Local filmmaker to screen his film, “Tickling Leo,” Nov. 22

By: Michael Nassberg

 Jeremy Davidson
Jeremy Davidson, a Jewish filmmaker from Vestal, will screen his first feature film, “Tickling Leo,” twice at EPAC on Sunday, November 22, at 3 pm and 7 pm. Davidson and others involved in making the picture will be present for discussion. The cost for admission will be $10.
Using the Kastner Train, which in 1944 rescued approximately 1,700 Jews in Hungary, as a historical backdrop, “Tickling Leo” poses questions about family, memory and faith through a poignant drama. Prodded by his uncle, Zak Pikler (Daniel Sauli) takes his girlfriend, Delphina (Annie Parisse), to his family’s bungalow in the Catskills for Yom Kippur. His reluctance to make the trip stems from several sources, in particular having to deal with his unwell father, Warren (Lawrence Pressman), whom he has not seen in a year, since his mother passed. The film carefully introduces ambiguities in the plot that are gradually resolved, including issues involving Uncle Robert (Ronald Guttman) and the family patriarch, Emil (Eli Wallach), whose past has been concealed from Zak.
Various scenes in “Tickling Leo” explore the notion of how people treat their faith, especially when it is inherited, but not encouraged. Davidson has stated that he received a Jewish education, during which he learned that his mother, as a convert, was not always accepted as a “true Jew.” This caused dissonance for him between his family and his religion. However, experiencing antisemitism made it clear his Jewish identity persisted regardless of what he felt: “Gradually, I’ve come to learn that Judaism is my door to understanding pieces of my father and grandfather and perhaps my own children.” Zak’s past draws inspiration from Davidson’s, as the protagonist struggles with denial over his interest in discovering the truth. In an e-mail interview, Davidson explained that “it takes years to make a movie, and so the characters and circumstances have to be worth spending a lot of time with. So I do try to write about characters and circumstances that move me.”
Although “Tickling Leo” took several years to complete, as the script went through numerous revisions, its release has come to correspond with Davidson’s entry into fatherhood, making the topic even more relevant. He and his wife, actress Mary Stuart Masterson (“Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Benny & Joon”), had a son on October 11, Phineas Greenberg. Like Davidson and Masterson, the film’s characters Zak and Delphina are an interfaith couple. In the picture, questions arise as to how they would treat religion if they were to raise a child. Before they can be answered, Zak has to understand first what Judaism means to him. “Honestly, I don’t know how other people will define [my son],” Davidson said. “As Mary Stuart isn’t Jewish, he’ll have to be converted like I was if he’s ever to be accepted as Jewish. He did have a bris and it was a beautiful ceremony which both sides of our family attended... We hope we can bring him up with a spirituality that includes all the various pieces our family histories encompass.”
Davidson’s various acting roles (such as “Army Wives” and “The Kill Point”) and appearances at various Jewish film festivals have taken him across the country, but Davidson said “I’m excited to bring the film back here,” referring to greater Binghamton. In fact, his initial interest in the arts started at home. In the interview he stated, “I have my mom to thank for making sure my siblings and I had a lot of exposure to the arts that the Binghamton area had to offer. I didn’t realize how much of an influence it was going to have on me back then, because I really wasn’t interested in acting or directing. My heroes were always baseball and basketball players, and I preferred to be playing sports with my Dad. But she would take us to the Cider Mill Playhouse several times a year as well as the Tri-Cities Opera. I would gripe about it then, but so many of those productions have stayed with me.”
After high school, Davidson majored in creative writing at SUNY Binghamton, a choice that could be attributed to influence from his father, Mickey Greenberg, a former high school English teacher and basketball coach. Davidson refers to his father as “an amazing storyteller... He’d make up our bedtime stories as he went along and it was awesome. So I suppose that stuck with me.” Davidson also took after his father through his interest in basketball: Davidson played for SUNY Binghamton during his time there, 1990-94, as a point guard for the team.
“When my wife and I watched him direct,” said Greenberg, “we could see his point guard in basketball abilities come out in directing... That was his first experience as a director and he seemed very much at home doing it.” Greenberg jokingly added, “In my mind he should’ve been a point guard for the Knicks, but that’s just me.”
Being a successful point guard or filmmaker both require planning and leadership skills. After receiving an education in writing that provided an understanding of storytelling, the only piece left was acting. Greenberg described his son’s interest in acting as having a rapid onset: “It all kicked in, his desire to be on stage, [when] he was an MC [for a] high school acting talent show. [Then] he was in the senior play – from that moment on, it just hit him. In BU, he was in several plays, at Rutgers several plays, so it all started in his senior year.”
After Binghamton, Davidson  attended Rutgers for an M.F.A. in acting and has since had success in the field. “I’ve been very lucky to make a living as an actor. But you’re always serving someone else’s voice and someone else’s vision,” Davidson explained. “To me, the great thing about writing is that you don’t need permission from anyone else to do it. So I’ll continue to try to get better as a writer and hope that I can get another film made.” In this pursuit, Davidson has returned to working on other scripts since finishing “Tickling Leo.”
Davidson’s background in the Southern Tier and upstate New York has provided impetus and inspiration in his acting and filmmaking: “As an actor, I always jump at the chance to be a part of stories that are about working class families, families like the ones I grew up around in Vestal. The communities here in the Southern Tier revolve around the children. It’s not like that in New York City and Los Angeles. And I know that the support I felt growing up here gave me confidence to take some risks in my life.” Furthermore, during the process of making “Tickling Leo” Davidson received tangible help from sources close to him: in addition to having Masterson and her brother, Peter, working as producers, the picture was shot on location in the Catskills with permission from family friends. According to Greenberg, their family had frequented the locale, Lochada Lake in Barryville, NY, ever since Davidson was a child. He added that his son returned there to show the residents the film, which they reportedly enjoyed. He noted that one of the couples, which included a Holocaust survivor, was particularly struck by “Tickling Leo.”
After conceiving of the Pikler family as the basis for his story, Davidson chose the Kastner Train to provide a background for the characters. In 1944, Rudolf Kastner negotiated with Adolf Eichmann to rescue approximately 1,700 Jews in Hungary. Questions regarding whether or not he acted in the best interests of the Hungarian Jews are hotly debated, as is Kastner’s assassination, in Israel, in 1957. “I think I chose the Kastner Affair because it seemed an appropriate legacy for the fictional family in my story. I certainly, emotionally, connect with that time and wanted to explore it, not to necessarily come to any conclusions, but explore... how it feeds the characters in my story,” said Davidson. “I am interested in how history affects all of us.”
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