Los Angeles-based filmmaker Todd Felderstein might be making his name known in California — the latest film he produced, “Tzeva Adom: Color Red,” won Best Narrative Short at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival last month — but his roots are in Maryland.
Felderstein, 54, who grew up in Pikesville and was bar mitzvahed at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, said his interest in all forms of media, from photography to television, started at an early age.
“When I was a little kid, I would rent films from the library and project them on the wall in the basement of our house in Pikesville,” he said.
Felderstein moved to Los Angeles in 1986, shortly after graduating from the University of Maryland in 1985. Since his arrival in Tinseltown, he has worked tirelessly in a number of theater and film departments. He has edited movie trailers, produced TV commercials and written scripts for series such as the animated “Spiderman,” all while writing his own scripts and directing theater productions.
“There’s a hierarchy of production and there’s a hierarchy in the creative world, too,” he said. “A lot of people wind up coming up in production while they’re pursuing their creative pursuits.”
Felderstein got his first break in 2003 when he directed a documentary called “Magic(s),” in which he followed Baltimore’s own Michael Tulkoff to Israel. Felderstein described Tulkoff as a “Jewish Patch Adams,” using a repertoire of magic tricks to bring joy back into the life of sick and injured children.
The documentary won several awards, including Best Documentary and Best Soundtrack at the 2006 L.A. Indies Film Festival. Since then, Felderstein has had a much easier time working on his own projects.
“It’s been mostly producing/directing/writing ever since,” he said.
Felderstein’s newest work, “Tzeva Adom: Color Red,” is a collaboration with Michael Horwitz, another Jewish filmmaker based in L.A., who is the short film’s director. The film centers on an interaction between adult Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children, and is both a commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the way social media shapes stories in the 21st century.
While the film shows how social media can be misleading, Felderstein and Horwitz have seen the bright side of social networking, too. Though they’d met in person at a Jewish Federation of Los Angeles alumni event, it was through the “magic of Facebook,” Horwitz said, that the two reconnected to make a film. Horwitz posted about needing a producer on his next film, and Felderstein replied.
“Todd is such a consummate professional, but at the same time he’s so easygoing,” said Horwitz. “To be able to have someone who is always there, taking care of things, it makes my job so much easier. I can focus on the creative aspects and leave the production up to him.”
Social media also comes in handy for Felderstein when it comes to maintaining relationships with people in Baltimore, like his old friend Lynn Katzen, the former associate director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. After seeing “Tzeva Adom,” Katzen, a Middle East expert, said she was blown away by Felderstein and Horwitz’s ability to so succinctly comment on a topic that is so complicated and contentious.
“I would never expect someone to understand all the history because it’s so complex,” Katzen said. “But to be able to take that history and be able to portray it in 20 minutes on film and to include the complexities of it, to me it’s sheer brilliance.”
While “Tzeva Adom” has been racking up accolades, Felderstein is also screening “Reservations,” a short film he directed based on a play by Jeffrey Fischer Smith that Felderstein originally directed onstage.
“I’m fortunate right now in that I have two films out at the same time,” said Felderstein, who had two films playing at the same time on one weekend day at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival.
“Tzeva Adom” and “Reservations” could not be less similar. The former is dark and gritty, winding through many complicated points of view in several disparate settings. The latter is quaint, light-hearted, and takes place almost entirely around a kitchen island. But for Felderstein, both stories feel like a fit.
“As in a lot of industries, they ask your specialty or niche. My niche is character,” he said. “I’m a very character-driven storyteller.”
Felderstein’s love for character development, as opposed to plot development, is one of the reasons he continues to direct theater. He’s currently adapting the book “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” as a stage musical.
Horwitz says he’s interested in turning his collaboration with Felderstein into a larger project. “Whether it’s a feature film or a miniseries,” he said, “I’d love for Todd to be a part of that process.”
With so many skills in so many mediums, Felderstein is getting used to being on call.
“That’s my life,” he said happily. “It’s pretty busy right now.”