Kevin Asch On Holy Rollers, His Drug Smuggling Hassids Drama

There are two very bold, stand-out elements of Holy Rollers, which finally reaches UK cinemas today. The first is its milieu, being an ecstasy smuggling drama peopled with Hassidic Jews; the second is the casting of Jesse Eisneberg, now “that kid from The Social Network,” and therefore  hopefully able to draw attention to smaller, more esoteric films that he’s been a part of.

I spoke to Kevin Asch, the director of Holy Rollers and here are Five Things he told me.

1. Faith vs. Blind Faith

I’ve defined “faith vs. blind faith” in so many different ways. With religion, it’s something that you’re born into, generally. Rarely is it something that you choose for yourself, though that is something. For me, I’m not religious. I am Jewish, but I’m reformed Jewish, the least religious of Jews. I can define faith and blind faith as making movies, actually. Movies have been y passion and my dream since I was a child, What filmmakers create is something intangible that people need to believe in and have faith in what your doing, what you’re communicating, until ultimately they can sit back and see this thing you’ve talked about and described. There’s very much this faith and blind faith journey to making movies, especially making movies my way, where the film isn’t just a product but is born from the soul, and is personal.

Growing up in Long Island, there were all these preconceptions of who you’re supposed to be, what you’re supposed to wear, what you’re supposed to drive, who you should be friends with. I think everybody has these feelings about where you grow up, at least to some degree. Is it okay to question those things, or are you supposed to blindly believe in what you’re told?

For Sam, the lead character in Holy Rollers, all of these ideas were so much more extreme for him. Once he breaks the rules, there is no support system, and the rules are so specific to his religion, the holier-than-thou part of his community. These are questions that I dealt with in my own life, but to relate them into Sam’s life was so much more dramatic and extreme.

2. Kevin and Sam

Everything of me is in Sam. I’m more Sam than everybody in the movie. The next movie I’m working on, I’d say I’m a combination of characters, but Sam, I relate to his purity, his morality in an immoral world, where he questions and pushes against that, and I relate to his individualism in his community and his idea of questioning things, and getting seduced by certain people and into certain worlds that lead him to start questioning himself and on to another part of his life.

I relate to all of that about him. I think that me at 11 years old is Sam is 20. If I saw a mannequin that I thought looked overtly sexual, I thought it wasn’t okay to look at it. Sam’s that guy. You look at Hassidic Jews on the streets, they always try to keep their heads down, they have this invisible  wall up, keeping out the secular world. If you really look at each one individually, some of them are not like that. Some of them are like other characters in Holy Rollers, like Josef or like Leon. Josef is straddling between two worlds. He looks like he’s holier-than-thou but in no way does he really believe it. I always related to Sam more than I did these other guys.

3. Dramatic Purpose

The other characters were born out of what you called dramatic purpose, really. We never talked to the real people, who were part of the true story. There were a certain amount of news articles and they were repetitive so we knew the core group of people that were involved in the smuggling ring. Josef isn’t anybody in particular, Josef isn’t anybody in particular. But both Antonio, the sceenwriter, and I had these brothers that we knew growing up: the older one who was much more corrupted, and the younger one who had a good heart. I love the dynamic of brothers like that, and so did Antonio, and it seemed like a natural bit of drama for Sam. The attraction of this older brother neighbour who pulls you in and shows you a porno and the younger one you grow up with and is your best friend who you grow up with until you go on different paths.

4. Other Movies

I used to look at Once Upon a Time in America, with the kids in that movie. I just loved the part when they all split up, they all come back, and the way they were interacting with each other. It was very specific as to who they were going to become when they grew up. They were from the same streets and from the same ethnicity as mine, and I always thought of my characters as more modern day versions of those characters.

Johnny Boy from Mean Streets was also an inspiration on Josef, that character who has fallen and is always falling. other movies were definitely in my head while we were working on it. I would bring up other movies while I was talking to Antonio while we were working on the script, and to my producers, and to all of my key collaborators. I would tell Antonio early on “Sam is not Henry Hill from Goodfellas“, I’d say he’s more Forrest Gump or Joe Buck from Midnight Cowboy.

5. Movies For The World

I’m making these movies for the world. This is an independent film and it’s edgy, and it’s storytelling, and it’s unique, and it may not be commercial, but it’s intended, in every way to be accessible. It’s not in any way supposed to be a movie that’s difficult to watch. Hopefully I’ve used all of my experience in film distribution and working as a PA on film too, all to make this film possible.

Holy Rollers is on release across the UK now.