-jewtopia-hollywood-journal

Courtney Mizel and Bryan Fogel
Photo courtesy of Courtney Mizel

Somehow we survived the shoot and editing, with our friendship and professional collaboration still intact. Now we are sharing in the excitement, as well as the hard work that it takes to make a movie’s release a successful one.

Obviously, I learned a great deal about making a film, but I also learned a tremendous amount about managing relationships.

Everyone we meet comes to the table with their own set of unique challenges, talents and style. If we choose to bridge our differences and explore our synergy, great things can result. But doing so is not simple and it’s not easy. But what in life really is?

(Jewtopia opens September 20th at select theaters, including the Laemmle Music Hall and the Laemmle Town Center 5, and on Video on Demand.)

Courtney Mizel

About Courtney Mizel

In producing Jewtopia, Courtney Mizel mixes her passion for the arts with business acumen garnered over decades of experience in the entrepreneurial, consulting, sales, marketing and entertainment industries. She is also the Founding Director of the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab, and a voiceover artist. Courtney is most proud of her endeavors in the philanthropic world and of her two amazing daughters, Zoe and Isabella.

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