SAUL RUBINEK

October 20, 2010 | By

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As an actor, Saul Rubinek has appeared in almost every kind of genre and production, and it’s not uncommon to find his performance and characterization is far more interesting than some of the actors with which he’s sharing a scene. Certainly well known in his native Canada, Rubinek has regularly appeared in major films, including Wall Street (1987), True Romance (1993),Nixon (1995), The Family Man (2000), and had recurring roles on the TV series Frasier (2000) and Blind Justice (2005). His latest work, Warehouse 13, is filming in Toronto for the Sci-Fi Channel.

In 1998 Rubinek stepped behind the camera and directed Jerry and Tom. His other films as director include the TV movies Club Land (2001) and Bleacher Bums (2002), and the indie filmCruel but Necessary (2007), which made its debut on DVD earlier this year via Critical Mass and Anchor Bay/Starz.

A film about obsessions, betrayal, and ultimately healing, Cruel but Necessary is a very clever film shot on digital video from the perspective of its holder, Betty Munson. Whenever she turns on the camera, that’s what we see, and little by little we’re privy to the end of her marriage to a two-timing husband, her emotional breakdowns, as well as her passionate efforts to raise her son Luke.

Produced by Elinor Reid (Rubinek’s wife) and written by star Wendel Meldrum, Cruel but Necessary also feels like an improvised film with naturally neurotic characters and dysfunctional family members, but as you’ll learn from our Q&A, Rubinek’s film is a meticulously rendered work.

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Mark R. Hasan: I was pleasantly surprised that Cruel but Necessary is a story that uses video technology not to create horror, nor as some kind of narcissistic film about a serial killer, but as an integral part of a social drama, and I wonder if that was one of the aspects of the script that really appealed to you?

Saul Rubinek: Wendel Meldrum is a Canadian actress I’ve know for thirty years who came to my wife [producer Elinor Reid] and I with these series of monologues [that] weren’t defined. They’re spoken by a rather kooky, odd, sometimes intelligent, sometimes bafflingly ignorant woman, and Wendell said ‘Look, I’ve created this character. What do I do with this?’ Is it a stage play? Is it a performance piece? What is it?’

Over about almost a year and a half, we developed a script, so it was appealing from a character’s point of view, but also interesting when we asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if, while she was filming herself and her philosophy, her life kind of contradicted what she was saying?’

That was the premise that we started with – a kind of dramatic-comic premise – and it grew from there… It was very appealing to use that technique… We could have made a film, I suppose, where sometimes it was that camera, and sometimes we could go wherever we wanted when it wasn’t her camera, but we really decided to stay true to it until obviously the last scene in the movie, when she isn’t filming herself.

MRH: The shift actually works very well, because when you finally go to the last scene where everybody watches Betty’s video with nervous anticipation, it’s clear that we’re now watching a formal movie, because you’re showing more traditional angles; it’s still very subtle because you’ve got very slow pull-ins and pull-outs which aren’t very elaborate and maintain the visuals of the video camera footage.

SR: I’ve watched the film with festivals audiences a lot, so I’ve seen it with I guess about six or seven thousand people. Everybody is so well versed in the syntax of film and the language of coverage that you didn’t have to say a thing; what’s kind of interesting is that it didn’t really dawn on people like a big balloon; it just kind of made sense that she wasn’t shooting that stuff because of the angles.

What was probably most fascinating was that if we’d had the money that we originally wanted, we never could have made a movie of this quality. The fact that we had no money allowed us to shoot for 7 months, a couple of days a week, maybe a scene per day, over 55 days of shooting, and if we’d had the money that we originally went out for, which was a half a million dollars for 18 days of shooting, I never, never could’ve done it this way; it wouldn’t look like that.

MRH: In one of the interviews on the DVD, you said that you had been approached by three companies that were interested in making the film. You had a specific budget, but they all wanted a different leading actress, and then I think it was your director of photography who said, ‘Well, we shot ten minutes. Why don’t we do this nine more times?’

I thought it was funny because it kind of reminded me of Orson Welles doing Citizen Kane(1941), and how the test footage actually became scenes in the finished film. Your film has a bit of that spirit, but at the same time when you decided to make it on your own, it had the spirit of a lot of independent filmmakers who basically just get a camera, use existing locations, and then sort of similarly use improvised dialogue and scripted dialogue, and find the film as they’re shooting and editing their film.

SR: I think we found the film in the scriptwriting in this case. A lot of it. We knew it was a very well-written script by her, and I have to give a tremendous amount of credit to Elinor, who really worked on the development of the script much more than I did with Wendell.

I was kind of like a fly in the ointment, trying to say ‘I don’t understand what’s going on here, and you guys are going to have to make it clear to me.’ For example, when we finally finished the movie and put some of it on YouTube, it was the gynaecology scene that got almost a million hits after about fourteen, fifteen months.

Why?

I mean, if you just put “pussy” up on the screen, you’re not going to get a million hits or other gynaecology scenes. This has to do with the Rorschach inkblot thing. I read that gynaecology scene when it was first written, and my immediate reaction was pretty close to the reaction of most men – not one hundred percent, but I’d say most men – which is, ‘So the kid’s adopted then?’

Most women’s reaction is, ‘You should revoke the license of that gynaecologist.’

MRH: That’s funny. I think my reaction was that I believed that Darwin was her own son, and I thought there was something odd going on with this woman physically; that whatever emotional problems she’s having are now manifesting physically.

SR: That’s actually fairly common. It happened to Wendell in real life, and the gynaecologist who came to one of the festival screenings (a woman, actually) said it’s not that uncommon for the cervix to look intact. If you haven’t had sex in a while, the cervix can look intact, so it’s not totally bizarre, but my reaction, unlike yours, was to believe authority. The gynaecologist [played by Lisa Zane] isn’t out of her mind, she’s just making assumptions.

We [also] knew we had a story to tell that had to do with Betty’s shift from her self-interest to an almost obsessive, self-interest in her son Darwin, and we knew we were going to do that in the filming.

You wouldn’t even really see him…There’s so few shots of him, except from behind or peripherally. In the second half of the movie, he’s very much a part of it because it’s her realizing she’s got to raise this kid as she’s got less and less money.

We knew that we were going to tell a narrative story [where] one scene was not necessarily going to follow the other scene in a typical narrative line. You, the viewer, were going to have to do some work (hopefully entertaining work), where you draw your own conclusions why [any given scene] is there.

And people naturally do. If you and I went out and we just shot a bunch of random scenes and put them together and showed them to somebody, they would draw raw connections between them, even though you and I had absolutely no idea what the connections were. We knew that that was going to make it a more involving film for some people. What we didn’t know was that we were going to catch the zeitgeist the way we did.

MRH: One of the hardest scenes to watch actually comes early in the film, and it’s where, for the first time, Betty plants the camera in her son’s bedroom, and goes downstairs to go make dinner, and we see Darwin break down and cry from his parents’ disintegrating marriage. Betty then knocks on the door, and Darwin makes an excuse so he’s time to ready himself before going down to eat with his mother.

The scene feels intrusive, and at the same time it’s also is a stark example of what happens behind closed doors when there’s a personal problem going on between parents and children, or between siblings or anybody. It was a really naked scene to watch.

You raised the subject of reality TV in one of the DVD interviews, and I wonder if you think that scene resonates more now because of reality TV; that genre has a lot of issues that are negative (the exploitive element and nonsense content) but it has an undeniable power in capturing a lot of stuff that has never been seen before on any screen.

SR: I think that that’s true. I think that a lot of reality TV is confessional or satiric – one or the other – and I think one of the reasons that scene might be interesting is, up until then, you weren’t really sure what you were watching. ‘Is this a comedy? What am I really watching? I’m sort of intrigued…’

When you get to there, Darwin won’t talk to her, and she does this outrageous thing quite early, and the payoff of him discovering [the hidden camera] doesn’t happen for two years. Two years, you know? And then it’s horrific. She almost loses him, but I think that if this were really reality TV, spending this many months with a real person, and this is what’s she’s done, it would be like watching paint dry, and very self-conscious.

We didn’t do 54 days of shooting in order to find the movie; we did 54 days of shooting because we didn’t have the money to shoot it any other way. We knew where we were going.

You can be an independent filmmaker; you grab a camera, go out and start discovering the movie, but the truth is that without a script of some kind, without a compelling story and certainly not without actors, you can’t do it.

It’s a very old-fashioned film in some ways. The technique is different, but I needed a stage actress who could hold the screen for five minutes without a cut. I mean, I’ve done Curb Your Enthusiasm (I did four or five of them) and I know how they wrote that; that’s actually written on the set; those are a bunch of very talented comedy writers who are used to being in a writer’s room and who are now addicted to writing on the spot with actors. The storyline is written down by Larry David, but you improvise, and the writers say, ‘Keep this and this,’ and they’re writing on the spot. It’s an addictive adrenaline rush, you know?

This is different. I challenge you or anybody to point out ‘This is improvised, this is not improvised, and this is scripted.’ … Probably the thing I’m proudest of is you can’t tell what part of it is improvised, and what part of it isn’t. You’ve got to remember, it was in a way a bit of reality TV going on for me. Wendell’s son (Luke Humphrey) plays her son, and her ex-husband (Mark Humphrey) plays her ex-husband.

MRH: I didn’t know that going into the film, and when I watched the interviews I thought, ‘Oh, you really were married. Oh, that really is your son.’ And then there’s that challenge of which I’m sure you must have been aware, where as a director you’ve got to make sure people don’t’ go crazy because I’m sure there must have been past family issues –

SR: Luckily nothing like that; it’s not in their past. That’s not a dysfunctional family. Wendell’s now remarried, Luke is now in college studying to be an actor, and they’re all professional actors

Betty Munson starts off in a $3 million house (that a friend of ours owned) and then she moves to this kind of apartment complex. Well, we had some friends staying at this complex that’s famous for actors (The Highland Gardens Hotel) and we couldn’t film inside the rooms, so we used the apartment where Wendell and Luke were living together, and made it look as if it was inside the complex. When we finished shooting, they were back in their lives in this same place. That bedroom was his bedroom; her bedroom was her bedroom.

If I would’ve been using non-actors, then it would’ve been really tough, but they’re professionals. They’ve been doing this for so many years, they knew how to create their own dividing lines.

Also, I discouraged Wendell from directing her son, and I realized there were many scenes that were a little too convenient in making Betty right about Chet, and I wanted to throw wrenches into the works, like when she talks to her son about using girls, and says ‘girls are not just kisses.’ That wasn’t in the script.

MRH: The look of the film surprised me because it’s really beautiful. I don’t know if you had a set decorator there, but the colour schemes in specific shots from scene to scene are well balanced. It’s not just you using the bare essentials of a bare location; you put a lot of time into making sure there were specific colours reflecting specific moods.

Later in the film there’s a scene where Wendell is with the new boyfriend in a high-rise apartment, and everything is very green and very cool, and that’s where he discovers the camera in her bag, and it was that scene that make it clear to me how well thought-out the film’s look is.

SR: Well you’re the first person to mention that, and thank you for noticing. We couldn’t afford to decorate, so what we did was we chose locations that would work for us. We actually had a number of places to choose from because we had friends who were willing to let us shoot in their places, so we could choose.

We were able to prep a week in advance – sometimes more – for a 2-day shoot, and then we would go onto the set and we’d work sometimes for 4 hours just figuring out how we’re going to shoot it; what would make it visually interesting.

It was trickier when the camera was moving because I had to operate it…We realized when he operated the camera and it was supposed to be Betty who was moving it, our cinematographer was a little too instinctively careful; his instincts were to frame better, and Wendell couldn’t handle the camera technically.

Luke, on the other hand, could. We spent four hours for the scene where he finds the camera in his bedroom, and worked it out. Then I left. There was nobody in there except him and his mother. He shot it. We couldn’t be there because there were too many mirrors, and he had to shoot it, otherwise, it was left to me.

I ended up being the operator quite often because I could figure out the way Betty would frame something, so we spent 4-5 hours sometimes rehearsing the shot – even if it was static – and then we only spent a couple of hours shooting it, and that would be our day.

MRH: How hard was it to assemble the film in editing?

SR: Well, because Chris Kern owned his own postproduction facility, I think basically he said, ‘Okay, for your postproduction, I’ll handle it in return for being the editor,’ which is a nice way for him to be generous. We had to deal with his schedule because he had a number of people working and only so many editing suites in that building; sometimes they were booked doing Buick commercials or whatever they were doing.

It wasn’t like a normal editing situation where you’ve got a good 8-9 hour day with your editor, 5 days a week, and you can get your first cut in a month or get it cut while you’re shooting. We couldn’t do it.

All we could do is give Chris material. It could be downloaded and safely secured, and that was about it. And then we took all this time. Our movie was 3 & 1/2 hours long. [When] I looked at that assembly, Chris was very nervous. At that point, we wanted Elinor to stay away so she could be a little more objective when we created our first cut; it’s too hard when you’re in the midst of it.

Chris and I were on the same page. I looked at that 3 & 1/2 hour cut and said, ‘Let’s get rid of 90% of the monologues into the camera, and let’s see where we are,’ and he just breathed this huge sigh of relief, realizing, ‘Okay, that’s what’s going to make [this film] move.’ I also said, ‘We’re going to have to use jump cuts as a technique. Some of this take is working, some of this take is not,’ and we’ve just got to move to the next part of the scene.’

Sometimes we’d let it run. Probably one of the longest scenes in the movie is where the guy is being accused of sexual harassment. It’s just such a great take, there was no reason to cut into it, but quite often we’d just jump cut and everybody gets into it.

MRH: Was it hard to market the film once it had been done?

SR: Oh my God, yeah. Jesus Christ, what a difficult thing that was to do. We got into Montreal and San Jose Cinequest and Seattle, Vancouver, Winnipeg and a couple of other places, and got some awards and good reviews, [but] Toronto and Sundance wouldn’t have us. I was kind of surprised, because I was part of the Toronto Film Festival for so long, and I just think they didn’t like it. I know that there are politics involved, but I honestly think they didn’t like the movie, which surprised me.

We had no cache; we had no stars, there was no distributor behind it… Maybe it was a little ahead of its time because it was 3 years ago that I submitted it there.

It took a while for this movie to catch on. We spent a year editing it, a year going to festivals before we could even find anybody who was willing to show it anywhere, and it was only by happenstance that I realized after the fact, ‘Wait a minute. We’re all Canadian.’

The reason that you’re talking to me, and that it actually has a DVD release, and it’ll be on cable and on TV in Canada… is because of that odd thing: we’re all Canadians, and it has some value to a distributor selling it in the marketplace in Canada.

William Alexander and David Partridge are a two-man operation for Critical Mass… Those guys took a chance. Not a huge one; they’re going to make a little bit of money; it wasn’t that hard to sell to cable TV, people liked the movie enough, and it’s not expensive. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to pay everybody back, [but] the actors will get paid, so obviously it was not done for money.

YouTube is the thing that convinced people that maybe this can be a viable thing. I mean, it was unusual to get a million hits on YouTube with absolutely no advertising whatsoever.

And I hid it. I was “Betty Munson,” and I pretended that the character put up a number of cut scenes, and I only ‘outed’ it before the DVD was released in the United States in November of 2008, and the website came up.

MRH: I love the wedding video Betty ultimately edits, but it’s my favourite moment for personal (and very funny) reasons. The sister of one of the guys that I went to film school with got married, and he asked a classmate (who was then kind of crazy) to film the wedding as a favour.

A few years later the video came up in conversation, and I asked my friend how it turned out, and he asked with great surprise, ‘You’ve never seen it?!?’ and I said ‘No.’

Now, the final edit is very short, but it’s very bizarre because his friend’s personality is kind of prominent, and besides the ‘creative’ camerawork, once in a while people are asked, ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?’

Because the perplexed guests included family and relatives, my friend had to keep it all in; he had no choice. So when he finally got the final edit and he didn’t have any other footage, he realized he was stuck with this thing.

He’s forgiven his friend since, so when I saw Betty’s own ‘wedding video,’ I thought to myself, had that level of editing technology been available 20 years ago, his buddy probably would’ve made a video like Betty’s.

SR: We wanted to show that she’s trying to make money, but we also cut out a scene where she’s working as a 911 operator and a number of other ways that she’s trying to make money, but filming moving of Grandma and the wedding are two examples of somebody editing very, very badly, but it gave her the skills.

Ultimately you watch her edit and make choices that are far more sophisticated; when she’s actually not doing it for money, she’s doing it in order to share something that matters to her and to people that matter to her; then you know where she got those skills. We were trying to be careful and make things realistic. Without that experience, she couldn’t have edited the final movie that you’re actually watching in that room.

MRH: Because you’ve appeared in big budget films, you’ve made feature length films shot on film, and now you’ve made a digital film, do you find that now there’s no stigma attached to making a low budget movie on digital? Essentially, if the material suits that particular medium and even the circumstances, you can make a really good movie that’s dramatically viable using that gear?

SR: It depends on what gear you’re talking about. Digital movies, for sure. Big directors are using them, whether it’s George Lucas or Michael Mann or whatever, and the technology is there for the highest end cameras. A lot of film companies are using [digital gear] partly because it can be bought.

Television series and features are being shot on them, and what will happen in the next ten years is film will disappear except as a storage device. The short answer to your question is of course it’s viable and legitimate, but it depends on what you’re shooting.

At first I thought I’d made the wrong decision (I’m still not sure about this, to tell you the truth) of whether to shoot in HD or not, and at the time the cinematographer said, ‘We’re going to have a higher end camera than the Panasonic camera, and it’ll be a little more realistic, because if it’s HD it’ll just maybe look a little too good.’ Then when we were editing, I thought, ‘I’ve made a mistake. It’s harder to sell. I could’ve made it look a little worse.’ We up-res’d the digital footage at the end it to make it look better.

The only difficulty we had wasn’t the look at all; HD wouldn’t bother you now, because people are buying HD consumer cameras. The hardest thing technically was sound. We spent more money in postproduction – more money than on the entire shoot – on 2 weeks of sound editing because the sound was real and annoying, and we had to make it better.

In this particularly case it’s obviously a lower end camera that serves its purpose because it looks real, but if you’re making a big movie, you’re not going to use that camera because you’d notice [the image quality] that would look shitty when it’s blown up, but there won’t be any movie projectors in theatres anymore. The studios have already solved that problem with the exhibitors. There was a huge ‘Who’s buying it? Who’s replacing parts of it? and the distributors are now spending to changing all these movie theatres across America into digital.

90% of them will be digital projection. They’ll be beaming a movie to the projector via satellite and the projector will decode it.

Right now, to be very specific, only outside sunlight and harsh contrast on film is better, and that’s it, but that’s going to change. You’ll be able to dial in whatever kind of grain or look you want. It’s kind of sad, but people were sad when they were no longer touching film and cutting it and putting it together with Scotch tape.

MRH: That experience, to some extent, I don’t miss, because I hated squawk boxes and I could never work on a Movieola. It just devoured film, and I’m always stunned when someone can actually cut a movie on a Movieola and nothing gets shredded to pieces

SR: You’re right. But think about the film. You can’t have a music cue go over a reel change. You can if it’s digital. A mag of film is 10 mins. long, and then you gotta wait and change the mag, no matter what kind of acting is going on; that’s in the process of shooting.

In terms of showing it, the films are shipped, they get broken, they get chipped, they get re-spliced, they jump, they get scratched – it’s a drag. It’s prehistoric, and it’s all going away.

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KQEK.com would like to thank Saul Rubinek for a lengthy and fun conversation about filmmaking, and Leah Visser at Amberlight Productions for facilitating this interview.

For more information on Cruel but Necessary , please visit the official website HERE.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This article and interview © 2009 by Mark R. Hasan

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Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD/Film:  Cruel But Necessary (2005) — Jerry and Tom (1998)

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