As part of research for a script I’m writing (well, at this point outlining), I recently watched “Holy Rollers,” the 2010 film with Jesse Eisenberg about chasidic Jews operating a drug smuggling operation (principally MDMA) between Amsterdam and New York in the 1990s. (Based, it’s probably needless to say, on a true story.)

The film itself has its strong points and its weaknesses, but one thing I was struck by over and over was the way in which the movie got the chasidic milieu wrong – but wrong in a novel way. These deeply religious people weren’t condescended to – in fact, the film bought in pretty thoroughly to the notion that their way of living was righteous, and the outside world fraught with moral peril. But there was an accumulation of details that were interestingly off. For example:

  • Where was the Talmud? The midrash? There are a couple of scenes in which the rabbi of their synagogue explicates text, but in each case it is a famous “story” from the Hebrew scriptures, rather than an obscure passage or, even more likely, a piece of traditional practice that is interpreted. And he doesn’t make use of traditional rabbinic interpretive materials, with source citations.
  • Where are the extended families? There’s the tight nuclear family in which the protagonist is the eldest son, and there are the neighbors. But where are the grandparents, uncles, cousins, etc? The complex web of kin ties felt notably absent.
  • Where is the OCD? We don’t get the sense of the sheer density of rules in this world. For example, neither Jesse Eisenberg nor his more pious companion wonders, on their first trip to Amsterdam, before they know they will be smuggling drugs, whether they’ll be able to get food with an adequate hechsher.

And there were other things – an accumulation of small details, really. Again, I want to be clear: it wasn’t that the film got the culture distinctly more wrong than I would have expected; it’s that the film got the culture differently wrong. It felt like the filmmakers had transposed assumptions from another religious culture onto hasidic Judaism in a well-intentioned effort at understanding.

So I looked into who the filmmakers were, and lo and behold the writer, Antonio Macia, is an active member of the LDS church. And everything that I noticed fell into place.

I’m interested in this question because a spec script I wrote a couple of years ago revolves around a Methodist church in central Texas – a world with which I have no personal familiarity. I used this setting for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons was that I found it easier to write my way into themes relevant to my own world by approaching them from a distance in this way, transposing them. But precisely because I am not intimately familiar with that world, there’s a big element of “faking it” involved in the transposition, and I never know whether I’ve faked it well enough.

As a consequence, among other things, of meditating on how this played out in the earlier script, the most recent spec script I’ve completed turned out to be concerned, among other things, with precisely this process, of getting at “what you know” in an emotional sense by approaching it through a world you really don’t know. It’s a process that, to me, feels very close to the heart of how creative writing works.

I’m curious whether anyone out there agrees?