Jon Peterson in ‘Killer of Men’

Courtesy of Independent Pictures and Quiver Distribution

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Kubrick’s Ghost Meets the Demons of the Talmud in Deepest Brooklyn

Tzvi grew up Haredi in Flatbush. Now he’s the director of ‘Killer of Men,’ an acclaimed new film produced by Cary Woods.

by
Tim Brinkhof
June 11, 2024
Jon Peterson in 'Killer of Men'

Courtesy of Independent Pictures and Quiver Distribution

Inspiration can strike a filmmaker in the unlikeliest of places. James Cameron came up with the premise for The Terminator in a sickness-induced fever dream on a trip to Rome, in which he saw a skeletal robot emerge from flames. George Miller’s journey to creating the Mad Max franchise began when he was working as a doctor, treating survivors of horrific car accidents. Charlie Kaufman famously wrote Adaptation while struggling to adapt New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief.

Twenty-five-year-old Tzvi, professionally know by his first name, stumbled upon the idea for his first feature, Killer of Men, after being locked out of his apartment in Sheepshead Bay, a neighborhood in far Brooklyn that tourists generally steer clear of. Tzvi had always felt there was something oddly compelling about its mountains of uncollected garbage, barbwired car parks, and tiny, empty shops with giant, neon signs like “ONLY CASH—GET PHONE NOW!!!” On camera, he thought, they would make for one hell of a backdrop.

Tzvi would later refer to Men—which ended up revolving around a psychopathic delivery guy who moonlights as a hitman—as little more than a tech demo, “a way to show what I could do with the means that were available to me.” What was available to him wasn’t much: a budget of circa $10,000, scraped together mostly by friends on the internet; a cast and crew cobbled together through favors from friends’ Craigslist ads; and lunch catered by 7-Eleven. He wrote the screenplay to minimize production costs, incorporating only locations he knew he would be able to use for free.

Accounts of the chaotic shoot, which saw Tzvi being accused of drug theft and held at knife point, echo the disastrous productions of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, and to this day he still cannot believe he made it out alive. “One night I came home in tears,” he said over coffee at a Bushwick cafe. “I dropped onto my knees and prayed—to the God of my parents, to Stanley Kubrick’s ghost, the demons of the Talmud, whoever would listen.”

Still, “tech demo” feels like Tzvi is selling himself short. Those close to him also know that his humility and penchant for self-deprecation are rivaled only by his passion for and encyclopedic knowledge of the history of cinema. “His references just blew me away,” producer Cary Woods recounts of their first meeting, “he’d show me shots from his film and tell me how they were inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky and the like. It was impressive, especially once I learned he didn’t go to any film school, or even regular school for that matter. His grasp of the medium was so much more robust than any film school grad I ever met.”

In addition to producing films like Scream and Godzilla, Woods has a reputation for discovering talent well before anyone else in the industry sees their potential. He has helped launch the careers of protégés such as Harmony Korine (Kids), Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth), James Mangold (Cop Land), Doug Liman (Swingers) and M. Night Shyamalan (Wide Awake), all of whom went on to become accomplished filmmakers. In Tzvi, Woods saw many of the qualities that he’d originally seen in them: resourcefulness, perseverance, and an unshakable trust in their directorial vision.

Although Tzvi’s filmmaking career is still in the midst of takeoff, Woods seems to have gotten it right again. Men had its worldwide premier at 2023’s Woodstock Film Festival in upstate New York, where it was met with positive reviews. It was then picked up for sales by WME, and acquired by Quiver. Profiling Tzvi for an article in Filmmaker Magazine, film critic Scott Macaulay rightly praised his “impressive formal control” behind the camera.

Tzvi’s approach to filmmaking is heavily influenced by his upbringing. He was born in 1999, into Flatbush’s Haredi community, an ultra-Orthodox enclave within Orthodox Judaism where religious law permeates every aspect of daily life, especially when it comes to interaction between the sexes. When a Haredi boy turns 13 years old, for instance, he can no longer associate with girls, and must keep his distance from them until his rabbis find him a suitable match. Men and women attend separate schools, where close reading of the Talmud is given prevalence over secular studies. Students are forbidden from owning smartphones, and listening to songs from Taylor Swift or Kanye West could result in expulsion.

Reprieve from these restrictions can be found only at home, depending on the piety of one’s parents. Tzvi’s permitted him the small sin of watching movies, though only the ones that they themselves had seen when they were younger. Frank Capra got the OK, but Tarantino was off limits.

Tzvi says he loved movies because they gave him an idea of what life outside his own community might look like. He recalls being astounded by his mother’s inability to hide her appreciation for onscreen romance even though it was considered taboo, and vividly remembers his father shedding a tear during the final sequence of It’s a Wonderful Life. For Tzvi, films helped bring out the “human side” of his parents. “That which we were too stoic to discuss face to face, we communicated via Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart.”

Once whetted, Tzvi’s appetite for cinema soon led him to the kind of films his community could never tolerate, not even behind closed doors. Films like Goodfellas and Star Wars, filled with gratuitous violence and escapist fantasy. In Haredi households, internet access is limited and websites like Netflix and YouTube are often blocked. After school, Tzvi and his friends would sneak into the local cinema, or torrent films on secret smartphones which they kept hidden underneath their mattresses.

The loneliness Tzvi experienced during his childhood permeates every aspect of Men, whose silent protagonist lives on the fringes of society—a place where everyone is a stranger to each other, and love and friendship are nowhere to be found. Although the story is not completely autobiographical—Tzvi says that the protagonist’s inner conflict, his coming to terms with the fact that he’s suddenly lost the ability to feel both pain and pleasure, was inspired by a conversation with someone he had met—its ultimate subject, a man living in liminal space, between birth and death, reads like a metaphor for Tzvi’s own life: stuck between an estranged past in Flatbush and an as-of-yet-uncertain future in entertainment.

This duality is reflected in Tzvi’s self-education. On the one hand, his filmmaking builds on and plays with shots used in other films, like Tarkovsky’s. The legendary Russian director, known for making Solaris, Stalker, and The Sacrifice, once compared directing a movie to composing a piece of music. Rather than telling a story through dialogue, Tarkovsky speaks to his audiences through images, the transitions and juxtapositions between them, and the rhythm with which they are edited together. Men, too, is light on conversation—the final draft of the screenplay only had around 74 pages, 30 less than the industry standard—with Tzvi relying primarily on visuals. As with Tarkovsky, every frame contains some form of movement, be that a subway train chugging along in the distance, or bluish flames escaping from the burner of a dilapidated stove over which the protagonist tries to burn his numb fingers.

On the other hand, Tzvi considers himself deeply indebted to his religious studies, specifically his readings of the Talmud. Raised to become a theologian like his grandfather, Tzvi knows the Talmud—a collection of “33 tomes, all of them written in Aramaic, containing stories and medicinal advice and legal advice”—as well as he knows his way around a camera.

To the chagrin of his teachers, Tzvi did not treat the Talmudic writers as sages so much as he treated them like storytellers. But that’s what they were in his mind, and the way he saw it, their techniques were as effective today as they must have been 1,500 years ago. He especially admired their inventiveness and tolerance for moral ambiguity: “The Talmud deals with a lot of gray areas the Bible does not cover. It says: If you embarrass someone, it’s as if you kill them. And so, there’s loads of stories about the lengths that people in those times would go to not embarrass each other. They would jump out of windows so their friends who were down on their luck would not see them putting food on their table for them. The Talmud also says: Thou shalt not kill. But it also asks: Is it OK to kill someone trying to kill you?”

Above all, Tzvi appreciates how the Talmud raises more questions than it answers—a characteristic that, in his mind, also defines great cinema. “Some Talmudic stories suddenly stop,” he explains, “or they declare something confusing or contradictory without the writers explaining themselves. Nowadays, we are all affected by modernism. We live in a world obsessed with analysis; everything has to make sense and have a punchline that can be deconstructed. But when I was studying the Talmud as a kid, I never felt that was necessary. I just read the stories and experienced them for what they were because it was impossible to figure out what they really meant, what their authors had really meant. They are like an ancient surrealism: they feel right when you read them. You’re in awe of them, even though you don’t really understand why.”

Tzvi applied these same principles to Men, creating a film without a definite resolution that maintains an unbridgeable distance between audience and character. Meaning is not imposed by the director in a script that leaves no room for ambiguity but takes shape in the mind of the beholder simply through the act of beholding, making Men a work of cinema in the purest and most basic sense of the word.

“Kubrick said: If something can be written or thought, it also can be filmed,” Tzvi muses. “I’m not in a position to disagree with him, but I don’t think he’d disagree with me either when I say that you could also say the very opposite: If it can’t be written and can’t be thought, it can be filmed. Film can capture things that cannot be articulated. People make movies because they feel the only way to communicate their feelings is with an image. A movie can tell a story, but I don’t think that’s where the magic lies. The magic is the ineffable part of it. No words can do justice to the ending of a truly great scene, which transcends words or reason.”

Tim Brinkhof is a Dutch journalist based in Atlanta. He studied film history at NYU, worked as an editorial assistant for Film Comment, and has written about art and entertainment for Vox, Vulture, Slate, Esquire and more.

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