What You Do is Who You Are: Irena's Vow Screenwriter Dan Gordon on Telling the Story of a Teenager Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust

Roger Ebert

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You might not expect the passion project of the writer who brought us “Rambo: First Blood,” “Highlander,” and the action comedy “Gotcha!” would be the story of a Polish teenager who hid a small group of Jews from the Nazis. But that is what “Irena’s Vow” is for Dan Gordon. In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Gordon described his beginnings in Hollywood, with a wild story about the legendary Lew Wasserman, how he met Irena, and how he told her story three times in three different media: as a play, a movie, and a book.

How did you get started as a screenwriter?

I was born in Los Angeles. I was raised in a little town called Bell Gardens in southeast LA up until the time that I was 16. Then I ran away from home, wound up on a kibbutz in Israel, went to high school in Israel, came back for college, and studied acting with a wonderful man named Corey Allen. I ran into Corey one day on campus at UCLA and asked what he was doing there. It was 1967.

He said, “I've just been hired by Universal as part of their new talent program. “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider” had come out, and Lew Wasserman decided there was a future in youth film. “I've been hired to do a youth film, and I'm here on campus looking to see if anybody has a script.” And I said, “Well, Corey, this is just the luckiest day of your life because I happen to have the greatest youth film ever written,” which, of course, I did not.

I had written a one-act play for a directing class, and it was a one-actor play because I couldn't get anybody except this one guy to act in it. So, it was basically a half-hour monologue, and I knew all the words. I didn't realize that I was pitching, but I started performing the play, and he said, “This is really great. Let's go across the hill to Universal.”

We went across the hill to Universal, and I pitched it to Ned Tannen, who was the head of productions at Universal at that time. Ned said, “How old are you?” I said, “I'm 20 years old.” He said, Call your mother. You're too young to sign a contract.” I called my mother, and I didn't think I might need an agent or a lawyer, God forbid, and I got $1,875.26, which was guild scale at that time. I lived on that for two years.

Was the movie ever made?

No, of course not! Shortly after I was hired to write, they gave me an office in a motel across the street from the studio, which became known as the Schlepper Colony. That's how bad it was. But that was a big deal. I was a 20-year-old kid and I had an office. They had all these office supplies - whiteout and carbon paper and yellow legal pads, wonderful pencils. So I called all my friends, and I said, “Hey anybody needs office supplies I can hook you up. They give you all this stuff for free when you work here!”

I loaded up my car on a Thursday. On Friday, I got into my office and the phone rang; a female voice said, “Please hold for Mr. Wasserman. I was positive that was one of my friends playing a joke on me because Lou Wasserman didn't know I was alive. So, I said, “You know what, Lou, I'm too busy for this shit, f*ck you,” and I hung up.

Phone rings again, there's no secretary, the receiver leaps off the cradle, wraps itself around my neck three times, goes off, and I suddenly realize it's Lew Wasserman. I said, “Oh my God, Mr. Wasserman, I'm so sorry, I thought it was one of my friends playing a trick on me, and I would never speak disrespectfully to you. But honestly, if all you’ve got to worry about on the 15th floor is me taking office supplies, life has to be pretty good. I'm writing this great movie, you're going to love it, you're a busy guy, I'm a busy guy, it's been an honor talking to you, and I'm going to get going. You have a wonderful day.”

I hung up. And the phone didn't ring. And I thought, “Whoa, all right, I handled that. That was good.”

Monday, I come into the office and my name is off the door. My stuff is piled up in a box and the locks have been changed. They had revoked my parking pass and I had to pay to get out.

Cut to 20-plus years later. I've got a picture in turnaround from Fox called “Gotcha!” that starred Anthony Edwards and Linda Fiorentino. I’m meeting with Frank Price, head of productions at that time, 14th floor. We're coming out of Frank's office, elevator doors open, out steps Lou Wasserman.

And Frank said, “Oh, Mr. Wasserman” -- everybody called him Mr. Wasserman -- nobody called him Lew. I think his mother called him Mr. Wasserman. He says, “This is Dan Gordon, we've got a picture of his in turnaround.” I see that the wheels are turning, and he's trying to place, “Where does he know that name from?” I'm pushing that elevator button, and I'm just like, “Come on, get me out of here."

Lew was a tall, skinny guy, and he reached out and grabbed me with this bony, old guy grip between the muscle and the bone. He doesn't look at me; he looked at Frank, and he said, “Just make sure he doesn’t steal the office supplies this time.”

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How did you meet Irena?

I was driving home, listening to a radio show that Dennis Prager used to have, “Religion on the Line.” He had Irena telling her story, and I was so thoroughly captivated by it that when I got home, I parked in the driveway for the next two and a half hours listening to her story.

The next day, I called the radio station and said, “My name is Dan Gordon. I'm not a psychopath. I'm not a stalker. I'm actually a screenwriter with credits. You can look me up. Would you please pass my phone number on to Mrs. Gut Opdyke? I'd like to acquire her life story and do a motion picture.

And about three hours later, my phone rings. There's this delightful voice with this Polish accent at the other end saying, “Hello, Pania? This is Irene.” And that began the love story with Irene and me. She became like a second mother.

What was it like to talk to her?

She was just a hoot to be with. She had a delightful sense of humor. She was a great storyteller. The fact that she couldn't speak English fluently, I think that worked for her benefit in the way she would tell the story. And she had the most perfect faith of anyone I've ever met. It was not dogmatic. It was this very personal, almost innocent, personal relationship between her and God to see her through.

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Every part of the story is more surprising than the last. First, the idea that an essentially enslaved Polish teenager could hide a group of Jews in the basement of the home of the highest-ranking Nazi military officer. And then it gets even more remarkable after that.

She always said if it wasn't for the fact that they would have been killed at any minute, they would have been laughing at the farce of it all, one close escape after another, one door would open, and another would close.

Some people have said I inserted an anti-abortion element into the movie. The Jews in hiding held on to their humanity. They called one corner "the honeymoon suite" so couples could be together and one became pregnant. The group voted that she would have to have an abortion because there was no way to hide a baby and they asked Irene to get what they needed, but she refused. It was seeing a Nazi kill a baby that led to her vow to do whatever she could to preserve life. That baby was born in a forest after they left the house.

First, you made this story into a play.

That opening night was the most thrilling moment of my career, now 57 years long. It was a stellar opening, and everybody was there: Neil Simon, Ellen Burstyn, Elaine Stritch, you name it, Angela Lansbury, the who's who of Broadway, was there. Thunderous applause, the audience on its feet, standing ovation, eight minutes long. Then they announced that the baby conceived in the cellar is here with us tonight, Roman Heller. He walked out onstage, and everybody gasped. It was like the penny dropped; this was real. It wasn't just a story. And you will see the real Roman meeting the real Irene in archival clips at the film's end.

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How is telling the story different in a book, a play, and a movie?

My roots are in the theater, but I can't really make a living in theater, and I like writing movies. I've had a career, and I've done 20 produced features and two and some odd hours of television.

I had originally set up a feature film of the story, but that fell through. It is the only time in my career I've ever gone to a studio and said, “I want to buy this back from you." I was determined because I had made a promise to Irene. She said, “Who's going to tell the children?”

She used to speak to high school students and wanted to know who would tell the story when she was gone. I was determined that it wouldn't die on a pile of scripts.

I met John Stanisci and Tom Ryan at the Invictus Theatre Company in New York. They were going to produce their own plays. I adapted my film “Murder in the First” as a play for them. And I said, “I have a better story. And I told him the story of Irene.” So, I wrote it as a play. And that was an interesting theatrical exercise because I wanted it to be, as much as possible, the experience of Irene in her own story later in life.

It was a very challenging role for the actress because the actress had to start as an old woman, and then as she walks the risers downstage literally in two steps, she has to turn into a 20-year-old girl, and now the action begins. Tovah Feldshuh did that beautifully. I loved the idea of flashback without having to do a flashback. In the end, she transforms back and delivers what Irene always said. Instead of saying she was in the last generation there, she would put responsibility on the people listening: “You're the last generation that will ever hear from us. You have a responsibility to tell the story now.”

I liked that device and I did it again in the screenplay. My big dream was to pay Helen Mirren a million dollars for one day to play Irene. But the director didn't like that: she felt that it lessened the tension because it told you that Irene survives.

I had always toyed with doing it as a novel. I really wanted to go into a lot more detail than you can do in a play or in a picture where you're bound by time. I wanted to give a sort of thirty-thousand-foot view. The people in this story lived in a bubble. Their experience of the Holocaust is divided into the first period when they're in the ghetto seeing other people taken off to the Umschlagplatz and there are other groups going to work camps. They're very fearful.

It was their own little enclosed world, and they don't know what's going on in the world outside. Their world is very, very tiny. In the book, I really want to give the reader the experience of what was going on outside. One and a half million Jewish children were murdered. That is more than all the American soldiers in every war that was ever fought. I wanted to give a sense of what was going on outside the people Irene was keeping safe.

What did you learn from knowing Irene? What part of her goes on in you?

She never let life embitter her, or make her cower, or be anything other than the extraordinarily beautiful person she was until the very end.

What does it mean to say, as she does in the film, “What we do is who we are?”

When we were moving the play from off-Broadway to Broadway, the play was really well-established. We'd done over a hundred performances. But the wonderful thing about theatre is they never take the train set away from you. You can keep tinkering with it, and the playwright is God.

The actors may complain when you're giving them a new speech, but you can always tweak it and let the audience instruct you about what works and what doesn't.

At some point, Irene's in bed with the Major, who told her he would only protect the Jews if she would not only sleep with him. He literally said, “The only way I could agree to this is if you loved me.” And I thought, “You miserable son of a bitch.” And I thought, “There's going to be a scene in bed. He's going to try and ingratiate himself by asking her about herself, as though it is a real relationship.”

Sometimes your characters just talk to you. I heard her say, “What does it matter who we are? What we do is who we are.” I came to the producer of the Broadway show and said, “I understand this play for the first time in one line.” That was the line that was on the t-shirt for the play.

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