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Jewtopia: Denver native Courtney Mizel on producing the new indie film

Jennifer Love Hewitt and Ivan Sergei star in Jewtopia.
Jennifer Love Hewitt and Ivan Sergei star in Jewtopia.

Colorado native Courtney Mizel is a lot of things -- including the founding director of The Cell (The Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab) in Denver, a small business consultant and former small business owner...and a movie producer. Now based out of Los Angeles, Mizel still does quite a bit of work in her hometown, and her latest project, indie film Jewtopia, has brought the producer together with friend and fellow Denverite Bryan Fogel, the film's writer and director.

In advance of the film's Denver release this Friday, September 20, Mizel spoke with Westword about Jewish stereotypes and the universally relatable family dynamics that play out in Jewtopia.

See also: The CELL: Michael Chertoff talks terrorism, protesters compare it to bee stings

Westword: How did you come to work as producer of Jewtopia?

Courtney Mizel: Bryan Fogel and I went to Hebrew school together -- we were in and out of touch for several years and then probably between high school and early adulthood didn't talk. Then I saw that he had this play off-Broadway and I was going to New York, so I called him and went and saw the play, which I was totally blown away by. A couple of years later, he called me and said, hey, I have a script for a screenplay, I heard you made a movie once -- would you read it? And it kind of just went from there.

I had sworn after my first film that I was never doing another film -- but Jewtopia was really funny and I decided to go for it.

What struck you the most about this script that made you want to work with it?

I think from a story perspective, I really liked the characters. The play was more of a series of sketches, kind of like a Saturday Night Live thing, but all put together. It worked really well -- but it is very difficult to go from stage to screen when somebody basically transfers the dialogue. They are different mediums. But Bryan and his writing partner Sam Wolfson were really, really good at taking it and bringing it together and really developing the characters.

There were a couple of characters that I just really loved and found universally funny in a sense that while the play really played up the Jewish stereotypes and inside jokes that someone who's not Jewish and may not find funny, the movie was more universal. It has a lot more to do with families and how families work and the interplay between parents' expectations of their kids and what we do as children to try to please our parents. I loved that.

I really came at it from not just loving it as a creative endeavor, but from a business perspective. Bryan and Sam had taken this play that was off-Broadway for three years and it was licensed all around the world through Samuel French and it also played in Los Angeles and Chicago. There was also book that also sold 40,000 copies and there was a real brand behind it.

Right now in the movie business, it is really hard to make a small, independent film that stands out. I thought that we could leverage the brand and leverage the existing audience to make the film successful, smart and low-budget and with good actors -- but I never expected to end up with the cast we ended up with. I was really excited by the opportunity to try to make a film work from a business perspective in an environment where not a lot of films (work).

 

What is it about Jewtopia's storyline that is universal?

I think it's really a film about relationships -- there's a lot about the parent-child relationship. What it explores is the juxtaposition of a Jewish family and a quote-unquote "military" family that I guess you would say is portrayed as a little more redneck. Two people who have grown up in very different environments, but at the same, there is that universal theme of disappointing your parents and choosing a mate.

What's interesting is that for a lot of people in their late twenties and early thirties who are looking to find a mate, all of the things you are looking for are a lot of the things you saw as boy. Maybe you look for the exact same things that you saw in your mom or your parents' relationship. Or you go the completely opposite way.

The stereotypes are obviously there -- but you have to look at the film as entertainment and with a sense of humor. But the messages about family and the pressure you feel and the craziness every family experiences are there and they are just played up a little bit. For me, because it was very different than my family experience because I didn't have your typical overbearing Jewish mother -- I had two parents who worked a lot and were overachieving but a little bit less involved -- but I knew people like that.

Now that I see the film with audiences and friends, they all find the same things, no matter what their background or experience has been. Either because they are Jewish or they know a Jew. Or, I have a friend who's Indian and comes from a strong Indian family where there is some of that. Or Italian or Greek -- it's kind of like My Big Fat Greek Wedding in that it plays on all of those things, but we can all find that truth in our own lives.

You're a Denver native: You're the founding director of The Cell and owned All Fired Up. Are you working on anything here at the moment?

I have my hands in a lot of projects. I'm still involved with The Cell -- I'm the chairman of The Cell and I was just in Denver last week. I'm also involved with the Cancer League of Colorado and their Over the Edge event, which is repelling from a 31-story building to raise money for the league. I'm still very involved in the Denver community, even though I'm in Los Angeles full-time.

I was actually really excited that the film -- which is in limited release -- is opening in Denver, because both Bryan and I are from there, and it was great to have it shown in our hometown. Denver will always be home.

Jewtopia opens this Friday, September 20, at the AMC Theatres in Cherry Creek Mall. For tickets and showtimes, visit the theater's website; for more information on Jewtopia, check out the film's website.



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