David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel became friends when they attended Hebrew school at East Brunswick Jewish Center (EBJC). Years later, each set off for the bright lights of Hollywood hoping to make it big in the movie industry.
At age 31, the pair is living the dream — walking the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival in France and being sought after by movie studios since writing the screenplay for Spike Lee’s latest film, “BlacKkKlansman.”
The movie, based on a true story, opened Aug. 10 to rave reviews. The story is set in 1978 Colorado Springs, where an African-American detective infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) over the phone and enlists the help of a white Jewish colleague on the force to play him for in-person meetings.
“We wanted to do a story not many people had heard about and that we thought people should hear about,” said Wachtel. “We were looking to do a script together and looking for some inspiration. This has comedy, it had the potential for some suspense, and there just aren’t many movies made about the Ku Klux Klan, so we thought it was an opportunity.”
Rabinowitz and Wachtel each spoke with NJJN in separate phone conversations about their friendship and professional collaboration.
Wachtel noted, “I’ve always been interested in politics and issues like race and history, and it just felt like a project I could get interested in.”
His interest paid off, and in May the two East Brunswick High school grads hobnobbed with the elite of the film world at a cocktail party in Cannes before they were whisked off by motorcade to the film’s premiere.
“We got out of cars onto the red carpet and all these photographers were there,” recalled Rabinowitz. “We walked down the red carpet and into the theater. Everybody else was seated when we walked in. From the minute the film started it was pretty crazy. There was a great audience reaction and when the lights came on there was a standing ovation that lasted a good amount of time.”
It wasn’t until the cocktail party that Rabinowitz and Wachtel met the film’s actors, Adam Driver and John David Washington (son of Denzel), and director Lee. The meeting, said Rabinowitz, was “overwhelming.”
The duo, who had previously written a pilot that wasn’t picked up, decided to write the screenplay several years ago based on the book, “Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime,” by Ron Stallworth, the real-life black undercover detective who managed to make inroads into the KKK. Rabinowitz contacted Stallworth, who granted them permission to adapt his memoir into a screenplay.
Wachtel had previously developed Hollywood contacts by working as an assistant at a talent agency and as a “Hollywood assistant,” running errands, answering phones, and fetching coffee for directors and producers. He mentioned the project to producer Shawn Reddick, who ran a company called Impossible Dreams, and Reddick agreed to pitch the project; it caught the attention of Jordan Peele, the acclaimed actor, comedian, film producer, and writer. Peele got in touch with Lee, who, Rabinowitz said, did some rewrites on the script with director and screenwriter Kevin Willmott. Stallworth, Lee, and Willmott are listed as co-writers on the film’s credits, along with Rabinowitz and Wachtel.
Cast members include Topher Grace, who plays the part of white supremacist David Duke, and Alec Baldwin portrays pro-segregationist Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard. Washington plays Stallworth.
The real-life white detective, as portrayed by Driver, was not Jewish, but Rabinowitz and Wachtel decided to add the religious element to the story. In the film the character’s name is Flip Zimmerman, but the detective’s actual name and identity is unknown.
“It sort of raises the stakes about the whole situation,” said Rabinowitz. “Second, since both of us are Jewish it was our way of adding our own Jewish perspectives to the story. Also, David Duke emerges as the central villain of the story. For him, Jews are sort of enemy number one.”
The film delves into how Jews are able to hide their identity when necessary, an avenue closed to African-Americans, and Willmott and Lee elevated the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the KKK beyond what even Wachtel and Rabinowitz had written into the script. Indeed, in the opening scene Beauregard spews anti-Semitic and racist slurs.
“I thought they did a really good job pushing it even further, and in dealing with Jewish-American identity and what it means to pass as not Jewish,” said Rabinowitz.
The script is so focused on Duke, who represented Louisiana in Congress from 1989-92, that Duke, a former KKK Grand Wizard and Holocaust denier, called out the Jewish screenwriters on one of his podcasts.
Wachtel moved to Los Angeles in 2009, Rabinowitz followed in 2012, and “we decided it would be a good idea to start working together,” having collaborated on short films and video projects in high school, said Wachtel.
Wachtel earned a degree in film from American University in Washington, D.C., and interned at Warner Brothers before becoming a Hollywood assistant. Rabinowitz attended Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, and as a freshman and sophomore he worked for the college’s famous political polls, calling individuals for the surveys. After graduating he worked for a couple of years in the news video department of the Wall Street Journal in New York, shooting and editing videos and working on live shows. In Los Angeles, he did freelance video editing and made corporate videos.
Both Rabinowitz and Wachtel’s parents still belong to EBJC, but the filmmakers requested that NJJN omit their names from this story, fearing threats from white supremacist groups.
While some news outlets have reported early “Oscar buzz” surrounding the film, Rabinowitz downplayed the potential of being nominated for an Academy Award, despite the positive reviews. “It’s in the conversation, but there are a lot of prestigious films released in the fall.”
Now, after the success of “BlacKkKlansman,” Rabinowitz and Wachtel are writing scripts full-time and have already been hired by Fox 2000 to write the screenplay for “Thatcher Island.” It is based on Casey Sherman’s book, “Animal: The Bloody Rise and Fall of the Mob’s Most Feared Assassin,” chronicling the life of Joe “the Animal” Barboza, a hit man for the Massachusetts Mafia believed to have killed more than 20 people. Barboza was the first person in the federal witness protection program after becoming a government informant.