“GOLDA” director Guy Nattiv chats about working with Helen Mirren and bringing the past to life

It’s been a bit of a long road for Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, whose new film about Golda Meir’s turbulent days during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 is dramatized in “Golda.” Working from a script by Nicholas Martin (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), the film casts Oscar-winner Helen Mirren as the embattled prime minister battling both foreign armies as well as an essentially all-male military power structure around her. “Golda” also shows the tightrope that U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Shreiber) must walk in his wish to support Israel—while not necessarily promising the full might of Nixon’s forces lest it set off World War III. The cast is rounded out by Israel’s finest thespians, including the magnificent Lior Ashkenazi (known in America for appearing alongside Richard Gere in “Norman” from 2016) as David “Dado” Elazar, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Nattiv, who won a 2019 Oscar for his short film “Skin,” spoke with us via phone recently about “Golda,” meeting his leading lady during COVID-19 and the many non-Jewish countries around the Middle East where “Golda” will be screening. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and flow.

Were you at all involved in developing the screenplay?  

I was competing with other directors to direct it when I read the script. It was a little different [then]. I did my pitch [which] was not to make what you call a “classic” war movie but concentrate on Golda specifically—her situation in the war physically and mentally. And understand what she went through because nobody knew about it. So when I got the role to direct it, I started doing a lot of work with Nicholas Martin, the screenwriter.

Helen Mirren was already attached to play Golda. I met her in the middle of the pandemic for three and a half hours [to see if] we are on the same page trying to make it more of an intimate portrait. Or [rather] I would call it a requiem for a leader that signifies also the end of an era in Israel.

What was that initial meeting like?

Helen told me that she was in Israel in 1967 touring the country, going to the kibbutz, picking tomatoes with her Jewish boyfriend. She toured the country from north to south, and she was really almost like a Zionist in a way. And she came back many times to Israel because she just felt she belongs in this place.

When I met her, I felt I [was] meeting my mother in a way. I felt that I was meeting a family member. And beyond the fact that she is one of the best actors of our time, I felt that she [possessed] the soul to portray Golda. And I was right; she was phenomenal.

Were you worried about casting a non-Jewish actor as Golda Meir?

When I came [on the project] she already was attached. Don’t forget that [Mirren] also portrayed Jews before in “The Debt” and “Woman in Gold.” I was full of admiration towards her. And also people in Israel, and a lot of [other] Jews, are so, so honored for her portraying Golda.  

We just did a screening in Jerusalem for 6,000 people at an open amphitheater, and all of Golda’s grandkids came and [said] they are so happy Helen is playing their grandmother.  

And also [Meir’s] grandson, Gideon Meir, who I’ve spoken to, [saw] Helen Mirren from the getgo [as] his idea of recreating his grandmother. They had kind of a love fest [for her] in a way.

Lior Ashkenazi is an amazing character actor and a force of nature in this film. Did you always want to cast him as “Dado” Elazar?

I thought about Lior from moment one. One of the terms to make this movie was to [get] the Israeli actors to play the commanders. [Ashkenazi] is called the Robert De Niro of Israel. He is such a phenomenal actor and actually looks a lot like Elazar, the commander that he portrays. He and Helen…bonded immediately.  

The film’s dialogue is entirely in English. Did you ever consider having it spoken in Hebrew and Arabic for historical authenticity?

I thought about it, but I’m a big fan of “Munich” by [Steven] Spielberg. It’s a great film and really works for me—and they speak English. And I really wanted more than just Israelies to watch the movie.

And also when I saw “Chernobyl” the TV [series], it was in English and not in Russian, and it worked for me. It really influenced my cinematic take.

I hope Spielberg eventually sees “Golda.”  

I’ll make sure he will.

And yet you had contemporary voice recordings and news reports in Hebrew and Arabic within the film. Did you worry at all that it might be confusing given your actors are speaking English?

I just met Oliver Stone in Jerusalem; one of his films, “JFK,” influenced me a lot. He used every single clip or soundbite or anything in his movie. It was brilliant.  

And I thought it would be more authentic [for “Golda”], and I actually played those recordings on set.  

So your actors could react to them in real-time.

Exactly, yeah.

I knew very little about the Yom Kippur War and Golda Meir herself. What do you hope people learn from your movie?  

Well, when I was a kid and curious, I watched “The Last Emperor” by [Bernardo] Bertolucci, and I also watched “Gandhi” by Richard Attenborough with Ben Kingsley. I didn’t know anything about these people. It was foreign for me, but I learned so much. I didn’t have internet back then.

I really want people to know who Golda was. And to understand that she was a pioneer in her time and paved the way [for other leaders] who are very famous like Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel.

But also, to get a little piece of history that is more personal, not like a history lesson. People who didn’t know about her are going to learn about her. People who did know who Golda was will get another human approach or human POV on a leader who was probably the wrong person at the wrong time and the wrong place.

Are you anticipating that, in addition to Israel and the West, “Golda” will also play elsewhere in the Middle East?

Surprisingly, it was sold to a lot of Middle Eastern countries like Egypt. I think Jordan as well [and] a few [other] Arab countries.  

What film are you working on now?

My next film is actually premiering at the Venice Film Festival. I shot it a year ago. It’s called “Tatami” and is the first Israeli-Iranian collaboration. I directed it with Zar Amir Ebrahimi, 

who was the lead in a film called “Holy Spider” and won [best actress at] Cannes a year ago.  

It’s a story about a female judo fighter who goes into the world competition to take the gold, [but] after three or four fights she gets a phone call from the Iranian regime telling her to abort the mission. “You’re not allowed to compete against Israelis!” And she said, “Fuck you, I’m taking the gold.” And they said, “Fuck you! Every time you go to another fight, you’re going to pay the price back home.”

Basically the entire movie is shot in one stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia, and it’s kind of a political thriller in a way. [Ebrahimi] is also a producer on this and cast the movie. I wrote it with Elham Erfani, another amazing female writer.  

So [the story] kind of happened before the female revolution in Iran. That’s going to be screened in Venice.

“Golda” opened in select theaters this Friday

Helen Mirren in “GOLDA”

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