In 1971, the film version of Fiddler on the Roof was released to widespread acclaim and box office success, becoming the top-grossing movie that year. In the 50 years since its premiere, the film is regularly screened yet not discussed as some of its cinematic brethren like The French Connection or A Clockwork Orange, both of which were released the same year as Fiddler.
Daniel Raim‘s thoughtful and absorbing documentary, Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen aims to change that. In talking to Digital Trends, Raim talks about what drew him to examine the making of the musical classic, how Star Wars composer John Williams effortlessly recalled a key sequence a half-century after it was made, and how Jeff Goldblum crashing a wedding led to his involvement in the film.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: What compelled you to make a documentary about the making of Fiddler on the Roof?
Daniel Raim: I was a student at the American Film Institute in 1997, and my professor was Fiddler on the Roof production designer Robert F. Boyle, who was the acclaimed production designer on five Alfred Hitchcock masterpieces, including Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, North by Northwest, The Birds, and Marnie. I was captivated by his artistry and his approach to design, cinema, and storytelling. He was also the subject of my first documentary, which was an Academy Award-nominated short subject documentary called The Man on Lincoln’s Nose.
About a quarter of that documentary explores Bob Boyle and Norman Jewison’s long process of researching and finding the locations in Eastern Europe, a fitting location in Eastern Europe to film Fiddler on the Roof. So my fascination with Fiddler started back in 2000 when I made that documentary and met Norman Jewison. I was curious to learn more about his process. Then, in 2015, after reading Norman Jewison’s autobiography, I was fascinated by his own journey and finding his identity and what it meant to be a director.
I was also compelled also to investigate the making of Fiddler on the Roof as it relates to my own Jewish identity, and to learn more about that and Jewish history and what life experiences Fiddler‘s creative team had that informed their making of the film.
A big part of the documentary is Norman Jewison, who directed Fiddler. Was it easy to get him to participate?
Yes. It was easy because I already had a relationship with him. We kept in touch after The Man on Lincoln’s Nose. What I learned in making this documentary is that everyone I interviewed about making that movie has a special place in their heart, including John Williams, for him and the film. For John to carve out his time to just talk about Fiddler on the Roof, I learned quickly just how special that movie was to him.
In addition to documenting the making of Fiddler, this also functions as both a great documentary about Norman Jewison himself and gives a snapshot of the time period in Hollywood in the late sixties and early seventies. Was that important for you to both establish that context and also with Jewison, that kind of that touch of humanity that comes through in the documentary?
Giving some of the backstory around that time helps the audience understand what was at stake for the filmmakers. 1971 was a time when musicals weren’t as successful as they were when The Sound of Music came out in 1965.
What I’m curious about is the artist, not just the work. The work itself is a pretext, a way to shine a light on these artists. And then there’s the other side of it, which is the documentary as a portrait of Norman. At the start of lockdown in 2020, I sat down and focused on editing all the great footage I had of him. It was a real challenge for me and my team to peel the onion and find out what was inside Norman.
The narrator of the documentary is Jeff Goldblum. How did you recruit him to become a part of this documentary?
I was thinking about different narrators and different voices. Jeff Goldblum’s name came up. Around this time, he was walking through a park in Brooklyn and saw that there was a wedding happening. He joined in and sang “Sunrise, Sunset” impromptu to the bride and groom. I’m like, “That’s so cool.” I appreciate Jeff’s art and his acting and his storytelling. I thought he would bring just the right kind of voice to enliven this story. Fiddler parallels what’s happening in the world today. It’s poignant and it’s sad, but it’s also full of life and hope.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while making this documentary?
The big discovery that was unexpected and that informed the shape of the film was that the three actresses who played the daughters weren’t cast for their singing. As John Williams explains in the film, they were looking for three actresses who could pass as village girls, not singers. The humanness that they brought to the film and how their personalities lit up the screen informed the emotion of the film. They really struck gold with those three actresses and that certainly was a delightful surprise.
There’s a great scene in the documentary with John Williams where he breaks down If I Were a Rich Man and I love it because it really shows how Jewison was so great at translating the music to the screen. Did that come up organically in the Williams interview or was that a revelation to you?
I asked him “How did you work with the production designer? You know, how was I was all that connected. And then I showed him a clip from that scene he may have not seen in years, but he was able to articulate the design of the scene. We couldn’t have had a better filmmaker/musician/composer to walk us through it. John Williams has such a great vivid memory of what had happened and how he and Jewison worked together to make the scene successful.
What do you want people to take away from this documentary?
Fiddler on the Roof is a timeless masterpiece, and my hope is that Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen adds to the legacy of Norman’s film by putting a spotlight on the cinema artists that lent their hearts and souls to it. I think that the legacy of this beautiful film is enriched by an exploration of the artistry and personalities of some of the people that worked on it. We pay tribute as much to them as we do to the movie.
Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen is currently playing in NYC at the Angelika. It will expand to Los Angeles on May 6 and gradually expand nationwide throughout May.