Depending on what movie circles you travel in, you may or may not know the name Gaylen Ross, and if you do, it can be for a different reason. Those who follow documentary filmmakers likely know Gaylen Ross as an accomplished documentary director. Her latest documentary, “Killing Kasztner”, about the assassination of Rezso Kasztner who saved over 1700 of Jewish lives during the Holocaust, has been winning rave reviews from audiences and critics alike. The film has some local showings coming up at the Miami Jewish Film Festival on January 24th and will be starting a run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on January 29th. Others, primarily those who are fans of the horror genre, know Gaylen Ross from George Romero’s classic “Dawn of the Dead”. Gaylen played the only female lead in the film. Examiner recently spoke to the director about her new film and how it feels to be part of a movie many feel is one of the best horror films of all time.
When did you first learn of Rezso Kasztner and what made you decide to do a documentary about him? I heard about Kasztner when I was producing and writing a film about the Swiss banks and the Holocaust accounts.It was about in 1997. A woman I was interviewing told me how she was on the Kasztner train and that’s how she got to freedom and ended up in Switzerland and survived. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I never heard about Kasztner. I never heard about a train like this, certainly not a rescue train that was negotiated by a Jew, a Jew who sat face to face with (Adolf) Eichmann. So I thought it was an amazing story and more amazing to me was why nobody heard about him. We always heard about Schindler. We always heard about (Raoul) Wallenberg. We heard about the righteous gentiles, (Christians, non-Jews) who saved Jewish lives, but we didn’t ever hear about this story of Kasztner. Then I began to explore it and then I realized how controversial and how complex this story actually was.
How long did it take to film “Killing Kasztner”? On and off for a period of eight years. Part of it was the research; part of it was trying to find out where I wanted to locate the story, and also the funding. As funding would come in, we would do more. I think since 2005 or 06 I was ONLY working on Kasztner.
How much pre-production generally goes into making a documentary feature? Well, I work a little differently. Sometimes documentaries start with a lot of pre-production, then they go into production, and then they have post-production, and it’s one unit. My pre-production is not like that. I do research, I figure out what I want to film here and there and I let the story evolve. For this I was working with my Israeli producer, Noam Shalev, and we would also talk about what I wanted and sometimes it would be a whole different thing than what I started out thinking I wanted. It would go 180 degrees. So I don’t work in the way a feature film does pre-production or some documentaries that just start off pre-production, now we shoot and now we’re done. This is a process that takes years.
The film has been getting some great feedback. How satisfying is it to see a film you have made received so well? Well, usually documentaries can be very didactic. Not all, but sometimes you feel like you are being told how to feel. I think more documentaries then not now are so sophisticated and so sensitive about telling a story that it is very engaging as well as informative and that’s what I tried to do with Kasztner. The way the film has been received has been really great. First of all, the film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is amazing. When you think about how many films are up for that and then you get in.It was quite incredible. And then we opened in Israel where we got fantastic reviews, and the critical reception from the right wing press and the left wing press – they were the kind of reviews that if you could write them yourself it would just be what you’d be writing. I was waking up everyday to an even more amazing review. In America, I was very surprised because it’s a more difficult subject for Americans. First of all, Kasztner is not the country’s story like it is in Israel. The film was also broadcast on the BBC and we got fantastic reviews from England, too, and they know nothing about Kasztner. I was very surprised how this very complex and yet fascinating story was received in America. It’s been really pleasing, especially seeing long crowds of people over the weekend coming in. It was incredible.
It’s not unusual to see an actor or an actress to go on to become a film director, but what IS unique is to see one go on to become a documentary film director. What attracted you to making documentary films? Well I’ve been doing it now for 25-years – only documentaries. I found, and I think that’s why a lot of people are attracted to documentaries, is because real life stories are so incredible and truer than fiction and stranger than fiction (smiles). To me it was always very engaging to be involved with people’s lives like that – to let a story evolve; tonot come with no predetermination of how the ending will be and I never know how my films are going to end. They tell me. It’s sort of like writing a book. The characters tell you what we’re going to do. My films I never know what’s going to happen because they take a long time, so I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the film, and so it’s surprising. Certainly in the Kasztner film the meeting (between Kastzner’s assassin and his daughter) was surprising. We saw change happen over the time of the film so that was really rewarding.
How did you wind up in “Dawn of the Dead”? I was an actress and I auditioned and who would have thought that would become a classic film, and it did! On the other hand, it was what I was doing SO many years ago that I don’t even think of it. It’s something I think is terrific and wonderful that I did when I was young.
Had you seen the original “Night of the Living Dead” before you auditioned? No.
Did you have idea how popular the film would become when you made it? I had no idea. I mean, you know, people do films all the time and nobody thinks of what will become of their film. What’s funny – I was interviewed by the BBC or some network in England that once flew to New York because they were doing a series on the 100 films you have to see before you die. I thought that was hysterical that you make a film not thinking about it and there it is. That was sort of the beginning of the end of my acting career.
What kind of director was George Romero and did he have any kind of influence on you becoming a filmmaker? No, it’s a completely different kind of filmmaking. I’m sorry.
In the original screenplay Ken Foree’s character was suppose to die as was yours, but it was changed. Do you know how that change came about? Was it made on set or did they decide afterwards? They decided afterwards.
How much, if any, helicopter training did you get for the movie? None, we were acting.
At this point in your life would you ever act again? No (laughs). I would not go in front of the camera again. I feel very comfortable behind the camera. I also thought it was amazing that the lead actress in the remake, Sarah Polley, went on to become a director. She directed the film, “Away from Her” which was an incredible film.
What advice would you have for filmmakers who want to make documentary films? Fasten your seatbelts (smiles). When I first started doing films, the documentary world was different. Documentaries were actually being able to produce revenue, and there were not as many. If you had a theatrical run, you could be fairly sure you would make your income back. Now, I don’t think the whole film industry has ever been worse, not just documentaries. Independent features are in terrible shape. There are many films that go to these festivals (Toronto, Sundance) and will sit on a shelf and never see the light of day after that. Or they end of being self distributed like we are doing. The old days of distribution companies coming and buying your film, that is finished and over. Except for very few and THEY’RE going out of business. So I don’t know what people should do, not even for features. The industry is thinning. They don’t know what to do. Everyone has a different idea or model (distribute directly to DVD, the internet, etc) nobody knows what to do. The only thing they do know is that nobody knows. They still keep sort of pumping it up, but what they don’t talk about is the bottom line on these films. What you see on net return is usually negative. But people are still doing it because they love telling stories.