Oren Rudavski, The Treatment
After studying at Oberlin College and NYU Film School, director and cinematographer Oren Rudavsky carved out a niche for himself in filmmaking: if you have seen a documentary about Judaism made in the last 20 years, most likely Rudavsky was involved in it. He has made numerous documentaries for television, many of them Jewish-themed, and has recently graduated to making documentary features, with notable success. The highly-praised A Life Apart (1997), an examination of the Hasidic lifestyle in America co-directed by Rudavsky with Menachem Daum (and narrated by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker) was followed two years later by And Baby Makes Two, a heartwarming film Rudavsky made with his wife, Judy Katz, about women who choose to have children on their own. Rudavsky’s most recent documentary, Hiding and Seeking (2004), was another collaboration with Daum and told the compelling story of a New York Orthodox Jewish family’s journey to their ancestral home in Poland. It was released by First Run Features, and was nominated for Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Rudavsky, who had long been looking for a fiction feature project to direct, finally found the right one when he was given a copy of Daniel Menaker’s novel, The Treatment. The film centers on impassioned, idealistic New York English teacher Jake Singer (Chris Eigeman), his troubled relationship with sadistic Freudian analyst, Dr. Morales (Ian Holm), and an unexpected romance with pretty widow Allegra Marshall (Famke Janssen). The performances from Whit Stillman regular Eigeman and Janssen are very pleasing, Holm has great fun in the plum role of the domineering shrink, and the whole film has an intelligence and lightness to it that is redolent of Woody Allen in playful mood. The script (by Rudavsky and Daniel Housman) is fresh and funny, and Rudavsky demonstrates how a romantic comedy can be light and sweet, and still be profound and affecting. His skill in directing fiction is immediately apparent, and it’s difficult to imagine how an afternoon could be more charmingly spent than in the company of The Treatment.
Filmmaker spoke to Rudavsky about his transition from fact to fiction, his cinematic influences, and why he always hears his sisters’ voices in his head when he’s directing.
Filmmaker: When did you start making documentaries?
Rudavsky: I started making documentaries in my early twenties, and it was really because an opportunity came up to do something really interesting, which was make a film at a facility for mental outpatients. I made a film about these mental patients who made these animated films about their experience. It’s sort of accidental that I got into making documentaries, but one of the things that attracted me to documentaries was that they’re about the real world, they’re about other people’s experience, and at the age of 22, when I started making documentaries, I had very little life experience. I didn’t think I had stories, or knew how to tell fiction film stories. I think there are 22-year-olds who know exactly how to do that, but I wasn’t one of them.
Filmmaker: The Treatment doesn’t seem like an obvious choice of film for you.
Rudavsky: People in the modern world, there are many different parts of their lives that don’t necessarily intersect. So even though I consider myself a modern New Yorker living in the 2007 world, I grew up in [another world]. My father’s a rabbi, my mother came to America from Poland in 1939, right before the war, many of my relatives are survivors – or didn’t survive. And I didn’t start out making documentaries, and I didn’t start out making Jewish documentaries, I started out in high school making fiction films and watching Fellini, Bergman, Godard, and Truffaut, and not American films. I wanted to do fiction films. That was what I was drawn to, because those were the films that I was watching.
Filmmaker: Based on the subjects of your documentary films, though, it seems like a real departure.
Rudavsky: Yes, this film is completely a departure, but when you’ve been doing one thing for a long time, what you yearn for is a departure. Some people leave their wives! So I was was looking for a departure, and I was looking to do something about psychoanalysis, which I had been in, so it was very close to my own experience. I was fascinated by the whole psychoanalytic process, so originally I was working on a project called Shrink Stories, which was going to be my own thing. It was going to be a mix of documentary interviewing about going into that world of psychoanalysis, and then dramatizing pieces of that experience. That was the original idea, and then a friend of mine introduced me to the book, The Treatment. When I read The Treatment, I adored the character of Dr. Morales, and there’s a lot more of him in the book. The question then was how to translate these very lengthy, talky scenes and these imagined scenes with Dr. Morales, and take it out of the office, and make a movie out of it.
Filmmaker: What was most surprising for me was how fresh and light it was, and profound rather than earnest.
Rudavsky: I like that combination – I’ll take it! Somebody I gave a very early first draft to said, “Oren, this is a very difficult film for a first-time director to take on because it’s got a slightly wild sensibility but you’re trying to be serious at the same time. And that’s a very difficult combination.” And I, naively, was like, “Well, that’s what I want to do, to find that.” I’m glad it feels like there’s a serious side to it, because I am both light-hearted and not always, and as I get older I’d like to live there more.
Filmmaker: Are you now a fiction feature director, or will you go back to documentaries?
Rudavsky: In the best of all possible worlds, I would feel like I could make documentaries and that I would like my main vocation to be in the fiction world. But, you know, the fiction world and the documentary world are both very fickle, and you either have luck or make luck, or you don’t. And so I don’t want to jinx anything, but I would like to be in the fiction world but be able to find documentaries to work on because documentaries are extraordinary and they’re about the world outside your experience. You get surprised in the documentary world by characters and people who are extraordinary, who nobody knows live in some tiny little village somewhere. That’s what’s special for me.
Filmmaker: What skills did you gain from documentary filmmaking that you managed to use in making The Treatment?
Rudavsky: The documentaries I like to make are mostly cinema verite documentaries, and I shoot them. I’ve shot all my films [before The Treatment]. So I think best on my feet, and in low-budget fiction filmmaking you have very little time and you have to think on your feet and you have to come up with solutions to problems and not panic when that happens. And so I don’t mind being thrown a left curve – most of them anyway. One of things is just being on your feet and thinking and trying to relate to what’s going on and adjust things accordingly. When you’re used to shooting yourself, it’s hard to translate and articulate that and I don’t think documentary films taught me that much in articulating how you want an actor to express something or do something, or in terms of where to put the camera. When you’re making a documentary – especially if you’re shooting it – it’s purely intuitive.
Filmmaker: How did you prepare for working with actors? It was presumably a big step.
Rudavsky: As Milos Forman said, “Directing is 99% casting.” So the way I prepared best was by getting fantastic actors. I don’t care how great of a director you are – maybe Jean Renoir could get something from a stone – but I think having really well-trained actors who really get what you’re going for (most of the time) is 90% of the battle. My preparation was in knowing the script and feeling my way through it, but the actors also bring what they want to do to the table. Beyond that, it’s just listening. One of the actors, Harris Yulin – who plays the father, and is a terrific actor and a really smart man who also directs theater – when we first met he said to me, “It’s all about listening. And if you’re really listening, you’re getting it right.”
Filmmaker: Was the pre-prepared nature of fiction filmmaking a refreshing change to you?
Rudavsky: Well, my sisters have been telling me since the age of 15, 16, when I first started films, “You have to plan this more before you go into it.” The films have gotten better, but they’d be like, “Well, that was good, but think how much better it would have been if you had planned in advance.” So I hear that voice always, ‘Listen to your sisters,’ but I also rebel against that voice.
Filmmaker: What were your touchstones for this film?
Rudavsky: I’m afraid to mention them because they’re all great films, and I don’t really want people saying, “God, he’s comparing himself to that.” Nevertheless, one film that came to mind was Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, which has all these intimate close-ups and this almost whispered quality to it. And he’s a talky filmmaker, there’s a lot of talk. That’s one, and another is Hannah and Her Sisters. I like several Woody Allen films of that era, you know, Manhattan and Annie Hall, but when I saw that film, I was really blown away, and I saw it twice in a row. After the first screening, I remember sitting in the theater crying, just because I was so happy. I just thought, ‘This is wonderful, this is wonderful. Woody Allen has really got it, and he should be proud of himself,’ and I hope he is for that film. You look at that film, and everything’s a single take, there’s no cuts. Most scenes, there’s maybe one cut into it but it’s all single takes and it’s brilliantly choreographed. There’s that fabulous scene in the bookstore, and there’s many scenes like that in the movie.
Filmmaker: What’s the first film you ever saw?
Rudavsky: The first film I ever saw or the first film I’m ever conscious of seeing? I was one of those kids who all my friends watched a lot of TV or Million Dollar Movie or whatever was on when we were growing up, and I have no consciousness of seeing any movie. The first film I really remember seeing was the Apu trilogy by Satyajit Ray. And I loved those films because they are kind of shot like documentaries but they are exquisitely beautiful and moving stories.
Filmmaker: What’s the most embarrassing film you ever watched the whole of on an airplane?
Rudavsky: Oh, God. It wasn’t on a plane, but it’s called The Other Side of the Mountain. Now, I’m going to offend some group here, I think… It’s the story of Jill Kinmont, this skier who some terrible tragedy happens to, and it’s truly terrible, she’s paralyzed. And in the course of the film she’s able to learn to walk again, but it’s supposed to be sad – and it’s tragic, of course – but the way it’s made, it was hard not to laugh. It was strikingly funny – when it was supposed to be tragic. But it was so funny, it was worth watching to the end.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Rudavsky: Always. I love being a filmmaker, but it is hard work. There’s moments of glamor and glory, but it’s basically tedious: I’m working in my office alone trying to write things, or sending out postcards to people. I mean, I do everything. Or whining to my wife – she wishes I had another job. And the other job would be either owning a little bistro, being some sort of farmer growing tomatoes or something, or being a psychoanalyst. When I was growing up I wanted to be either a garbageman or a fireman. I’m sure I’ve gone wrong.
Filmmaker: Should a director always take risks?
Rudavsky: Somebody should take risks on a set, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the director. If it’s not the director, it should be somebody else. I love when Werner Herzog jumped in the water supposedly during the making of Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre or something. I hope to be in that situation, but I wasn’t on The Treatment. I wish I took more risks. Absolutely.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you burst into tears on set?
Rudavsky: Well, I did burst into tears on the set [of The Treatment]. The last day of shooting, there was a sound blanket over the door in the classroom scene in the school, and I walked through the door and turned very sharply right into the edge of the door. That didn’t make me cry, but it split open a cut on my forehead, and shook me up. A lot. I hit my head really hard and I sort of sank to the floor. It was the beginning of the day, so I had the rest of the day to go through it. Five minutes later, I went into a back room, and I just started crying. It’s never happened to me like that in my life. I don’t know what it was about. It was about hitting my head, but it really jogged something. It was the 25th day of shooting, and it was an extremely intense shoot. I’ve been involved in documentaries that I thought were extremely intense, but for me this was on a level of many times over. I think it was just like the exhaustion and ‘I’ve made it to the end of this thing. And I can’t screw it up now.’