Sean Nelson speaks with Kylie Boltin in New York about collaboration, narcissism and artistic self-conception.
4 May 2011 - 12:40 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

You may know Sean Nelson from his acting (My Effortless Brilliance, The Freebie), from his music (Harvey Danger, Death Cab for Cutie, The Decemberists) or from his music journalism. His latest creative endeavour, Treatment, marks his co-directorial debut, in conjunction with Steven Schardt. He also co-stars and wrote the screenplay.

Treatment had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is a fun, sharp and original film about a wannabe screenwriter, Leonard (Joshua Leonard), who believes that interning at a rehab centre will endear him to a movie star who will, in turn, make Leonard's artistic aspirations come true. The film marks the first collaboration between Nelson (above right) and Schardt (above left), who had the original story idea. “I thought it was a totally viable premise for a comedy,” says Nelson, “but my immediate thought was let's not do it where the last part of the film is them making the movie. Let's find another way of dealing with it.”

Nelson filmed Treatment in Los Angeles, but he says that it isn't a satire of Hollywood. “I don't know anything about Hollywood, except what I read in People magazine just like everyone else,” says the Seattle based artist. “We use LA as an all purpose metaphor. [In the film] rehab and addiction are also metaphorical and we use them as examples to tell a story that is different to what it says it is. It's about a guy who has been lying to himself for so long that he starts believing it. That is what causes his downfall.”

Leonard orbits around the other characters: ego-driven movie star, Gregg D (Ross Partridge); offbeat, lucrative junkie, Franny (Brie Larson); and the self-promoting wellness guru, BZ Sullivan (Chris Caniglia), who will help you find your inner perfection for a fee upwards of $10,000. Leonard turns to his best friend (Nelson) for the money. All are excellent performances, played for smart, sardonic, bittersweet laughs.

The film is not based on any specific celebrities but on the writer's experiences moving to Seattle in his early 20s. “When I moved to Seattle, I discovered a bohemian culture that I had only ever heard about. I was really enthralled by it,” Nelson says. “I found that there were a lot of people who wanted to be artists, or poets, filmmakers, musicians or all of those things. It was a weird time. It was generally accepted that, if you said you were one of these things, you just were. A lot of it had to do with the music happening at the time, which was founded on a kind of inspired amateurism. Nirvana is obviously the biggest example of that. They were incredible, they were a really important band, but the thing about them is that they were really raw. They were punk rock culture.” While Nelson doesn't personally identify with that world, he admits, “Aesthetically, I liked the idea that it didn't have to be good to be great. I found that the more people talked about what they did, the less they did. I still know a fair number of people like that, self-styled artists, who don't make anything substantial. They don't push themselves because they are so self-satisfied.”

In the earliest incarnation of Treatment, Schardt was set to both direct and produce with Nelson writing the screenplay and acting. As the process wore on, Nelson began to share the directing duties. “I was there and I was doing it. It was an unorthodox thing. We didn't talk about it during filming. On most films there is a director who has the authority, but Steven, because he is so generous, made room for me on the set. We'd developed the story so closely together that tone wise, I felt like I knew how it needed to be. He respected that. I would be surprised if either one of us could have done it alone. I felt very much that it was ours. And he does too.”