Student Spotlight: Yonatan Weinstein | Tischues Vol. 4

Brain Like NYU | Tatiana Youpa | April 19, 2016

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At NYU, we are very lucky to be surrounded by people who come from all over the world and have wildly different backgrounds. But sadly, we don’t always get the opportunity to meet all these people. Everyone has a story to tell, and this week we are lucky enough to get a glimpse into the life of Yonatan Weinstein.

Assistant Director Yonatan on set of Jake Fertig’s feature film HOWEDS

Yonatan is currently 26 years old and a senior in Film & TV minoring in Business of Entertainment, Media & Technology. His venture into filmmaking began when he was 13 years old and directed a feature documentary that was sold for broadcast in the Israeli National Televisions and was screened at festivals across the globe. After graduating from one of Israel’s leading high school film programs, he was enlisted and served in the Israeli Air Force Film Unit as Chief Video Editor and Director.

Since enrolling at NYU Tisch, Yonatan’s impressive resume has continued to grow. He was one of the last to participate in the highly competitive BBC TV Productions program in London. He has worked on multiple feature film and television sets internationally; most recently wrapping his role as 1st Assistant Director on HOWEDS, NYU Alum Jake Fertig’s debut feature film. Outside of school he has provided script coverage for Cinetic Media and currently for Protozoa Pictures. Despite all this, he has even managed to direct two Advanced projects – an original half-hour comedy TV pilot (written by Faulkner Alloco), and short thesis film.

Q&A with Yonatan Weinstein

(All responses typed by Weinstein and have not been altered)

Q: How did a person or situation from your childhood have a profound effect on the way you look at life?

A: My paternal grandmother, Masha, was undoubtedly one of the most formative characters of my adolescent years. A holocaust survivor who lost her parents, sister, first husband and daughter in the camps, she immigrated to Israel after the war and started all over. Aside from chance, there are many factors that contributed to her survival–her perseverance, intellect, knowledge of languages (she spoke 8!) and perhaps more than anything–her sense of humor and ability to see the best in complex people and unbearable situations. Thanks to her, I strive to remember not to give up on those things worth fighting for, despite resistance and the hardships that may unfold. I learned to be grateful for all I have, to always give others the benefit of the doubt and to value the bright sides of life and hang onto them. [Masha passed away the summer after my Freshman year here, a week before her 100th birthday. Fortunately, I was able to be in Israel during her last days and even celebrate early with her and the family in anticipation of her birthday]

Q: What drew you to filmmaking?

A: While none of my family members are filmmakers (no relation to Bob & Harvey unfortunately), I grew up in a creatively driven household in which film, theater, art, literature and culture always played an integral part. While living in Florence, Italy for over a year (ages 8-9), I became obsessed with the sensibilities and compositions of Italian Renaissance art, and it was probably then that I first started developing a stronger knack for the visual. My parents exposed to me to masterpieces such as Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Shakespeare’s Hamlet even before I hit puberty. But the big shift occured towards my Bar-Mitzvah (13), when I decided to do a little film for the occasion and soon fell in the love with the craft of editing. Through this process, I met my first mentor in the field, documentary filmmaker Noam ben Shoham. With her guidance, I decided to embark on my next challenging journey to document my grandma Masha’s story of survival. A couple months of filming and nearly two years of editing later – I completed the feature doc and started taking it to festival audiences around the world. The surprising and satisfying success of this first big project definitely played its part in driving me to learn more about filmmaking and explore other aspects of it. But perhaps more than anything — the first-hand experience of listening to my grandma telling her story and the process of molding it made me appreciate the power of storytelling in ways that I couldn’t imagine. Masha was undoubtedly the most incredible, vivid and energetic storyteller I have ever encountered, and her passion for it definitely rubbed off on me. I can only hope that some of her talent did too…

Assistant directing on the set of Jake Fertig’s feature film HOWEDS

Q: What has been the biggest hurdle you have had to overcome and how did it affect you?

A: When I was 14, I decided to leave the familiar comfort zone of my friends and venture outside the city to enroll at ‘Alon’, one of Israel’s leading arts high-schools, to challenge myself and pursue my creative passions. At that point, I’ve been immersed in music (playing and singing) from as early as I could remember, but had only been deep into filmmaking for a couple of years. I tried out for both the Film and Music programs. When the news came, I found out I only got into Music. So of course, I did the only logical thing and decided I had to be in the Film program. Not out of spite, but because somehow not getting what I wanted strengthened my resolve and made me realize that film was my true calling. I wrote a kick-ass letter to the selection committee explaining why I thought they should give me another chance, and heard back immediately that I should report for an interview the following day. I’ll never forget the shock on their faces when they realized I’ve already made a feature doc and handed them a rough-cut tape (they were surprised I even knew what a rough-cut was for that matter…). Point is — whether or not I would have still pursued filmmaking today had I not written that letter, I’ll never know. But one thing is for sure – I would have missed out on the incredible opportunities that followed and some invaluable knowledge and experience that I have since acquired.

Q: What aspect of filmmaking is most important to you?

A: What I love most about this medium is its ability to take diverse creative minds, from visual storytellers to performers and technical masters, and bring them all together in a collaborative effort to recreate aspects of the human experience within imaginary circumstances. The most successful films in my book are those that let the audience explore a story and relate to characters that, even if entirely remote from their own experience, allow the viewers to reflect on their own being. In terms of my own craft — although editing will forever be my ‘first rodeo’ and while I never intend to stop challenging myself with screenwriting, the craft I enjoy most and the one I’ve been dedicating myself to over the past few years is directing for fiction film & television. Part of it has to do with the fact that the role allows me to marry between the visual and musical/aural aspects of cinematic storytelling (thus satisfying two of my greatest passions growing up). It also lets me see projects through creatively, from pre-production through filming and into post. That way, I never have to leave the editing room far behind and can enjoy both its quiet and detail-oriented setting and the stressful dynamic environment of set. More than anything though, my passion for directing stems from my love of working with actors and perfecting performances. The actor’s craft is an extremely delicate and difficult one. It is they who embody the characters that carry the story through and draw in the audience, and they that have the power, above all else, to make or break a film. It is therefore a great responsibility to guide them and actively participate in their process, and a really thrilling moment when you are able to extract a truthful performance from an actor.

Directing on the set of LEECHER, Yonatan’s Short Thesis Film

Q: How has your time at NYU Tisch prepared you for the future?

A: Going off of my last point, one of the things I value most about my education at Tisch was the opportunity to collaborate with actors and learn how to direct performances. While I had some prior experience in this regard, my approach was entirely based on instincts and abstract notions before NYU. But thanks to the invaluable lessons I’ve learnt here, I was able to cement my understanding of the actor’s process and gain some concrete tools to work with. Another extremely rewarding experience was directing the original TV Pilot Easel R. as part of the Advanced TV class. Unlike most Tisch productions, this one took place under the all-seeing-eyes of two industry veteran directors. Getting instantaneous on-set feedback from experienced professionals not only enabled me to learn from my mistakes and improve my on-set protocol but also to become comfortable with my vulnerabilities and remain receptive to criticism in this environment. Another practice that isn’t common enough at Tisch is for directors to collaborate with other writers to bring their vision to life. Easel R. was my opportunity to do just that, and thus prepared me for the standard workflow in the television industry. Through Tisch I was also able to secure internship positions in larger organizations such as Protozoa Pictures and the BBC in London, which helped me contribute to larger-scale projects and gain a better understanding of how the industry operates. Most importantly, I’ve met some amazing individuals while at Tisch, both faculty and fellow students, and have already been fortunate enough to collaborate with many of them on projects beyond the school environment. I can only hope that this network will continue to thrive and present more opportunities for future projects. Finally – I remember envisioning my life in New York before moving here. It’s amazing, but the experience really was everything I’d hoped for and more. I consider the theater and film festival-going experiences I’ve had in the city (and while at NYU London) to be one of the most valuable aspects of my education. And there really is inspiration to be found all over the place. Besides, this city can toughen you, in a good way. As the saying goes — ‘if I can make it there…’

Q: What are your plans for after graduation?

A: First of all, I can’t wait to finalize post-production on my thesis short film LEECHER so that I can release it into the festival world and pray that there’ll be some serious takers (fingers crossed!). I plan on staying in the city, at least for the coming year, and am currently applying for jobs at various New York-based production companies starting this summer. Beyond that, I intend to pick up freelance work as director/editor, continue to generate creative short form content for my soul (‘Always Be Creating’) and start script development on two feature projects I have in mind: one based off of LEECHER, and the other — a concept I’ve been collaborating on with my longtime friend and filmmaker based in Australia. As I’ve been fortunate enough to do thus far in life, I hope to continue travelling, living and creating for extended periods in various parts of the world, and can definitely see myself returning to Israel for a while to live amidst my family and childhood friends and work on some projects there too. Down the line, I hope to make my living directing television while working to create a feature passion project every few years.

Q: Do you have an advice to share that you wish you had been given before you came to NYU?

A: Some five years ago, on the set of my application film back home, I overheard my producer telling my mom “Yonatan always chooses to work with his closest friends”. It was a constructive criticism of sorts, and I think I finally get it now. Your friends are great and they will always be there for you. And true, friends can be great collaborators. But if you’re striving to learn and grow professionally, you have to step out of your comfort zone and work with other people too: rather than casting your nonactor friends in S&S projects, go seek out professional actors; look for people you’ve never met in other departments and collaborate with them. The school may not make the most of cross-departmental collaboration, but that just means you have to take it into your hands and initiate more; Try to direct or write other people’s projects (the two roles don’t always have to go together); reach out to your professors outside of class and have a chat with them — they can be a greater asset than you’ll ever imagine. In short — don’t be afraid to expand your circle. If anything, your prior friendships will grow stronger and your collaborative bonds more effective. And the best part — you’ll make a bunch of new friends along the way…

‘That’s A Wrap’ on ‘Easel R.’, an Advanced TV Pilot that Yonatan directed