Minkie Spiro’s sharply critical eye

Minkie Spiro’s sharply critical eye

For the JC June 26 2020

“There’s a lot of hate out there — and he knows how to use it”. Such words could easily be applied to today’s America, but in fact they are the key to an extraordinary TV series, The Plot Against America, based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel.

Plot 2020-style has a Hollywood-royalty team both in front of and behind the camera, with a screenplay by The Wire’s David Simon and Ed Burns. Actors include Winona Ryder and John Turturro, each playing a Jewish character magnificent in their delusion about Charles Lindbergh — in Roth’s imagination, the man who beat Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1940, and steered America into a world of conspiracy and fascism.

Presiding over this remarkable six-part series is Britain’s own Minkie Spiro, now carving a formidable reputation for herself as the director of critically acclaimed TV films. In Britain, Spiro — the daughter of Jewish educators Robin and Nitza Spiro, the founders of the Spiro Ark — became known for her success in directing episodes of Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife, after beginning her career as a photo-journalist.

That eye for an image and what would make a scene which would immediately draw the viewer in brought her to David Simon’s attention, who worked with her on a previous TV series in the US, The Deuce.

“That (The Deuce) was a really rewarding collaboration”, says Spiro, speaking from the Los Angeles home she shares with Israeli husband Doron Atzmon and their two daughters. “So when David Simon called and asked if I’d like to be involved in The Plot Against America, that was a no-brainer for me. I’d read the book, but I hadn’t immediately thought that it would make a good film: but when David called… he knew I was Jewish, but that wasn’t the primary reason for the approach. He knew, though, that I understood how he translates words into a moving picture that touches the soul. He wanted someone to work with him to translate what is essentially a domestic drama and make it visually and emotionally powerful.”

The focus of The Plot Against America is a small and otherwise unremarkable Jewish family in New Jersey in 1940. Young Philip, an alternative imagining by Roth himself of his childhood fears, is the younger child of Herman and Bess Levin. Herman is a dyed-in-the-wool Roosevelt supporter, who cannot believe the radio reports he hears about the aviator hero Charles Lindbergh, opposing Roosevelt on a pledge to keep America out of Europe’s war with Hitler.

Two other characters are vital to the unfolding drama: Alvin, Herman’s nephew, a headstrong young man who lives with the Levins but is frustrated at Herman’s “all talk and no action” behaviour; and Evelyn Finkel, Bess’s older sister, played by Winona Ryder, who throws in her lot with the unspeakable Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, (Turturro), a man who is ready to make any number of excuses for Lindbergh.

Into this rich mix are added real-life players such as Lindbergh himself, broadcaster Walter Winchell, legendary New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Hitler’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, plus the fictional Philip’s older brother Sandy, seduced by the Lindbergh message. New Jersey, in 1940, when we first meet the Levins, is a powder keg, waiting to explode over the Jewish population of America.

Besides her professional eye in directing this sprawling and ambitious treatment of Roth’s novel, Spiro brought her own Jewish background to the project. As Robin and Nitza’s daughter (one of seven siblings), she says: “If you have parents of that calibre, of that inspiration, of that Jewish identity, it’s a head start. It’s in my blood. I took a leaf from their book and used my talent, the visual medium, to help translate the story and give it a Jewish identity, so that it felt effortless, and real”.

But Spiro insists that The Plot is not simply a Jewish story. “It’s anybody’s story, anybody who feels marginalised, it’s a bigger story than just the Jewish community. But I think if you ground it in a place of truth, it will resonate with people”.

Both David Simon and Nina Kostroff-Noble, his executive producer, had a group of actors with whom they were comfortable and familiar, including Zoe Kazan, who plays Bess Levin, the anchor of the family and arguably the only one who has a realistic understanding of what is happening to America’s Jews.

Spiro had “an exciting opportunity” to be “very much hands-on” with the casting, particularly the children who play key roles in the series. They range from the experienced nine-year-old child actor Azhy Robertson, who plays Philip, to Caleb Malis, who had done no TV work at all but simply sent in an audition tape and secured the part of Sandy, Philip’s older brother.

Azhy Robertson, who is not Jewish, is the perfect, wide-eyed little boy in the film. Off set, Spiro says, he asked questions about what he did not understand, and showed a healthy curiosity about the plight of 1940s Jews. He himself is of Persian ancestry and had originally tried out for the part of Philip’s friend Seldon, son of the Levins’ next-door neighbours. But his reading “blew me away”, says Spiro, who told the rest of the crew as soon as the boy left the room: “We have found our Philip”.

It was, says Spiro, “incredibly challenging” to do a period drama in 21st century New York, but as an alumna of British TV she is used to period projects. “We are steeped in history in the UK”, she says, mindful of the importance of getting every small detail right. It was not something the American crew were used to — but they quickly became aware of Spiro’s pursuit of perfectionism.

For Spiro, one of the most difficult scenes to get right was the opening sequence. “This is where you have to grab the audience”, she says. As viewers we see a series of initially puzzling chalk drawings on tarmac, and then the camera draws back and we see a group of little boys playing in the street. Their game is a cruel one: “I declare war on…” And Spiro’s camera rises high on a crane and the audience gets a bird’s-eye overview of Jewish New Jersey suburbia, the children and the neighbours, calling to each other before their Friday night meal.

She began her career as a photo-journalist and Spiro brings that sensibility to images to the series. She directed the first three episodes and as lead director set up a credible and seamless framework for the director of the remaining three, Thomas Schlamme. Most striking — and not immediately discernible to the viewer — is Spiro’s radical use of a colour palette in the films.

“For me”, she says, “the colour red is associated with fascism — and it was important that we didn’t feel or see fascism at the start of the piece, that we just entered into a very normal, everyday Jewish community.”

So until Rabbi Bengelsdorf, as Spiro puts it, “gets into bed with Lindbergh”, she was certain that she did not want “any nod to fascism” through the use of the colour red. So it is all the more visually stunning — and shocking — to see red for the first time, in the American flags at a rally convened in support of Lindbergh, and addressed by John Turturro’s rabbi, the White House’s court Jew. The viewer, intentionally, is “bombarded with red” and the creeping trails of fascism and antisemitism begin.

Everyone on the film, Spiro says, was aware of the importance of the project. “Even before the current complicated time that we are in, I knew this was a story that had to be told. it was so prescient. I want to go to my grave knowing I’ve made a difference, that I’ve tried… that I chose to tell stories that helped, exposed and resonated. It is a story about those motivated by hate, but that even those who aren’t [motivated by hate] can do things out of fear, foolishness, self-interest. It is a cautionary tale about what happens when democratic values erode and where ancient prejudices come to the fore”.

Spiro speaks of The Plot Against America as “my career highlight” — though she is about to re-commence filming in Vancouver on another exciting-sounding project, an eight-part adaptation for Netflix of Karin Slaughter’s psychological thriller, Pieces of Her, starring Toni Collette. Five days before principal photography was due to begin, the film was frozen because of the corona virus, and Spiro is now looking forward to resuming direction.

But there is a clear sense that Plot has been “a labour of love”, as Spiro herself puts it, and among the most satisfying pieces of work she has ever done. The series received rave reviews when it premiered in the States in March: British viewers can judge for themselves on July 14, when the series begins on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.

  • 30 June, 2020