I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing

Ofer Shechter in Eytan Fox’s “Cupcakes.” | STRAND RELEASING

Ofer Shechter in Eytan Fox’s “Cupcakes.” | STRAND RELEASING

Out filmmaker Eytan Fox’s joyful musical comedy “Cupcakes” may well give viewers a sugar buzz. Six friends — Anat (Anat Waxman), Keren (Keren Berger), Yael (Yael Bar-Zohar), Dana (Dana Ivgy), Efrat (Efrat Dor), and Ofer (Ofer Shechter) — enter the UniverSong contest, as the Israeli delegation to the competition, with a tune they wrote and perform on a lark. In the process, all of them overcome personal and professional fears and embrace their identities without worrying about what other people think.

It’s a simple, upbeat message, effectively conveyed. Dana, an aide to Israel’s cultural minister, initially worries about the ramifications of being in a cheesy singing contest. Meanwhile, Ofer’s impending fame impacts his relationship with his closeted lover, Asi (Alon Levi), whose parents happen to be the Israeli delegation’s conservative sponsors.

Eytan Fox’s offers a candy-colored story of finding yourself in kitschy self-expression

Part of the charm of “Cupcakes” is Fox’s embrace of the kitsch involved in these kinds of competitions. From Ofer performing Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” in drag to the six singers discovering Paris, which plays host to the contest, with tinted sunglasses, the infectious pop music and fun, candy-colored images and costumes provide this confection’s irresistible icing.

Fox — in what he said was his first Skype interview ever — spoke with Gay City News about making his film.

GARY M. KRAMER: Pop songs and sex. Your film is very much about fostering happiness, which was also the theme of your last drama, “Yossi.” What accounts for the tonal shift from serious character study to light and sunny musical?

EYTAN FOX: People think I’m a somber film director or that “Cupcakes” is different for me. I have these sides in my soul. If I had any budget I wanted, I’d make a musical, not just serious chamber pieces about gay soldiers with identity questions. I don’t think that it is surprising that I made both “Yossi” and “Cupcakes.” Their subject matters and ideas are important to me, and the characters are similar. Ofer’s character has traces of Jagger’s character in him from “Yossi & Jagger” [the heart-rending film to which “Yossi” was the sequel].

GMK: “Cupcakes” is more in tone with your musical TV series, “Mary Lou.” How did you come to develop this film?

EF: The plot is based on a bunch of close friends who were sophisticated journalists — music, film, and theater critics — who decided to write a song that would rep Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest. They got a notice that they were chosen, so they asked me to go with them and be their babysitter.

Director Eytan Fox with Ofer Shecter. | STRAND RELEASING

Director Eytan Fox with Ofer Shecter. | STRAND RELEASING

GMK: You certainly convey the outrageousness of the contest in “Cupcakes.” Can you talk about how you developed the film’s contest?

EF: Eurovision has become a gay circus. In 1999, Israel sent Dana International, a transsexual, to represent them in this competition. All the politicos in Israel were in an uproar. When she won, the gay community went to the streets dancing and singing. It’s a stupid pop competition, but it meant so much for us.

Conchita Wurst from Austria, a woman with a beard, won the last Eurovision song competition. Americans don’t know about Eurovision. I grew up with it but we didn’t get the rights, so we made up the UniverSong contest, which allowed us to use music that was not strictly European. It was an opportunity to use ‘70s kitschy pop music, which I love. I’m not ashamed of it. You can eat in a fancy restaurant one day and enjoy it, then have a cheeseburger and enjoy that, or hummus and falafel. It doesn’t have to be either/ or.

GMK: In the film, Keren blogs about the UniverSong contest being a guilty pleasure. What are your guilty pleasures, and why do you feel guilt about them?

EF: I still hear “Love Will Keep Us Together” and it makes me smile immediately. I don’t know that I’ll jump up and dance in front of you on Skype, but this music we chose for “Cupcakes” makes me happy. It is a guilty pleasure. The world has changed and high and low culture lines are not as strict, but the world I grew up in was very strict about it. It was considered childish, or gay-ish, feminine, weak to like certain music. Boys liked Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or Bruce Springsteen, and I was listening to Whitney Houston. At some point I did like Bruce Springsteen, but why can’t I like both him and Whitney?

GMK: Scissor Sisters’ Babydaddy was instrumental in creating the key song used in the film. Can you discuss how you worked with him on the film?

EF: Scott Hoffman/ Babydaddy is a friend of mine. He came to Israel for vacation, and one evening I showed him around Tel Aviv. And I wanted to know if he had ever written a Eurovision-style kitschy pop song, and we wrote an ABBA-esque song for the fun of it. It wasn’t one he wanted to publish but it was exactly the song I needed for the film, so he let us use it.

GMK: Ofer is a gay man who is out and proud and likes to perform in drag. He is often referred to as one of the “ladies” in the contest preparation. Do you think this reinforces queer stereotypes and effeminate, negative connotations of gay men?

EF: When I became known as the older gay filmmaker in Israel, there were complaints that all my characters were straight-acting and easy to swallow for straight audiences. They say I should be more outrageous. I have different representations of gay characters in my films and TV shows — “Mary Lou,” for example.

I’m not that person who lets his hair down. I never wore a dress and danced in the street, but for me it was a wonderful experience to have a character who is not a tough army officer who happens to be gay, but Ofer, who embraces gay culture and is not ashamed about that. The couple in many of my films often features one gay man who is more restrained, more macho.

GMK: The film is all about characters facing their fears and going from resisting performing to embracing it and becoming empowered, or as one character says, going from “Why?” to “Why Not?” What can you say about taking risks, the luxury of making mistakes, and seeing a familiar street from a different angle?

EF: I didn’t want to make a silly rom-com, I wanted to deal with issues I care about. It is about being authentic and being who you are, and loving Captain and Tennille and enjoying singing. People should be encouraged to do what makes them happy, and groups and communities can help with that.

The film is about the sense of community, which is how it was when I grew up in Israel, but it’s not like that any more. It’s about how family or friends can help its individual members of their group do their things and be happy. It is about doing your thing and sharing what you are doing with others, caring for others, and creating a dialogue and social change. Uplifting people is the reason I make films.

CUPCAKES | Directed by Eytan Fox | Strand Releasing | In Hebrew with English subtitles | Opens Mar. 27 | Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St.; quadcinema.com