In 1999, a few weeks before The Devil's Arithmetic
went into production, I met with stars Kirsten Dunst, Brittany Murphy, and Mimi Rogers in Dustin Hoffman's Brentwood office. Dustin and Mimi had rescued my script from development hell—a seven year limbo—and were serving as Executive Producers. Mimi was doing double duty as actress and producer.
The Devil's Arithmetic
is a Holocaust time travel drama based on the best selling book by Jane Yolen
Brittany Murphy, left, and Kirsten Dunst in The Devil's Arithmetic, 1999.
The script called for authentic Jewish characters and settings.
To aid the two young actresses I brought Offspring #3 to the meeting, a knowledgeable and adorable eleven year old yeshiva student.
Offspring #3's job was to coach the actresses in, well, being Jewish. Offspring #3 taught the actresses a few Jewish songs, and helped their Hebrew pronunciations.
I watched as Kirsten and Brittany soaked up Offspring #3's essence.
For a screenwriter—and this is my favorite part of the process—observing actors prepare their roles was a joy and a revelation.
Brittany and Kirsten laughed and poked fun at each other as they haltingly learned the difficult Hebrew words to a Passover song. But within a short time, their Hebrew was letter perfect.
Mimi, Brittany and Mimi were thorough professionals.
During a break, Brittany Murphy took me aside and posed a series of questions about Rivkah, the character she was playing. Her questions went to the core of Rivkah, a pious and innocent young woman. I stumbled a bit because there were aspects of Rivkah I had not considered. Brittany Murphy, so young, so not-Jewish, was drilling to the foundation of the character. I was deeply impressed and humbled. After about fifteen minutes of discussion Brittany nodded, smiled brightly—her smile was always tinged with anxiety—and said:
“I got it.”
I did not know Brittany, I just knew that she was an astute and accomplished young actress—she made a huge splash in Clueless—and I felt that the co-starring role of Rivkah was safe in this young woman's hands.
The ShowTime production was shot in Lithuania. A former Soviet army barracks was converted into a Nazi concentration camp. It was freezing cold, and the conditions were primitive. Brittany and Kirsten were shivering and sick during most of the shoot.
Both performances are just amazing and as I watched dailies I knew that something very special was happening. Kirsten perfectly embodies bafflement yet gradual acceptance as Hannah, a modern suburban mall rat who is abruptly transported back in time to a small Jewish village in Poland and then to Auschwitz.
And Brittany, as her cousin Rivkah, gives a powerhouse performance as an Orthodox Jewish girl, on the cusp of adulthood, whose comfortable world is shattered by the Nazi onslaught. It's a deeply nuanced performance, that is, for me, the best, most unexpected, of Brittany's short career.
At the premier screening of The Devil's Arithmetic, the film received a standing ovation.
After the screening, I thanked all the actors for their work.
I said to Brittany: “You did stuff with my script that I never imagined.”
An understatement, to say the least.
Brittany smiled and said: “Aw, well, it was all there.”
But it wasn't all there.
It was inside her, as it is inside all great actors.
A magic, a G-d-given gift that is beyond the reach of most of us. An ability to become someone else for brief snippets of time. The ability to transform reality into a hyper reality.
Last night, I learned that Brittany Murphy died at the age of 32.
I looked at my wife Karen and shook my head in despair.
An hour later we called Offspring #3, a newlywed living in New York, and told her the news.
“Oh nooo, that's so sad,” she cried.
No doubt Offspring #3 recalled how warmly Kirsten and Brittany hugged and thanked her for the lively Jewish tutorial.
In the middle of the night, I slipped out of bed, went downstairs and slipped a DVD into the player.
I watched The Devil's Arithmetic for a few minutes. And then I stopped because it was just too painful.
Brittany and I were not friends. We were, for a brief time, just movie co-workers.
But for me, the supremely talented Brittany Murphy lives on in the character of Rivkah, who at a crucial point in the script urges:
“To remember. To remember who we are...”
My deepest condolences to Brittany's family and friends.