wed 23/04/2014

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

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 becom