San Jose director knocks on wood with feature film debut

In the film “Brother’s Shadow,” a Jewish ex-con and master furniture craftsman named Jake begins every project by scooping up sawdust and blowing it softly into the air. Could it be writer/director Todd Yellin spun his story based on his real-life woodshop memories?

Um, no. The San Jose-based filmmaker admits that before writing his script, he never gave woodworking a thought.

He actually “borrowed” the sawdust-blowing from the Oscar-winning film “Gladiator.” Every time Russell Crowe’s title character stepped into the arena, he picked up a pinch of dust and rubbed his hands with it.

“That’s where I got that,” says Yellin. “I’m a film maniac. I pull stuff off of everything.”

That kind of chutzpah led Yellin to put together his film, now making its way across the festival circuit, including a number of Jewish film festivals. Next up: the San Jose Jewish Film Festival, at which “Brother’s Shadow” will be the opening night offering on Oct. 14. Yellin, along with “Brother’s Shadow” star Judd Hirsch, will be on hand for a post-screening reception and Q&A.

Casting Hirsch as Jake’s father was a coup, but it’s easy to see why the Emmy-winning star of “Taxi” (who was nominated for an Academy Award in “Ordinary People”) would be drawn to Yellin’s script (co-written with Ivan Krim).

Hirsch got to play against type, as the caustic patriarch of a woodworking family shattered by the death of Jake’s brother. The story centers on parolee Jake (played by Scott Cohen of “Kissing Jessica Stein”) and his unheralded return to the family business in his old Brooklyn neighborhood.

Factor in a grief-stricken sister-in-law who used to date Jake, and her teenage son looking for a father figure, and Yellin fashioned an unconventional family drama. But if he had no familiarity with woodworking, why did Yellin choose that for his backdrop?

“We wanted to give [Jake] an artistic bent,” says the filmmaker. “There have been movies about chefs and painters, but woodworking hadn’t been done. It’s strange how fact and fiction intertwine. In researching woodworking, it turns out there is a hotbed of fine Jewish furniture-makers Brooklyn.”

More autobiographical for Yellin was the Jewish element. The film depicts the family sitting shiva for Jake’s late brother, and in another memorable scene, Jake and his father ditch Rosh Hashanah services to pitch pennies outside the synagogue.

Yellin never pulled a stunt like that, but he might have. Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., the filmmaker says he’s had a “long roller coaster with Judaism. Even though we were secular and never set foot in a synagogue, I was sent to Orthodox Hebrew school because it was the least expensive and had the best carpool. I totally rebelled against it. Slowly since then I’ve been pulled back in the fold.”

But not before attending film school at the University of Southern California. He earned a master’s degree and launched a career as a documentary filmmaker. He also worked as a film critic. But all along he wrote feature scripts on the side and in 1999, together with his partner, completed the first draft of “Brother’s Shadow.”

While living in Los Angeles in 2001, he began to seek financing for the film. A friend, who happened to be one of the top casting directors in Hollywood, offered his services at a discount. That’s how Yellin snagged the stellar cast.

The film was shot in Brooklyn in 2005.

Yellin’s challenge now is to take the film beyond festivals and into proper theatrical distribution. It’s harder for independent films now that big studios have their own boutique subsidiaries such as Fox Searchlight. But with good word of mouth, Yellin may get there.

Competing for his time is Yellin’s family. His daughter attends preschool at the Jewish Community Center of Silicon Valley in Los Gatos, and every Friday night is family Shabbat time. He also holds a very cool day job as director of product management for Netflix.

Yellin has other scripts ready to go and he’s reading others, all in search of his next project. But after delving so deeply into the art of woodcraft, is it possible Yellin picked up a passion for the old saw and lathe?

“If you ask my wife,” says Yellin, “she’ll question whether I could change a light bulb.”

“Brother’s Shadow” screens 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, with a reception/Q&A at 5:30 p.m., and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17, at Camera 12 Cinema, 201 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets: $10. Information: (800) 838-3006 or online at www.sjjff.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.