Adherents.com Home Page

< Return to Adherents.com's Guide to Movies
< Return to Famous Jews

The Religious Affiliation of Director
Lee David Zlotoff


Film director Lee David Zlotoff (whose credits include
The Spitfire Grill) is an observant Orthodox Jew.

From: John Horn (Associated Press), "Theological Hollywood: Two Movies Explore Religious Issues", published 23 August 1996 (http://www.s-t.com/daily/08-96/08-23-96/l01ae004.htm; viewed 19 October 2005):

Mr. Zlotoff, an Orthodox Jew, says he enjoyed working with the league [The Sacred Heart League, a Catholic organization for whom he directed The Spitfire Grill] and was astonished when The New York Times suggested the film had some sort of a religious agenda.

About The Spitfire Grill, which was directed by Lee David Zlotoff. Catherine M. Barsotti and Robert K. Johnston, Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith, Baker Books: Grand Rapids, Michigan (2004), pages 278-280:

The Spitfire Grill was warmly received by viewers and critics alike. Made on a modest budget (about $6 million) by a Roman Catholic organization in Mississippi, it was the surprise hit at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival in 1996, winning the Audience Award. Castle Rock Entertainment then purchased it for $10 million--a record price at the time for a Sundance film.

However, the film has not been without its controversy. Some critics, after learning of its religious sponsorship, had second thoughs about its value. They wondered if the film contained hidden propaganda. though they had trouble knowing what to criticize. (The film has little mention of God, and the town's one church is empty.) This is not the explicity religiosity of The Ten Commandments, but the message of redemption shines through nonetheless. Not all in the larger society seem willing to accept the film's indirect spiritual gift, particularly if it comes from a Christian organization. Yet most viewers are taken by it.

[page 279] Like Aslan [in C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia], Percy Talbott [the protagonist of Spitfire Grill] is an unlikely Christ-figure who by coming to Gilead "ends winter" and "makes the wounded whole." Like Christ, Percy experiences rejection and is thought to have a questionable reputation. Yet through her life, Percy is able to pierce through to the core of the small town, exposing its hurts and the need for her healing balm. It is indeed painful, but Percy heals both a family and a town. Truly she is a "balm of Gilead."

[page 280] Discussion Questions
After critics found out that the film had been financed by the Sacred Heart League of the Catholic Church, Lee David Zlotoff, the director, went on record denying that The Spitfire Grill had any spiritual message. Would you agree? Did he overreact? How are the names of the characters evocative of biblical stories and themes?

Barsotti and Johnston, page 282:
As noted above, The Spitfire Grill won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996. With a budget of $6 million, the profits (over $3 million) received from the movie's sale to Castle Rock Entertainment allowed the Sacred Heart League to biuld a school in rural Mississippi. The movie's total box office receipts eventually totaled about $13 million.
From: James M. Wall, "Speaking of Religion", published in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture (written by James M. Wall), The Christian Century Press: Chicago (1997), pp. 87-90 (http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=565; viewed 19 October 2005):
Or consider the report by Caryn James in the New York Times on the recent Sundance Film Festival, in which she describes the film Care of the Spitfire Grill as "a manipulatively heartwarming story about a young woman just out of prison who finds spiritual redemption." James records that the movie "won the feature film audience award and was sold to Castle Rock Entertainment for $10 million." She goes on: "No one seemed to notice that it was financed by a conservative Mississippi company affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church and founded, as its 'mission statement' puts it, to 'present the values of the Judeo Christian tradition.' The new company, called Gregory Productions, put up the $6 million for the film, set in a town called Gilead. Gregory is an offshoot of the nonprofit Sacred Heart League, which publishes inspirational literature."

James comments that the film "resembles an 'after school special' about forgiveness. But watching it with the Sacred Heart League in mind makes all the biblical imagery seem slightly sinister. When Marcia Gay Harden takes the heroine to mediate in a deserted church, it's hard to forget where the movie's money comes from. The director, Lee David Zlotoff, is Jewish and, he says, extremely religious. But the movies's multidenominational roots -- Catholic backers, Protestant characters and a Jewish director -- don't diminish the eerie sense that viewers are being proselytized without their knowledge."

Proselytized? Of the more than 600 movies released in this country each year, a substantial number of them are "guilty" of proselytizing on behalf of a worldview that celebrates greed, trivializes violence and winks at sexual activity among people of all ages at all times. Yet a movie that impressed a secular audience is found guilty of proselytizing because it has a clear religious perspective and origin. Such is the bias among our cultural leaders against religious faith as a basis for rational discourse.

From: John Horn (Associated Press), "Theological Hollywood: Two Movies Explore Religious Issues", published 23 August 1996 (http://www.s-t.com/daily/08-96/08-23-96/l01ae004.htm; viewed 19 October 2005): Religion in Hollywood? You're a lot more likely to find Jim Carrey reciting Shakespeare or Sony Pictures releasing a profitable film.

"A movie about faith" is as welcome a show-business phrase as "Something's terribly wrong with your BMW." And yet two new films with solid spiritual underpinnings -- one produced by Roman Catholic missionaries and one about a Roman Catholic missionary -- will debut within the next two months.

"The Spitfire Grill" and "Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story" are fully different films. Both nonetheless explore similar theological questions of redemption and selflessness.

Due partly to such "uncommercial" themes, the movies faced long odds -- neither was financed by the major studios, and "Dorothy Day" took more than a decade to make. Not surprisingly, both films were made on minuscule budgets of around $6 million.

The stories behind the two films dramatize Hollywood's queasiness over religion even as some moviegoers and political leaders say they want less violence and more kindness.

At the same time, "The Spitfire Grill" and "Dorothy Day" demonstrate that well-intentioned filmmakers can bypass the system and create movies focused more on prophecy than profits.

"No, Hollywood doesn't do that a lot, probably because it's hard to make human, emotional movies," says Lee David Zlotoff, the writer-director of "Spitfire Grill." "It's a lot easier to make romantic comedies and thrillers."

"Dorothy Day" comes from Paulist Productions, the makers of 1989's "Romero," about El Salvador's slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. The production company is headed by the Rev. Ellwood Kieser, a Paulist priest who presides over the Humanitas Prizes, cash awards given to television shows and movies celebrating positive human values.

Ms. Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker social action movement, died in 1980. The movie explores her unusual journey to feeding the hungry and challenging the church, an ultimately triumphant odyssey marked by personal challenges and self-doubt. The movie was funded by donors.

"It's not your typical studio film," says Moira Kelly ("Chaplin"), who stars as Dorothy Day. "There are no car chases or sex scenes. It's a film with a very strong message. But it's not a Catholic film. It's a film about being human."

In contemporary Hollywood thinking -- where guns and natural disasters typically trump ideals and character-driven fables -- Ms. Day's story is anathema. "It's just such a very different picture -- it's saying something the American public is not interested in hearing from the mass media," says Rev. Kieser, who won six Emmys for his old "Insight" daytime serial TV show.

"This picture says the meaning of life is in loving, sharing and giving to the point where it hurts," Rev. Kieser says.

"What motion picture can you name besides 'Dead Man Walking' whose main character transcends her ego in the loving service of another person?"

Rev. Kieser showed "Dorothy Day" to all of the major studios, and all passed because they didn't think it would make money. "The powers that be in Hollywood do not think spiritual enrichment can be entertaining for a mass audience," he says.

Disappointed but undefeated, Rev. Kieser decided to distribute the film himself, an arduous task that occasionally has succeeded in the past.

"Dorothy Day" was invited to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 8 and will debut in New York and Los Angeles theaters in late September or early October.

If "Dorothy Day" is filled with "God talk," "Spitfire Grill" (opening nationally today) is just the opposite: Its moral message is subtle, between the lines.

"I would call them human themes, not religious themes," says Mr. Zlotoff, who labels John Travolta's "Phenomenon" more tangibly religious.

The movie, winner of the audience award at January's Sundance Film Festival, was produced by Gregory Productions, a wing of Mississippi's Sacred Heart League. The Catholic charity ministers to the Deep South, and part of its mission is to use media -- including film -- to teach faith, compassion, charity and other Christian values.

When the league set out to make a movie to spread its message, Roger Courts, the organization's direct-mail fund-raiser, looked over more than 200 submitted screenplays.

"If it didn't have the oomph -- the sparkle and the magic -- I just said, 'This isn't it,' " Mr. Courts says.

After two years of unproductive searching, Mr. Courts received a script from the creator of TV's "MacGyver." The story by Lee David Zlotoff chronicled Percy Talbott, a young parolee trying to make a new start in a diner in a small Maine town. Over the course of the film, Percy reveals why she went to jail, while the town, and the diner's owner (Ellen Burstyn), confront their own prejudices and mistrust.

Mr. Courts immediately said yes.

"I think it's a redemption story," he says. "It's also about hospitality vs. inhospitality, respect for creation, love for one another, decency and the beauty of self-sacrifice."

The Sacred Heart League was particularly interested in Percy's relationship with a homeless person, and her decision to try to protect him.

"That's the purest form of self-sacrifice," Mr. Courts says. "And I think audiences do want to see films that have those kind of redeeming aspects to them."

Mr. Zlotoff, an Orthodox Jew, says he enjoyed working with the league and was astonished when The New York Times suggested the film had some sort of a religious agenda.

"I thought it was so absurd as to be almost laughable," he says of the news article. "To think that this story was somehow proselytizing -- I just went, 'Huh?' "

Soon after the movie premiered at the Sundance festival, Castle Rock Entertainment paid a staggering $10 million for "Spitfire Grill." The Sacred Heart League will use the profits to build a school.

What's the last movie that did that?

Search Adherents.com

Custom Search
comments powered by Disqus

Webpage created 5 September 2005. Last modified 19 October 2005.
We are always striving to increase the accuracy and usefulness of our website. We are happy to hear from you. Please submit questions, suggestions, comments, corrections, etc. to: webmaster@adherents.com.