- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Liev Schreiber was in on the ground floor when Jonathan Safran Foer, the enviably young novelist who wrote 2002’s highly praised “Everything Is Illuminated,” rocketed to literary celebrity.

Mr. Schreiber, a theatrical actor who has appeared in several Hollywood productions, including last year’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate,” had seen an excerpt of Mr. Foer’s novel — a comic picaresque in which a young Jewish American man searches for the woman who rescued his grandfather from Nazis in Ukraine — in a series on new fiction writers in the New Yorker magazine.

He quickly optioned the book and planned to direct it before Hollywood’s A-list had a chance to read it. (It would go on to win effusive reviews from the likes of John Updike and hatchet man Dale Peck, and it won the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction as well as the Guardian newspaper’s First Book Award.)

“I wrote the script before the book was published, and about a week and a half later I was sitting in my house [in Upstate New York], relaxing, feeling content with myself for having completed something, and there on the cover of the New York Times Book Review is ‘Everything Is Illuminated.’ I just thought to myself, ‘I’m in for a ride,’” Mr. Schreiber says.

Long before he happened on Mr. Foer’s writing, though, Mr. Schreiber had been slaving over a screenplay of his own with similar themes.

“I was very close to my grandfather, who died in 1993,” Mr. Schreiber says in a recent interview to promote his adaptation of “Everything Is Illuminated,” which stars Elijah Wood as the fictionalized Jonathan Safran Foer and opens in area theaters tomorrow.

“I started to write a lot about him and who he was. All I had to go on was that he was a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant who lived in America most of his life and never talked about his past.”

The story sat unfinished for years. Then he read the District-born Mr. Foer’s New Yorker entry — and naturally became furious. “In 15 pages he had managed to accomplish, with humor, what I had been trying to do in 107,” he says. “And then, of course, I realized the huge opportunity that was staring me right in the face. I met with him and told him my story. It was just one of those serendipitous things.”

Mr. Schreiber, 37, was shocked to meet a writer barely out of his teens. “I was convinced that Jonathan Safran Foer was some 80-year-old reclusive writer who lived on Nantucket and only communicated through his agent,” he says. “But we got along really great. It turned out our grandfathers were very similar guys who both had really scatological senses of humor. They didn’t dwell in the past; we did.”

“Illuminated” deals peripherally with the Holocaust, but Mr. Schreiber was attracted to its personal scale. “It’s not political. It’s not about fascism. If anything, it’s about love,” he says.

“One of the things that peo-ple forget about the Holocaust is that as we memorialize all the people who died, there are all of these people who survived, who are reminded of all they had to do to survive, which often was not very pleasant,” he continues. “At the very least, people had to deny faith. Many people had to lie, cheat, steal, point fingers, give away children.”

Out of these experiences, Mr. Schreiber surmises, came the rascally cultural Judaism captured so vividly in Mr. Foer’s novel, which includes a satiric magical-realist history of a Ukrainian-Jewish shtetl called Trachimbrod (a history Mr. Schreiber chose not to wrangle into his modestly budgeted movie).

“My grandfather was the most insane guy, who told the worst jokes in the world and then would laugh incessantly,” says Mr. Schreiber, a native New Yorker. “His favorite thing to do was get really, really drunk, pull me into a corner and force me to ask him what his favorite color was, just so he could say … brown. I was completely oblivious. I was like, ‘Why is that so funny?’ …

“I think it was a product of what he went through. Out of the excrement comes humor. It’s inane, it doesn’t make any sense, and it’s absolutely ridiculous. I guess that’s how a lot of them experienced the world, that it doesn’t make any sense, and humor grew out of that. I was always very moved by that. It’s the indomitable spirit.”

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