By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
IT HAS TAKEN 25 YEARS FOR BEAN TO MAKE THE Believer, and about that long for him to become the man he is today -- an unbelieving, practicing Jew whose idea of a good time is to pass a Shabbat morning in close reading of the Torah. A genial, middle-aged, happily married Manhattanite, Bean couldn't be more different from The Believer's tortured antihero. Notwithstanding the busy cell phone and natty new laptop he brings with him to the conference room at Fireworks Pictures, Bean comes across much more like the sometime novelist he is than like a top screenwriter of high-end thrillers such as Internal Affairs, Deep Coverand Enemy of the State. Spend time with him, and it quickly becomes apparent why he originally conceived The Believer as an absurdist American romp: It wouldn't occur to everyone to cast Billy Zane and Theresa Russell as neo-Nazi theoreticians. A short, wiry man with the wisecracking exuberance of a New YorkÂJewish intellectual, Bean is funny and irreverent, with a touch of Catskills in his delivery. (On Lillian Hellman: "Horrible. Horrible. I hate that woman. Fortunately she's dead.") He is also -- not unlike Danny -- soulful, serious, intense, and possessed of a restless intellect that convinces you that he really has read Baudrillard, Derrida, Pound and Eliot. He talks like a man who's either been psychoanalyzed or read his way through Freud, or both. And, like Danny, who reveals his double identity as compulsively as he hides it, he's entranced by the dialectic of opposites. "I find Danny heroic," he says, "because I feel that he's acknowledging the contradictory pulls within himself."
Bean reminds me of the Jews I grew up with and, given the choice, still hang out with on a regular basis -- secular, analytical, somewhat rootless, besotted with irony, yet still hankering after a spiritual life. Except that Bean has found his spiritual path. Without it, he says, The Believer would never have been made. Born and raised in a Philadelphia suburb -- his father was a lawyer, his mother a housewife -- Bean comes from the kind of family known in the London Jewish community of my youth as TTAY Jews (that's "three times a year"). The Beans lit candles on Friday nights, went to Reform temple (where Bean's father was president) on the high holy days, celebrated Passover and Hanukkah -- and enjoyed their Christmas tree. Sparring with his father at the dinner table schooled Bean in the rhythms and cadences of Talmudic debate. Still, his was a minimal Jewish education, and yet, like most Jews of the postÂWorld War II generation, he and his family and friends never stopped talking about the fact that they were Jewish, and about who else was Jewish, a practice Bean continues to this day. He can't help himself: This is the particular obsession of assimilated Jews who feel not quite American and not quite Jewish, who remain vaguely wedded to their tradition even as they feel it slipping away. "My father walks through graveyards on Normandy beach and looks for the Stars of David," says Bean. I counter that when my parents went to concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in London, their first order of business was to look down the orchestra list and identify the Jewish names. We laugh, the nervous laughter of children owning up to the fact that the distance they've traveled from their families is shorter than they sometimes like to think.
To Bean, that sense of feeling Jewish just because he didn't feel like a full-fledged American seemed like a poor excuse for an identity. "It was as if I had this identity that was one of the biggest things in my life," he says, "but there was no content to it." Had he not met his wife, Leora Barish, whom he clearly admires as well as adores (her screenplay for Desperately Seeking Susan, he says, was "much darker and funnier than the film. It made Thelma and Louise possible"), Bean might have drifted away from Judaism altogether. Barish, known around the set of The Believer as "Rock," coached Ryan Gosling -- who grew up Mormon -- in Hebrew and Jewish ritual. Gosling thinks of her as Bean's muse: "He makes everything for her and is very inspired by her. If Rock likes it, we move ahead." The daughter of a Jewish Army chaplain, Barish had a rigorous Jewish education from which she, like many children of the counterculture, had become estranged. Still, in the early years of their marriage the couple argued about Judaism all the time, and when their first child was born, Barish, out of the blue, began attending services at Mishkon Tephilo, a Conservative synagogue in Venice. Bean soon joined her, began taking classes in Torah and very gradually became observant.
Today Bean keeps a kosher home and goes to shul three times a month at Ansche Chesed, the beautiful, tony Conservative synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side in which several crucial scenes in The Believer were shot. "I'm still not very observant," he says. "But observance is like exercise or yoga. You start, and then you want to go further, and you want to go further . . ." Judaism, says Bean, is "not a religion of belief. It's a religion of practice, of doing things. I have this argument [espoused by Danny in the film] that you can be an atheist and practice Judaism and there's no contradiction. Judaism works fine without God, you just do the stuff and it makes you feel good, it ties you into a community, it gives your life organization, ways to reflect on questions that everybody reflects on. I make it what I want it to be." Bean's comfortable, mix-and-match Judaism is a peculiarly American phenomenon, not uncommon among Jews who grew up with minimal religious training. Depending on which Jewish theologian you talk to, his approach will either save Judaism from extinction or dilute it to death. Bean doesn't worry much about the survival of Judaism. He's too busy studying the Torah, a practice that involves endless reinterpretation of the texts. He belongs to a minyan, a Torah study group, and writes his own short commentaries from time to time.