Saul Rubinek, via Toronto-Hollywood-New York, found himself in Kyiv last year working on an insane, independent, and sophisticatedly-nationally-hyphenated Olias Barco film. This actor, who as I assert, makes every film suddenly smarter by appearing on screen, is a blast as an interview. We scheduled two hours together and we took five and we still weren't finished. From the man's impressions of Ukraine, of eastern Europe, of contemporary film, of the fashionably contemporary scorn for television, and on to his views on what could come out of the talent bubbling up in this part of the world, those were some of the most illuminating hours I've yet spent on earth. Saul Rubinek has forgotten - as the saying goes - more about the craft of making film and TV than I will ever know. I got an interview with an actor who I admire, and if he weren't an actor, who I'd hope that I am close enough to call friend that he wouldn't object if I just called him up from time to time in hopes of achieving some clarity. He's the kind of thinker I enjoy because you leave a conversation with the man with very few, if any, answers, but a head - and more important, a heart - full of questions.
What? Who's Saul Rubinek? Lay on, MacDuff.
This article appeared originally in cultprostir.ua in January 2016. This is the first time it appears anywhere in English.
The room is in lamplight. We don’t so much see the hired gun move across the saloon as hear him, his spurs slowly lifting and clinking, lifting and clinking against the wooden plank floor. An electrical storm rages outside. A slaughter has taken place here. Off to the side a rattled survivor staggers to his feet, staring in disbelief at his shirt, at his trembling hands, covered in blood: “I’m shot” he whimpers. “You ain’t shot” growls the gunman.
The growler is Clint Eastwood. The saloon a set. The downpour from a machine. The blood stage-blood. The dialogue memorized lines – the ragged firings of a screenwriter’s amygdala. I saw “Unforgiven” upon its release in 1992 – a time when the concept had finally, fully taken shape in my own aesthetic that the most perfectly realized expressions of American art, regardless of the medium, were also unfailingly those most critical of American culture. The film is confessional, a spiller of secrets, a violation of its genre, and heavy with classical imagery. It also took home a shelfsworth of Oscars. Yet of all the inexorable symbols at play in the story, the image that has stuck with me for more than twenty years now is that of those trembling hands.
The hands belong to an actor you’ve seen someplace. The one you know but didn’t know you knew. Inevitably, when the actor is recognized by his public, and stopped on the street with “I’m sorry. I should know your name, but I don’t”, Saul Rubinek takes it remarkably well.
“I’m not a star”, Saul says. “What does that word really mean - star? A star is an actor who can get a project green-lighted. That’s it. Ask around, ask working actors, people who have achieved something in this business and nearly all of them are uncomfortable with the word “star”. As if getting recognized on the street were the ultimate measure of success.
There’s an odd social phenomenon – I meet it in the U.S. more than anywhere – where people recognize my face but are embarrassed if they can’t remember where they’ve seen me. The strange thing is that they’re not personally embarrassed, they feel bad for me. I’m in the movies, but apparently I’m not big enough for them to remember my name. They feel like they’ve committed some horrible social faux pas: if they can’t put a name to my face, then they’ve just reminded me of my failure.”
Saul Rubinek’s – let’s call it, lack of success – has lasted now for sixty years. Sixty. From Yiddish theater with his father in Montreal to the Toronto stage to LA contract work to Canada’s #1 Sci-Fi TV serial. A partial list of people who do remember Saul’s name: Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Walken, Oliver Stone and Tom Hanks – he’s worked with all of them. Writing, producing, directing, and acting on stage and on the big and small screen, his career has taken him to London, Berlin, and Beijing. To (mis)quote Tevye the Milkman, “Lord, if it won’t spoil some vast, eternal plan, bless me, too, with that kind of failure.”
And now Saul Rubinek is in Kiev, cast in the FILM.UA feature “POLINA”, which wrapped recently. We meet at the Fairmont Hotel on Podil for a two-hour breakfast interview. We talk for five.
KULTPROSTIR: “What compelled you to come to Ukraine?”
SAUL RUBINEK: “When I get involved in a project, and this goes for everything I do, I can’t focus on what I’m going to get out of it. That’s the most complete definition of art, isn’t it? Not ‘what do I get’ but ‘what do I give’. I know what I can do and I’m in Kiev to give that. To give the best performance in me.”
KP: “That seems awfully high risk / low reward. What if a production flops? Is there some sixth sense that you’ve developed over time that tells you what project to avoid, and what to accept? Or just the usual ex post facto understanding that you shouldn’t have become involved in this or that project?”
SR: “You do this work long enough and it’s like the “I can’t remember your name” situation: you can’t let somebody else’s attitudes or expectations define you. The art world is full of people who can’t overcome that subservience and they end up doing either nothing that they want to do, or nothing at all. And they can be pretty self-righteous about it. Poverty that clothes itself in purity.
I think Michelangelo said it right: I make one for the Church, one for the Pope, and then I make one for myself. This is a business, and you do what you have to do to have that rare chance to be in complete control of your work. Sure, it’s the best and worst of all possible worlds. The risk is all yours, of course, but the control – and that’s what I see in this film. In POLINA there’s more than just filmmaking going on. This is an area where Ukraine has some hard thinking to do.
And I knew I’d get to work with Olias Barco. He’s a friend of years. Extraordinary filmmaker. A true auteur. I knew it would be an intensely creative atmosphere. And also with Dennis Ivanov, who produced “The Tribe”. Astounding film. And it was a chance for me, and this is just as important, to explore a new film community - FilmUA, who’s making “Polina”. We shot it at their studios. That is one talented, ambitious group, and they’re doing some of the most interesting film and tv work in the country.”
KP: “Are you talking about something specific? Some future interest in Kiev?”
SR: “Who knows? You keep your eyes open, because – and I’m repeating myself – but this is about something bigger than just making a film. There’s something to learn everywhere you go. The bar in this hotel. The characters that show up here any night of the week. The high dollar lawyers, the cyber pimps, the rainmakers. You want to write stories? Spend your evenings here. Get yourself into some conversations. Me, I have a thousand ideas brewing in my head all the time, and maybe two of them will turn into anything.
Failure is the easiest thing in the world to prepare for. You put in your work, and for whatever reason the crowd doesn’t love it and, fine, that’s that. You go home. You’re depressed for two days, and on day three you get out of bed and go back to work. Preparing for failure is easy. But preparing for success – what comes next?
But Kiev? You have to remember, I’ve been doing this a long time. I was in theater twenty years before I ever stepped in front of a camera. It didn’t take long to understand that Canadian television and film was run by American interests, and the hell if I was going to stay in that environment and work with inferior productions. If I was going to be making American films I was going to go to the U.S. and do it well until Canada took control of its product. You see what I’m saying? Ukraine has got an elephant living next door and he’s not going anywhere. This isn’t a new story. So what are you prepared to do to take control of your art? And, along with it, your industry?”
KP: “But you can understand why Ukrainians are cautious, skeptical. I imagine the margin on any production has to be pretty tight. Not to mention the hassles with bureaucracy. There’s not a lot of room for failure here.”
SR: “You think it’s different anywhere else? That thought process has to change. Failure is the easiest thing in the world to prepare for. You put in your work, and for whatever reason the crowd doesn’t love it and, fine, that’s that. You go home. You’re depressed for two days, and on day three you get out of bed and go back to work. Preparing for failure is easy. But preparing for success – what comes next? You’re a hit. They order a second season, a sequel, they extend the run. Then what do you do? What do you do to move forward? Now there are expectations. You need to deliver. The temptation is to get lazy, but this is where the real work starts. What do you do to prepare for success?”
It’s quiet for a moment as this good son of a Talmudic scholar allows the thought to sink in. And how, if you chose to, would you answer Saul Rubinek? How would you tell this man – born in a refugee camp to parents who narrowly evaded Nazi horror in war-torn Poland, whose father braved ostracism from his Hasidic community to pursue a life in the arts – how do you say to this man that we just don’t have the time? That he just doesn’t understand the pressures of making art here, in Ukraine? Here’s a better question, perhaps: Why would you even try?
SR: “Working with Clint, and remember, I hadn’t been in films that long, but I had this idea: my character in ‘Unforgiven’ – W.W. Beauchamp – was described as timid, nervous. That didn’t feel right to me, so I go to Clint and tell him what I think. He listens and when I’m finished he says, ‘why are you telling me all this?’ and I say, ‘well, you’re the director. Do you think it’ll work?’ And Clint says, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know if any of this will work. Listen, you’re in charge of the W.W. Beauchamp Department’. At heart, Clint is a jazz pianist. He writes the tune, he sets the arrangement, surrounds himself with the musicians he wants and hires the venue, but it’s jazz and he has no intention of trying to control it.
That atmosphere is what doing the job you do, making great art, or whatever, is about. Love and trust – it’s a terrifying thing. Find the thing you want to do and then fall in love with it. Fall in love with the story you want to tell. Everything else will follow.”
And that, when you watch “Unforgiven” – and I know you will – is what the tremble is all about. It isn’t just Saul Rubinek, the actor’s actor, the consummate craftsman, or – God forbid – the star. It’s love. A man in love with the story he has to tell, and with nary a thought to try and control it.
Who, after all, would control love? Who would rush it? Reduce it to a dry chronology or a sterile itemization? Or surrender the field because the obstacles are too great? Speaking Ukrainian, this should be easy for us; ‘story’ (повість) in this language is a feminine noun, so go slow with her – your story. If you truly want to get where she wants you to go, treat her well. Try a little tenderness and wait for the tremble in the hands.