“My wife just had two kids. It should have been the happiest time of my life,” Marvin Samel tells New Times. “But then my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. During 2 a.m. feedings of the babies, I started writing down vignettes of my dad. I remembered the time he pretended to have a twin brother. I thought about the time I took him to the Apple Store at Aventura Mall to get him an iPhone.”
Out of those drafts came the idea for Samel’s debut feature film, iMordechai, which is having its world premiere during the opening night of the Miami Jewish Film Festival on Thursday. Prior to iMordechai, Samel was in the cigar business and was unfamiliar with film production before his first day as director.
“My producers were experienced filmmakers, and they were in search of a director. Finally they nominated me,” Samel says. “They thought if I didn’t direct it, I would have lost control of my family’s story.”
The autobiographical story centers on Samel’s father, Mordechai, a Holocaust survivor who gets a new lease on life learning how to use his brand-new iPhone. Samel says he leaned heavily on his experienced cast and crew to make the film.
“I didn’t try to fake it til I make it,” he adds. “I was honest with everyone that I was the least-experienced person on set. I told them, ‘I’m counting on you.'”
Playing the film version of Samel’s parents, Mordechai and Fela, are vets Judd Hirsch and Carol Kane, who previously worked together on the 1970s sitcom Taxi.
“I didn’t have a moment to take it in when I was shooting,” Samel explains. “I couldn’t get gobsmacked having all these great stars play my family since something on set was always happening. I never told Judd that watching Taxi as a kid with my father was one of the few bonding moments we had.”
Hirsch signed to the project, excited to be working with a first-time filmmaker.
“Going into it it could be a little frightening, but it’s an adventure,” Hirsch tells New Times. “When he got Carol, I knew we’d go good together. We had a great time working together on Taxi.”
Hirsch admits he was a little intimidated to play a real person who’s still alive.
“Marvin asked me if I wanted to meet his father. I said no, I didn’t want the burden of having to be exactly like him,” he says. “Two minutes later, Mordechai walks in, and we became the best of friends.”
A long career of playing both comedic and dramatic roles helped Hirsch; iMordechai mixes comedy with drama. The actor says you have to play each beat the same way.
“Beneath every tragedy, there’s humor,” Hirsch explains. “And with all the difficult things Mordechai went through in life, he found a way to stay funny. He found a way to have a good time in this endurance contest of a life.”
Kane agrees with that philosophy.
“You go into any type of role trying to be honest and true,” says the actress. “James L. Brooks, one of the creators of Taxi, told me, ‘Don’t try to be funny. If we wrote it funny, it’ll be funny. If it’s not funny, we’ll have to rewrite it.’ That was extraordinary advice.”
While Hirsch was able to talk to the real-life Mordechai to get insight into the character he was playing, Kane didn’t have the same luxury. Fela passed away shortly before shooting began in 2019.
“Marvin gave me footage of his mom, and photographs, which was very helpful,” Kane says. “It’s a responsibility to honor someone who lived a rich and fulfilling life, but it’s also a gift.”
The movie was shot on location in South Florida, with scenes filmed at recognizable spots like Aventura Mall and Lincoln Road, where the final scene takes place. For Samel, the setting was a crucial detail in depicting his family.
“I could have filmed in another state and cheated for Miami, but I wanted this film to be my love letter to Miami,” he says. “It felt like every shot had a connection to my parents.”
iMordechai. 7:30 p.m., Thursday, January 13, at North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; and 8 p.m. Saturday, January 22, at Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center, 18900 NE 25th Ave., Miami; miamijewishfilmfestival.org. Tickets cost $18.