After making the Slamdance award-winning feature Stranger Things, Director Ron Eyal has returned to the short film format for his follow-up in the form of reflective drama The Therapist. It follows a practitioner who encounters a particularly tricky patient which leads him to reflect on his own psychological issues. Fundamentally, Eyal’s film is about human connection and the unexpected places important relationships can arise. It’s a film which relies on the performances of its two leads, BAFTA winner Adeel Akhtar and Marion Bailey, which Eyal captures in intimate close-ups, giving the actors the opportunity to convey their character’s emotionality through every minor facial expression. It’s an incredibly compelling work and DN is delighted to premiere it online alongside a conversation (which featured spoilers so definitely watch the film first!) with Eyal where he walks us through the operation of making the film, working on a tight budget, and creating an atmosphere on set to maximise the actor’s process.
The idea of a therapist struggling with their own demons is such a great concept and I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before. How did you arrive at that concept?
I started writing the script for The Therapist way back in 2017, one million years ago. I was daydreaming on a long bus ride, my favourite way to move through London, and had a germ of an idea about a troubled therapist burdened with visions of his dead mom. It was a real intrusion for him that he couldn’t shake, it got in the way of his life, and it made him think he was possibly losing his mind and definitely in the wrong occupation. She was overbearing, but then, sometimes, she had some ideas that weren’t half bad! An illness became a kind of superpower for him. I loved the idea that we hold other perspectives inside us, some that we don’t even want, but that we can use, like putting on a new pair of glasses.
Empathy, connection, and understanding can come from being similar to another person or having experiences in common. But sometimes it’s just the opposite. It can come from being very different, being like two interlocking puzzle pieces that just fit. I thought a session with a resistant patient was the place for this story to unfold.
How did you then translate this idea into a potential project?
I wrote a draft of the script and shared it with my frequent collaborator Eleanor Burke, who brought some real, lived, first-hand experience of being a mother that worked its way into the dialogue and story, and we finished the screenplay together.
I wanted to experiment with something more high-concept, but that was still about our instinct for connection.
Eleanor and I made an independent feature together, also starring Adeel Akhtar, called Stranger Things, which came out before the Netflix series and which at this point we should probably rename! Anyhow, that feature won Slamdance and Raindance, and making that film is such a treasured experience of mine. I loved working with Adeel so much that I’m always trying to cook up new projects that can bring us together.
In what ways did your filmmaking evolve after working on the Stranger Things feature?
Our Stranger Things was a quiet, naturalistic drama, and with The Therapist, I wanted to experiment with something more high-concept but that was still about our instinct for connection. Luckily Adeel was up for running with this idea, which was a big help in securing the other members of our talented cast, Marion Bailey and Souad Faress.
Did you work with some of your regular collaborators on The Therapist?
Shortly after the script was finished, I experienced some real serendipity, a friend of a friend connected me with my amazing Producer Nancy Ryan and Co-Producer Ed Wise at RSA/Black Dog Films who decided to take on and produce the short. I’m so lucky they did because they really believed in the project and with their producing savvy were able to make the most of a slim budget. The cast and the fantastic crew and post-production team they assembled worked for far less than their usual rates but brought all their energy and passion, which I’m so grateful for because otherwise, we couldn’t have pulled this off.
How soon after bringing everyone on board were you in production? And how was the shoot in general?
A month later we shot it! We filmed this over five days on an Alexa Mini with Canon K35 lenses, which does seem long for a short that takes place in just a room and a bathroom! Part of that is because we shot a few extra scenes in other locations, story threads that we ended up cutting. The other part is that we prioritized creating an environment on set where the actors and their process were at the heart of the production, so they could feel free to take risks, rather than just rushing through pages of dialogue. So much of film for me is in the performances, so I put that at the centre.
Could you talk about your approach to the camerawork? The close ups work so well in really bringing out what these characters are going through.
Thanks, I’m happy to hear that because I wanted to tell this story through the characters’ faces. My brilliant DP Steven Cameron Ferguson was an incredible collaborator in achieving the loose, organic feel I was after for this short. He shot this entirely handheld and brought his intuition and visual sensibility to each frame. He was fully connected with the actors and what was going on in front of the lens and could respond to the performances in real time in subtle ways that I could feel pulling me closer to the scene as I watched on the director’s monitor.
We prioritized creating an environment on set where the actors and their process were at the heart of the production, so they could feel free to take risks, rather than just rushing through pages of dialogue.
I wanted it to feel like we’re in the middle of this session ourselves, so we shot many moments close to the eye-line. Working with actors of this caliber is such a treat because they bring so much. I wanted to build to tight close-ups, to get as close to them as possible, to really see their faces and everything they hold. I just love these actors and their faces, I could stare at them all day, myself, to be honest. They say so much. My wonderful Editor Matthew C. Levy deserves a lot of credit here too, because he crafted the pacing and rhythm of the scenes to build up to those intense close-ups and give them impact.
How did you find the transition from making a feature to making a short? Was there anything you took from making Stranger Things that you brought into The Therapist?
We took an independent, DIY approach to making our feature, so in a lot of ways this was a bigger production. We had a small cast, and a lean crew of six, including me and my co-director, on Stranger Things, and we all stayed together in the village we shot in. So we naturally ended up with a set that was very intimate, where everyone knew everyone else and eventually really bonded, cast and crew functioning as one team. That worked for that film, and what I took away from that shoot is that the set environment can have an impact on what you capture on screen. The intimate set seemed to give the performances a specific feel that I liked.
Not that you can’t achieve that on bigger sets, but maybe then it needs to be more of a deliberate decision. Even though we had a bigger crew and more equipment on The Therapist than we had on my feature or my previous shorts, I tried to bring that feeling of an intimate set to The Therapist too, and fortunately the team we assembled was all in for working that way.
What can you tell us about any upcoming projects you’re working on?
I’m developing The Therapist for a television series, and I’ve got a feature project in the works too. Plus a couple ideas for shorts bubbling away on the stove…