Dr. Thomas Ungar talks about Think You Can Shrink?

Everyone thinks they are good at giving advice eg. hairdressers, bartenders, former strip club bouncers, etc. In this web-series we put them to the test as contestants in a reality-TV style show to see who is the best amateur shrink. The contestants are real everyday people, the "patients" are trained actors portraying a variety of human life and mental health issues. Judges comment on contestants performance and kibbutz among themselves. Episodes include the sizzle reel and suicidal depression, narcissistic anger management guy, manic guy, OCD, testicular lump, and prostate problem. It is our pleasure to interview Dr. Thomas Ungar for the Toronto Film Magazine regarding his film, Think You Can Shrink?

How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?

I started making short public service announcement type video spots for my website public awareness mental health minute site. As a novice I collaborated with the videographer at our medical school Cameron McLennan to help me. I wrote and acted in most of these mental health minute vignettes as well as produced them. The Think You Can Shrink? web-series was a huge forward as I had little experience I a much bigger six episode production but naively went ahead and trusted my gut.


What genre of filmmaking fascinates you as a filmmaker and why?

I am fascinated by improvisational unscripted or semi-scripted work. I find the authenticity and natural spontaneity of what naturally emerges in keeping with what I see is a psychiatrist in an interaction with the patient or client. I love having a general idea of how to get started ad spark the interaction and then letting things naturally involved and see where the interaction goes which is always unpredictable and can never be duplicated. Capturing that on film and allowing the spontaneous creative process to occur and give birth is playful, and risky.


What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker in the film industry?

What has been most challenging was that I am surrounded by lots of rejection and closed doors and difficulty getting access with many gatekeeper's to broadcasting the work. As my web series think you can shrink his a new somewhat experimental format and project I am struck by how risk averse and concrete minded some of the people have been. But some have been encouraging and supportive to the vision. I am fortunate to have a full-time J job but really feel for those whom filmmaking is a primary work as it must be super hard as an independent.


How difficult is it to fund indie films?

I used some personal money for my day job to develop and film an early version inexpensive Demo. I somewhat caricatured the various roles which ended up giving the demo a mockumentary feel. It was a different animal which may have been a happy accident. A few years later I was able to apply for an innovation grant from Movember men's health charity to use an innovative form of entertainment and film video story narratives to portray mental health and mental illness. Film/video was also way to work around people's avoidance of discussing the mental health issues in a safe and nonthreatening way. Fortunately from Movember men's health charity innovation Grant committee took a huge risk on my slightly wacky idea. Despite my professional credibility it seems extremely challenging to find people willing to fund experimental nontraditional outside the box projects and I really feel for independent filmmaker to do this for full-time living.


Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?

The most influential director for me is my older brother George who is an artist and independent freelance filmmaker. His stubborn commitment and Fidelity to his art in the film is admirable. Accompanying him to the Genie awards in tuxedos and jumping up as he won note best documentary award was unforgettable. I also admired Dennis Arcand and his film Barbarian Invasions which moved me tremendously. I also admire the Visual beauty of films by Ridley Scott.


What inspired you to work on Think You Can Shrink? And how did the film go into production?

As a psychiatrist I am always encountering people who think they are good at giving advice and think they know what they are doing. Meanwhile we use standardized patient actors to help train medical students for many years. And I had witnessed this weird phenomenon of reality TV social media. So I thought to put them all together I a weird new way. I thought wouldn’t it be great fun to take these overconfident amateur advice givers and put them in the hot seat in front of the standardized patient actor and see how they did. And as a researcher in mental illness stigma reduction I thought it would be a great way to take at our subject and make it entertaining and fun. The Movember men’s health charity was looking for innovative projects to try and connect with men who unfortunately high suicide rates and who are reluctant to seek out health or talk about problems with. I thought the idea of using narrative story and playing with film and this reality TV testing format would make for great visual narrative fun and entertainment and do good at the same time. Finally it sounded like a heck of a lot of fun for myself to get out of my normal clinical medicine day job and become an amateur independent film producer writer and Creator. And it was a blast.


A friend Suave Hupa who is a director of photography and worked on Reality TV shows was very encouraging of the project to help me pull together a director James Murdoch, and crew on limited budget. The crew were fantastic, all felt very inspired by the project, and I tried to say in my lane and let them do their thing. They introduced me to a casting agents and we put out Facebook call for actor auditions and for reality contestants. I wrote the actor roles/narrative and trained the actors to play the role of each patient and how to portray the problem/illness/ condition including suicidal depressed guy/anger management narcissist guy/ OCD/ manic guy/ and one person ashamed and scared of having a testicular lump, and another with a prostate problem effecting their relationship. I hired my admin assistant Katherine Fibiger off-hours as production manager, we rented a couple of hotel rooms for location, gathered together some props and went from there. My son volunteered to help as a gopher part of the time.


How did you find the cast and the crew of the film? Tell us more about the production of the film and working on the set of the film to create this feature.

My Director of photography friend Suave Hupa called some people who he knew including other cameraperson, lighting, make up, and introduced me to our director James Murdoch. We hired a casting agents who put out a call on Facebook and held casting auditions for the actors to play the role of the patient. For the reality contestants we put out a Facebook call and ask each to submit a short piece of video of themselves and selected them that way. We were just hoping they would show up on the day of the filming.


We rented hotel rooms as the location and other areas in the hotel including the hallways public bathroom improvising locations. The atmosphere and content of the interactions between the contestant and the patient with mental illness and health problems was so fascinating that the crew began discussing what they would have said with they would have done. We also had many ethical discussions about what to tell the contestant before and after the interaction as some did not know these were actors, and were concerned. We ended up discussing themes of men and the challenges they have seeking help with different viewpoints of the crew who were male and female and other. The crew were commenting that they have worked on many reality TV shows but finally this was a reality show that means something. If it was not for the special input and dedication of the crew to the project we would never have gotten as far as we did.


During postproduction I was inspired to relive my high school basement band amateur musician interests and I wrote and performed an original theme song for the show. I did both a punk rock and country version, and the editor Peter Turek chose the punk version that made it into the extro credits.


What do you recommend to other filmmakers regarding the distribution of independent feature films?

I do not know what to tell independent film makers about distribution as I am struggling with that myself. Getting access to gatekeepers seems to be a huge and significant challenge. And despite numerous rejections, which I have had, I encouraged them to keep going. All it takes is one person to be encouraging and supportive and I can live on that for quite a while.


What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?

I continue working on Think You Can Shrink? and we plan to do another edit and test out varying lengths and formats. I am dabbling with the idea of further filming and inserting content information spots perhaps with me talking narrative style. I think the format and project is about 80 to 85% developed but could use some more polish. By the end of the production I was just happy to see it completed and not so open to more new creative changes. Maybe pausing for a little while will help me look at it with fresh eyes.


Why do you make films?

I have made this web series part of creative exploration and an experimental way change the conversation about mental health and overcome mental illness stigma so that more people seek out help. And after many years of doing direct in your face education and awareness/advocacy I wanted a much more fun and indirect way to try and capture people. I wanted to use the power of media and film narrative story to help promote public mental health awareness and remove the barrier of stigma that presents people from seeking out help for mental health problems. It’s a fun personal outlet and creative challenge to make films/video and tell narrative visual stories. I am very lucky. If I can continue to incorporate this into my career as a psychiatrist that would be awesome.

© Toronto Film Mag I 2020