Twenty years ago, producer/director Ira Wohl won the nod of every festival jury, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with Best Boy, a doc about his mentally retarded cousin. He’s just finished the Oscar-winning doc’s sequel, Best Man: ‘Best Boy’ and All of Us Twenty Years Later, which debuted in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Wohl saw the film for the first time at a screening (‘this print is so new, the emulsion is still wet’).
‘I left the film business, which is why I’m now able to do another film,’ says Wohl about the lengthy gap between productions. After Best Boy, Wohl wrote, produced and directed for tv, but in 1990 grew frustrated with the industry: ‘I had trouble doing what I wanted to do.’ So he went back to school and became a psychotherapist, perhaps cathartically, specializing in issues dealing with the entertainment industry.
Produced by his L.A.-based Only Child Motion Pictures, Best Man started to shoot six weeks after the idea, greenlit via prebuys from hbo (‘they’re great. They say, ‘Yes,’ and then just let you do it’), the ubiquitous Channel 4 in the U.K. and France’s equally indispensable La Sept/arte. Set for a Spring 1998 broadcast, Wohl is looking for a distrib with an eye to theatrical release in the interim. To that end, he’s currently in general distribution discussions with interested parties.
The first doc was shot over four years and chronicled Wohl’s 50-year-old cousin Philly becoming independent, and culminated in his moving into a group home. Now 70, Philly becomes bar-mitzvahed, and his old and new family come together for the event. Shot by the same crew who came together 20 years ago, Wohl says the film is not only about what happened to its star, but ‘all of us involved with him.’ Asked whether people responded more warmly to Philly because of the camera’s presence, Wohl says no, ‘Philly is a very serene being, I see him as a Jewish Buddha.’ Judging by the audience reaction at a post-screening q&a, the feeling is mutual, and the film is another mitzvah. Best Man adds a few new screen presences to the mix, Philly’s sister Fran and the tango-ing Argentinian Rabbi.
Wohl, amid a whirl of kudos after the screening, also fielded interest from an Israeli tv buyer who had been trying to track down Best Boy, jesting, ‘You’ll have to pay me in cash, not gefilte fish.’ Best Boy is currently back in the hands of Wohl, who is looking into what should be done in terms of packaging with its sequel.
Wohl has two new docs in the works: Keeping The Faith about the last Orthodox Jewish community in Mississippi; the other about heroin.