Mika Orr (MPS 2017 Directing) knew that she wanted to make her own films from a young age. But as is often the case, life kept getting in the way. After a turn in the Israeli Defense Force and several years spent running a successful commercial production company, working after-hours on her own scripts, she realized that a major change would have to happen. She threw herself into directing by moving to NYC and coming to study at SVA—"probably the best career-oriented decision I have ever made," she says.
Orr's thesis film, Professional Cuddler, received honors and awards at the College and is now collecting similar acclaim and exposure at screenings around the country. The short follows Nadav, a young Israeli man about to meet his long-distance lover for the first time, while he pursues his dream of becoming a professional musician in New York City, playing trumpet by day and working as a professional cuddler—a real, nonsexual, therapeutic profession—by night. The film is shot largely in black and white, with only the images on characters' computer and phone screens appearing in color, and raises questions about interpersonal communication in the modern age, the romanticization of long-distance love and loneliness in the big city.
This June, Professional Cuddler won runner-up at MPS Directing's annual SVA Short Film Fest, and it has been an official selection at the Short to the Point film festival in Romania, the July 2017 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival (where Orr won Best Woman Filmmaker) and, just this past weekend, at FilmColumbia in Chatham, New York.
Orr's work returns to the big screen in New York City this week, showing on Friday, November 3, at The Big Apple Film Festival, to be held at the SVA Theatre, and then again at the New York City Short Film Festival at Cinema Village, November 5. Its run continues next week at the Snob Film Festival in New Hampshire, scheduled for November 10 and 11.
"The screenings so far have been wonderful," Orr says. "The first screening we had in Hollywood ended with a long applause. I didn't know what to do with myself." Below, she talks about her award-winning film and her movie-making process.
How did you come up with the treatment for Professional Cuddler?
I started writing when I had just moved to New York. At the time, I was interested in the idea of idealizing what is out of our reach, (and the idea) of a love overseas. I wanted my characters to fall in love in the digital world, and then when they meet in reality everything goes to hell. I wanted my protagonist to be able to physically and emotionally connect with strangers but not with his lover.
Since I was apprehensive about turning him into [someone who just sleeps around], I invented this sweet idea of a professional cuddler. At first the project was called Masters of Sleep. I came with this idea to screenwriting class with the great teacher Alexander Dinelaris and to my shock discovered that this profession actually exists. Priscila García-Jacquier, Alex's assistant, sent me to do more thorough research, and I left class with my tail between my legs but determined to get to know the subject inside out. I scoured the Internet, interviewed owners of companies that offer cuddling services and even met with a real cuddler.
Back when I was writing the script, I did not have my own place yet. It was the beginning of winter and I moved between Airbnbs. I wanted to bring the housing shortage and struggle to survive in the city into the script, and so my hero also loses his home. Besides, I was still on Israel time (working every day until five am, New York time) and because I did not have my own place, I walked the city streets at nights, looking for cafés with Wi-Fi or just a friendly bench. That loneliness and New York at night were huge sources of inspirations for me.
With such a small cast of characters, each role and actor carries a lot. What was the casting process like?
I met Itamar Borochov, the lead actor, in a local restaurant, to interview him about his trumpet playing as part of my research. He had never acted on film before but is a wonderful trumpeter and composer. We decided to work together on the score. At the end of the meeting, he asked to come and audition for the film, half joking, and I said sure, thinking to myself that I should be keep my mind open even if there is no way I will cast a non-actor. But to my delight Itamar Borochov and Gloria Bess, the lead actress, immediately clicked. I knew it was it.
With the third side of this triangle, after many rounds of auditions of older women—tremendous actresses—I still did not find what I was looking for. I had a feeling that the movie would live or die on this character, Nadav’s most loyal client. The program's casting director, Destiny Lilly, suggested that we contact Dana Ivey [The Addams Family, Home Alone 2]. We prepared a whole production book for her and I wrote her a love letter. After six weeks of negotiations she came aboard and joined our short adventure. When we talked over the phone before rehearsal started I asked why she said yes. After all, she never played in student films in the past, and she said that she liked the script and thanked me for the letter. Working with her was a real education for me. She is just wonderful and so much fun to work with, a consummate professional.
Why did you decide to shoot in black and white for "real-world" action and in color for the moments of digital communication?
For me, the black and white sat right with "reality"—with loneliness, New York, jazz. Color comes in only through screens that stand for distance, promise, fantasy. ... I wanted to create a clear separation between physical and digital reality. I think that there is something very addictive about screens and digital media.
What was the biggest surprise you encountered while making the film?
We didn't have permits to shoot in Times Square. So we were prepared to "steal" the scene in which Nadav plays his trumpet in the street while talking to Netta on Skype. I had never "stolen" such a complicated scene before and I had never shot in New York City. I was very worried.
Just when we were ready to shoot the first of [the scene's] 18 shots a policeman came toward Itamar and started talking to him. I saw it from a distance because we were shooting a [long-distance] shot. I remember telling Owen Strock, the director of photography, "It's all lost." I came over, preparing for the worst, my hands were shaking, and the policeman was saying to Itamar: "I don't mean to bother you, sorry. I just wanted to tell you that you are very cute." And then he left. Beginner's luck, I guess.
Did the themes you were interested in—about the way we communicate, the way we build relationships—change along the way at all?
At first, I thought I was making a film about the idealization of love overseas. As the work on the film progressed, I thought that I was making a film about loneliness in the big city, and eventually I realized that digital communication, or rather lack thereof, is the heart of this film.
I started with a very dramatic story. Luckily for me, [MPS Directing Chair] Bob Giraldi encouraged us to make the script a little lighter. Looking back, it is clear to me that he was absolutely right. Fifteen minutes is too short a length to go too deep into the world of the protagonists in a love story. Professional Cuddler is the first comedy script that I have ever written. I was very fortunate that my good friend Miki Bencnaan, who also happens to be a brilliant, bestselling Israeli author, came to my help as a co-writer. Thanks to her, a lot of humor found its way into the film.
I read that at 15 years old you made your first movie, "a coming-of-age romance set to an Edith Piaf soundtrack." So romance and music seem to have played crucial roles in your filmmaking from the start.
I think that I deal mostly with two subjects. The first is obstacles in relationships, conflicts in love—impossible love. For me, the challenge is to create internal conflicts as opposed to those that involve a third party, like a lover, or an external obstacle like illness, a trip, an opportunity, etc.
The second subject is the line between realism and surrealism, hence my fascination with imagination, fantasies, delusions and insanity. I think that having a character whose love is overseas touches on both these subjects. In the modern world, with screens and flights, physical distance is not the main challenge to a long distance relationship. For me, the real conflicts have to do with trust, avoiding real commitment, communication and of course the gap between what is there and what you think you are seeing.
What's next for you?
On my table right now I have three short films in various stages: Professional Cuddler is in distribution, Knockout—an indie film that I shot last summer—is now in post-production and Two is currently in development. Other than fiction films, the documentary project I have been working on for a while, AMiNORMAL, has recently received a considerable development grant from a prestigious fund in France, and we are aiming at an Israeli/French/German co-production.This interview has been condensed and edited.