For many aspiring filmmakers, the road to directing one’s first professional feature is preceded by years of comparative drudgery: earning a degree in cinema, learning the ropes as an assistant director, working on short films or music videos or commercials before plunging into a full-length movie.
Boca Raton’s Marvin Samel eschewed all of that. When he set out to write his first screenplay, “iMordecai,” in 2015, he was 43 and had never stepped foot on a film set. In late 2019 he had begun directing Judd Hirsch, Carol Kane and Sean Astin in a movie inspired by his life and family.
“The first seven, eight days were horrific. The [actors] didn’t give a shit, nor should they, that I was a first-time director,” Samel recalls, in characteristic candidness. “They didn’t care that this was about my family. They all came here to do a job, where we all agreed—we’re trying to make a movie that’s going to move you.
“I had the steepest learning curve, a Mount Everest learning curve,” he adds. “So it wasn’t like, ‘this is fun!’ It was never fun. But it was rewarding.”
In the comedic drama, which is scheduled to open in South Florida theaters in February, Astin plays a younger version of Marvin Samel, who is trying to build up a struggling cigar business while raising twins with his wife and dealing with a tumultuous time in his parents’ lives. His Polish-born father Mordecai (Hirsch) escaped the Holocaust as a child but never lost his sense of humor or his eccentric curiosity. “iMordecai” captures, at Marvin’s urging, his begrudging embrace of an iPhone, which leads to encounters and friendships that will change his life—at the same time that his wife, Fela (Kane), will confront challening news about her health.
Like his onscreen avatar, Samel made his living in the cigar industry. The New York native co-founded Drew Estate with a fraternity brother in 1996, producing botanical- and coffee-infused cigars from its 96,000-square-foot headquarters in Nicaragua. The estate would go on to produce 16 million cigars per day, ultimately becoming the second-largest producer of cigars in the country. He sold the company to tobacco giant Swisher International Inc. in 2014 in what should have been “the happiest times of our lives,” he says.
“A month later, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And it threw me into a depression. To cope, I started writing down the stories I would tell at cigar stores when I would host dinners and events. I would tell the stories of my father, Mordecai. He’s a character. I started writing these stories in the middle of the night, because we had twins that were not sleeping, and in between 2 a.m. feedings I would start typing. And when I took a step back after a couple of months, I said… all the little vignettes have a cinematic feel to them.”
Realizing that his screenplay was anything but a lark, Samel pored over his favorite scripts—“Good Will Hunting,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Almost Famous”— and worked with professional co-writers Rudy Gaines and Dahlia Heyman on fine-tuning it. They ultimately convinced Samel, against his initial better judgment, to direct the project as well.
“They said, if you sell your script, you’ll lose control,” he says. “So I spent the entire night thinking, why am I doing this? I’m doing this to honor my parents. I don’t need the paycheck. I’m not looking at this as a monetary career for me. I needed to get this off of my soul.”
After 30 to 50 hours a week, over the course of a year, studying online MasterClasses with Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Werner Herzog and others, Samel determined he was ready to take the leap into what he expects will be his second career. “I feel this is my calling,” he says. “I have other stories to tell.”
Shooting in Miami, in the exact locations in which he and his family had bonded (Wynwood Walls and Lincoln Road have memorable cameos), with the real-life Mordecai on set during the shoot, Samel describes the experience as the hardest thing he’s ever had to do, with challenges that continue to this day, as theatrical distribution approaches.
His mother did not live to see the movie her journey inspired, but her legacy keeps Samel going. “I read the script to her when she still had some of her faculties left,” he recalls. “And I’ll never forget the laugh that she had as long as I live.”