Rebecca Schull and Jeff Lipsky- Saving the Best for The Last
Updated: Mar 3, 2020
Rebecca Schull in “The Last.”
Rebecca Schull and Jeff Lipsky
Saving the Best for The Last
by Jay S. Jacobs
What would you do?
That is the main question in the new independent film The Last, a movie that has a shocking and inflammatory subject matter but looks at it from a smart and philosophical viewpoint.
What would you do if you have grown up in a loving and diverse Jewish family if your beloved grandmother confesses when she learns that she is dying that she is not a Jewish concentration camp survivor? In fact, she was a Nazi nurse who worked in the camps and has been hiding in plain sight in the US for over 70 years. Not only that, she was completely unrepentant for her part in history.
What would you do?
The Last is the baby of independent filmmaker Jeff Lipsky. Though Lipsky is probably better known as an independent film distributor – he played a huge part in getting releases on such respected films as A Woman Under the Influence, My Dinner with Andre, Hester Street, My Life as a Dog, Stranger than Paradise, Sid & Nancy and Life is Sweet – he has also written and directed several films over the past few decades.
Of course, a big part of making his passion project was finding an actress who could bring to life such a complicated character. Lipsky never had any doubt. He had worked before with actress Rebecca Schull, who is best known for playing the airport worker Fay in the long-running sitcom Wings, but also has many film, television and theater credits in the likes of United 93, Analyze This and the series Suits. Lipsky wrote the role with her in mind.
Lipsky came up with the idea for The Last while trying to find funding for another script which he had written called Abigail’s Surrender. Unfortunately, that film sort of fell apart because it would have cost twice as much as he had hoped. Lipsky was disappointed, telling himself he’d never make another movie again. That lasted for about a week, then he dusted himself off and started thinking of what else he could do. As a film distributor, he had recently released two Israeli films and an American Jewish comedy. Lipsky was always fascinated by the Holocaust – in fact he says two of his top 20 favorite films ever were on the subject: Schindler’s List and Night & Fog. However, he thought it would be intriguing to look at how that tragic period could affect a modern Jewish family.
“The impetus for the story was based on a member of his family who married a non-Jewish woman who was converting,” Schull recalls.
Writer-director Jeff Lipsky
“That year, I attended the wedding of my nephew, who is now 30 years old, 31 years old,” Lipsky explains. “He grew up in a conservative Jewish family. When he was in college, he decided to go in another direction. He became a modern Orthodox Jew, which none of us knew anything about. And, oddly enough, he didn’t believe in God. While he was in college, he accepted a blind date. She was a wonderful woman who desires to be away from the church. She was going to become a teacher professionally. They got along great.
“It turned out that she had always been fascinated by – and attracted to – the trappings of Judaism,” Lipsky continues. “She had friends growing up, spent a lot of time. Once they decided they were going to be partners, at the very least, she said, ‘Well, I’m going to convert. I love this modern Orthodox Judaism that he adopted.’ She converted, along the way had her Bat Mitzvah, and they got married. None of it was conditional. And she, very much, believes in God. I took them out to dinner one day. I took a tape recorder along. I asked questions for two and a half hours. Mostly of her, because obviously, I knew my nephew.”
This situation set Lipsky’s imagination going. He started picturing how the rest of a family may grow up in religious terms. There was a whole dichotomy of whether or not they would believe in a deity. As he says, it was two great characters in search of a drama.
“My films have always been – or are frequently are – about families in crisis, multiple generations of families,” Lipsky explains. “But I’d never gone beyond three generations. I thought if I go back one more generation, I’m at the Holocaust. That’s when I came up with the idea for the character of Claire. That did require a bit of research. I am not a history buff, per se. I decided to embroider her – this fictional character – with some factual people in her life. Once I did that, and once I did the research about 19th century Germany into 20th century Germany, and a little bit of the Weimar Republic. A little bit of the Nazis rise to power. A little bit on the Holocaust. Once that happened, it became the easiest script that I’d ever written, actually. It formed very organically, very naturally.”
With the finished script, Lipsky knew one thing for sure. He had created the role with Schull in mind and felt there was no other actress that could do the role complete justice.
“Once I got to the point where I came up with the idea of a survivor of the Holocaust, I knew it had to be played by Rebecca,” Lipsky says.
Rebecca Schull in “The Last.”
However, it was a difficult, controversial part. He also realized that as a Jewish woman, Schull may be upset by the character. Therefore, he decided he had to see if she was willing before just about anything else could move forward.
“This is the fourth time I’ve worked with Rebecca,” he continued. “I was already aware that she could do virtually anything.”
Of course, there was a very basic question: would the actress agree? After all, it was a very inflammatory part. Also, there was a more basic question, the actress was turning 90 years old when the film was made, and it was a difficult role to pull off. The first time that they had worked together was in the 1996 film Flannel Pajamas.
“[She] blew away audiences,” Lipsky says. “After that I looked to do more supporting roles for her, because I was desperate to work with her again. Much more benign characters, quirky, funny, touching.”
Schull was also always open to work with Lipsky. “I’ve worked with Jeff a few times before and I’ve always admired his approach; how he goes about a very, very low budget film,” Schull says. “He’s just a very decent guy. Everything is always done very efficiently. He works with everybody in a very nice way. I think he’s a fine writer and director, so that of course was part of it.”
However, there was a basic change – time. This new film had a lot of emotional heavy lifting. At the time they started working together, Schull was 76. Now she’s 90. As the director said, for as much as he respects the actress and her talent, there’s a big difference. Still, he felt that Schull was up to the challenge.
“I never dangle a finished script to actors or potential crew members before I know I have the money to start and finish the movie,” Lipsky explains. “But in this case, I needed to know that Rebecca was feeling good about the film, would do it, was in all the way. I asked her to lunch one day and I brought a hard copy of the script. I said, ‘Look, I wrote this for you. Read it.’”
“He took me to lunch,” Schull recalls. “He told me the story before giving me the script to read. I was shocked at what he told me.” She laughs, recalling the meeting. “Then, of course when I read it, I was even more shocked. I debated a little bit. I was somewhat conflicted about whether I wanted to play that role. In the end, I felt the story was an interesting one and worth telling. And of course, the role would be a real challenge. So, I said yes.”
“She called me two days later,” Lipsky says. “She said, ‘Well, Jeff, I found this very disturbing. I think it’s great. I’m in.’”
Rebecca Schull and Jill Durso in “The Last.”
Lipsky was happy to find that his faith in the actress was rewarded.
“I knew she could pull it off,” Lipsky continues. “In my opinion, she does so transcendently. Maybe people this year will give performances as good as Rebecca’s in this movie, but I can’t imagine anybody giving a better performance. Just my opinion.”
So, as a Jewish woman, was it tough for Schull to come to terms with this character?
“I wouldn’t say it was difficult to play,” Schull says, “because once you commit yourself to doing something, you find a way to do it. But it was upsetting to me when I read it initially. You read all that same stuff again, which is so horrific. You know what a terrible, pernicious effect it can have. The act of cynicism today is one thing, but I still remember what we all found out in the aftermath of World War II, so those are hard things to deal with.”
Of course, in a period in history that anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise – not that it has ever gone away – perhaps it is a good idea to take a multi-layered look at the horrors of World War II and the concentration camps.
“I can see where some people might feel that exposing this kind of virulent anti-Semitism only proselytizes for it,” Schull admits. “On the other hand, when you see how irrational and virulent it is, maybe it has a beneficial effect. This is a big mystery. I don’t know the answer to it.”
Lipsky agrees that looking at this little film to affect the course of anti-Semitism may be putting a little too much on the movie.
Rebecca Schull holding a Nazi photo in “The Last.”
“I don’t know that I consider it as much of an important story as an original take on a Holocaust survivor,” Lipsky says. “How it completely upends a contemporary modern Jewish family growing up and living in New York. I consider it as much a love story as anything else. This revelation that their beloved matriarch is not who she had always claimed to be, in my opinion, brings two married couples closer together than they had ever been in their lives. This is the story.”
The idea of family is not one that is foreign to Lipsky films. Beyond the fact, as he stated earlier, the filmmaker tends to make films which explore family dynamics, there is even a much more basic connection. In The Last beyond working with Schull for the fourth time, he also has worked four times with stage veteran Reed Birney – who plays Claire’s middle-aged graphic novelist son. Lipsky likes to have a loose entourage of actors and filmmakers, when possible, giving his films a bit of a family dynamic, a sense of community.
“That’s very much the case,” Schull agrees. “I think Reed feels that way, and I feel that way. You have to respect somebody who is so devoted to his work and pursues it in such a single-minded way, with a very low budget always. I think that deserves respect and deserves commitment from actors, because we all know how hard this business is.”
Lipsky, on the other hand, feels a reciprocal respect. Once he finds a great talent, he wants to keep it in his galaxy. Certain actors almost become like good luck charms to the filmmaker.
“I keep working with Reed because, very simply speaking, he is the best actor in New York, bar none, right now,” Lipsky states. “Most people in New York, and in the media, only get to see his work on stage. He was the Vice President on House of Cards, that really didn’t amount to all that many episodes.”
Birney returns the admiration. Lipsky openly admits he was not familiar with Birney’s work until he was brought to Lipsky’s attention by Julie Schubert, the casting director of the earlier film Twelve Thirty.
“He is passionate about the roles that I write for him,” Lipsky says. “We connected and we love each other to death now. I can’t imagine making a movie without him. This is the fourth time I’ve work with him.”
“Rebecca is kind of the same thing,” Lipsky says. “One of the things that really bothers me about life in general, about society at large, and about film specifically, is that there is no question that ageism – and more so for women than for men – is rampant. In society, and certainly in film. But, I have to say, as somebody who takes a great deal of pride in the compelling, powerful, strong, positive, three-dimensional female characters that I write – more so than male characters – I’ve been thinking, since I finished making The Last, how am I going to create another vivid starring role for Rebecca, at the age of 91 or 92?
“Even if I had every confidence in the world that she can physically do it, I can’t make it the same kind of character. It’s much easier for me to conjure up great leading roles for Reed Birney in the future. Once somebody is in their 90s, obviously there are certain built-in restrictions. I would hate to think of myself as a perpetrator of ageism on any basis. So, I worry about the future a little bit.”
New to Lipsky’s loose repertory company is Jill Durso, a fairly unknown actress – previous film and TV roles include the indie films Romance (In the Modern Age) and The Latents, as well as a recent guest shot on Law & Order: SVU. Durso was brought to Lipsky’s attention by The Last casting director Amy Gossells, who also found co-stars AJ Cedeno and Julie Fain Lawrence. As the filming went on, Lipsky became more and more impressed by Durso.
Jill Durso and Rebecca Schull in “The Last.”
“By the end of the movie, the heart and soul of the movie are these two characters – Olivia and Claire,” Lipsky said. “Neither of whom was born Jewish. Obviously, they share other certain traits by the end of the movie.
“Once I found her, once I cast her, once I worked with her, I marvel at the fact that she hasn’t already become a significant star in film, and television,” Lipsky enthuses. “She’s brilliant in the movie. I think she’s probably capable of anything. She is not a young ingenue, but she’s still young enough to make a living for herself as an actor for the next four decades.”
Durso also impressed Schull, with whom she shared several very tense scenes.
“She’s a lovely young woman,” Schull says. “Just lovely. She’s very talented. She’s beautiful. She’s very bright. She’s just great.”
In the casting process, Lipsky and Gossells had several actresses audition for the role of Olivia. However, the director says, at the end of the day she was their only choice. Once she had been cast, her natural charisma just shone through.
“I never cast actors or actresses for their looks,” Lipsky explains. “I don’t. I cast them for their talent. That said, and this did not become apparent to us until we began looking at dailies, the camera loves Jill.”
Now that he’s found her, he hopes that she will also become a regular in his films.
“Now I feel like it’s a race against time,” Lipsky continues. “I better cast her to star in my next film before somebody with a lot more money than I spend to make movies does.”
In fact, by coincidence, it turned out that Schull is the only Jewish lead actor in the film.
“Which was completely unplanned,” Lipsky admits. “I was completely unaware of it until we cast the film.”
“I didn’t really think about it,” Schull says. “When I was asked to do it, certainly the fact that I’m Jewish and my own heritage and background and all of that was part of the decision-making process for me. But, once we started to work, I didn’t think of that, really.”
“That’s another great irony here,” Lipsky says. “Of the five leads, the only one who in real life is Jewish is Rebecca. [And] she was playing a Nazi.”
Which brings to mind the crux of the conundrum in The Last. To a certain extent it poses a question – is it always better to come clean on someone’s secrets? The character of Claire, once she learns she is dying, decides to come clean about her Nazi past, and in the process almost destroys her family. Would that have maybe been better to take to the grave?
“I don’t know,” Schull admits, laughing. “I think that people have to decide that for themselves. You can’t make laws that tell people whether they should hold on to their secrets or not. Everybody decides. Look, here’s a woman who kept this secret for what?… more than 50 years? Suddenly, for whatever reason – maybe she has become a little unhinged, although I don’t think that’s really in the script – [she] just simply feels the need to unburden herself and makes this decision. I don’t think that anybody can tell somebody else what to do on that score.”
“I would like to think that I would be brave enough not to do that,” Lipsky states. “I think that the reasons for Claire deciding to unburden her past to her family had as much to do with feeling that she is being honest to her mother. And the sibling that was never born. And to the man who saved her life. To live the lie beyond that time, I think she would have felt was a betrayal of them. Perhaps living this lie to the death, maybe she felt that would have been a betrayal to the people that she today most loved. I absolutely believe that she loves everyone in that family. She’s damned if she does, and she’s damned if she doesn’t.”
In fact, it was very important to Lipsky to give Claire’s story a complexity and breadth. She was not a part of the militarism or the goals of the Nazi party. It was survival and national pride that put her working in that concentration camp. That and the love and respect for a father figure. A man who tried to save her mother’s life, did save Claire’s life and kept her safe as a young girl. He asked her to come with him to Poland – apparently not fully comprehending what would be expected of him. What should she do?
Rebecca Schull and AJ Cedeno in “The Last.”
The history of her situation is told in a tour de force confession that Claire makes to grandson Josh (Cedeno) and Olivia (Durso) – a long stretch of film in which Schull speaks almost uninterrupted (though Lipsky does not consider it a traditional monologue because there is a lot of reaction from Josh and Olivia, even if much of it is silent). In fact, Claire’s speech takes up over eight pages of script.
“I really think that this movie, while it’s dialogue wall-to-wall – much like the films of my screenwriting idol today, who is Aaron Sorkin – I really only believe that there are two of what you would refer to as monologues,” Lipsky says. “That, obviously, is one of them. But it’s part of a sequence. It’s part of what I call a symphony in three acts.
“That act one, is the revelation,” Lipsky continues. “Act two is Olivia trying not to take sides between the two people that she has most loved in her life. The third movement of the symphony is the battle royale, where she has taken a side, standing by her husband. Literally, it’s only seen in the beach sequence, where fireworks take place openly and aggressively, finally terminating with the only extreme use, and very quick use, of profanity in the entire film. Saying something to a 92-year-old woman that in his life he couldn’t imagine even thinking in the darkest recesses of his mind.”
In fact, though to most it feels like maybe 15 minutes while watching, Rebecca’s confession speech takes more like 45 minutes of the film. The reactions, differing shot angles, and certain inserts make the time seem to go more quickly. Of course, something that long can’t be filmed in long takes, it was broken up.
“We shot that scene in two days,” Schull laughs. “That’s just the way Jeff works.”
“It would have been impossible,” Lipsky says about the idea filming it all in one take. “I don’t think any actor could have pulled it off without weeks of rehearsal. Without approaching it as if it was the monologue in a play.”
“I had spent a good part of the summer learning that text and thinking about it,” Schull says. “Deciding what I was going to do with it. I was prepared for the fact that it was a very long monologue and I’d have to call on whatever resources I had in order to do it. In the event, it was out at the beach. It was a very beautiful setting. And, you know, you do it. That’s part of your profession.”
Of course, that beautiful setting that Schull mentioned made it a little easier to take.
“You work in all kinds of different atmospheres and setups and locations. In this case, because physically it was really pleasant at the beach and all.” Schull laughs, “I’m a big beach lover. And the other actors were wonderful. So, you do it. Its work and you figure out a way to do it.”
So, have Lipsky and Schull ever learned secrets about anyone that fundamentally changed how they look at someone else – either for better or worse?
“I have learned deep dark secrets about people who are close to me and it can be… I wouldn’t say traumatic, but it can be very upsetting,” Schull agrees. “It can change to a degree the way you perceive another person. It all depends on the particular case, what the story is and all of that. But, yeah, I’ve had that experience.”
“Only in the most benign way,” Lipsky admits. “Nothing catastrophic, or life-altering. My parents, who I love to death, who I wish were still here, one of the few regrets I have as a filmmaker at all is that they are not there on opening night every time. That said, they were bickering and fighting and yelling and screaming with each other the whole time we were growing up. There was never physical abuse, and I don’t believe there was any kind of cheating or infidelity. It’s just that’s the way they communicated, by yelling, and it drove us nuts.
“After my mother had died, my closest relative at that time was an aunt, who was my father’s sister. I was marveling at the fact that they stayed together once we were teenagers. I said, ‘They hated each other so much. I don’t understand why they stayed together.’ I said, jokingly, ‘There are four siblings. There are four of us. So that means they probably never had sex more than four times.’ My aunt said to me, ‘Oh, no. You’ve got it all wrong. It was their sex life that kept them together.’”
Lipsky laughs, “Hearing that, it was almost in a comical way shocking. It also gave me hope for the future of my life. They were randy as hell until the day my mother died. I hope it’s in the genes. But there was nothing like what happens in the movie that happened in my life.”
The Last is an important film, but a rather dark film. Do they think a complicated film like this can find its audience?
“I have no idea,” Schull admits, laughing. “I just don’t know.”
“Absolutely,” Lipsky says. “Without hesitation I say absolutely. Part of that is based on distribution. There is going to be a faction – particularly of Jewish audiences, specifically of Conservative Jewish audiences – for whom this film is just going to be a non-starter because of the character of Claire. Because there is an unrepentant Nazi character who has masqueraded as a Jew for 75 years of her life. It’s not that they won’t like the movie, it’s just that they won’t accept the movie.
“So, yeah, there is going to be a certain amount of pushback,” he continues. “But I don’t think that it’s because they don’t like the movie, per se. But because of the character of Claire. Much like that’s what I meant earlier when I said: What would you do? One of the dark marvels of this movie is how do you turn 30 years of abject love and family adulation into abject hate in three, or four, or five hours? That’s what happened.”