What if you are a struggling screenwriter that needs a real break? What if your favorite A-list star just checked into rehab, and you decide all you need to do to pitch him your movie is get yourself duly check-in there? Sean Nelson and Steven Schardt co-direct Treatment, this sweetly wry and generationally pitch-perfect tale of friendship, creative delusion and celebrity obsession. Starring Josh Leonard, Sean Nelson, Ross Partridge, Jessica Makinson and Brie Larson, from a script conceived by Schardt and written by Nelson, Vimooz.com had the luck to sit down the film’s two directors (and writer/star!) – Steven Schardt and Sean Nelson. You can see the film at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival this week on Friday, April 29th at the AMC Loews Village at 4 pm.
Vimooz.com: Was Leonard based on anyone you know personally, or a type? How did the script come about?
Steven Schardt: You know, I was finishing up this script that I was working on about Werner Erhard, the founder of EST.(Which now exists as the Landmark Forum today) He was a fantastic, very charismatic figure, but he essentially sold….nothing. You would just go, get locked in a room with 250 strangers for a weekend. It was highly controlled. You would just go, pay, and get this experience. And I was a little tired of working on this script, and I went to the gym. I picked up “People” magazine, and there was Brittany Spears on the cover.
I had met Sean (Nelson, a star of “Treatment” who plays Leonard) working on some of Lynn Shelton’s movies, and he was down shooting “The Freebie” with Katie Duplass, and he stayed with me for two weeks. And I was, again, taken up by writing another script. I told Sean about the idea. The executive producers had purchased a hotel in West Hollywood that they were renovating, and I was staying in a little bungalow there. Sean and I stayed there, and pretty much hung out every day, and we had a pretty good treatment by the end of it.
Then we just kept working on it two or three months before shooting began, and I had approached Josh (Leonard) at Sundance, and said “I have something for you,” and Josh signed on. When we were in pre-production in Los Angeles, Sean started writing sides for audition, they were just hilarious. We had attempted to do it as a total improv, and there was a lot of improv in the final film, but the sides that he was writing were just so good. He just kept writing four or five weeks before production
Vimooz.com: Did he love it off the bat?
SS: Yeah, I think the idea was very clear, you know, you ‘re really able to see a movie happening that way.
Vimooz.com: At what point did Brie Larson get attached?
SS: She got attached about a month before we started shooting. Josh had worked with her, and she came over to read, and she was great. She often gets cast in youngish roles this was something were (the character) of Frannie has a kind of native intelligence.
Vimooz.com: How much improv did you use? Your actors really know comedy well…
SS: We had an incredibly ambitious schedule, eighteen days of shooting, we would basically come in, set up a scene, and in that time-have a slight rehearsal, there were some script changes, we would improvise some things, and we would get what was on-script, as well. The best day, my favorite day on the shoot, was with (musician) Robyn Hitchcock…
Vimooz.com: He was fantastic…
SS: We had asked him to play the “professional Brit,” you know, someone who can con you and make their way through, and be charming in some way, just because they have a British accent. You know, like he’s one of these “guys” that Leonard has, because he thinks that’s really cool. But (Robyn’s character) probably just came to LA to be a bass player for the Doors or something, and it never panned out, so he just stuck around Hollywood. There is so much material that did not even make it in (with Robyn Hitchcock) We kept shooting. We had a camera where we can only shoot twelve-minute takes at a time, and we just kept shooting these twelve minute takes! And Robyn is such a skilled improviser. We talked a lot on the phone about the role, He was very interested, and thinking up new ideas to do…There are just boundless takes. There’s hours of it! So I’m really looking forward to the DVD extras.
Vimooz.com: What films did you reference personally and for the actors on this film?
SS: I think tonally, “Withnail and I.” We wanted it to feel slack and funny and wry. But I think we ended with something a little broader in the beginning, but when he just take the turn, it gets darker.
Vimooz.com: It was a bold choice.
SS: Yes, if it was remade as a studio movie, it would definitely go the other way.
Vimooz.com: You also play with celebrity obsession, of course…
SS: Ross (Ross Partridge, who plays hilariously self-absorbed movie star Gregg D in the film ) was amazing. When we were talking about his role on the phone, we were talking about he was preparing. And he was doing so much work, taping (himself in character,) sending them to me.
Vimooz.com: You had a small budget. What did you shoot with?
SS: We shot with a Canon 7D. And we had two cameras running, which we had learned from being on Lynn’s sets. I’m normally working as a producer (He produced “Humpday,”the MTV web series “$5 Cover”, “The Oregonian,” and “Sister, Sister” -with Mark Duplass and Emily Blunt), so it’s just so great to be here at Tribeca as a director.
Interview with “Treatment’s’ Sean Nelson:
Vimooz.com: Can you tell us how you developed the script with Steve?
Sean Nelson: It’s funny, because Steven had originally asked if I wanted to be in this movie he was going to make with Josh Leonard. And I said yes, right away. The idea was-screenwriter checks into rehab to pitch movie to movie star.
We were at the Independent Spirit Awards when Steven told me about it (Sean had just starred in Lynn Shelton’s “My Effortless Brilliance” and Steve was there with “Hump Day.”) And I asked him if he wanted help fleshing it out, and he said yes. So, back in Seattle, we got down to it pretty quickly, and worked pretty hard on it for awhile. My impulse as a writer was to diminish my role, because I didn’t want it to be like I was writing myself a part. For the longest time we’d just call the characters Josh and Sean, because I couldn’t think of any others! At the eleventh hour, we just used our last names. But there is a lot of the Nelson character that is based on me and my sort of complicated friendships that I have with the guys I’ve been friends with in my life. There always is an element of competition, and there always is an element of power struggle. I do not now, or did ever have a trust fund, but we thought it would be really funny…in this sort of fantasy situation, where you have this, “Boom, I have it!” (The $10 grand Leonard needs to check into rehab) It was just the shortest distance, so we could get the sort of farce elements of the film going. It’s not reality based, exactly. I was talking to my oldest friend about the differences between Nelson and myself. I would never have stood up to Leonard, I stand up for myself when it’s important, but I’m shy of that kind of direct confrontation.
Vimooz.com: How did you meet Lynn Shelton? What is your acting & writing background?
SN: Well, when I was younger, I wanted to be an actor. And I got into NYU, the Tisch School of the Arts, studying at Playwrights Horizons. And I just had this sort of sense that I had made this huge mistake by specializing so early, because I sensed that I wasn’t ready to do it. And I saw a couple of films around that time, that made me think, “There’s nothing in this training that I’m starting to get, or going to get, that’s going to make me ready, or able, to do the kind of work I’m seeing that’s blowing my mind. I’m thinking primarily of, well, River Phoenix in “My Own Private Idaho,” that came out two weeks into my first term at NYU, and I just thought, “I could never reveal myself that way.” Talent aside, there was something else about it, he (River) was so very bold in that performance. The idea that this character was so vulnerable, that every time conflict arises, he falls asleep! I loved it. I love the Shakespeare stuff in it. What I saw was this sense that I didn’t know how to be young. I never felt that I was a part of a generation, or my classmates , I just didn’t ever get it, at all. Rock-n-roll, it seemed forbidding, because it was “cool.” I moved to Seattle very much to learn how to be young, and it was great for me. The fact that there was eighteen and nineteen-year old kids my age, renting their own apartments, working at minimum-wage jobs. They were having fun! But I thought that dropping out of college was volunteering for homelessness, because that’s what I’d always been told. And I was really scared, at first. But they were like, “This is how we live!”
The other end of the spectrum was “Barton Fink,” which came out around the same time. It was so controlled, so cerebral, yet so funny. The mastery of it! On a writing level, on an acting level, and on a filmmaking level. Again, it was so forbidding. It was like, “You’re never going to do that! You’re never going to get to that!” Certainly not this way. (Being at NYU.) So, I wound up becoming a musician (as front man of the Seattle band Harvey Danger) for almost fifteen years. Almost accidentally. I moved to Seattle, got in band, and I had never done that before. But it just made a lot more sense to me, somehow, then pursuing the life of an actor, which I still don’t quite have the nerve to pursue, really! Lynn knew my music, and I had a radio show at KEXP in Seattle, and I’m somewhat visible there (in Seattle), so she knew about me. And she just sort of had me on the brain. And she asked me to help her with the music for her first film, “We Go Way Back,” as a kind of de-facto music supervisor. But we worked on the music for that, but I was there when she and Michelle were editing it, and she asked for my thoughts, and my notes, and I gave her my thoughts and notes about certain things, and they were meaningful to her. Which I was very flattered by. And, so, we just kind of became…really good friends. When it came time for her to do another movie, she wanted to do it much differently than she had done “We Go Way Back,” and she’d been inspired by Joe Swanberg and Mark Duplass, and the way they make these movies that are really cheap, low-budget, tiny crew, with a small cast, and improvised. She then asked me to be the sort of fixed point around which she made this movie- which became “My Effortless Brilliance.” Which was, truly, one of the greatest experiences of my life, if not THE great one. Because I’d been a performer all my life, and a big part of it, to be discovered. Really, you are waiting for people to see you. And to have someone say, not only do I want YOU to be in it, but I want it to be about you, and I want you to create the character with me. It’s just, like, an absolute dream. It couldn’t have been the more perfect thing to say to me! (laughs). I will always be incredibly grateful to Lynn, and we’re really good friends. It was just a peak experience for me.
Vimooz.com: Well what about now? Would you like to professionally pursue acting?
SN: I would love to. I love doing it. I’ve been in about six or seven movies in the last couple of years They’re all small, they get seen at festivals. Most all have gotten released. But all of them have come from directors who know me, or know of me, and call me and ask me to do it.
Vimooz.com: I don’t think that’s cheating! It’s a huge compliment.
SN: Yeah! It’s the best way to do it. I feel like I have a little niche that I know how to do. I could probably do a lot more than that. I do have a little training, and I have a lot more ambition in that way. But, the truth of the matter is, I don’t know how to do it. I have remained willfully ignorant of that stuff- getting an agent, going to auditions, all of that.
Vimooz.com: I think that’s going to change after people see “Treatment!” Thank you both so much, and congratulations on “Treatment!”