Interview with Lawrence Hott
by Hayley Wood,
Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities
What do you hope comes out of the programming partnership with the Massachusetts
Foundation for the Humanitiesthe civic dialogue aspect. In the big
picture, what will be achieved?
LH: Whenever you start a film project, you hope that youll
have the widest audience possible and youre 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 hadnt 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 thats 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 filmperhaps even groups that dont know
they want to see this filmhow 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 dont. And I think you should consider showing this at
the Police Academy in Agawam. Well that was something we hadnt
thought about at all, and it opened up new avenues and venues. So this
wouldnt 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 weve
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 weve 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 Roberts 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 theyve
abandoned their family member. Because nobody can really keep up with
it over months and years and decades. It doesnt come out as much
in the film as in Jays book, but there were long periods when Jay
wasnt there at all for Roberthe would disappear for years
at a time because he couldnt 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: thats 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
doesnt treat its family the way other societies havefor instance
Eastern societies, or the way we used to in the past. We farm out our
older people to institutionswe farm out retarded people. And here
are mentally ill people whom were also farming out, and it makes
us question our own values. I think its 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
theres a big philosophical question about whats crazy, whats
not crazy, how we treat each other, what are the roles and responsibilities
of family members, and Id 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 . . . Ill
just give you some popular examples: One Flew Over the Coocoos 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 portrayalif
the main character is really mentally ill or if hes just set up
as by society to appear mentally illif the man who kills him in
the end is liberated or if he is mentally illlook at Anna Karenina
and her depression and her throwing herself in front of the train. Does
suicide meant that you are mentally illjust 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 theres 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 theres 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 Roberts 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 its ever possible for art to affect public policy?
Its not a specific goal to change legislation with this documentary,
but do you think that art can lead to those kinds of changes? Systemic
LH: Yes. Absolutely. I think art does frequently lead to
public policy. Its 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 lifes 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 youre 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 youve 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 its designed, though, to tell
a story and to get it out to the public.
HW: Do the Carters have any kind of personal connection to this
LH: I suspected there must be a family member, but it wasnt
that. Someone that Rosalynn Carter knew got her interested in mental health
as a public policy issue. And its not the only thing they supportthey
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 whats 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 dont use humanities in their
title, they are in complete agreement with what the MFH is doing. And
I dont think you can separate the humanities out of a fellowship
for journalism or ADI dialogue.
HW: Its 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 whos mentally
LH: Yes. Weve already shown the film to several people
who, I guess, would describe themselves as having had a mental illness
or are mentally ill. Theyre 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, theres 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 theyre not treated fairly by insurance companies,
that theyre shunted aside, theyre hidden away. But certain
things are starting to change and the film also gets into thatthe
halfway house and whats called a clubhouse, sort of a day drop-in
center that Robert goes toare very open, theyre in New York
City, the people are part of the community, theyre not hidden away,
and when people with mental illness see this, particularly those who do
not have that situation, they say, Well, thats good, Id
like to have that here. I would like to have a place thats integrated
into the community. Northampton has had problems with homeless shelters
and with neighborhoods fighting them in their communities because theyre
afraid of violence or . . .
HW: Proximity to poverty.
LH: Right, but I think this film gets across the idea that theres
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 Ive 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, youre 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 dont
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. Im 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 documentarys 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
well 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, Id 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 couldnt 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 wouldnt 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? Hows he
doing in the middle? Here it is at the end, lets see how hes
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 wasnt going to hurt me.
I knew that I could talk to him. I wasnt 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 Im sorry . . . you know, Roberts just not going to make
it on film. I was worried that the chemistry wouldnt 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 Jays 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 hes always had
talent. His youth seems to be characterized by his song and dance routines
and his comedy.
LH: I shouldnt 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 thats
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. Its still there and hes 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,
Id 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 wasnt going to bore me to death.
But I had not seen him perform himself until the time he gave the reading.
And it wasnt 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.
Hes 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 cant do that. A lot of people
dont understand what youre getting at. But he understood the
medium of film. Part of that is that hes 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
weve 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 Im the camera person, and its taken
away the interposition of the camera man between the me and the subject.
So Im very directly with Robert and Jay and theyre looking
right at me and theyre talking to me, and I actually become a character
in the film. Unintentionally, but I cant get away from it. And I
think that changes it. It means that when youre looking at the film
youre not just watching two people on the screen talking about their
lives, youre watching two people and the filmmaker together. And
then theres a missing person, who is the editor, Diane Garey, my
wife, who works with me very closely but you dont 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, its
not a very mellifluous, flowing cutting, but its very sharp cutting.
Like when youre 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. Theres a rhythm to it that fits the emotions that
Roberts going through. And the film moves; its very fast.
Its 54 minutes and 15 seconds, but I think that when people watch
it they dont 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 peoples
rights being crushed. But we put a lot of effort into making the films
funny. Entertaining. And heres 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, its still
funny. And it holds your attention, and a lot of it has to do with Dianes
great expertise in the editing and bringing a combination of clarity,
motion and humor to the film.
HW: Say a little bit about Jays and Roberts response
to seeing pieces of this film. In the film itself, embedded, theres
a powerful scene where Robert sees Jay and their mother in FL, and hes
moved, but I imagine that hes 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 theres 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 hes been through. And as an author,
I think its very exciting for him to see a book turn into a film,
particularly a non-fiction book--thats very unusual. And for Robert
its very good for his ego, to be blunt. Heres 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. Theres 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 hes comfortable with how he
looks in the film. The conclusion comes up with Robert saying that hes
been happy with his life; he hasnt had a bad life. Think about it,
the guys been locked up for nearly 40 years and then he says I
havent had a bad life. I think for someone with mental illness
thats a very positive attitude.