There’s a rule at Mike’s Place: never, ever talk politics or religion. At this blues bar on the Tel Aviv beachfront, an international cast of characters mingles with the locals, and everyone is welcome to grab a beer and forget the conflict outside. At least, that’s the story Jack and Joshua want to tell in their documentary.
But less than a month after they begin filming, Mike’s Place is the target of a deadly suicide bombing. Jack, Joshua, and the Mike’s Place family survive the only way they know how-by keeping the camera rolling.
Written by filmmakers Jack Baxter and Joshua Faudem and illustrated by award-winning cartoonist Koren Shadmi, Mike’s Place chronicles the true story of an infamous terrorist attack in painstaking detail.
With the release of the graphic novel by First Second this week, we got a chance to chat with filmmaker and writer Jack Baxter about Mike’s Place.
Graphic Policy: I feel like the first place to start is, how are you doing now?
Jack Baxter: I’m doing the best I can with the tools I have, which are diminishing as I speak – Seriously, I’m doing okay, and I’m looking forward to Mike’s Place being successful around the world.
JB: I originally went to Israel at the beginning of the Iraq War in April 2003 with hope of doing a documentary about Marwan Barghouti, a popular Palestinian who was going on trial in Tel Aviv on terrorism charges. Many people in the Israeli and Arab peace movement think of Barghouti as a potential “Palestinian Mandela” who could be the one to unite the factions and help broker a real and lasting Middle East deal.
Anyway, when that didn’t work, I found Mike’s Place and shifted gears.
The documentary my wife Fran and I produced about Mike’s Place, Blues by the Beach, has won awards at film festivals and even qualified for a 2005 Best Documentary Academy Award nomination.
My co-writer, Joshua Faudem, the director of “Blues”, and I took the Hollywood route and wrote a screenplay in 2010-2011. In early 2012, Mark Siegel saw the documentary, read the screenplay, and then took Fran and me out to lunch at a great restaurant – and the rest is history.
JB: Blues by the Beach becomes a cinéma vérité style documentary because of the suicide bombing. In the screenplay and especially in the graphic novel format, we delve into the bigger story of the actual plot to attack the bar and the travels and mindset of the two British terrorists. We could also show more of what was happening to the characters when the camera was turned off. We could never do that in our film because we were operating on what we knew at the time and what footage we shot.
GP: How long did it take for you to put together the film? How long was the process for the graphic novel?
JB: First, we edited a rough-cut in New York City for eight weeks – all of October and November 2003. A week in the studio with our Czech editor Matouš Outrata in Prague in April 2004; a week back in Manhattan in October 2004; then to Prague again for a week in February 2005. We put our final brush to it when we made our 35MM print to submit for the Academy Award nomination – that was two more weeks at DuArt Film Labs on West 55thStreet.
All told, two years editing the film. I’m exhausted just remembering all of it.
Joshua Faudem and I adapted the screenplay to the classic-style comic panels format template that editor/publisher Mark Siegel and First Second supplied us with. We took Mark’s direction and streamlined certain scenes, beefed-up a few others, wrote some new dialogue. The Mike’s Place screenplay is fast-paced, so it lends itself for graphic novel adaptation and movie storyboarding. Koren Shadmi breathed life into the plot with his tremendous art, and voilà, here we are almost three years later.
JB: With film there is sound – that’s the biggest advantage. However, in a graphic novel or book or any fixed artwork for that matter, the nature of its particular medium forces you to concentrate in order to comprehend, instead of with a film where the work is already done for the audience.
I’ll tell you, graphic novels are going to take over the world in the 21st century. Well, at least I hope Mike’s Place finds a worldwide audience.
GP: I noticed you also produced and directed Brother Minister: The Assassination of Malcolm X. I have seen the film, but it seems to have the same sort of “political” nature as Blues by the Beach and the documentary you initially wanted to film. Is there something about that type of subject that interests you?
JB: Brother Minister was a long and winding road too – life became art, tragedy struck, you name it. I thought I had a good grasp of Islam because of my experience with the Muslims I’d met and become friends with while making the documentary. After 9/11, I traveled to Israel for the first time in June of 2002. I rented a car and traveled all over and into the West Bank to the outskirts of Hebron. Let’s just say things got a little hairy for me down there and I hightailed it back to the Israeli checkpoint pronto. I vowed I’d never go anywhere near the Middle East again. But after reading that the American-backed Road Map Peace Plan was going down at the end of April 2003, and finding Marwan Barghouti’s compelling story that could put things in context for an interesting doc, I changed my mind and went back there again. Seems like I can never get away from politics and religion. That’s what I was trying to do by filming at Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv – when they found me there on April 30, 2003.
GP: The thing that struck me about the comic is how well it flows, building up to the tragic event we know is coming. How’d you work through as to what info to include, or not include, as you wrote the story?
JB: We already had our characters, knew the plot, and used the travels of the two British terrorists as our “time clock” to make it a page-turner. Anything that got in the way of story or made us yawn never saw daylight. Those scenes never even made it to the treatment stage of the screenplay. What’s on the page is exactly what we intended.
GP: Comics seem to be playing a pretty prominent role right now in shaping the debate in the Middle East and chronicling current events, especially over the last few years. What do you think about comics that they’re being used so much more to talk about politics, life, and current events in that region?
JB: I think it’s great. Effective and well-drawn comics can bring cultures together…I guess. But let’s face it; comics are provocative and meant to get immediate response. Making comics can get you killed and/or maybe help put things in perspective by holding up a mirror to the world. Doesn’t matter if you’re an Arab or an Israeli – who doesn’t like comics? Well, besides the intolerant fundamentalists of every persuasion.
GP: Have you been back to Mike’s Place since? How are they doing?
JB: I went back to Israel in 2006 for medical treatments and stayed for two months at Gal Ganzman’s bachelor pad in Tel Aviv and with Joshua’s parents Burt and Arlene Faudem up in Jerusalem. Fran and I went back to Israel together for a week in 2008. Everybody seems good. Mike’s Place has expanded to other locations. Besides the original Tel Aviv beachfront bar they have two more within Tel Aviv, and Herzliya, and Eilat. They franchised their Jerusalem location and it now serves kosher food, cold beers, and live rock and blues music. They even opened up a Mike’s Place Pizza joint next to the bar where I got blown up. Israelis are a strong crew – they’re not going anywhere. And now everybody over there is getting married and having kids.
GP: What’s the reaction been like to the documentary, or the graphic novel, for those in the region?
JB: Everybody at Mike’s Place loves the film and the graphic novel. But somehow, we still don’t have it published yet in Israel. You’d think somebody over there would jump on it. Joshua and I would really like to see it translated into Hebrew and Arabic and Farsi. Who knows, maybe graphic novels are the way to solve the Middle East Conflict.
GP: Have you thought about doing any more graphic novels or comics in the future?
JB: If I can get someone with the talent, patience, and genius of a Koren Shadmi, and if I get the same team at First Second – CHEERS!