By Conor Yarbrough
Eve Marson should be the artistic role-model for documentarians. Dr. Feelgood, Marson’s latest piece of work and directorial debut, screened at the 23rd annual Austin Film festival on Saturday to a packed house at The Hideout Theater.
Doctor Feelgood is a unique story that dives right into the life of Doctor William Hurwtiz, a physician notorious for treating his patients suffering from chronic pain with excessive opioid painkillers, such as Oxycontin. The film revolves around the dilemma doctors face when dealing with chronic pain patients, who decides on the proper treatment for a patient . Which begs a bigger question, are Doctors the picture-esque lab coat and tie professionals we seek for the answers to our medical problems, or are they nothing more than a legal drug dealer?
First of all, how’s Austin been treating you?
Marson: It’s been good. We got in last night. It’s always a cool place to be, a good lively town.
How often are you in town?
M: I was at this festival in 2010, so it’s been a while.
How’s it changed since you’ve been here?
M: The city’s definitely changed. It seems to have built itself up a bit.
I know you live in California currently and a lot of people from here say it’s becoming more like California. How does Austin compare to California?
M: Yeah, I’ve been hearing that a lot. I had a $5 latte this morning, so that felt like home.
Dr. Feelgood deals with a very heavy subject that continues across America today. How do you approach this kind of subject matter?
M: It’s always delicate in making documentaries to develop intimacy with characters, which is of course needed to get the stories… With something like this, especially with chronic pain patients, it’s tricky to both have their time and also to assure them that they’re not going to be painted as addicts. I think the trick with this was to assure every subject that we were not trying to make an attack because a lot of the media that all these players are used to can be very one-sided.
For Dr. Hurwitz, and especially for his family, they were very concerned about being back in the spotlight, and they didn’t want the piece to be painting him to be some kind of pill pusher. And, of course, those who had been addicted or dealing with drugs had their own fears about telling their stories. Like I said, the pain patients are sensitive about being stigmatized in various ways. I think the trick for us was just to assure people that we’re trying to make a story that is going to tell all sides and be not biased in any particular direction.
How do you and/or your company come up with heavy story ideas?
M: That’s interesting. Yeah. They tend to be heavy. It’s always nice to mix in something lighter here and there, but I think … I don’t know if I have a method to finding topics or sometimes topics will find you in the best cases. To me I’m interested in some stories that can show human stories within complex issues. I think that’s kind of the best thing documentary can do is to take an issue that maybe we’ve seen in the media or we’ve read about. We have some understanding of it, but to humanize it by getting to know people who are in it and filling out the picture in a little bit in that way.
You did Fed Up before this, and now Dr. Feelgood. Both have a health theme going on there.
M: That’s true.
What kind of message are you trying to convey to viewers who watch these documentaries?
M: I don’t know if I thought of it as related in that way. I think it’s about bringing in a human element. In a movie like Fed Up, food and obesity, our nation’s struggles with health and weight are something we hear about all the time. I would say the similarity in the two films… With something like obesity, what often ends up happening through the common media is that people who struggle with their weight are stigmatized and people want to say, “Where’s your accountability? Where’s your personal responsibility?”
It’s easier just to point fingers.
M: Yeah, exactly. What I found working on that film was such a newfound empathy for people who are struggling with their weight and health around the country. The struggle is much more complex than you might imagine without thinking about it. I think this topic is similar. As I talk to people on all sides of this from the doctor himself, I think doctors are in a really hard position with these pills. The dilemma of when do you give them, how can you relieve patients’ suffering while not creating addiction is a very tricky tightrope walk. For people who suffer from chronic pain, that was something that I was shocked to learn. One in three Americans suffer from chronic pain, which is a fairly staggering number. We met people who were in bed for years or they just lost their whole quality of life.
You gain a new empathy for their condition. The addictive power of the drugs can’t be overstated, and I hope in the film, you start to see the line between wanting to relieve your own pain and becoming dependent or addicted to these pills is more grey than you might imagine. In many cases, it’s not like people wake up and say, “Oh, you know it’d be fun to go become addicted to pain killers right now.” Maybe you have a back injury and you start taking a few and it feels good and it feels better. For me, personally meeting these people and hopefully my audience getting to meet these people, you gain empathy for people you might have otherwise stigmatized or written off as problem people.
I saw you went to Harvard. How did your experiences there play into in becoming a filmmaker?
M: You know, I didn’t know that I wanted to work in film back when I was in college, but I will say that to me documentary filmmaking is sort of like being a student forever. You sort of pick a topic and submerse yourself in it and research it then synthesize a lot of different information and create your own piece on it, which is fairly similar to the process of essay writing and, academic essay writing. To me, it’s just an extension of academic works, or maybe I just wanted to be a student forever.
Would you see yourself as the promoter of self-educating?
M: I think I would… I hope that films that I make or films that I work on encourage people to think or have some discussions. We’ve had some really great Q and A’s after screening this film. It brings up a lot of different points of view and personal stories that people have shared with me. That is… In that sense of educating, of thinking harder, of learning new stories, end facts that you hadn’t considered before.
I also saw you did a lot of foreign work. You shot a lot overseas. What was the most memorable event from doing so?
M: Going to the Ukraine trying to trace this author’s family where they had been during World War II, and I was there, not speaking the language, working with a fixer, trying to find it and it was interesting for me, personally that’s where my family was from so trying to also find my own personal roots there in Ukraine. What was interesting was the traces of Jewish life had really been eliminated. Everything basically was gone, so it was a sort of sad journey for me to try to both literally find this home for the film, but also to find these traces of Jewish life, which was my own personal background.
Do you ever feel that you get emotionally attached to your work?
M: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
Was there a lot of emotional involvement in Ukraine?
M: Yeah. We visited a concentration camp there. I think when you’re working on something like documentary, or I’m sure it comes up in other fields, you can pop out of it and go into a professional mode where it’s a job and you’re working so you’re interviewing someone and if they’re becoming emotional you’re still thinking about how the soundbites are coming together in the edit. But what I found on projects is that everyone on the crew will have a moment where they break from that professional state. The emotion will come through to you. You sort of put up this professional wall and you’re still a person, of course, and there will be those moments where it sort of hits you on a human level.
What types of work are you most passionate about?
M: I think films that maybe surprise you that you come in as an audience member thinking one thing and then a film can change your perspective or even flip your perspective on it’s head in doing that. By presenting a human story, you’re surprised or maybe you’re uncomfortable in your chair a little bit because it’s challenging some of the assumptions you’ve had before or some of the more convenient ideas, easy ideas that we all hold on to.
What would your advice be to young filmmakers out there aspiring to get into this profession?
M: I would say my advice to young filmmakers would be to make films. To get going and get your hands dirty, so to speak, because you learn so much from each project. Every film shows you something or takes you into a different direction or teaches you something about your own skill set, so the more you can do the more you’ll grow and learn. Take every opportunity that comes your way and don’t limit your options. Always say yes if you’re offered something.
Featured image by Conor Yarbrough.