When Experience Becomes Art: Director Ryan White on 'Ask Dr. Ruth'
Documentary director and producer Ryan White discusses the analogy of musical chairs and how it relates to the filmmaking process, including in his latest about America's famous sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
Ask Dr. Ruth
2 June 2019, Sundance (London) / 3 May 2019 (US)Other
Ask Dr. Ruth (2019) chronicles the life story of Dr. Ruth Westheimer who, after surviving the Holocaust, has become America's most famous sex therapist. A published writer, her media career has also spanned radio and television. Her place at the forefront of the sexual revolution, with her uninhibited approach to sex therapy and education, saw her transform the conversation around sexuality.
Director Ryan White's 2013 documentary Good Ol' Freda (2013), in which Freda Kelly looks back on her career as secretary for The Beatles, and Serena (2016), which chronicled Serena Williams' 2015-16 tennis season, strike similar beats to this latest work. In contrast, The Case Against 8 (2014), co-directed with Ben Cotner, about the legal challenge to California's ban of same-sex marriage chronicles an historical event, and the documentary series The Keepers (2017), about the murder of a nun, enters the realm of crime. Yet beyond the similarities or contrasts, the filmmakers' body of work features not only a keen observational eye, but an exploratory one as well.
In conversation with PopMatters, ahead of the European premiere at Sundance Film Festival, London, White reflects on the pleasure of honing his craft, living the life of his subjects through his work, and repairing his damaged soul.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you personally?
I was a total movie nerd as a little kid growing up. I loved going to the movie theatre and watching the Oscars; I loved cutting up pieces of paper and putting actors names on it, and casting my own pretend films. So I was a total cinephile from the earliest memories I have. But I did a lot of non-fiction photography in high school, and it wasn't until I was in college in 2000 that I discovered documentary filmmaking was even a thing.
Luckily I went to a university that had what was called a Centre for Documentary Studies. I thought I was going to do photography there and study film on the side, and I can still remember the moment I saw one of Agnes Varda's films in a class; I was blown away. I'd seen someone create a film of moving images out of something that was true, that was real, and so since the moment I saw The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, Varda, 2000), I have never looked back. It was like I knew that if I could get there, then that was the career that I wanted, and I have been doing non-fiction filmmaking ever since.
Still courtesy of Premier Communications
To what extent does you as a spectator of cinema influence your approach to filmmaking? Would you agree that the filmmaking process is a constant learning curve, with each film having the capacity to teach you something specific to that experience?
Oh, I one-hundred percent prescribe to that. For better or worse I go back and look at some of my early films, and I'm cringing at decisions I made. But then you also have to give yourself the benefit of the doubt, and acknowledge that was where you were at the time. So the first film I made at twenty-five is beautiful, that in some ways I think a thirty-seven-year-old, which I am now, could never have made.
Likewise, whether I would have had the life and creative experiences at twenty-five to make this film about Dr. Ruth - well, no. I think I needed a learning curve, all of the toolkit that I have learned from each film along the way to make it, and I don't think that's just from my films. Like you said, being a spectator of cinema, I draw so much inspiration from my colleagues' films, of other documentary and scripted filmmakers, whether I know them or not. And that's really fun.
A film can become anything and you can edit it forever, and so there's a reason it's chiseled down to whatever it becomes… When I was making my first film, they hired a much older, experienced producer before they were going to give me a bunch of money to make it. She would always give me this musical chairs analogy, where she'd say: "At some time you have to stop, and you have to find your chair, otherwise you could make your film forever."
I've noticed that, and as I've gotten older, I've become much more confident when I know my film is over, and it's time to cut the cameras and edit full time. Maybe I haven't always made the right decisions, but I enjoy feeding that confidence as I get older, and that only improves through my previous films; the mistakes that I made on them, but also what I learned.
Still courtesy of Premier Communications
We can like a film in some moments, then feel infuriated by its imperfections in others. Could we assert that film is a psychological construct, in which what's said and unsaid represents the levels of consciousness that not only applies to narrative, but also to documentary filmmaking?
… I would even venture to say that documentaries are even more of an example of what you are talking about, because at least as far as directing and filming narrative, directors enter with a script that they may or may not have written. But I never enter with a script, and I rarely enter with even a blueprint in my mind of the construct of the film, which is far off and takes place slowly over time.
So much of that is collaborative too, and as directors, we can often get too much of the credit for our films; I guess we also bear the burden of the criticism as well sometimes. But especially in documentary filmmaking, and I can only speak for myself, but what my editors and producers do, what my composer does, everything is constantly changing how I'm working in the field.
I don't make television documentaries that are on a schedule, where I shoot for two months, or where I may go in the edit room and they then go into post; everything is all happening at the same time. I'm shooting for months and that footage is going to my editors, who are starting to cut it and are showing me scenes while I'm going back out in the field. So to me it's just an experience that ends up as a piece of artwork, and the job of the documentary filmmaker is often living other people's lives, not your own life.
When you're making a film, there's very little time outside of the person's life that you're following; I'm spending all day with Dr. Ruth. I'm not coming home and going out; I'm coming home and watching things that my editor has cut. You are so immersed in that person's life that I guess it's similar to what an actor goes through, in that you often can't see the exit until the film is over. But I think it's so experiential and psychological that you don't really know what you've been through until it's over; if that makes sense?
Still courtesy of Premier Communications
It does. So, thinking about how we evolve through our experiences, could we describe your films has being the metaphorical double-edged blade? Have they taken a part of your soul by preventing you from reverting back to the person you were prior to making them. Have they also shaped you in a positive way?
I don't know if that's singular to filmmaking, or if that's anybody — definitely artists, but any professional, and whether their job creates that personal impact for better or worse. The most anecdotal way I can think about that is the documentary I made before Ask Dr. Ruth, a Netflix series about the murder of a nun called The Keepers. But really it's about child sex abuse and the darkest sides of human sexuality.
We were living inside of the world of The Keepers for three years. By 'we' I mean my entire team -- me as the director, but also my editors who were having to watch that footage all day, and my producers who were with me. So when we came out of that we were in a really dark place, disorientated with the world, with humanity, and definitely with human sexuality. That could have left an imprint on us forever, and I felt it was going to leave an imprint on me forever like: I don't think I can ever get out of this. It just felt so muddy, and then Dr. Ruth the person popped into my life right as we were ending The Keepers, and in many ways my experience with her is what pulled me out of that darkness.
The experience of making The Keepers impacted me for life, in some ways in a harmful way to my soul, and then my next film repaired that in some ways -- but not fully. I think it's a give and take, and part of the reason I made the film about Dr. Ruth was that I was subconsciously thinking: Oh, this is going to be very healthy for me and my team, because of where we were coming from with The Keepers.
Still courtesy of Premier Communications
Was one of the main challenges in working on Ask Dr. Ruth that of juxtaposing her tragic past with the lighter and humorous side of her life story?
It was the biggest challenge, and to go back to your [question] about films almost being like the personification of someone, that hit the nail on the head for what we were trying to do in Ask Dr. Ruth. We had conversations in the editing room because the film was so dark at time, but her personality and her work had been so bright. We decided that the structure of the film should literally mimic her personality. The way she works, she doesn't want to talk about the dark times because she has such an optimistic personality. She doesn't want to revisit her painful past, and that's understandable. But I knew that had to be a part of the film, so whenever I would ... try to take her down that path, I would make a certain amount of progress, and then Dr. Ruth would pivot that.
Her defence mechanism is to go to humour, or to go to firing the questions back at me, to then become the therapist herself and say: "That's enough about me, now let's talk about your boyfriend" or "your mom". ...[I]t was so fascinating to watch the way she did that - the way she navigated that.
We knew that if we told the film chronologically and showed the whole Holocaust, World War II, losing her parents and the Israeli War for Independence before we got to this bright ray that Dr. Ruth is, that we would alienate the audience. It was not what people thought they were signing up for because their entry point was a funny grandma talking about sex. So in the structure we decided to pivot away from the darkness when we thought the audience might be feeling too sad, and that is exactly how Dr. Ruth navigates her own ninety years when she talks about it.
Photo of Ryan White courtesy of Premier Communications
We struggle to stay in the moment, having a tendency to look either to the past or to the future. Certain experiences will spark realisations of the significance of past experiences. When dealing with a life story, is it essential to break the chronology for it to be true to the human experience?
I think so, and it was funny because I was just in Canada with Dr. Ruth promoting the film, and I was explaining the film Sliding Doors (Peter Howitt, 1998) to her, which she had never heard of. But we were talking about that phenomenon of the sliding door moments in your life, and I think breaking the chronology allows you to see [those moments] from more of a macro point-of-view. I don't think it's a crazy leap to look back at Dr. Ruth's life and say: "Here's a famous sex therapist because she was interested in relationships, and her deep interest comes from the fact that she lost all of the relationships in her life." She lost every relationship and she had to therefore rebuild her family. She had to find new friends whom she calls her family members, her brothers and sisters from the orphanage.
I don't think when a film is told chronologically, or even when you look at your life chronologically, that you necessarily glean that. That's why I love films that break that mould, because I think you can glean a lot more about those pivotal moments in your life when not told chronologically.
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Ask Dr. Ruth had its European premiere at Sundance Film Festival, London on Sunday 2 June at Picturehouse Central.