Gabriel Lichtmann Explains How a Joke About ‘Jews in Space’ Turned Into a Real Movie

In the first scene of Gabriel Lichtmann’s Como ganar enemigos (How to Win Enemies) we are given the latter half of the title’s sentence: “By telling the truth.” What follows is a film about deceit centered on a wholly idealistic protagonist in a world perhaps too cynical for him. Lichtmann’s follow-up to Jews in Space plays like an Argentinean Manhattan Murder Mystery, blending crime fiction drama with the neurotic dark humor from the director’s previous feature.

Lucas (Martin Slipak) has always played second fiddle to his brother Max (Javier Drolas) — he’s the responsible one while Max, who is getting married, is proud of his swagger even if gets him into more trouble than he’d care to allow. One day, Lucas runs into a beautiful woman who seems tailor made for him (they’re both reading Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game!) but after inviting her over, he wakes up to find she’s stolen money he’d just withdrawn from the bank. While everyone tells him these things happen, crime fiction aficionado Lucas believes he was duped and is intent on finding out who was behind it.

The film is screening as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival and we got a chance to talk with the director about his Woody Allen influences, and how an attempt at writing a political film resulted in the seriocomic mystery film before us.

On the Joke That Led to Jews in Space

Fifteen years ago I was very young and I won a prize. I was 18 and I had to make my first short. It was a film that was financed by the National Film Institute. And it was set in a synagogue and had to do with the bonding within the Jewish community. It was called the The Seventh Day. That film drew me to my roots, my religious roots.

“I decided to make a joke: when he asked me what was my next film I told him it was called Jews in Space.”

When I did that film I was very young and, how do you say “soberbio”? When we started promoting that film, a very important journalist asked me why I’d decided to do something about the Jewish community and everything and started like insensitive questions, and since I was so young and “soberbio,” I decided to make a joke: when he asked me what was my next film I told him it was called Jews in Space. And I didn’t know what I was saying because I had nothing, I had no script. It was just a joke just to make fun of this guy who was very important and very influential. And he published this story in a very important newspaper saying that I was making this film, Jews in Space. So then the people who read about independent film started asking me what Jews in Space was about. So I had to write Jews in Space and I made this small film, about a family. Very much something very influenced by the films of Woody Allen, who is my favorite filmmaker, in the mode of Hannah and her Sisters, things like that.

On How He Came Up With the Story

How to Win Enemies was a reaction to Jews in Space, to what I did before. And I started to write this political film, and since Woody Allen is my favorite filmmaker, and my upbringing, I started to bring all these things together into what was supposed to be How to Win Enemies. And I had a certain idea about a lawyer who gets robbed by a beautiful girl, and I started writing it. And the first draft of the script was a bit… it wasn’t quite as hard-boiled as I wanted it. It had too much of a family affair, and too much about Judaism. There were too many rifts in the plot. So I was in a bit of a screenwriter’s block and trying to finish the script and trying to work with different film writers trying to bring all these elements together, and I didn’t want to make a comedy. I wanted to make this political film.

One day, my wife, who’s also a screenwriter came to me and said, “I think I know what’s going wrong with this script, give it to me.” And so we started writing the final version of the script which, where there are a lot of the influence of literature — Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith and all these wonderful writers — and with the influence of my Jewish upbringing, well, it became a comedy.

On His Comedic Inspirations

“It’s a bit of a moral tale and it’s about trust, it’s about love, it’s about truths.”

It’s not a comedy that goes over the top. And that’s a conscious decision. I don’t like comedies when they go too far. As a director, when I’m trying to push things too far, I find that I get a bit shy. Sometimes if I go too far I usually feel like I fail. I like comedy maybe more in the way that old comedies were made: I’m a fan of Billy Wilder, Lubitsch, classic cinema. And although they went over the top, mostly, they are more elegant and smart. I like that kind of comedy.

I’m a big fan of Hitchcock. And I wanted to make also an homage to films, and to many other filmmakers I like. Especially to an Argentinean filmmaker, Fabián Bielinsky, who directed two of the best Argentinean films: Nine Queens and The Aura. And I wanted to make an homage to those kinds of films. But at the same time the film has its own personality. It’s a bit of a moral tale and it’s about trust, it’s about love, it’s about truths. And it has maybe a bit of teaching. I’m not saying I’m teaching anything but there’s something of that at the end.

On How He Chose the Ending

For me it was important to respect the personality of the film which, in a way, says, “Okay, let’s try for once, let the good guys win.” Because I see that contemporary cinema is always hinting that the bad guys always win. I mean, the world is also a bit that way, but the film has a very optimistic personality. I felt the film had to have a lighter ending.

For me, in a strange way, it’s also an homage to the ending of Some Like it Hot, Billy Wilder’s film. Jack Lemon says, “Well, nobody’s perfect!” My wife says I have a bit of Lucas and I have a bit of Max inside of me. But we always favor Lucas. Because the world is run more by people like Max. It’s romantic, it’s old fashioned. But I say, why not? Let’s do that for a change!

How to Win Enemies will be screen at the New York Jewish Film Festival on Thursday, January 21 at 3:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.