Back in the 1990s, when Gina Wendkos was working on situation comedies in Hollywood, before she wrote the screenplays for “Coyote Ugly” and “The Princess Diaries,” she occasionally would seek relief from the television studio in a nearby park.
It took a while to realize that the park was in fact a Jewish cemetery.
“I would go there to release my mind and tension,” Ms. Wendkos said. “It was my ritual. I would go there and find comfort.”
She also found the idea for a move, “Tiger Within,” which was filmed in 2018 — 30 years or so later — and is getting its East Coast premiere as part of the Rockland JCC Film Festival. (See below.)
“I thought, ‘What if a survivor saw some punk girl, one of the punks you see around with a swastika?’”
She wrote the script over the course of three days. “When it just pours out of you, it works,” she said.
“And then it sat for a hundred years,” she said. “My agent didn’t know what to do with it. As he said, ‘You wrote a movie for two un-castable parts in terms of Hollywood: a super-old guy and a young girl.’”
In the end, Ed Asner played Holocaust survivor Samuel, who meets Casey, a homeless girl played by Margot Josefsohn, who doesn’t believe the Holocaust happened, in the cemetery where he daily pays his respect to his late wife. The movie is the inspiring story of how the two very different, very lonely people open up to each other.
In the years before the movie was made, director Rafal Zielinski had brought the script to lots of actors. “We had Martin Landau, almost every famous actor in Hollywood was at one time attached to the script,” he said.
But it was Ed Asner — now 91 — who made it happen.
A neighbor of Mr. Zielinski’s told him that he was working on a movie with Ed Asner. Mr. Zielinski told him about the “Tiger Within” script, and the neighbor called Mr. Asner. “He said, ‘Please drive it over, I want to read it.’ And that’s how it happened,” Mr. Zielinski said.
Mr. Zielinski and Ms. Wendkos were a bit worried because Mr. Asner has been seen primarily as a comic actor.
“He was always the king of sitcoms,” Ms. Wendkos said. “I hadn’t see him do anything that wasn’t funny. I thought, is he going to find jokes in this? Certain actors, like Jerry Seinfeld, can’t help but read their lines funny.”
Their fears were unfounded.
“He has maturity and talent. He read it and understood the character. Hollywood doesn’t give lead roles to old men or old women. To get a role where you’re showing the force of your talent is something he responded to. More importantly, he responded to the challenge of portraying a man who had been to hell and come back,” Ms. Wendkos said.
“He’s a wonderful man,” Mr. Zielinski said. “So warm and intelligent. Very well read. He speaks about the Holocaust in such a profound way. He saw a lot of things in the script that were very big ideas, that basically spoke to the whole world at large.”
“I was more tired at the end of the day than he was,” Ms. Wendkos said, admiring Mr. Asner’s stamina.
Mr. Asner speaks with a German accent in the film.
“He wanted to make sure he transformed Ed the comedian into Samuel the survivor, and the accent was part of his tool set,” Ms. Wendkos said. “He had the age working for him. He understood Samuel in terms of what it is to live that long in what can be a cruel world.
“Ed has had a very enchanted life because of his talent, but he found the despair. There are some scenes that got cut out because of time that broke my heart in how close to Samuel’s despair he got.”
“He was really, really wonderful to work with,” Mr. Zielinski said. “He made these two improvisations we kept in the script.”
“I thought, that’s wonderful. That elevated it,” Ms. Wendkos said.
Mr. Zielinski, 64, was born to Polish parents in Canada; his father was a diplomat and he lived in many places growing up. “My mother is of Jewish origins,” he said. “From my father’s side we are the opposite,” he added. They’re Catholic, he meant.
“Some member of my family have made anti-Semitic comments — that’s Poland,” he said.
Religiously, he identifies as Buddhist.
Ms. Wendkos is Jewish; she grew up in Miami Beach and New York City and — for her senior year of high school — Ridgewood.
Growing up in such Jewish environments, she never experienced anti-Semitism, or felt that being Jewish made her different from other Americans. She learned otherwise as the years went by. “I’m divorced from my first husband,” she said. “He’s from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The very first thing his mother said to me when I first met her was, ‘Oh, my, my, I heard Jewish girls can be pretty.’ Then, when we got divorced years later, he told me she said to him, ‘Get that Jew for all she’s worth.’
“Hollywood has been really wonderful to me,” she said. “My desire now is to take this film and travel the country and go to high schools and show it in their assembly and talk about the Holocaust.”
What: Film, “Tiger Within,” starring Ed Asner, presented as part of the JCC Rockland Jewish Film Festival
When: Available to watch beginning 7:30 p.m., Sunday, April 18, for four days; once you’ve begun watching you have 48 hours to finish.
How much: $12