Deemed the "Mozart of psychotherapy" and the grandfather of modern hypnosis, psychiatrist Milton H. Erikson's methods and findings are well-known parts of therapy now. However, unlike Sigmund Freud and other pioneers in his field, his name remains relatively unknown. That's why Alexander Vesely, in conjunction with the Milton H. Erikson Foundation in Phoenix, decided to make a documentary about the doctor and his impact on how therapy is approached today. Vesely explains the importance of Erikson, his inspirational story, and how he made a documentary about a man who passed away nearly 34 years ago.
Alexander Vesely first heard of Erikson's work when his grandfather Viktor Frankl, who was also in the field, was invited to speak at the Erikson's namesake foundation. At the time, Vesely was working on his documentary, Viktor & I, which later won a Diamond Award in the California Film Awards. After being given a book on Erikson's life and work, Vesley wanted to learn more about "the personality behind the theory." That curiosity and seven years of research and interviews eventually resulted in his new film Wizard of the Desert.
"I was blown away not just by the content and theories of Milton Erikson but also with his personal life story," Vesely explains.
Milton Erikson's personal trials through polio and paralysis at 17 and his later confinement to a wheelchair are just some of the difficulties he faced in his life. Professionally, his groundbreaking work in psychotherapy was misunderstood at the time, and he struggled to be taken seriously, though his patients included famous intellectuals like Aldous Huxley and Margaret Mead. His pursuit of developing these methods and humility, rather than self-promotion, led to his work being largely attributed to those who built off of his ideas, according to Vesely.
"[Erikson] was all about substance," he says. "He was not interested in selling something or making a name for himself."
Vesely went through his own challenges making the documentary. The process of gathering interviews and information for his documentary was lengthy. The documentary relies heavily on these interviews with colleagues, students, patients, and others close to him for insight into Erikson's personality and story. Vesely says reluctance from subjects to be interviewed at all and then getting subjects to open up about who Erikson was turned out to be some of the biggest challenges in making the film.
"You don't want to see somebody portrayed in a way that's not true," he says. "So I had to build up trust."
Overcoming that hurdle, Vesely says there were one or two stories in every interview that reassured him that his project was important. He says editing all of these stories down to one movie proved to be the next challenge for him, but he and audiences are pleased with the result.
"The film has been received very well and I couldn't be happier," he says. "I'm glad I could communicate the fascination that I had effectively."
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Objectively, Vesely says it's up to each person to take away meaning from Erikson's story. Vesely set out to tell a story that hadn't been told in film before about an "American genius," as he puts it, who shaped the psychotherapeutic landscape. While there are many aspects of Erikson's life that continue to fascinate Vesely as a director, his trailblazing spirit is was is most poignant to Vesely.
"If you know what you're doing and you know that what you're doing is important, don't be discouraged to go your own way," he says.
Director Alex Vesely's documentary Wizard of the Desert premières at Harkins Shea 14 Theatre at 1 p.m. on Saturday, February 8. You can find tickets and more information on the Milton H. Erikson Foundation website.