Documentary filmmaker Josh Kriegman knows plenty about the power of therapy. During a trip home to visit his parents several years ago, Kriegman observed as his therapist father exited his office, still filled with the adrenaline of his last session. The couple that the elder Kriegman was treating had entered in silence, erupted in rage, worked through that pain, and come to a place of greater understanding and empathy, leaving their appointment feeling closer than they ever had before.
“At the time, [my father] said to me, ‘You know, Josh, if there was a way to film this, it would not only be compelling and dramatic and just fascinating, but it also be useful. People would learn a lot about the process of what goes on here,” Kriegman said in a recent interview with IndieWire.
He wasn’t wrong. But realizing as much was a journey that would take Kriegman and producing partners Elyse Steinberg and Eli Despres years to figure out.
In September 2019, the trio’s docuseries “Couples Therapy” debuted on Showtime to great critical acclaim. A masterclass of editing and ingenuity, “Couples Therapy” follows several couples through a series of therapy sessions with clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Dr. Orna Guralnik and finds a way to transform one of the most singularly specific and unique experiences — personal therapy — into something universal and absolutely mesmerizing.
Finding Guralnik was key to making the series work, and when speaking with her for the first time, Steinberg immediately knew they’d found their therapist, in no small part because of a shared opinion of how their own jobs fit into society at large.
“When you are documentarian and you have your camera, you’re bearing witness sometimes to very vulnerable moments in a person’s live truths. There is a reverence and respect as a documentarian that you have to the people who are willing to tell you their story,” Steinberg said. “And so you’re listening and you have to be a great listener as a documentarian, see what’s not being said in glances and be a presence there.”
“That is very similar to what Orna has to do in the room with her with her patients. She has to listen and bear witness and find what’s unspoken. It’s the same thing,” Steinberg continued.
But that’s not where it ends. Guralnik holds space for the people she sees and listens carefully, but also helps to reflect back the narrative she’s being told, pointing out commonalities and searching for anomalous words, which reveal more than the participant may intend.
“That’s what we do then, on the second stage. As we put a film together, we have to find a way to be honest and truthful,” Steinberg said, “And put a narrative that will resonate with them as being ‘Yes, I feel seen here.'”
Perhaps even more important than Guralnik herself, however, is the space in which she would have to work. A therapist’s office is a hallowed, confidential place. Even if you could find a therapist to serve at the show’s center, and even if you could find participants more interested in the relationship help they would receive than with the concept of being on TV, how could you ever create an environment in which couples could feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable, knowing that their every movement would be filmed?
“When we were talking about the people that we’re hiring, we wanted to make sure these people had a real respect and reverence for subjects, for therapy,” Steinberg said. “I was just talking to someone today about hiring for the show and it was her reverence for the therapy and for understanding the what our couples are coming in with and what a privilege it is that they are giving their story to the world for other people to grow, and it’s a gift. It’s a gift that we all get to benefit from — to help people who are struggling through similar issues.”
So important was this ethos that the producers created a guideline for the crew of the series, outlining expectations about being thoughtful and respectful of participants at all times.
As for the set itself, great pains were taken to keep the experience as authentic as possible. Couples enter from the street, directly into the waiting room, which sits just outside Guralnik’s office on the show. They are never exposed to camera people or crew, outside of having mics placed before they even enter the building. The light in the waiting room is painstakingly adjusted to match the weather outside.
“Inevitably, people arrive, there’s a little bit of nervousness, a little bit of curiosity about it all, but that falls away pretty quick,” Kriegman said. “And as soon as they’re sitting on that couch with Orna and start talking about the relationship, it’s pretty remarkable how quickly people’s focus on the camera and being filmed falls away, and they’re just in — in the work. And that’s, in some ways, a testament to the space. I think that’s a result of the way the space is designed, for sure. It’s also a result of having the right people coming to this and for the right reasons. And then, of course, it’s a testament in large part to Orna’s brilliance and her ability to engage the conversation and lead the couples to a place that’s useful and engaging for them.”
“We wanted to create a place where Orna felt at home and was hers, so we went to her home and her actual office,” Despres said. “We took pictures and we talked to her about what she likes in a space and what she feels is conducive to therapy and we tried to adjust the physical space to make it feel like the office that she always wished she’d had.”
Watch how the team behind “Couples Therapy” helped craft an innovative, welcoming set for Dr. Orna and her patients in the video below.
But no matter how comfortable or conducive to therapy a set is, it’s all meaningless if you can’t find a way to capture everything on camera — truly, the highest hurdle the producers needed to leap.
“The idea of trying to have fully mobile-operated cameras completely out of sight to the subject so they can relax and just be in the moment with Orna, that was an exciting, technical challenge,” Despres said. “I think we invented the technique to be able to shoot from all directions in a room that’s not lit, like a soundstage that feels like a therapist office and have everything be invisible. It’s a bunch of one way mirrors, but they’re positioned and decorated in such a way that it looks like shelving and it looks like art in the room. And you can’t tell when you’re sitting on the couch.”
Throughout the series, with each eyebrow raise and furtive glance, viewers are offered an opportunity to see themselves and their own relationships play out in real time with complete strangers as avatars, through the process of couples therapy. To capture this, the “Couples Therapy” producers had to build a Skinner box of another stripe, a seemingly closed environment, but with the purpose of holding space for people in crisis, rather than coldly evaluating them with a clinical eye and a critical heart.
“We all have past trauma, we’re all hurting,” Steinberg said. “We have seen that response from the show that was a part of the mission; that sharing these stories is a way of helping people feel connected and universal.” —Libby Hill