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Features

May 3, 2007

A Treatment That Works

Doc veteran Rudavsky talks about the roots (and routes) of his narrative debut

Famke Janssen and Chris Eigeman in The Treatment, opening this weekend in New York (Photo: New Yorker Films)

Opening almost exactly a year after it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it had five sold-out screenings and won the prize for Best Narrative Film Made in New York, Oren Rudavsky's The Treatment stars Famke Janssen, Chris Eigeman and Ian Holm in a warm, New York-centric romanctic comedy about a neurotic school teacher who's seeing an abusive psychotherapist for guidance through his relationship issues.

"New Yorker Films came on shortly after the festival," Rudavsky recently told The Reeler. "Dan Talbot told me up front that it would take time to open it properly. He wanted to open at Lincoln Plaza and Angelika -- the two premier art cinemas in the country. And their schedules are booked way in advance. It would have been nice to open sooner, but I trust Dan."

JM: This is such a New York film; it's almost Woody Allen-ish, but not really. Are you a native New Yorker?

OR: I've heard that before. I don't mind the comparison, but I think it's different. Anyway, I'm originally from Boston. I moved here after college -- in 1983, I think. It's been a long time. I came here to make movies. I was a film major at Oberlin in Ohio, even though they didn't have a film program. I wanted to experience film school, so I went to NYU Film School for a short while, as a special student.

JM: After NYU, was it difficult to establish yourself?

OR: It was very difficult -- because I was very stubborn. I wanted to make my own films. I didn't want to work for anyone else. For better or worse, that was my decision.

In Boston, I'd learned about film in high school from a teacher who showed us Fellini and Bergman and Ray. I went to the Brattle Street Theater. And my mother ran a film series about Spanish cinema, so I saw Buñuel films. So I grew up seeing all these really amazing, intensely personal films. I've gotta tell you: I didn't know anything about American films until I was in my 20s -- at least. We didn't see what was in the movie theaters. We saw obscure foreign films -- which were less obscure then than today, unfortunately, because there were more art houses then than today.

JM: What sort of films did you first make?

OR: They were short little fiction films. And before I came to New York, I'd made a documentary called Dream Surreal, which is about mental patients in an outpatient clinic who made animated films about their own experiences. I made a film about them making their films. It was a wonderful, enriching experience. I hadn't known about documentary filmmaking. I found it to be a great way to learn about the world and a way of introducing people who'd never be otherwise met by the general public -- like the mental patients in the clinic. So I got interested in documentaries...

When I came to New York, I got on a TV series called Tales from the Darkside as post-production supervisor, then followed that with a stint on Saturday Night Live's film unit -- which was great because it was when Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Marty Short and Belushi were all part of the SNL crew and I was post=production coordinator on their little films. They did amazing, brilliant, brilliant stuff.

But I was trying to make documentaries. And it turned out that the first documentary I made in New York wasn't in New York -- but in Poland. I'd read a New York Times story about a boy being bar mitzvahed in Poland. It was 1985, before the Iron Curtain was down. It featured an American family from Stamford who went to Poland for the bar mitzvah in Krakow, and it was very controversial because there was a woman rabbi, and the orthodox community was up in arms. It was a big drama. Anyway, that film went to Sundance and was here at the Margaret Mead Film Festival and San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and it was on PBS. It had a life.

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I wanted to do fiction, but was making documentaries, and they became the thing to do. Then I worked on the first season of The Real World -- it was an experience that I didn't love, but I learned a lot about how TV is made. I worked as a DP on documentaries and a few short fiction films. I was based in New York, but the work often took me out of town.

JM: But how did you make the shift from docs to fiction?

OR: Well, it took a long time -- because I got very ensconced in my documentaries career. I got a big grant from National Endowment for the Humanities to make a film called A Life Apart about the Hasidic Jews in America. It was a big, multi-year film project, shot in New York, Ukraine and Poland. It played at the Quad for months. It was very successful.

JM: Are you Jewish?

OR: Yes. Definitely. And that became part of my filmmaker identity --

JM: You became the Jewish filmmaker?

OR: Yes. Definitely. I became the Jewish filmmaker. And it became how do I escape? No matter what film I made, I was always typecast as the Jewish filmmaker. Which is fine -- because there are worse things. And it was a career.

JM: So, when you finished that film, and still wanted to do fiction, how did you?

OR: Well, I'd been going to psychotherapists for a while, and I'd been interested in --

JM: Since when?

OR:
Since on and off for years. Since parental divorce and since my mother's death. I'd say since age 16. In fact, my first film, called A Grave Undertaking, has a scene in it where I am going to a therapist who turns into this other character before my very eyes -- which has some relationship to The Treatment.

I started thinking of a film which would mix my interest in psychotherapy and my interested in documentaries, and I was thinking of a New York story -- and I'm still working on this. It's a different film. Not The Treatment, but a New York story, multiple people in various walks of life.

JM: So it's structured like Crash, but the nexus is the psychoanalyst?

OR: Well, this was long before Crash. But I guess it's like that -- but my initial thought was to find real people who'd been in therapy and interview them and use that interview material within the fiction film. And then my wife's (film producer Judy Katz) friend, (novelist) Melissa Bank, told me I had to read The Treatment and loaned me her copy of the book. I immediately loved the central character, Dr. Morales, and said I want to do this. I wrote to Dan Menaker-- the book is based on stories he'd written for The New Yorker. And he let me option it, and re-option it and re-option it. He didn't want to write the script…

JM: Why?

OR: He's got a big job now at Random House, and he knew I couldn't pay him and, basically, he didn't want to re-imagine his book. But this dovetailed perfectly with my interests. I didn't have confidence that I could write it on my own. So circumstances lead me to meet Daniel Houseman, who'd recently graduated from NYU and we decided to collaborate on the script-- which went through several, many drafts. Then I sent it to Ian Holm, along with a very long letter explaining why I thought he's be perfect for Dr. Morales. And he said yes. Then I thought it would be easy to get funded -- I've got Ian Holm. But the reality of the film business is that that was not the case. And it took years to get the funds -- I wound up raising private equity money from family, friends and others.

JM: How important was it to you to shoot in New York?

OR: It was very important to me. First of all the book takes place in New York, and I would hate to shoot it on a low budget in Toronto. It features locations that I know -- it's my neighborhood. The subject matter is also close to my heart, and I can relate to so many different pieces of the story. And it became more and more that way as we rewrote the script.

We shot all but three days in New York. It's very much my world. We shot on the West Side, and downtown on Lafayette Street. We were in two schools and Central Park, which became a real character in the film. All of the crew were New Yorkers and, with the exception of Ian Holm, all the actors are New York-based. People were very generous, letting us use their homes, their brownstones for major locations. A lot of production values come from that. It feels real. New Yorkers are friendly to film. They're used to film crews and are cooperative -- with an occasional exception.

JM: What was that?

OR: Well, one guy, when he saw we were shooting a film, started hammering away and playing music very loudly. And when we offered him money to stop, he just raised the volume. And that was a disaster. But New Yorkers usually make it easy for you.



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