Feature-length dysfunctional family drama/comedy in the vein of This Is Where I Leave You, August, Osage County, The Descendants, or The Savages, with the tone of Captain Fantastic or Little Miss Sunshine.
Set primarily on a Caribbean island full of unique supporting characters, and peppered with New York City-based flashbacks featuring the charming but difficult patriarch, Lord Have Herschel would probably merit a light R or PG-13 rating for language and themes.
MICHAEL WOHL: Award-winning filmmaker, author of 15 books, co-founder Talkingstick Pictures, and an instructor at UCLA’s School of Film & TV. He is best known as one of the original designers of Apple’s Emmy® Award-winning software Final Cut Pro.
BARRY ALAN LEVINE: Screenwriter previously repped by WME and managed by Kaplan/Perrone Entertainment, co-founder Talkingstick Pictures, advertising copywriter, and award-winning actor.
TOBIAS (TOBY): 35 yrs. Outwardly successful lawyer, struggling to find a meaningful relationship—or any meaning at all, really. Efficient, idealistic, guarded. Adam Driver, Andy Samberg, Bill Hader.
ANAIS: 39 yrs, Toby’s sister: Head in the clouds, twice-divorced, self-taught herbalist with a day job at Home Depot. Earthy, articulate, damaged. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Alison Brie.
HERSCHEL: Dead at 65, but mostly seen as 30s-40s in flashbacks: Toby and Anais’ hippie, antiestablishment deadbeat father. A failed novelist, lapsed doctor of pharmacology, and unapologetic fugitive. Arrogant, iconoclastic, but ultimately broken. Robert Downey Jr., Marc Maron, Joaquin Phoenix.
NORMAN: 15yrs, bi-racial half-brother to Toby and Anais from Herschel’s second marriage. Insecure and shy, but with an inherited intellect that is just awakening, and latent anger befitting a teen with an absent father.
NATASHA: 26 yrs Indian-American medical student, hip, millennial, attractive to Toby, despite the fact that she and Herschel were lovers.
At TOBY’s bar mitzvah HERSCHEL makes an unexpected appearance to excoriate Toby for capitulating to the “modern religious-industrial complex” before gifting him 3 marijuana joints. Toby’s ambivalence about his father is established, especially after he steals the attention of Toby’s fourteen-year-old crush.
Twenty years later, Toby has grown up, eschewing his father’s values by becoming a corporate lawyer in Los Angeles. A cryptic email reveals that Herschel has died and we learn that he had been living on a remote Caribbean island. His sister ANAIS insists that they have to go and have a funeral. Toby protests, but soon finds himself dropping his cat off with his ex-girlfriend, and beginning the journey to his father’s island, determined to keep it as brief and unemotional as possible.
During a layover in Sint Maarten, Toby meets up with his bi-racial, half-brother NORMAN, now 15, but whom Toby hadn’t seen since Norman was 3. Their awkward reunion only gets weirder when Anais shows up, smothering both boys with her overflowing feelings of joy, grief, and a penchant for locally grown tea.
The three make their way to tiny St. Eustatius in the Netherlands Antilles where they meet LUUK, an ornery 70-year old Dutchman and his (more kindly) American wife BELINDA, who run the shabby resort where Herschel had been living; CAPTAIN MORAGO, the self-important local police chief who threatens that Toby’s attitude may cause them problems in their effort to navigate the local burial laws; REGGIE, Herschel’s Rastafarian, pot-dealing, carpenter, photographer friend, and NATASHA, an attractive 28-year old Indian-American medical student and friend of Herschel’s who offers to help the siblings avoid dead-ends, potholes, goats and other obstacles as they navigate the island on 30-year old mopeds.
Toby’s plan for a quick hit-and-run is undermined when they learn that there’s no funeral home, and that on this island—which seems stuck 100 years in the past—burial details are generally left up to the family. Norman becomes fixated on the mysterious cause-of-death, and Anais seems intent on inviting everyone on the island to the funeral, and also performing a proper Jewish service, despite Toby’s objections to both efforts. They agree to stay in their father’s bungalow, among his wall-to-wall, floor-to- ceiling bookcases while they try to settle things.
Despite some small victories, like discovering an ingenious source of wood for the coffin they must build by hand, and finding a suitable, if unlikely place for the grave, their efforts to bury Herschel are continually thwarted by the island’s undue bureaucracy, folksy customs, and constant, unexpected rain.
As one day stretches into three, Toby wakes up in a cold sweat, realizing that he’s sleeping in his father’s deathbed, when they don’t even know what disease killed him; the siblings learn that the Herschel the locals knew, was a very different man than the pontificating deadbeat narcissist they all grew up with; and Toby learns that Natasha and his father were lovers, complicating his growing feelings for her.
As Toby gets more frustrated and upset with the overall situation, tensions grow between him and his siblings, who (in their different ways) are more accepting of the escalating obstacles. After yet another snag delays them for four additional days, the family discord erupts into a screaming match that leaves Toby even more isolated, with nowhere to turn but to Herschel’s stacks of books, and his own memories.
Throughout the film, there are flashbacks to formative interactions between Toby, Anais, and Herschel where we learn hints about how their relationships soured, how Herschel wound up on this island in the first place, and we witness the roots of the feelings and aspirations that Toby has been subverting and hiding from himself.
Ultimately, the siblings reconcile, and, after cleaning, preparing, and transporting the body by hand, they are able to complete the funeral—but not before Toby finds himself defending his father’s honor in a barfight; teenaged Norman goes missing during the island’s raucous Carnival parade; and Herschel’s past legal troubles cause a final obstacle that requires the trio to motorboat to a neighboring island where Toby must impersonate the deceased and forge a document in order to appease Captain Morago.
And, finally, at their father’s graveside, as the coffin nearly smashes to bits as it’s dropped into the poorly dug hole, the three of them accept that as much as they may try to deny it, Herschel lives on inside of each of them, and despite the flaws, insecurities, and self-sabotage that holds each of them back in achieving their goals, at least they have each other. And if they stick together, they might just survive.
This story is enormously personal to me—it is, after all, based on the true and unusual events of my father’s untimely death, as well as my complex relationship with both him and with my (previously) estranged siblings, but my passion for making this movie is far deeper than just relaying my own crazy story.
On the surface, the movie is about the escapades required to bury a parent in an enormously challenging environment, but the themes beneath are about forgiveness and the acceptance that we are of our family (or tribe, or country), whether we like it or not. Ultimately the lesson is that we had better unite together, otherwise isolation will doom us to self-destructive anger and agony. I also think it speaks to the roots of shame—how we all suffer from some degree of disappointment and disconnection, how that pain is passed on inter-generationally, and that the only path out is through facing our vulnerability and embracing one another despite our differences.
I think these themes are especially important and relevant in these times of growing tribalism and division. Increasingly, people are unwilling to engage with those who they disagree with—burrowing deeper into echoic caverns of seclusion and paranoia. As our society grows ever more intolerant, I fear we risk our entire world descending into darkness, hatred and suffering. And, as a descendent of Holocaust survivors, that seems frighteningly familiar. Nothing about Lord Have Herschel is outwardly political in any way, however, I firmly believe that messages of compassion and vulnerability, no matter how subtle, are absolutely vital in this age, and must be promulgated and passed on at any cost.
I also believe that the film will resonate with a wide audience, because (unfortunately) it’s all too common for challenging parental relationships to dog us well into our adult lives, and the ritual of burying a parent is perhaps one of the most significant milestones of human life. But ultimately, for me, I’m committed to making this film so my own young children will someday have a story to turn to, to understand a little piece of our own complicated family history, and also to be exposed to the hard fought lessons I uncovered through this experience: that vulnerability and forgiveness are far more vital life skills than outward success, anger, or isolation. And that their survival may literally depend on their ability to embrace those values.