Magnolia Pictures and Hulu releases Ask Dr. Ruth on May 3rd, 2019 at The Landmark at 57 West and Quad Cinema.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually, which of those three elements was hardest to tweak in the editing room?
Ryan White: Hands down, emotionally. The idea that Dr. Ruth was ever going to not be entertaining was absurd, of course. Intellectually, I knew that we were going to intersecting so many different parts of the sexual revolution that's intriguing from a sociological and political stance. Emotionally, I felt like the film was extremely challenging in the sense that I knew that I was going to have an audience coming in to see America's most famous sex therapist. We used humor which was an entry point for pretty much every audience member, but I knew that my film was also going to be at least a third if not half quite sad. My editing team were kind of my North Star. They were very careful to not construct the film chronologically and to kind of bounce it around from different time periods from Dr. Ruth's past. The idea of that was always to balance emotionally when the film started to get sad or bleak or dark to give the audience reprieve by cutting away to something else. A big part of that was Dr. Ruth's personality and her defense mechanisms. When she goes down the path of talking about her past or the tragedies that she had lived through, she often would pivot away from that, and we thought that that was an interesting personality trait of hers to kind of mimic in the editing process.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What was the process like to decide what documentary styles to use to make it cinematic?
RW: I think the film was really extensive for me because it spans so many decades. So, there was an opportunity as a filmmaker to embrace many cinematic styles that a lot of documentaries embrace. There's Dr. Ruth's past in her 20's and 50's when she's going through many obstacles. There's the archival world with the audio and visual formats. And there's the fly-on-the-wall, vérité approach with the modern footage. I followed her day-to-day for about a year-and-a-half and traveled the world with her. That's more of a style for me as a filmmaker. I've never really made a biopic, but most of my films have followed something unfolding modern-day. One of the biggest challenges was that I knew that that archival world and the vérité world were going to be very personal, so we ended up animating some of it. We also used traditional documentary B rolls. We hired the animation team to bring you into the world and into the eyes of Dr. Ruth.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Sociologist Erving Goffman once observed that life is like theater. You allowed audiences to get a glimpse of Dr. Ruth behind the curtain, so-to-speak. Would that be a fair analogy?
RW: That analogy definitely rings true for me. One of the thrilling parts of documentary filmmaking is when you're deciding how much to pull back that curtain and to allow the audience to see what's behind there. It became apparent very early on in this film, and it was my editing team that really pushed this, when it comes to the way that Dr. Ruth was breaking the fourth wall---the standard approach is to film the subject's day-to-day life and pretend we're not there. That's impossible for Dr. Ruth. It's not in her DNA to ignore that there was camera in the room. We began to realize early on that the most special moments in the vérité footage that we were shooting was her breaking that fourth wall and interacting with myself and, especially, with my crew. It's my favorite part because it's probably the most revealing parts about her personality. We had thousands of hours of footage to edit and 99 minutes, and I'm very happy that my editing team pushed that idea.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Whom from real-life or fiction do you think Dr. Ruth would be kindred spirits with? Maude from Harold and Maude perhaps?
RW: Dr. Ruth has to be one of the most singular personalities that I've ever encountered. It's very hard to compare her to any real person or character. I often get asked about RBG as well because that documentary came out last year and it has some things that overlap, but it's hard to find a lot of overlap with Dr. Ruth's character with anybody else. That's what's so special about her. Her rise to fame and the fact that she became famous as a senior citizen and took the country by storm during an era when sexual norms for very puritanical---it would be very hard to find anybody somebody similar to her.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would you consider Dr. Ruth to be a humanist? How about yourself?
RW: I don't know if I am. One of the most essential things about Dr. Ruth that you see in the film is that her public persona has always been relatively apolitical. Obviously, Dr. Ruth has been in the forefront of many issues of the sexual revolution that have been politicized and that are being highly debated political issues. But what Dr. Ruth has been able to do, and I think that's what the fundamentals of humanism is, is that she was able to strip highly politicized issues and make them deeply human issues. If you go back and watch all of her archival material from the 80's and 90's, I would say that the biggest common denominator that defines Dr. Ruth is that she's non-judgmental. She has a non-judgmental approach to people's sexual, personal and relationship stories. I imagine that that goes to the core of what humanism is. In the 1980's, when Dr. Ruth was talking about LGBT people and said that respect is not debatable, I feel like that was one of the most fundamental phrases at the center of the human condition.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How challenging was it to find balancing viewpoints of Dr. Ruth?
RW: The balance wasn't what I struggled with. I was born in 1981, so I knew that Dr. Ruth was a very respected public figure, but I didn't really know how the country reacted at the time because I was too young to perceive it. Going back and looking at how people responded to Dr. Ruth at the time, it's actually somewhat surprising. As a filmmaker who's assessing someone who's controversial, I was a little disappointed in the beginning because it was really hard to find any rabid uprising against Dr. Ruth from the 80's and 90's which you would expect.The brilliance of Dr. Ruth was that she was at a place and time where she rose to fame and able to navigate a very treacherous territory and win everybody, pretty much, over. The amount of protest from religious fundamentalist groups was very hard to find. We tried to use every example that we could find in the film like one criticism from a psychologist. But for the most part, Dr. Ruth, was able to win everybody over and become this American treasure.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think would make for a good double feature with Ask Dr. Ruth?
RW: Harold and Maude.