Interview with Lawrence Hott
January 8, 2002

Interview by Hayley Wood,
Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

HW:  What do you hope comes out of the programming partnership with the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities—the civic dialogue aspect. In the big picture, what will be achieved?
LH:  Whenever you start a film project, you hope that you’ll have the widest audience possible and you’re hoping for a major PBS broadcast. But when the Animating Democracy Initiative (ADI) came along, this gave us an opportunity to not only finish the film and get it on PBS, but also to do these showings that are meant to spark dialogue. It spurred us to consider what are the audience groups that we want to meet with? How many different groups can we get? We hadn’t finished the film yet, and part of the initiative was that we work on the art in such a way that it does spark dialogue. So it really did make us think about every line in the film. What will people think about this, and in fact, it pushed us to make things even more controversial, if we could, because we knew that that’s what people would want to talk about.
The other part of it is that it made us think very creatively about who would want to see this film—perhaps even groups that don’t know they want to see this film—how could we get them in? An example might be police departments. We had originally thought perhaps the Northampton Police would want to be involved, because of the Northampton State Hospital was here and there were so many people on the street from the State Hospital [now closed], and we invited Brian Rust in from the Community Services Department of the Northampton Police. When he saw the film he said, “I know a lot of this already as a cop on the beat for 20 years, but the rookie cops don’t. And I think you should consider showing this at the Police Academy in Agawam.” Well that was something we hadn’t thought about at all, and it opened up new avenues and venues. So this wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the ADI and in talking with the advisors on it they said you should bring in the Chamber of Commerce, Lions Clubs, and Kiwanis Clubs and all kinds of other groups. And we’ve been led now to the Flaschner Judicial Institute as well as the usual mental health organizations and the Department of Mental Health for the state. So we’ve really broadened our horizons as a result of working with the ADI.
HW:  Can you give me an example of a thread of controversy that has been heightened or emphasized because of the dialogue aspect of the project?
LH:  One of the key points in Jay and Robert’s story is the abandonment of Robert by his family. And when people watch this film, particularly those who have family members like Robert, it becomes very emotional for them because they all feel that in some way they’ve abandoned their family member. Because nobody can really keep up with it over months and years and decades. It doesn’t come out as much in the film as in Jay’s book, but there were long periods when Jay wasn’t there at all for Robert—he would disappear for years at a time because he couldn’t keep up with it. Particularly earlier when his parents were involved. But once his parents dropped out and actually said, which comes out clearly in the film, “We can no longer do it. You take over, Jay.” What choice did Jay have? And this idea that families abandon their children or their parents or their loved ones because they can no longer deal with it or because the state deals with it in an inadequate way: that’s very controversial, because it asks the question, what is our responsibility to our family members? And I think everybody who gets an average American education knows that our society doesn’t treat its family the way other societies have—for instance Eastern societies, or the way we used to in the past. We farm out our older people to institutions—we farm out retarded people. And here are mentally ill people whom we’re also farming out, and it makes us question our own values. I think it’s very painful for a lot of people and when they watch the film they have to reexamine their values and sometimes it hurts.
HW:  That leads me to the humanities themes element. I think there’s a big philosophical question about what’s crazy, what’s not crazy, how we treat each other, what are the roles and responsibilities of family members, and I’d like you to amplify that a little bit. Do you see the humanities element of the film as being those big philosophical questions about responsibility and what it means to be a person? Does it go beyond that?
LH:  Yes, there are two levels of the humanities for this project. One is the basic philosophy of what does it mean to be human and what are our responsibilities. And the existential questions: what does it mean to be alive? Conscious? What is mental illness? All those have humanities aspects to them. But you can also have a very straightforward humanities aspect to the project: the theme of mental illness is reflected in our literature, in our movies, in our song, in our poetry . . . I’ll just give you some popular examples: One Flew Over the Coocoo’s Nest, Ken Keyes’ book made into a movie, you could see the film and read the book and argue constantly over whether it was a realist portrayal—if the main character is really mentally ill or if he’s just set up as by society to appear mentally ill—if the man who kills him in the end is liberated or if he is mentally ill—look at Anna Karenina and her depression and her throwing herself in front of the train. Does suicide meant that you are mentally ill—just because of the act? There was a recent film, Girl Interrupted, about what happens in the mental institution and whether or not people are made more crazy by the institutions. And there’s Snake Pit, which was a very important film in the forties, a feature film, about life in a state mental hospital showing how horrible the conditions were. For me there’s a certain irony in that because Robert, who enters the system about 9 or 10 years after the film was made, did suffer the conditions that were portrayed in the film, and right up until the 90s was being mistreated in state hospitals. So you can really make a direct connection between the portrayal of mental health in the arts and Robert’s life.
HW:  Aside from raising the consciousness of certain specific constituencies that you hope to reach with the film, like police officers, do you think that it’s ever possible for art to affect public policy? It’s not a specific goal to change legislation with this documentary, but do you think that art can lead to those kinds of changes? Systemic changes?
LH:  Yes. Absolutely. I think art does frequently lead to public policy. It’s more often a popular art. It used to be said that more people see a single broadcast of a sitcom than have ever attended an opera in the history of human kind. When two to ten million people see a documentary on television, say about mental illness, and then there are another four or five films over the course of the year, you have 30 or 40 million people all over the country whose consciousness was raised about this. And then you have in US Congress several senators who have made it their life’s work to get parity legislation, in other words, equal health care benefits. There are people in the state legislatures too, and many of them have a family member who has been affected the Robert has been affected. They need a groundswell of support, they need consciousness raised not only among the public but among their constituents within congress to get legislation passed. So, yes, I think that kind of art has an impact. But if you’re asking a question about non-documentary, non-television art, you can just look at what happened in Brooklyn last year at the Brooklyn Art Museum. Some paintings were considered blasphemous and it generated enormous debates about civil liberties and censorship in NY. I think those debates are wonderful. Of course I want the debates to turn out a certain way, but art definitely affects public policy on every level.
HW:  That reminds me of the fact that you’ve gotten some significant support from the Carter Foundation: The Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Does Rosalynn Carter in any kind of statement talk about her own impetus to offer a high level of support to making the issues of the mentally ill visible?
LH:  The idea is to support people who are doing work that gets out to the public. There have been 18 projects over the past couple of years, and recipients range from magazine writers to documentary filmmakers to radio producers to artists. All of it’s designed, though, to tell a story and to get it out to the public.
  Do the Carters have any kind of personal connection to this issue?
LH:  I suspected there must be a family member, but it wasn’t that. Someone that Rosalynn Carter knew got her interested in mental health as a public policy issue. And it’s not the only thing they support—they have other fellowships and programs in peace, the environment and other things. Mental health journalism is one aspect of the work of their foundation.
I think what’s interesting about ADI, the Carter Foundation and the Foundation is that they all have the same goals. They all want to do the same thing, although they don’t use “humanities” in their title, they are in complete agreement with what the MFH is doing. And I don’t think you can separate the humanities out of a fellowship for journalism or ADI dialogue.
HW:  It’s a pretty integral piece. Do you have any thoughts about how your film might affect people who are mentally ill?  Not just people who are in a position to help someone who’s mentally ill.
LH:  Yes. We’ve already shown the film to several people who, I guess, would describe themselves as having had a mental illness or are mentally ill. They’re very appreciative of it, because there are not many examples in films or in the media that go into depth of the background of these people. Usually what happens is that you might portray the therapist or the therapeutic milieu, but not go deeply into the family history or convey, as a line in the film says, that “None of [his family history] explains what happened to Robert.” We all come from families where there are problems, there’s no such thing as a perfect family. For people with mental illness to see this film is an affirmation that everyone of them has a background and a family, a history, that they deserve respect and that mental illness has been overly stigmatized to the point where they’re not treated fairly by insurance companies, that they’re shunted aside, they’re hidden away. But certain things are starting to change and the film also gets into that—the halfway house and what’s called a clubhouse, sort of a day drop-in center that Robert goes to—are very open, they’re in New York City, the people are part of the community, they’re not hidden away, and when people with mental illness see this, particularly those who do not have that situation, they say, “Well, that’s good, I’d like to have that here. I would like to have a place that’s integrated into the community.” Northampton has had problems with homeless shelters and with neighborhoods fighting them in their communities because they’re afraid of violence or  . . .
HW:  Proximity to poverty.
LH: Right, but I think this film gets across the idea that there’s nothing to be afraid of with these kinds of people.
HW:  Can you tell me a little bit about what drew you to this story? I know you have a long standing relationship with Jay. Was it out of your friendship with Jay and your knowledge, through that, of his story that you began to realize that you had an opportunity to have access to a deep topic? Or was there something more specific?
LH:  There are a lot of reasons that I came to this story. On one level I’ve known Jay for a long time. He had told me about his brother Robert and I was intrigued. When the book came out and I read it, I realized that it was a compelling story, but that there was also a social issue involved, and as a documentary filmmaker, you’re looking for many things to make a film good. You want it to be visual, you want something that you can look at, you want it to sustain at least a half hour if not an hour, you want the characters to be strong, to be charismatic, you want it to be important. You want it to mean something. You don’t want to put years of your life into something that is just a trifle. So when I read the book I realized that all those elements were there and I said, “Well, this would make a good film.” I’m always looking for a film idea. And then Jay was giving a reading at the synagogue in Northampton and I went to see it, and he read beautifully, but then the questions came. And everybody started crying. And I went up to Jay and I said, “You know, this would make a great, great film,” and he said, “Well have at it. People have already approached me about the feature film rights, but the documentary’s open.”
Part of the irony of this project is that we did not get funding right away, and that worked in our favor. When we first conceived of the project, we said, well, this is such a good story we should be able to get a decent budget from the corporation of public broadcasting and other places and we’ll do a major full budget film. Jay and I got together and we wrote a treatment for it and we never were able to get the money. A couple years passed and we put all this work into it, I’d gone and met Robert and had done some preliminary filming with just a Hi- 8 camera, a consumer camera, and knew he was a great subject. And a couple years into it, it occurred to me that that MFH, where I had been going for many years to get funding, would be a good place to go with the project, because all this work was done, it was a strong humanities project, it had a local aspect, since Jay Nuegeboren had lived here, but it also national importance, and we applied for a Script Development grant. At the same time there was a major shift in the technology of filmmaking, which is digital video. We had another project going for which we had a digital camera, and we were able to take the camera from that and take the money from the foundation to start doing what we thought would be more scouting, but we started filming in earnest, and I realized that this material was so strong that we couldn’t stop. Going back to why I said it worked in our favor: when we first approached Jay and Robert about it, Robert was still at South Beach Psychiatric Center, in Staten Island, [the locked ward] that Jay was trying to get him out of.  He wrote a letter to Governor Cuomo to get his help, and Cuomo did help get Robert better treatment, but Jay was still trying to get Robert out. After we started filming, they were able to get Robert to the Bronx Psychiatric Hospital, and when we really finally got the money from the MFH to start it, it was just before Robert got into the halfway house in NY, Project Renewal.
Well what happened then, was, we were then able to follow Robert basically from the day he entered the halfway house, over a two-year period. If we had gotten the money two years before, we wouldn’t have had the story. We would have finished before he got out! Here we had a story--we had a beginning, middle, and end: is he going to make it? How’s he doing in the middle? Here it is at the end, let’s see how he’s doing. So our story line came as a result of him getting into the halfway house, which would not have happened had we not delayed filming for a couple of years and then started doing it on our own.
HW: I was interested in what you had to say about Robert as a subject and your recognition, right off the bat, that he was compelling.
LH: When I went down with Jay to meet with Robert for the first time, I was very nervous. I was not nervous about Robert as a patient with mental illness, because I had worked three full summers as an aide in mental hospitals. And I felt very comfortable even though it had been a long time ago  . . . I knew that he wasn’t going to hurt me. I knew that I could talk to him. I wasn’t worried about that. What I was nervous about was whether or not this was a big waste of time, whether I would like him as a subject, whether Jay would be disappointed, whether I would come away saying something like, “Jay, it was a nice idea, but I’m sorry . . . you know, Robert’s just not going to make it on film.” I was worried that the chemistry wouldn’t be there. But I had my little Hi-8 camera. And, actually, before we had even left I had taped Jay at his house in Northampton. I figured, well, I might as well follow the whole story. And we got down there, and Robert comes out, and, I had bought him a gift. I bought him these flip-up sunglasses with the price tag still on them. Well, Robert puts them on, refuses to take off the price tag, starts singing and dancing and reciting poems, and telling stories. Robert says, “Take me out to lunch,” as soon as you see Robert he always wants to go out to eat, and we go to this Mexican restaurant, and he just was delightful. One of the first things he did was grab the copy of Jay’s book I had and draw a self portrait in it and write a dedication to me in it. When we came out of the restaurant he started dancing to the Mexican music that was being piped out on the speaker. And then he started going into all the stores in the area, talking to the store owners, and saying funny things: he was performing. And I thought, what else do you want in a film but a performer? I was charmed and I was absolutely convinced that this was going to be a great film and a great subject for a film.
HW: And on his performance, it seems that he’s always had talent. His youth seems to be characterized by his song and dance routines and his comedy.
LH:  I shouldn’t have been surprised that Robert was a performer because most of what the book is about is what Robert was like as a child as a performer. He even had a stage name. He was known for having starring roles at camp. He was always witty and charismatic. But that was when he was 12. When I went down to see him he was 57, and maybe he could have changed after 40 years locked up in psychiatric hospitals. But that essential part of his personality was still there. And that’s one of the things that Jay just keeps saying over and over again, that what you see on the surface might be an overweight, drooling, sloppily dressed man without teeth, but when you spend ten minutes with him you see the boy inside him. It’s still there and he’s still a charming, wonderful, warm, loving person.
HW:  And what about Jay as a subject? You were immediately impressed with his reading of his book and you knew that he had voice, I think that he has a really direct, warm quality that transfers well in the film. I imagine that it was pretty clear that he would work well.
LH:  Because I had known Jay a long time and he was a friend, I’d like to think that he maybe would not have been a friend had he not been an interesting person. So, I already knew that I could listen to him and talk to him--I knew he wasn’t going to bore me to death. But I had not seen him perform himself until the time he gave the reading. And it wasn’t just the reading from the book, it was the way he handled the questions, and I found out then that he was articulate and charming and charismatic all at the same time, that he could hold an audience. He’s also very intelligent, and he makes his living as a storyteller. He knows what a good story is. As we were filming I found out something else about him which was wonderful about him as a film subject, which was that he understood what we needed for the film--so if he gave us a statement in an interview, and I said I need another take of that, he could do the other take exactly as we wanted or he could give me a variation. Or he would say, “Let me give you a variation on that,” or I would say, “Listen, that was fine, but I need it shorter, I need it faster . . .” A lot of people can’t do that. A lot of people don’t understand what you’re getting at. But he understood the medium of film. Part of that is that he’s written screen plays. Part of it is that he was a teacher at UMass for 25 years, teaching writing. Writing is editing. He could edit his own statements on the fly. And that made him a perfect--almost co-director or co-writer in that he was involved in forming the ideas and words that went into the film.
HW: Tell me about the editing process.
LH:  This film looks very different from all the other films we’ve done. We do mostly major history films for PBS. And this is more of a verité film. There are two things that are very different about it. One is that I’m the camera person, and it’s taken away the interposition of the camera man between the me and the subject. So I’m very directly with Robert and Jay and they’re looking right at me and they’re talking to me, and I actually become a character in the film. Unintentionally, but I can’t get away from it. And I think that changes it. It means that when you’re looking at the film you’re not just watching two people on the screen talking about their lives, you’re watching two people and the filmmaker together. And then there’s a missing person, who is the editor, Diane Garey, my wife, who works with me very closely but you don’t see her on the screen. And she brought to the editing a whole new sensitivity. Not only was she a psychiatric nurse for ten years, but she brings a rhythm to the film which is different. You notice the photos move very rapidly. The music at the beginning--the bongo music--which is completely out of context--where would bongo music come from for this? But it works beautifully, and those are her ideas. And the cutting is not standard cutting, it’s not a very mellifluous, flowing cutting, but it’s very sharp cutting. Like when you’re in the halfway house and Robert is almost bouncing off the walls, having a bad day, the editing is almost bouncing off the walls as well. There’s a rhythm to it that fits the emotions that Robert’s going through. And the film moves; it’s very fast. It’s 54 minutes and 15 seconds, but I think that when people watch it they don’t think it feels like an hour-long film. So that this is a very energetic . . . and also upbeat film. We have often chosen films that on the surface people might think are downers, like the history of tuberculosis, for example, or even the ACLU film, which is full of people’s rights being crushed. But we put a lot of effort into making the films funny. Entertaining. And here’s a film about mental illness that could be very depressing, handled in a certain way, but I think most people who see it, they laugh every other minute in this film because something funny is happening. Even if it is ironically, sadly funny, it’s still funny. And it holds your attention, and a lot of it has to do with Diane’s great expertise in the editing and bringing a combination of clarity, motion and humor to the film.
HW: Say a little bit about Jay’s and Robert’s response to seeing pieces of this film. In the film itself, embedded, there’s a powerful scene where Robert sees Jay and their mother in FL, and he’s moved, but I imagine that he’s had to see segments all along. And segments with him acting out. How did he respond to that?
LH:  We use a devise in the film where we show Robert some of the scenes of the film on tape and then film him watching himself on tape. And we also film him watching some his old films that he made himself when he wanted to be a film student. So there’s a media on media aspect to it. Jay and Robert both react very positively to themselves on film. For Jay I think it is just a great relief to think that other people will have a sense of what he’s been through. And as an author, I think it’s very exciting for him to see a book turn into a film, particularly a non-fiction book--that’s very unusual. And for Robert it’s very good for his ego, to be blunt. Here’s a guy who did have a strong ego, he was a performer, he liked to perform, and here he gets a chance to perform and entertain people again. And for somebody who has had severe mental illness to be able to like yourself is very important. And he likes himself when he sees himself. There’s one scene where he laughs and says, “My God, I look like Groucho Marx,” but I think he likes to look like Groucho Marx because he likes Groucho Marx! This is his persona. So I think he’s comfortable with how he looks in the film. The conclusion comes up with Robert saying that he’s been happy with his life; he hasn’t had a bad life. Think about it, the guy’s been locked up for nearly 40 years and then he says “I haven’t had a bad life.” I think for someone with mental illness that’s a very positive attitude.

IntroductionThe FilmThe BookOutreachFeedback

©2002 Florentine Films/Hott Productions, Inc.