Tracy Chutorian Semler just couldn’t get her mind off of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale when she wrote her first ever screenplay.
Semler, a Riverdale resident who grew up in the area, kept thinking about the Palisade Avenue facility’s beauty and imagined what it would be like if she were able to film there.
“I actually wrote scenes specifically for it, never knowing if they’d allow it,” she said.
But in reality, Semler knew she couldn’t count on it happening.
The film eventually turned out to be “Playing with Matches,” a story about Nathan Biderman, a widower living at a retirement home who has put off the idea of moving on. That is until he makes a deal with a young nurse named Nelda Ortiz, that he’ll try her matchmaking service with other seniors if she quits online dating to find love offline. Dominic Chianese, best known for his role on “The Sopranos” as Corrado “Junior” Soprano, plays the main character.
Semler was approached to pitch and write the screenplay after director Neil Leifer came to a reading of a play she wrote. Before venturing off to write plays, Semler spent a majority of her life working as a journalist for CBS covering health and wellness, eventually writing books about the subject.
While “Playing with Matches” has no autobiographical elements, Semler said the story was born from years of working on health stories that had intersections of age, sex and gender.
“I was inspired by not only the idea of romance and meaningful sexual relationships among older people, but the general concept of unexpected romance among people who might be closed (off) to the idea,” she said. “But if they were able to open up their hearts, open up their minds to the possibility, (they) could be surprised by the romantic pairings that might happen for them or other people they care about.”
The process of putting the film together while coordinating with Chianese’s availability took nearly a year, Semler said.
When it was time to ask the Hebrew Home for permission to film on their property, she waited in anticipation, hoping for the best. And she got it.
“They just opened their doors,” Semler said. “It was incredible.”
Filming “Playing with Matches” took three long days in July, and Semler was on set for all of them, feeling as though the film was “blessed to have such good talent” in such a short amount of time.
The film also brought about some new talent — Hebrew Home residents. Two residents had a small part in the film as extras in wheelchairs.
Zelda Fassler, one of the extras, “got a kick of out of the movie” and the experience of being on camera. She and the rest of the Hebrew Home community had a chance to see the film during a special screening in October.
After watching “Playing with Matches,” Fassler was touched by the romance in the film, believing it really captured the feelings seniors have about relationships others don’t seem to understand.
“Companionship and love at this age is so important, and someone that cares for you and holds your hand and tells you how beautiful you are … it’s a wonderful feeling,” she said. “You don’t feel like you’re finished.”
Semler recalls similar sentiments from other Hebrew Home residents.
“A couple of the residents said, ‘Thank you for talking about these real relationships that happen to us,’” she said. “There’s so much ageism and it’s so easy for people to just kind of dismiss those realities about the lives of older people.”
As awards season approaches, “Playing with Matches” has been submitted for consideration to multiple festivals, and even to the Oscars.
If it happens to be nominated or wins at the Oscars, Fassler would be “overjoyed.” Meanwhile, Semler would be excited about the prospect of her work being exposed to more people.
“That would be magical because it would help bring a story about people who deserve to have their story told to a wider audience,” she said.
Semler is currently working on a feature-length screenplay of “Playing with Matches.”
For now, however, she hopes the short film version will make people think twice about what it’s like to experience romance as a senior.
“There comes some point in life where people start to ignore you,” she said. “They don’t see your humanity. And who has more humanity than a person that’s lived longer? Who has more stories and experiences and more to share? And yet, they start to be ignored, like they’re becoming invisible.
“I really believe in stories like this that show that multi-faceted humanity of older people, and sex and romance is an important piece of that.”