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Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | “Treatment” Directors Steven Schardt and Sean Nelson

Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "Treatment" Directors Steven Schardt and Sean Nelson

Leonard and Nelson have been friends for ages. Leonard is the charismatic, underachieving, but obsessive screenwriter looking for a fast track to success, and Nelson is his self-deprecating and accommodating writing partner who always has a few bucks to spare. As both confront a mid-30s reality check and a pile of unsuccessful screenplays, Leonard convinces Nelson to back his stint at a glitzy LA rehab clinic so he can pitch their new movie deal to mega-star Gregg D. As the half-baked plan twists and turns, and Leonard’s ambition and selfishness spin out of control, the writing duo’s friendship cries for an overdue dose of reality. [Synopsis courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]

Primary Cast: Joshua Leonard, Sean Nelson, Ross Partridge, Jessica Makinson, Brie Larson, John Hodgman
Director: Steven Schardt, Sean Nelson
Screenwriter: Sean Nelson
Producer: Steven Schardt, Jennifer Maas
Executive Producer: Adrian Ashkenazy, Stefan Ashkenazy
Director of Photography: Benjamin Kasulke
Editor: Sean Donavan, Jessica Hernandez
Original Music by: Robyn Hitchcock

Responses courtesy of “Treatment” directors Steven Schardt, Sean Nelson.

What came before “Treatment”…

Sean: I’ve always thought of movies as the pinnacle of human endeavor, but the work of finding money to make them on even the tiniest scale just seemed unimaginably forbidding. I became a writer and musician instead, but never stopped secretly fantasizing about the distant shore of films. Then Lynn Shelton asked me to act in and co-write her second feature, which became “My Effortless Brilliance,” which was year zero for me. I got to be an apprentice to/collaborator with a dynamic artist whose assurance and skill made filmmaking seem, if not easy, then at least reachable. The cast was tiny. The crew was tiny. The film was tiny. But the sense of enfranchisement was massive.

Since then, I’ve acted in a few features, and traveled to a few festivals where I’ve met heroically talented colleagues who have provided no end of inspiration. But it wasn’t until I began working with Steven that it actually seemed possible to actually proceed with an actual movie, which is down to his gifts as a collaborator and his generosity as an art partner. We worked very closely on “Treatment,” sometimes symbiotically and sometimes disparately, but always with an eye toward helping each other through the vast, landmine bestrewn DMZ of ignorance the first-time director must cross.

Steven: Yes, Sean wrote to me after we finished production, “What can be said about ‘Treatment’ that hasn’t already been said about Vietnam?” For me and filmmaking, I had been writing and peddling two feature-length scripts with impossible budgets. It wasn’t until I worked (as a producer) with Lynn Shelton that I realized, like Sean, that some stories are (barely) within reach.

People magazine inspires…

Steven: I had a good notion about a film wherein a screenwriter (of the most dubious sort) checks into rehab under false pretenses to pitch a movie star – an idea that sparked during a rare, breathless moment with People magazine on a Stairmaster.

Sean: Lynn introduced me to Steven the weekend “My Effortless Brilliance” won an Independent Spirit Award, shortly after “Humpday” had premiered at Sundance. He asked if I wanted to act in it with Joshua Leonard, which I obviously did. So Steven and I spent the next several months meeting, talking, and typing back home in Seattle, during which the story became more elaborate and ambitious, and we became close friends and collaborators.

A loose plot and one tight schedule…

Sean: The big job lay in finding ways to both exploit and subvert the central conceit: to take what could be an obvious, formulaic set-up and focus it on more intimate themes—the limitations of friendship, the lies we tell ourselves in order to live, artistic identity as self-delusion, etc.—while still delivering somewhat broad comedy. It grew into a very personal story dressed in the sheep’s clothing of a backstage Hollywood farce.

Steven: That the film would progress along some other trajectory was essential. It’s not hard to imagine the story (or pitch) of “Treatment” barreling inevitably toward a pat ending. Anticipating much improvisation on set, we shot with two cameras (the Canon 7D), enlisting the virtuosic manimal Ben Kasulke, who had much experience in the world of films reliant on improv.. Once Executive Producers Adrian and Stefan Ashkenazy gave is the green light to use their family’s hotel (a gesture of the deepest friendship), we packed our bags for Los Angeles.

Sean: While it felt good to have a big cast (15 speaking parts) and a rangy plot, we had a tight shooting schedule and very little room to maneuver if things went wrong, which they unfailingly did. The lucky charm was our central location, a beautiful hotel in West Hollywood called Le Petit Ermitage, where many of the cast and much of the crew lived and worked throughout the three-week shoot.

Steven: Many of our closest collaborators and friends – Jennifer Maas (producer), Ben Kasulke (DP), Mel Eslyn (co-producer), Julien Ashley (“Smokestack Lightning”) drove down from Seattle for the shoot. And it was great (and vital) to have our most trusted collaborators living and working with us at an away game, as it were.

Sean: It also cemented the sense of family that prevails on sets when you’re lucky. In a way, making movies at this level reminds me of the exhilaration and frustration I felt when I started making music—specifically the sense of not needing anyone’s permission, and making your limited resources into aesthetic virtues where you can.

Crap weather

Sean: Well, weather was a major factor during production. We lost a huge percentage of our exteriors because it didn’t stop raining for a week in L.A., which fundamentally changed the look of the movie.

Steven: 18 days of production + 7 days of torrential rain = frightening math. Especially in LA, where normally there is no math.

Sean: The original plan was to do the film as an improvisation, with no actual script, a style we had worked in for Lynn Shelton and other directors. The treatment (get it?) we were planning to shoot from was very detailed and contained a lot of specific dialogue, but it also left plenty of room for on-camera discovery. But as the story got more specific and the plot more architectural, I became convinced that we couldn’t afford the luxury of letting actors “find” the scenes as we went.

Steven: Aside from surging practical concern for making our days, I should also point out here that the hilarious sides that Sean dashed off for our auditions had actors clamoring for more material.

Sean: I also realized that I knew what I wanted all the characters to say—not just in a general sense, but down to the precise words, the precise syllables. More importantly, the difference between what people say and what they mean was one of the major thematic concerns of the movie, so intentional language needed to be an integral element. Improv movies have a lot of allure—especially for actors—and I like working that way. But this wasn’t that kind of movie anymore.

Steven: Sean wrote a screenplay in the four or so weeks before we started shooting. This both complicated and simplified the production in various ways, but it was undoubtedly the right choice. There’s still a fair amount of improv in the movie—we never intended to drop it entirely—but the script prevails.

Funny stories from the set?

Sean: To paraphrase Levon Helm in “The Last Waltz,” production was an adult dose. And while much of our shoot was fraught with the usual chaos, and unusual rain, my mind invariably turns to the brilliance of the performances. It’s hard to imagine anyone forgetting the night Robyn Hitchcock filmed his cameo as Mad Reg, the dislocated English burnout who gives the boys drug lessons. His largely improvised disquisitions on the effects and origins of various narcotics were so bizarre and hilarious that one entire 20-minute take was rendered useless because the second camera operator was convulsing with laughter. (No names, please.)

Steven: That was my favorite day of the shoot. The most tremulous footage occurred around the line “…Queen Cleopatra was actually 37% potato …” which, out of context feels a little absurd, and in context was absolutely absurd. Robyn is a man with limitless gifts. And there was the evening when Robyn, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings had a hootenanny on the roof of the hotel where we were shooting … Religious.

Sean: Less triumphant is the story of Jack Betts, a fantastic journeyman actor who has been working in Hollywood for 40 years (look him up). His worldly, elegiac performance as a disgruntled old showbiz queen brought everyone who witnessed it to tears, me most of all. Jack is a trouper of the old school, and brought a dash of classical elegance to our set. And then Steven and I had the time-honored experience of having to cut an entire character from the film because it interfered with the momentum of the story. Alas, Jack’s character had to go, but there’s no question that Treatment is enlarged by the ghost of his presence.

Plans to collaborate again?

Sean: We definitely have a plan for another feature we’d like to make in Seattle next year. After that, maybe it’ll be time for the Treatment reboot?

Steven: I’m currently producing a film called “Your Sister’s Sister” directed by Lynn Shelton, starring Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Mark Duplass. That’s now in post.

Sean: I think Steven and I plan to keep working in various capacities on different things, both together and separately, until the wheels fall off.

Steven: Even if we have put them back on ourselves.

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