Elliot Greenebaum began his movie career not as the writer-director he now is–his independent film “Assisted Living,” a fictional piece shot in a real nursing home about the relationship between Todd (Michael Bonsignore), a good-natured but irresponsible attendant, and one of the residents he gets close to, an Alzheimer’s patient (Maggie Riley) who mistakes him for her absent son, is currently making its way across the country–but as a child actor. He even had a featured part in a Disney telefilm–1990’s “A Mom for Christmas,” starring Olivia Newton-John as a mannequin who comes to life in response to a young girl’s desire for a mother. But “when I was in this Disney film, I didn’t like the director,” Greenebaum recalled during a recent Dallas interview. (A bit of sleuthing will uncover the fact that it was George Miller, whose best-known pictures might be “The Man from Snowy River” and “The Neverending Story II.”) “And so I was like, I need to be in charge from now on.”
That led Greenebaum to become interested in making films himself, something he did assiduously through his high school years. In college at Amherst, he majored in philosophy, partially to discipline his mind and as a kind of natural rebellion against his artistic proclivities, but he immediately followed his undergraduate studies by enrolling in the NYU Film School, where he began thinking about making “Assisted Living.” The film, he explained, “was intended to be a sort of middle-grey between fiction and non-fiction. A lot of people call it a mockumentary. I can’t imagine why. It’s more like documentary material presented in a fictional style. It’s the opposite of a mockumentary…. My idea was to paralyze the viewer with this exact middle-grey which I was aiming for–those moments when you were seeing things that were not controlled in the way documentary is not controlled,…a fictional character in an uncontrolled moment, which I thought was the exact middle-grey between documentary and fiction. That was the academic genesis of the effort in the first place.” But, he added, as the project developed, it evolved into something less centered on form and more on content, though the “middle-grey” goal never disappeared. “That [stylistic goal] turned out to be less inteersting to viewers than telling a good story,” Greenebaum recalled. “So a lot of the second year of shooting [the picture was shot over two summers] and editing was about this heartrending process of paring back this effort to problematize our categories and really focus in on this story about a friendship, which is more conventional, but also maybe much more important.”
The narrative was always present in the project, though, and was highly personal. “ The original idea for the story comes from my desire to talk about a mother who wanted her son to rescue her,” Greenebaum explained. “And I think that on a very personal level I was concerned about the aging of my parents. The main character is a person who’s ambivalent about the pressure being applied to him by the needs of this older woman, and he learns to tolerate the experience of intimacy and responsibility over the course of the day. He’s not a person who knows how to take care of people very well, but he’s a good man and he’s got a good spirit. His character is basically a cartoon version of myself. He’s the eyes and ears of how the experience of maturation happened–the way we see the facility and the residents. As the day proceeds, his gaze changes from being surreal and remote and comedic to being compassionate. [It’s about] someone learning to be compassionate and brave who doesn’t want to be compassionate and brave.” The quality of nursing homes, Greenebaum added, depends “not on how expensive they are or how well administered they are. It’s the people on the bottom rung who are changing the bedpans, and whether they have a real rapport with the residents and real caring relationships, one-on-one, with them or not. The film is about a man who is on the bottom rung of one of these facilities learning how to tolerate his anxiety” in the face of old age and mental disease. That theme–which, as Greenebaum pointed out, could be boiled down to “How do we want to age? What is our style of aging?”– made “Assisted Living” a hard-sell in the studio system. (And even after the picture was picked up by Cowboy Films after its Sundance showing, the distributor went bankrupt and the release was postponed more than a year. It’s now being distributed by Greenebaum himself, working in tandem with Jeff Lipsky, known for his role in the founding of both October Films and Lot 47 Films.) “Hollywood shies away from anything that might create anxiety in the viewer,” he noted. But he persisted because, as he said, “films are supposed to talk about our lives–at least some of them are, I would hope. Otherwise we’re just dangling a shiny thing in front of babies to make them stop crying.” Greenebaum’s success is reflected in the fact that the picture is now receiving strong support from the AARP, nursing and caregiver groups, and Alzheimer support groups.
Though the combination of fiction and non-fiction that’s at the center of “Assisted Living” gives the film a special character, it also made for some difficulty for Greenebaum. Not in terms of securing permission to film on site by the Masonic Homes of Kentucky–“I trust the people there, the people there trust me,” he said, and anyway “they could always kick us out”–but deciding what shouldn’t be kept in the final print. “Just before the film’s release,” Greenebaum said, “I decided to take out five shots, where it would have been possible for a family member to recognize the face of a very sick individual. Some of the decisions that I had to make about what to include had certain very real benefits to the film and very real benefits by making certain things real to the viewer, but also had a downside if the wrong persons saw the film and were hurt by seeing it. Ultimately I decided to play it safe, and I removed some shots from the film. I’m not sure if that was the right decision.”
But as one might point out after seeing “Assisted Living,” right or not, the decision was the compassionate one.