Michael Maren has lived an Indiana Jones kind of life: Peace Corps volunteer, war correspondent from Africa, kidnap victim of a Somali warlord, author, and now filmmaker.
However, anyone expecting a hard-hitting documentary exposing the troubles of foreign aid (the subject of his book, “The Road to Hell”) is in for a surprise. In fact, if his film, “A Short History of Decay,” exposes anything, it is the frailty of life and the importance of family.
Nathan Fisher (Bryan Greenberg) is a blocked Brooklyn writer in a blocked relationship who heads to Florida when his father Bob (Harris Yulin) has a stroke and his mom Sandy (Linda Lavin), is suffering from early signs of Alzheimer’s.
Maren, 58, spoke to The Forward about why he went to Africa, why he left, and the genesis of the film.
Curt Schleier: You joined the Peace Corps and taught in rural Kenya after you graduated from college in the late 1970s. What prompted that?
Michael Maren: I couldn’t get there fast enough. I had taken a year off in school and gone to India. I got course credit for walking around India, sleeping in the streets of Bombay. I loved the whole feeling of being in a place so different from where I grew up and exotic and challenging. I think it was because I have ADD and need this constant barrage of new stimuli. Also, I worked for Senator Paul Tsongas, and he talked a lot to me about his experiences in the Peace Corps and how they were a life-changing matter for him.
You were in the Peace Corps for three years and then a couple more working for international aid organizations, also in Africa. What did your parents have to say about that?
I honestly didn’t get what you’d expect to get from the prototypical Jewish mother. My parents never said a word. They were always supportive of whatever I wanted to do, whatever I wanted to try. I never got one drop of “what you’re doing is dangerous and killing your mother” sort of stuff. My grandparents weren’t too happy with it.
You came back to the States and went to grad school, got your master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, intending to go into international development and went back to western Africa and reported for a number of major national magazines. As it turned out, your grandparents may have been right. It was pretty dangerous. You were kidnapped once, weren’t you?
I was working with 60 Minutes, producing a piece on Somalia. It was very dangerous at the time. The U.S. had left. There was a lot of upheaval. One of the warlords had been killed. And I was abducted for a couple of days. I knew who [the kidnappers] worked for. I wasn’t worried. It might have been delusional on my part. People knew who I was, I was fairly well known in Mogadishu. The war came in the early ‘90s and I was one of the people who’d been there in the ‘80s. People had a lot of respect for me, I think. I wrote honestly and I felt a lot safer around some of the Somalis than some of the U.N. guys. That’s an exaggeration, but I was never in a Daniel Pearl situation.
Did you being Jewish ever come up?
In face, one of the top warlords know I was Jewish. When the U.N. was there, Israelis ran the canteen at the U.N. Compound. One of the warlord’s gunmen showed up at my hotel and said he wanted to see me. I went to his place and we sat down and he said, “So, you are a Jew?” I said yes, though I’m not really practicing that much. He asked me, “Do you know the Israelis. I want you to put me in touch with them. I want to do business.” That’s one of life’s lessons: people stop hating each other when it comes to business.
After finishing the 60 Minutes assignment you came back to the States and met your future wife, Dani Shapiro, at a Halloween party. Love made you turn down future assignments.
Right, after we got back from our honeymoon I got a call from a magazine asking me to go back to the Congo. My first reaction was, Yeah!! But I had turned 40 and I knew there weren’t a lot of old guys doing what I was doing. At about the same time I got a call that a studio had optioned my book on foreign aid in Somalia. So I ended up writing a script for HBO. They loved it, but didn’t make it.
That happens a lot in Hollywood. You’ve written quite a few scripts without getting one green lit.
But I got paid. That’s the frustrating thing about it. Most screenwriters who are successful can make a living writing scripts for films that never get made. In 2008, the economy collapsed, the writers went on strike and the world sort of changed. My agent would set up a meeting and I used to be able to go to Los Angeles with a couple of ideas and someone would tell me here’s $150,000, go write a script. But after 2008, the studios shifted the burden and risk to the people who could least afford it. They’d say, “That’s a great idea. Bring us a script and we’ll think about it.” I decided if I’m going to write a script on spec I’m going to write something I can shoot on a low budget and I can direct by myself.
A lot of first-time filmmakers select a personal subject for their debut. How personal is this film?
It’s not exact, but the truth is there. My mother does have Alzheimer’s. Around the time I was thinking of writing a small film, my father had a stroke, and I got on a plane and went straight down there [to Florida]. I remember being with my mom, who used to be a powerful, no-nonsense business executive, queen-of-the-universe type and seeing her in the early stages, slightly diminished but aware that she was just starting to go down that road. Alzheimer’s made her cold and one really hot night she came out of her bedroom and turned up the heat. It was like 100 degrees in the house and she came out just a minute later and did it again, forgetting that she had just turned it up a minute ago. Meanwhile, my father was sweating his brains out but allowed my mother to do that. That’s rather touching.
Can you tell us a little about your Jewish background?
I was a bar mitzvah in a Reform synagogue in Lawrence, (Mass.) which is right next to Andover, where I grew up. There were two synagogues across the street from each other. The Reform and the Orthodox where my grandfather used to go. I remember on the High Holy Days, we used to get out at noon and I used to go across the street and spend the rest of the Orthodox ceremony with my grandfather. The service was very different. In the Reform service, everyone sat upright. But in the Orthodox people milled around and spoke. And my grandmother, sitting upstairs, would throw me kisses, and I liked that very much. That’s one of my strongest memories growing up there. I’m not a remotely religious person at this point. But there is an indelible cultural Judaism in me that is in probably everything I do.
To Somalia and Back Again