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Bean & Nothingness 

The Believer’s creator is an observant Jewish agnostic

Wednesday, May 15 2002
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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 Cover and 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 York­Jewish 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 post­World 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.

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