The is the second in a series of interviews from Sundance Film Festival chronicling the best of indie film for the upcoming year.
Ryan White huddles in the corner of a balcony, keeping out of the wind.
The acclaimed director of the documentaries Serena and The Case Against 8, as well as the Netflix docuseries The Keepers, he’s come to Sundance touting his latest, Ask Dr. Ruth. A biopic of the famed sex therapist staple of radio and television, Ask Dr. Ruth chronicles its subjects life and career in the lead-up to her 90th birthday.
We caught up with Ryan on that balcony to ask about his film, his subject, and his work as a gay filmmaker. Ask Dr. Ruth comes to Hulu in 2019.
So you’ve done The Case Against 8 and The Keepers, now this. What’s the connective tissue between homophobia, a murdered nun and now a sex therapist? What attracts you to this kind of subject?
Very good question. I’ve made six or seven films now, and I feel like if there’s any thru-line, all of those films have compelling female protagonists at the center of them. I don’t know if I was raised in a family of women—a very matriarchal family. Those are the stories I look up to. I didn’t seek out Dr. Ruth, it kind of popped up in my life. A producer called me and said, “I’ve been talking to Dr. Ruth about potentially making a documentary. Would you want to have dinner with her?” And of course who would ever say no to having dinner with Dr. Ruth?
So I said yes. And it’s not surprising to me that at that dinner not only did I fall in love with her—and I had a lot of projects going, I wasn’t looking for one—it’s not surprising to me that with my track record for stories that I had to drop everything to make it. I was born in ‘81, the year she became famous. So all growing up, she was famous. I heard her voice in my house, or saw characters on SNL or on late night TV. I knew who she was, but I didn’t know the backstory. Once I knew the backstory, I knew I had to do the film.
What were your fears about taking on a subject like Dr. Ruth?
Once I learned the backstory, my major anxiety was that I’d never made a Holocaust film. And in some ways, this is a Holocaust film. It’s so much more, but the Holocaust is the central, haunting moment that changed everything. I think that was a big undertaking. I knew very early on when I met Dr. Ruth that she wasn’t someone who was entirely introspective, at least outwardly. In the film, even her children and grandchildren say, “Rarely does she touch that emotion.” So I think that was the biggest challenge in making it: Knowing that I needed to tell that part of the story, but not wanting to alienate her, or focus on the worst parts of her life. That balance was really tricky for me.
How long did you spend following her?
A year and a half.
Wow, ok, well this is the obligatory question…did you ever ask her for sex advice?
It’s obligatory, and I get asked by everyone, and it’s a complicated answer. I think the biggest misconception about Dr. Ruth is that she talks about sex all the time. I have not once heard her talk about sex outside of a professional setting, or outside of television shows. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t barrage me about questions about relationships. Because she is very interested in people. She was jumping up and down towards the end of filming because I ended up with a Jewish boyfriend and I’m not Jewish. She just thought it was the best thing in the world.
So she was constantly asking me questions about my relationships, my past relationships, my dating life, but never sexual in nature. And everyone close to her says that: her family, her friends, ”Oh, she doesn’t talk about sex.” That is her professional life, and it’s what she’s studied, but once the lights and the microphone are off, she’s more interested in the human connection part of it. And that part is genuine. I think the sexual part is more academic, more part of her job.
[The lack of sexual questions] was very surprising. I think we all grew up—and I think people often think that she’s the dirtiest person in the world, or loves talking about kinks and strange things. They kind of remember her as a potty-mouthed and super, I can’t think of a better word than “dirty.” And that’s not who Dr. Ruth is. I was really surprised to go back and watch all of her stuff then get to know her. She often says “I’m old-fashioned. I’m a square.” And she’s not, of course, because she’s a 90-year-old who normalized so many sexual practices for Americans. She’s an opponent of one night stands, which is now pretty normal in our culture. That’s not the way she sees sex. I was surprised with how we remember her as this dirty old lady, and she’s not. She’s quite conservative for today’s standards.
And quite nurturing, asking everyone, “Did you eat? Did you try this? Tell me about your relationship” throughout the film, which is so cute. It’s a far cry from the almost impish image of this woman wants to talk about forbidden things.
Right. And her public persona is who she is. Because when you go back and watch all of her archival, she is so nurturing. So empathetic. All of her advice is geared around people finding happiness and fixing whatever’s wrong. And she is like that on a day-to-day level. But I mean, feeding my entire crew, we could not get through takes without her trying to feed the sound person or the camera person or the producers. That’s why it’s throughout the film because every shot was interrupted with that. That’s so genuine. She is your nurturing, Jewish grandma, even if you’re not Jewish. She takes you under her wing, and definitely wants to make sure you’re fed all day long.
You brought up the Holocaust earlier, which is a lynchpin of her story.
She says, “I’m an orphan, not a survivor.”
What’s interesting about that is that not only has she been a huge proponent of gay equality, which, by the way, is not something everybody knows about. She’s not necessarily acknowledged as a gay icon or hero. But AIDS profoundly defined people your and my age…
I would have thought you were younger.
But AIDS really defined sexuality for me personally. I don’t know if you can relate.
My name is Ryan White, so sure.
So from being around her, did she ever talk about the AIDS crisis or gay rights during that period? What insight did she give you?
Interesting. I didn’t know Dr. Ruth as sort of a gay rights icon, but then I just saw a friend at a brunch. He’s probably about 10-15 years older than me. And he said, “I can’t believe you got to make a film about Dr. Ruth. That woman saved my life.” I think there’s a generation of gay people that, for whatever reason, were hiding in their bedrooms listening to her. Her line, forever, since the beginning of time, has been, “Respect is not debatable.” So, when it comes to the AIDS epidemic, it’s been interesting doing press with her during Sundance because she’s very quick to point out too, when she’s talking about the Holocaust, that it was not only Jews who were killed.
She very quickly brings up homosexuals. We kind of go into that in the film when she’s empathetic to gays during the AIDS epidemic when people are being treated as sub-human. But part of it is also her direct correlation between the two minority groups within the Holocaust itself. She lost a lot of friends to AIDS, and just like losing her parents in the Holocaust, she doesn’t want to talk about it a lot. She didn’t want me asking questions like, “who” or “how.” She would say “it’s too painful.” I think the fact that she lived through both those Holocausts, as you said. Both of those tragedies, I think, is where so much of that empathy comes. It’s so incredible how she’s such a beacon of light having lived through all of that.
One thing I loved in the film—and indeed, that I’ve noticed in the rest of your work—is this theme of shame, and divorcing yourself from shame. In The Case Against 8 that’s the shame of legal discrimination. In The Keepers, that’s the shame of being sexually violated. Here, it’s the same of discussing sex and sexual fears. What, for you personally in your life, in your artistic view, attracts you to stories about overcoming shame?
That is such an interesting question. That’s super psychological, because I’ve never thought about it. Every LGBTQ person’s experience is different, but I think that growing up with something that you’re afraid of, at least personally, for me, is why I took the job that I did. I think that I was very good as a child at not talking about myself and being very inquisitive about other people, especially other people going through hardships. I know that. The joke about me growing up in 4th grade, 6th grade, 8th grade is that people would talk to me about their problems.
And I enjoy that, I really do. And so I think there was something about me feeling like I was hiding something, or ashamed of something that made me infinitely more interested in what other people were going through, and very inspired by people who overcame something like that in their lives. Even Serena Williams—she’s been shamed her whole life. Even though she’s been one of the most famous people in the world, and one of the most successful people in the world, she’s been shamed by so many people throughout her life.
So how has making this film changed your outlook? What’s next for you?
Well like I said, I put a few projects on hold to make [Ask Dr. Ruth]. So I have a few I can’t talk about because distributors won’t let me talk about them. But I will say that women are still central to them in films. I can’t really diagnose why that is, but I tend to be more interested [in women]. We, as documentary filmmakers have to say no to a lot because making them takes so long. You can’t spread yourself too thin. Mostly, in my career, it’s been female-centric stories that have really stirred me. And Dr. Ruth has taught me so much about positivity.
Even in making the film, the day-to-day challenges that you go through, she’s really good at making you look at that through a really discerning lens when you feel like your life is so hard, when it’s not that hard at all.
Ask Dr. Ruth streams on Hulu in Spring 2019.