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Interview with Michael Mayer and Guy Ayal from the acclaimed movie Happy Times
By James Whittington, Saturday 16th October 2021
thumbnail_HT_set_Marie Alyse Rodriguez

Happy Times, which is showing at Grimmfest Online, is a movie that takes the home invasion genre and turns it inside out! Directed by Michael Mayer and co-written with composer Guy Ayal, the movie is a bombastic, bloody and hilarious piece of cinema. I chatted to them both about this dinner party from hell.

HC: Where did the idea for Happy Times come from?

MM: The idea for the movie started forming when I was invited to a Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year's) dinner in Los Angeles. It was the first year of Trump's presidency and wherever you went all people wanted to talk about was politics. One thing to know about the Israeli expat community in Los Angeles, is that it's very diverse, a real microcosm of Israeli society. This dinner party was no different, and pretty soon everybody around the table was sharing their political two cents whether other guests cared to hear them or not. Things heated up quickly, but nothing really happened apart from a few bruised egos maybe, but it made me think - what if the evening did go off the rails? I felt like the discourse was just explosive enough and the guests just familiar enough, that things could easily have gotten out of control. I shared my thoughts with Guy Ayal, a close friend and a talented musician who, like me, grew up in Haifa and now lives in Los Angeles. He thought it would make a great movie, and we jumped right in.

HC: What was your writing process with co-writer Guy Ayal?

MM: Guy and I like to start every writing session by braiding each other's hair and discussing that week's Torah portion over a cup of hot cocoa.

GA: The first step was figuring out our list of characters. That was relatively easy, since we've lived in Los Angeles long enough and knew most of these archetypes. Figuring out their triggers took a lot longer, but once that was done, offing them in entertaining and creative ways came shockingly easy to us.

HC: Are any of the family based on people you know or have met?

MM: Absolutely. But it's more like each character is an amalgamation of a bunch of different people we know. Sigal, the hostess (played by Liraz Chamami), for example, is a combination of four different women I've known for years. The same goes for her husband, Yossi (Ido Mor) or her cousin Michael (Michael Aloni).But as culturally specific as these characters are, I feel anybody watching will recognize these people immediately. Because while you may not have met an Israeli housewife from LA, anybody will recognize the nouveau-riche couple, the wannabe actor, the social climber, the bitter stay-at-home mom, etc. These are universal characters we're all familiar with.

HC: Why did you split the movie into sections?

MM: We were toying with the idea of breaking up the story into chapters from the beginning, but there was no one specific reason at first. We thought it would add an air of watching a cautionary tale. We thought it would set up all the different killings. We thought it would make sense for a film dealing indirectly with Jewish traditions. We wanted to give a nod to films we love that do this so well, like The Shining, Go, or any Tarantino movie ever. Then finally, when we screened an earlier cut, we saw that people were actually laughing when the chapter breaks popped up. They really worked to help release tension and add a level of commentary and irony to the story.

HC: The cast are just superb, did you write it with a cast in mind?

MM: I worked with two of the actors before, Michael Aloni and Alon Pdut, and knew I wanted to work with them again. We kept in touch over the years and when I first had the idea for Happy Times I shared it with them. Both Michael and Alon loved the concept and said they'd do it, so as Guy and I were writing, we sort of assumed who will play the roles of Michael and Avner. But the rest of the characters were not written with anybody in mind.

HC: The effects are fantastic, were they all done on set?

MM: Yes. Except for a couple of scenes where we added some blood digitally, everything was practical make-up and effects. We had an amazing hair and make-up team lead by Monique Paredes who has a real passion for genre, and a great special effects make-up studio, Vincent Van Dyke Effects, who have done everything from DC's Birds of Prey, Halloween, TV's Dexter, Oscar winners Darkest Hour and I, Tonya and many others.

HC: Which scene or sequence was the hardest to shoot?

MM: The biggest challenge was scheduling ten busy actors, and I have to give giant props to producers Paola Porrini Bisson and Tomer Almagor and first AD Keren Hantman for figuring out all the moving parts. In terms of shooting, if I have to be completely honest here, the biggest challenge for me was filming the scenes with the kids. There's actually one scene with the kids that didn't make it into the movie because I was unhappy with the way it came out.

HC: How difficult was it balancing the comedy and the horror elements?

GA: When we were writing the script, we were mostly concerned with the comedy. Our goal was, first and foremost, to entertain. The horror was more of a bi-product of the plot, and its realism on screen was necessary because honestly, Michael is a very sick individual.

MM: I think our amazing cast made keeping that balance much easier than it could've been. They all got it and played the whole thing with a straight face. I'm still blown away sometimes when I watch Liraz Chamami (who plays Sigal) or Stefi Celma (plays Aliyah) go from absurd comedy to total freak-out to genuine tears in the span of a two-minute scene.

HC: So, what are you working on at the moment?

MM: I'm developing a thriller series with Fremantle and working with Guy on a heist movie gone wrong.

HC: Michael Mayer and Guy Ayal, thank you very much.


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