Convincing someone to let you follow them around as you go about your day is hard enough. Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash, directors of the new Netflix documentary series “Lenox Hill,” had to persuade a quartet of doctors at the hospital in New York’s Upper East Side to allow them into some of the most intimate parts of their daily life.
In order to gain the trust of not only them but the patients in their care, the key to was to be incredibly up front about what they were looking to do with what became an eight-part season of TV.
“Trust is everything in what we do. It’s trust and really conveying your intention. It’s your intentions that make it meaningful at the end,” Barash told IndieWire. “Trust is a very important commodity, especially with these characters. They’re revealing themselves, their stories, and private lives, their connection to their patients. Without that, you really can’t portray something that really captures a moment with them.”
Shatz and Barash’s previous documentary work spans over two decades, most recently on “Ichilov” and “Ambulance,” series that followed nurses and paramedic crews in Israel. From their prior experiences in documentary filmmaking, they knew that one of the keys to making a series that would resonate with audiences was finding doctors who were both willing to participate and had a clear perspective on their profession.
“We were looking for people that have a very strong point of view and they have a mission,” Shatz said. “They have some sort of attitude towards life and medicine. And they are outspoken and fully willing to go into this adventure because it’s very demanding to have a film crew accompanying you in such stress-level work.”
Over time, that selection process became easier when they began to realize it was more than just a coincidence that all of these physicians worked at the same hospital, albeit in different wings.
“We knew we wanted an iconic New York hospital because it entails so many diversities that you can really have only in New York. We wanted a relatively smaller hospital. And of course, your stories are the people who are your casting,” Shatz said.
The series uses doctors as its focal point, which allows a certain storytelling freedom to follow them in their lives away from the operating room. We see their families and a few instances of time spent together outside the confines of the hospital.
“Once we met Dr. David Langer, we we knew we were in a good place in terms of what we wanted to portray in this show because he’s definitely so powerful as a human being and a doctor,” Shatz said. “John [Boockvar] has had such complexities in the field as a brain surgeon, particularly in cancer research, Amanda [Little-Richardson] is the chief resident and she has such a high level of responsibility. And Mirtha [Macri] was really interested in the homeless population and giving the ultimate care to people from a poor social background. So all these people were really connected to our beliefs.”
While the show concentrates its time spent with patients on the moments immediately before, during, and after their respective treatments, it was no less important to establish that same level of understanding and trust with them.
“We always feel so honored to be able to capture this,” Shatz said. “But we had a very long process where before we even approached them, the doctor asked them. It’s a process that allows them to think about it and to make a decision. Only when they did, then we would come in and present ourselves and present the story. It was a very respectful, long process.”
“Lenox Hill” captures some extremely vulnerable moments for a number of patients. There’s an incredible amount of uncertainty when it comes to brain surgery, pregnancies, and the kind of emergency medicine that makes up these doctors’ daily casework. It’s the nature of life at a hospital.
From the patients’ side, Shatz and Barash said that some of those profiled saw their participation in the series as less of an imposition and more as an opportunity to preserve a pivotal period of life for themselves and their family.
“They wanted recognition in such a vulnerable moment,” Barash said. “People realized that they could see themselves in perspective of what’s going on in their life, whether you’re giving birth or it’s getting bad news, if you’re in the OR. It’s a journey for them, and just capturing it means so much for them.”
That shifting dynamic between doctor and patient results in one of the more emotional threads of “Lenox Hill.” All four doctors explain how their relationships with those entrusted to their care guides their work. In turn, Shatz and Barash wanted to make sure that their series wasn’t just a clinical examination.
“One of the things that I loved about the show is that it’s very straightforward. It doesn’t cut corners and it actually shows the things that as they are,” Shatz said. “Emotionally, think about how complicated it is to actually divide yourself into two entities. In one you’re super professional and you have to be totally detached, but the other one is so attached to this person. When you have a patient for so long, you get attached to him and you care about him. So it’s a delicate spot and we thought it was really powerful that we were able to actually talk about it in the blunt way that we talk about things.”
Shatz and Barash said that they’ve remained in contact with the subjects of the series, a natural extension of a filmmaking process built on acceptance and understanding that makes the most intimate moments of “Lenox Hill” possible.
“Interviewing our doctors and realizing now honest they are and how direct they are and how mission-driven they are, this was the place for me that I realized, ‘OK, we have it. Whatever happens, people will give us some very strong truth here,'” Shatz said. “The drama of a hospital is a given, but having people that can actually talk about things in such a direct way and in such a brave way without being worried about some sort of consequence? It was a very, very strong understanding I was in the right place with the right people.”
“Lenox Hill” is available to stream on Netflix.