sun 14/08/2022

Hagai Levy, creator of HBO's In Treatment | reviews, news & interviews

Hagai Levy, creator of HBO's In Treatment

Hagai Levy, creator of HBO's In Treatment

The man behind HBO's engrossing therapy drama

Woody Allen has done a disservice to psychoanalysis, reckons Hagai Levy, the 45-year-old creator of HBO’s In Treatment, which starts tonight on Sky Arts 1. Levy had directed 270 episodes of a popular Israeli soap opera before he hit on the idea of a five-nights-per-week drama about therapy - the resulting show, Betipul , becoming an instant hit in his homeland. Retitled In Treatment, the drama was remade in America within a year of first screening in Israel.

The HBO version, on which Levy acted as executive producer, stars Gabriel Byrne (Miller’s Crossing, The Usual Suspects) as psychotherapist Paul, and each night of the week he sees a different client, the patients returning on the same night on the following weeks. So each Monday’s episode features Laura (a startling, revelatory performance by Australian former soap star Melissa George), a classic case of erotic transference – that is to say she is in love with her therapist. Tuesday’s episode involves Alex (played by Blair Underwood), a US Air Force pilot traumatised after he bombed a school in Iraq. On Wednesdays, Paul’s client is a possibly suicidal teenage gymnast Sophie (Mia Wasikowska), while Thursdays involve a couple trying whether or not to decide to have an abortion. Finally, on Fridays, Paul goes into therapy himself, with his former supervisor Gina (Dianne Wiest). It’s in this session that we get to learn what Paul thinks of his clients. “If they could see into my mind”, he tells Gina, “They’d run for the hills.”

The show’s inherent lack of movement may get some viewers feeling twitchy, but stick with the opening five minutes and you should be riveted. The stillness works well in its favour, concentrating on words and facial expressions to produce an intense and intimate vortex as a story unfolds in a most unusual but also very elemental manner. Hagai Levy has triumphantly staged the drama of psychotherapy.

GERARD GILBERT: Where does your interest in psychotherapy stem from?

HAGAI LEVY:  I have been a patient most of my life going to psychotherapy of various kinds, and I actually studied psychology before I went to film school - my first degree is in therapy. And I always found myself as a director interested more in intimate situations much more than big productions. And I was thinking ‘what could be the most intimate thing in the world?’. For me that happened to be therapy.

In Treatment is an unusually realistic depiction of therapy?

Well, I was looking at how psychotherapy is portrayed in films and TV series, when you think of Woody Allen’s films, for example, they are a sort of caricature of treatment, and I thought ‘It deserves more... it deserves to be presented in a more serious way’, and it was very important for me to show what it is about, and to show that there is a person behind this man or woman sitting on the chair. They are not like a wall - they have a life.

Were you thinking as a patient or as a writer while you were creating In Treatment and undergoing therapy at the same?

Yes, that was very confusing. It wasn’t a very successful treatment the one that I took during the production. But I’m used to it that my work and my therapy and my life mesh together. All the same it was very peculiar to see that I was going out of the session and saying to myself that would make a great episode...

How did you decide which cases to dramatise?

That was maybe the most difficult thing because there were so many stories and characters that I wanted to show. It was very important for me to show archetypical stories that represent something that everybody can identify with, like the woman who can’t get married or the girl who is afraid to grow up. First of all, it had to be normal people, not crazy people, representing a very important problem that sends people to therapy.

Two people sitting in a room talking – that must have been a hard pitch to make to TV executives?

In Israel the daily series like soaps and telenovelas are very popular, so, on one hand, they did like the idea of having a daily series for intellectuals and of course it’s cheap so it’s always good for broadcasters. On the other hand, everybody said ‘it’s very highbrow, where can we put it it? 11 o’clock or 12 ‘clock in the evening?’ I produced two pilots and I think when people watched it they were convinced that it could work, but it took me around two years to start production with the cable company here, HOT, which is a bit like HBO, and who were daring enough to take a chance.

How did the idea occur to you of stripping the show across five nights of the week?

It was important for me to establish a sense of reality – that it was a real working clinic... everyone has his own day and hour. And I worked also in the world of daily series – I made 270 episodes of a soap, Love around the Corner, and so I realised this daily thing has power because it’s getting to people’s schedules in their home – and I thought it was a really good format. The problem is that it’s shallow and stupid most of the time, but why can’t we use this form and create something that’s better?

Betipul, as In Treatment is called in Israel, became a big success...

It was more than a success, it became a phenomenon... everybody talked about it. It was like talk of the town amongst therapists themselves. A lot of people went back to therapy... a lot of people started therapy, and a lot of therapists raised their fees. It was very exciting to see how a TV series affected real life.

What did psychotherapists in Israel think of the show?

They were grateful. They were saying ‘it’s the first time that we are presented in the proper way – it’s the first time that our families have known what we are going through... what we are doing in this dark intimate room’. It was very important for me that he was a good therapist – that he didn’t cross the real ethical line. I have psychological consultants and worked very close with him to make sure we are doing the right thing.

How did HBO in the States become involved in remaking the series for American TV?

It was not only HBO. Days after the show went on air in Israel I got a lot of calls from all over the world, saying ‘We would like to remake it here.’  Suddenly I was in the situation where three networks – HBO, FX and USA – were fighting for the show... that was unbelievable. It all happened very fast. A year after the show started in Israel, the American show was on the air.

But you decided to go with HBO. What is your involvement with their version of In Treatment?

HBO make amazing shows and they took television to its limits. I am executive producer, which was more like a consultant in the first series; I was more involved in the second series. Actually I was living in New York for six months – helping direct.

What changes did you make between the Israeli and the American versions?

After the first season we thought it was too close, and that the adaptations should be culturally translated. For example in the second season we had a story involving women aged 40 who can’t get married – she’s single and doesn’t have kids. Now in Israel if you are single at the age of 40 you might as well be dead – having kids is so important. When I took the story to New York they said ‘What’s the problem; most women in New York aren’t married at this age’. So then we transformed it so the problem was no longer a lack of children but a lack of love.

How does Gabriel Byrne, the therapist in the HBO version, compare to his counterpart in the Israeli version?

Ours was a very Israeli therapist. He was fat, he was rude sometimes, he was aggressive – he wasn’t so polite and professional as Gabriel. Gabriel’s intelligence and sharpness is very important for the series.

I imagine it must be an exhausting role to play?

Our therapist in the Israeli version, who is called Reuben, not Paul, was exhausted sick after the two seasons. It’s really exhausting. As an actor it’s a very hard job – you should do very little... just listen and be... and all the actors in front of you are making their show because they are the patient; you are not allowed to anything almost, just be very professional, listen and say your thing. It’s a very hard job for an actor. Also you there day after day and all the other actors just come once a week

For a long time In Treatment could not find an outlet on British television. Why do you think that was?

It’s very interesting. England is the last country in Europe to buy the series – and we’ve been asking ourselves a lot why the British don’t buy the series. The status of therapy is not the same, the tendency to hide things and not talk about them as much as the Israelis and Americans, is very British. So I really don’t know; I’m very curious about the way it will be perceived. What do you think?

I think it will get a lot of media coverage and that a discerning audience will like it very much...

“Good. All the time I had in my head when I created it Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads – so I had in my head more British television than American television when I was thinking of two people sitting and talking. Maybe in this aspect the British could evaluate it better. For me it’s very, very important to have it screened in Britain; it was the television that I grew up on. I’ve admired it all my life.

There were two series of the Israeli version of In Treatment, and now there have been two series of the HBO version. What happens next – a completely new third series?

I hope the announcement in the States will be very soon. It’s going to be an original series, because we didn’t make a third series here (in Israel). I was exhausted. I didn’t feel interested in doing it again and again in the same way. I’ve started working now on a spin-off. It’s going to be a different format – following one character through therapy through his whole life. Do you remember 7Up, 14 Up and 21Up – those documentaries? Masterpieces. In a way it’s going to be like those... to take one character and follow his life through his therapy, from childhood through to about 45. It’s going to be very, very personal because it’s going to be based on my own experiences as a patient.

Do you think people will respond as positively as they have to In Treatment?

I’m doing it for myself and my desire to tell my own story... just as I did with In Treatment. Everything that happened with In Treatment was never my intention. I didn’t know where America is, you know, three years ago. It was a very small personal piece and I’m creating again a very small, personal thing so let’s see what happens.

In Treatment is at 10pm on Sky Arts 1 every night this week, with an omnibus edition on Saturdays.

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In Treatment, in the eyes if this British viewer, is one of the best written and well acted pieces if television drama I have ever seen. Deeply moving and entirely fascinating.

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