How ‘Golda’ Director Guy Nattiv Turned Helen Mirren Into Golda Meir: ‘It’s Almost Stepping Back in Time’

“Golda” looks to do the unthinkable – to portray Golda Meir, the fourth Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974, not as a historical figure but as a flesh-and-blood person. And what’s more, the movie hinges on the Yom Kippur War, an armed conflict between Israel and a coalition of Arab states (including Egypt), which puts Golda (played elegantly by Helen Mirren) in a pressure cooker. It’s incredible just how much you learn about her given the movie’s strict parameters.

As directed by Guy Nattiv, it’s a tense and unnerving history lesson, one that keeps you riveted throughout. And with Mirren as Golda, who at the time was secretly ailing, the conflict has a very human face. Nattiv gives the movie immediacy and draws parallels to what’s going on today.

TheWrap spoke to Nattiv about the influence of 1970’s Cold War thrillers and Oliver Stone’s “JFK” on the movie and talks about what it was like crafting the character with Mirren. He even weighs in on the current debate around facial prosthetics helping non-Jewish performers portray Jewish characters.

How did you choose the Yom Kippur War as the prism to view her through?

When I came on board or when I even read the script, it was not my script. It was a production that was looking for a director. It was an open assignment. Nicholas Martin wrote the script and I was born into this war. I was a few months old and my mother rented a shelter with me as a baby and my father went to the front to fight. And it was a very stressful time that the country was on the verge of decimation. Huge defeat. And I read a script that was completely different from what you saw.

It was 80% war movie and 20% Golda. And I came and I said, “Look, we’ve seen war movies before and been there, done that. Let’s do the opposite. Let’s do 80% Golda, 20% war.” And it was fascinating for me as somebody who experienced that as a teenager, those war stories and the myth about Golda. Who was Golda? Nobody knew who Golda was. She was a 50-shekel bill face. She was a statue, she was a name of the school, but nobody really know the truth about this war. It was considered the bloodiest war, the Vietnam of Israel, but nobody knew what really went down.

When I read the script, I opened it up and they allowed me to go under Golda’s skin and understand what this woman went through. For me, it was a requiem for a leader. The first woman who led the country in western history, in modern time. And for me, it was first, to explore that, to understand how everything went down and why everybody blamed her for the battle, why she was the scapegoat of this whole war. And doing my research, meeting with her press secretary, Meron Medzini, who knew her, who is still alive, 91, super sharp. Meeting with Adam Snir, her bodyguard. They gave me an insight that I would never get anywhere ever for Golda not as a leader, as human being.

And that’s where I started my journey with this project. Helen Mirren was already attached. Gideon Meir, Golda’s grandson thought about her. He says, “I’m looking at Helen, I’m looking at my grandmother. It’s not even a debate.” And I think the producer heard him and told me that she would like to meet with me, to see that we are on the same page. And both Helen and I felt that we want to do something more intimate, more claustrophobic. Growing up on films from the seventies, like “The Conversation” by Cappola, like “Blow Out,” films that are the paranoia films of the seventies – “All the President’s Men” and “The Parallax View” and all those paranoia films, American films. That’s what influenced me doing this movie. Also “Life of Others” in a way, because he’s listening to all the narratives. There’s not a single drop of blood in this movie that comes from the war. It’s only soundbites that I got, the real soundbites that I got from the front. And I played it to Helen and to the commanders in the bunker in the scenes.

There’s this multimedia aspect to the project as you pull in news reports and Richard Nixon speeches and all this contemporaneous material. Where did that come from?

Look, I met in Jerusalem, Oliver Stone. Oliver Stone made one film that I was inspired by, “JFK.” Now in “JFK,” you have a blend of multimedia, like you said. You have jump cuts, you have eight-millimeter and you have 16-millimeter. I was influenced by that a little bit, knowing that I want to have a canvas of those clips and not losing the intimacy of the downfall of Hitler, basically. When you are in the bunker and the only thing that you have is sound and the drones that Israel had in the seventies, giant drones that gave you top shot of the battlefield. Because Golda couldn’t go to the front. She was too sick, too old. She was not in a normal situation.

But also, how this woman was functioning in a very misogynist environment with commanders who used to be the kings of the Middle East in 1967. And they came and they got a giant slap and found themselves on a verge of a mental breakdown. And she was the grownup in charge. She was the grandma. She didn’t know jack shit about army stuff. She was a great state woman. How she’s functioning with Kissinger, the way she’s bringing him to her kitchen and giving soup and softens him and then take away what she wants for the land of Israel.

Can you talk about working with Helen Mirren and what that process was like?

Well, first of all, Helen has portrayed Jews before. She did “The Debt.” And she did “Woman in Gold.” Helen had her process. I didn’t get into her process. She had the year to prepare for this role because of the pandemic. She was working with a dialect coach. She was working with an animal coach. When you become an animal, what animal are you portraying? She was the turtle because Golda was smoking like a turtle, walking slow, spoke very slow. And she did her research. That was amazing. But her going into this trailer at 4:00 am and coming out at 7:30 am as Golda was unbelievable. It’s almost stepping back in time. She was Golda. Myself, working with Helen, she told me, “Guy, feel free to tell me anything you like, anything you want. Let’s collab. Let’s do it together.” And she was very generous and very smart, even offering some advice and stuff.

What did the two of you talk about when shaping the character?

She wanted me close. She said to me, “Listen, if I really want you … Just stay out of the monitor. Just come next to me and if you want me to say something, just whisper. Tell me what you want me to say.” And then I saw that she’s a little bit fast, the way she walks and talks. And I told her, hold it back. Just a little bit slower. Don’t forget you’re turtle, not a bunny. And we had this kind of language between us and every time you wanted to talk about something, we just went to the side and whispered. She’s just amazing to collab with.

At a certain point, I didn’t feel so good. I think I had pneumonia, started to get pneumonia, and I tried to hide it to come to the shooting and just hide it. I was in front of the monitor and suddenly I feel this soft hand on my shoulder and I’m looking up and I see Golda and Golda tells me, “Guychu, I know you’re sick and I know you don’t feel good. Can I have my assistant bringing you soup? Can I make you tea? I need you focused and I need you strong.” And I was like, “How does she know that? How did she feel?” She sees everyone. She’s so sensitive. I can’t wait to work with her again on something else.

Prosthetics have become a hot topic with Bradley Cooper’s nose in “Maestro.” How did you approach Helen Mirren’s prosthetics?

Well, first of all, we had two and a half weeks of trying different prosthetics and different stuff. And one rule we didn’t want to change. We needed Helen’s eyes. We didn’t change because you cannot make a movie about Golda and look not similar to Golda. I mean, it’s not going to work. And I personally, I don’t have any problem with “The Whale.” “The Whale” worked for me. There was a lot of ramblings about how “The Whale” was overly [manipulative], and it’s brilliant. I love that. If I see emotions, if I see the eyes of an actor, it works for me personally. You know what I mean?

It was no doubt that we cannot do half a job or half prosthetics. She wore a bodysuit. Golda had thick legs because she had water in her. She was sick with giant shoes but still a lady. We had to have her being Golda. Now, I didn’t see Bradley Cooper’s film, which I would love to see. I cannot comment on that at all. But I can tell you that I don’t have any problems with good prosthetics. This is part of art. It’s part of what we do. And if it’s believable and the movie touched me on many levels, I have no problem.

“Golda” is in theaters now.

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