The Staten Island Family’s Celebrity Q&A: Laura Dern talks about her childhood, the stigma of Mental illness and directing one of the shorts in Lifetime TV’s film Call Me Crazy
Crazy. We label people crazy all the time. It’s one of those adjectives that gets attributed as easily as retard, faggot, and other disturbing names that should be stricken from our society’s collective vocabulary. And while we cavalierly pass this adjective around, being labeled as such, especially if one has a diagnosed mental illness, can be both stigmatizing and shameful. There is a negative and embarrassing connotation to the word- and it is a label no one basks in. It is also the title of Lifetime & Sony Picture Television’s CALL ME CRAZY: A FIVE FILM Anthology from Executive Producer Jennifer Aniston, which through five shorts named after each title character — Lucy, Eddie, Allison, Grace and Maggie – explores powerful relationships built on hope and triumph and ultimately raises a new understanding of what happens when a loved one struggles with mental illness.
Personally it was a hard film to watch, as it unflinchingly shines a raw light on mental illness. It resonated with me on many levels, especially living in NYC where on a daily basis I am bombarded by a myriad of homeless and mentally ill people sleeping in cardboard makeshift tents or talking to themselves while pacing through the streets. While they could be construed as irresponsible vagrants, perhaps many homeless are struggling with undiagnosed mental illness- or like characters in the film, refusing to take their meds.
Each of these people is also someone’s son or sister. And yet there’s this perception that mental illness is something you can get over if you simply will it– and taking medicine for it is sinful- of course this same perception would not hold weight against a physical disease like cancer or diabetes. And it is all these prejudices and stereotypes which are flawlessly interwoven in the Film Call me Crazy, and especially brought to the forefront in Director Laura Dern’s short which explores bipolar disorder through the experience of a teenage daughter (Sarah Hyland, Modern Family) whose mother (Melissa Leo, The Fighter) grapples with the condition.
Laura sat down with me and a few other writers and shared some of her thoughts with us about her childhood and directing one of the shorts in Lifetime TV’s film Call Me Crazy.
Q: Hey Laura, as I looked at these films it strikes me that maybe shorts are kind of like an underappreciated content, because as I look, there things you can do with short films that you can’t do with full length films. It seems like every one of these is just much more intense in its style and more intense in this acting and its plot than you would ever be over a full length. So, are there some ways the shorts are just plain different and maybe better than full length films?
Laura Dern: Well, wonderful question. I certainly generally speak from my experience as an audience by saying that, you know, they’ve moved me and told me a complete story in a profound and different way than a feature film can.
Some of my favorite shorts (which are earliest pieces of work of director friends or directors I admire): Scorsese, greatest shorts of all time early on in his film school life. Alexander Payne did a short film for UCLA that’s still one of my favorite movies. So, I tend to agree with you and having the experience of directing one, the gift and the hindrance is only having a certain number of minutes to create a beginning, middle, and end.
In a way, short films have more room to be elusive, but they also tend to go to extremes more quickly because you have such a short time to tell a complete story. So whether its style, filmmaking, or performance, there is leeway to kind of do it differently than you ever would in an hour and half or two hours.
Okay, thanks. If I could ask just one real brief kind-of off-the-wall question here: are there some points where you just plain emphasize with Grace in your own mind? I mean you had, you know, a colorful outspoken mother. Are there times where you were kind of like Grace as a kid and thinking, “gee I just had a dull mother like everybody else has.”
Laura Dern: Well absolutely. I think that, you know, far more of the world than any of us know because some of us are left with only our own experiences…
Yes. …there’s nobody else to check in with in childhood…and I think that as children, we desperately need our parents to be sane and safe, so we justify behavior all the time. My good fortune was, you know, endearing and complicated actors. But in the case of many friends with addiction and mental illness in the home, there’s a lot of justification that the behavior is normal and appropriate because you don’t want to think of your parent as crazy. So I think we can all empathize with craze even if it’s in subtler degrees.
Q: I was wondering, what did you find challenging about directing this particular film?
Laura Dern: Well, the few things that come to mind first was that it was the first one we made and we had an extreme time constraint with very little time for pre-production, rewrites, casting, or any of the things you’d like to have time for whether you’re making a short or a full length feature. Getting your crew and cast together and doing a rewrite takes the same amount of time, so that was daunting.
And then, really trying to be true and honor with empathy the extraordinary challenge of living with bipolar disorder was something that felt like the largest challenge. Oddly enough, the thing I started thinking would be the hardest was actually directing, but it seemed to be the easiest of the challenges once we were there and making it. Everything seemed to flow, but getting it ready as quickly as possible and making sure that it contained a real acknowledgement and compassion toward the illness was the hardest work.
Q: And what do you think it is about the film that will really connect with the viewers?
Laura Dern: You know, I think what Jennifer Aniston, Sony, and Lifetime have come together to do is really beautiful. To take on this subject matter, I think, is the real gift at hand. The hope is that each short will connect to people and speak to people who are either walking through it and are very aware or are walking through it and haven’t been so aware and are looking for something to connect them to it.
I’ve just scratched the surface as a layman of learning about bipolar disorder, but with the specialists who helped me, the books that I read, and the experiences I’ve had, you can see Grace. You can see the film’s silver lining’s playbook, and you can have a family member who’s bipolar and still not recognize the disorder in someone else you love because there are so many different ways that it manifests. There are different versions of the disorder, so it’s a very complicated thing. Often, people who have had the disorder will self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, so you think it’s the addiction alone that you’re dealing with. My prayer is that people will reach out for themselves and for loved ones, and start to recognize in a new way any of the issues that we’re speaking of with the series. I feel grateful that Jen, Sony, and Lifetime are using their opportunities to bring voice to the subject of mental illness.
You’re kind of known for being more in front of the camera. What made you decide to go behind the camera for Grace? What drew you to this project in particular?
Laura Dern:I have always been interested in directing. I directed a short in my late 20s, and I loved the experience and have pursued a few pieces of material in terms of doing a feature. So it wasn’t in the back of my mind to do another short, although to have the experience obviously would only prepare me all the more. I was in the middle of working hard on a pet project/passion project at the same time, so ordinarily, I probably wouldn’t have jumped at it, but I love Jen Aniston. She’s a dear friend, I’m blessed to say. So, that was number one. It was very sweet and exciting to get to collaborate.
But in particular, bipolar disorder, as I mentioned in the answer of the last question, I find it very elusive and far more common than I ever realized. I have met people who struggle with it and I feel immense shame about why their life works in such a complicated way, but no recognition that there is a disorder.
I felt drawn to, you know, participating and exploring the subject matter because there is a stigma that comes with it like no other. It may be equal for men and women, but I think particularly women often get called difficult, reactive, or crazy, and this can make them shut down and move away from getting help.
It’s amazing how I know many people who are very comfortable saying that they’re an alcoholic. Whereas, I know very few people who are comfortable saying that they have a mental illness. I know a few people who do and it is not something that they speak about openly, and that’s tragic.
And so, if this project can help create room for people to be true to who they are and what their struggle is, ask for help and get support, God, even 5%, wouldn’t that be magical.
Q: Something that I thought was really interesting watching Grace was the visuals with the snow globe in the opening scene and there at the end with her speaking while you see her mother’s bipolar ups and downs at the end. Did you sort of play around with how you were going to work that out, or did you know going into it this is how we want it to look? This is the direction we want this to look like.
Laura Dern:No. We definitely played around with it. It’s something that I had a sort of vision of, the snow globe. After I read the piece, I just thought it was interesting to play around with the idea of perception. You know, she perceives her mother one way, and then everything is obviously blurry and impossible to reach. So when considering what that it feels like as the only other person in the house, I thought it would be fun to play around with trying to get inside that feeling from her perspective. So, that’s where it sort of came from.
Q: So how did you prepare to direct on a small budget?
Laura Dern:You know, I mentioned earlier it was really run and gun. We actually were finishing Enlightened in the middle of this, so it was a really insane time for me. It was literally a matter of days. I got the call and they needed to start immediately. Mine was the first one up. So it was literally a matter of –I think– five days between, “hey can we send a script over” and literally needing to be on a set with a cast, a crew, and a vision. So good news and bad news is I think I didn’t have time to even figure out what I needed to know. I just had to go for it.
I love working with actors. I’ve done it my whole life. I’ve been raised by them so I don’t have a lot of fear about that. It feels quite natural to me, I guess. I felt surprised by my awareness of where the camera should be. That seemed natural too oddly and luckily for me I had the brilliant DP, Gail Tattersall, who came and shot it. He and I were in sync about the vision as he supported me immensely.
The part that I think was hardest was just, you know, scheduling the day (time management), making sure actors had the time in something this emotional and shifting locations and all of that. Just the real producerial managing of getting your work done in a very, very short window is probably the area I learned the most from and had the most to learn about.
Q: I mean in the really manic scenes, there is a very clear difference when she’s depressed, when she’s having depressive episodes, and when she’s having manic episodes and real quick scenes during her manic scenes when she takes Segall shopping and everything. How did you do different scenes? What approach did you take for the different scenes…
Laura Dern: You know, relying on a totally brilliant actor like Melissa Leo. You know, really spending time talking through it before we started and really spending time speaking to specialists and someone I know who has the disorder. You know, (did not manifest) differently than this character. Making sure that Melissa felt comfortable with really understanding the highs, the lows, and the in-between. You know, the medicated version which was important to me that when we did the medicated version, it’s not healed.
It’s all about degrees with the disorder and really trying to stay true to that, when someone comes off a manic episode like how they come down off of it. So in a very short time, there were scenes which dealt with every single one of those things, so I think it was more spending time with Melissa and making sure we knew exactly what that was and hoping to capture that in at least one take in each area so that people could really feel the differentiation.
Q: I actually wanted to ask you about the mother/daughter relationship. I mean the mother/daughter relationship is such a hard one to begin with, but adding in this extra level of disorder… did you draw on any experiences from your own relationship with your mom just being a daughter or – because it’s such a powerful relationship that they have in the film? How did you – like where did you come to that? Like how did you try to bring that out?
Laura Dern: For women specifically in this way, my hope – honestly—my greatest hope from the series is not that a disorder is necessarily recognized or empathized with, it’s when something doesn’t feel right, when something doesn’t look right, that we speak about it. You know, tragically 8 year olds are put in that position.
The hope is that even they will have the foresight and the intuition to say, mom you seem sad all the time. They could have a mother with bipolar disorder; they could have a mother who’s an alcoholic. Frankly, they could have a mother who’s had a baby and had post-partum depression and doesn’t realize it. You know, they could have a mother going through a divorce and doesn’t realize that she’s clinically depressed at this moment and may not be in six months. I empathize so much with that feeling of being an only child raised by a single mom, because we went through all of it together – ups, downs, divorce, losing jobs, getting jobs, her being in love, her being heartbroken, and you’re the person there witnessing it all.
I wish for that relationship, that these pieces are a reminder because it’s specific to the mother/daughter relationship, that we are unafraid to admit what we’re feeling because it isn’t a failure. In fact, it might be a disease where there is help for us, or it may just be pain and we need someone to talk to, a group to talk to, or a program to go to. So, that would be my greatest hope: that it would open dialog. God, it’s so funny that makes me say, I realize like you’re down a lot. Like, you sleep late every day, and that feels like me because I know people who have gone through a phase.
I mean, I have a very dear friend who went through a very difficult post-partum depression and thought she was bipolar because she was so confused. She didn’t know what it was not (thinking) that she had this horrific hormonal shift and really needed support. So it, you know, you just run from it and the hope is that it opens the story for all of us that we can talk together and support each other.
Q: Do you hope that, you know, like obviously hoping that mothers and daughters will watch this together, that mothers and sons will watch this together? You know, you feel so bad for the Sarah Hyland character because for some of these kids, you’re supposed to lose your childhood in a sense. It’s like you were saying before. As a child, all you have is your parents, so you’re going to love them no matter what they are, but you really – you could see in this film, it’s like she has no childhood. She… So how did you feel doing that? You know, how was that you?
Laura Dern: I mean what was most exciting was that I learned how many programs there are. So when someone figures out that they have a problem, there are, for example an alcoholic mother, there are incredible teen Al-Anon programs. Suddenly you’re in a room and a group of teenagers learn what is normal based on their experience….and what they can do with it, and what their responsibility is and isn’t. In the Grace piece, in the voice over she says, “You know, I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t hear it.” That’s a profound gift for all of us who’ve ever walked through any challenge with parents because that’s the truth of being a truth. We didn’t create their story and whether they’re mentally ill, have an addiction, have narcissism, are going through a divorce, or going through whatever their challenges are, it is not our responsibility to reach out and find programs that remind them of that is really exciting.
That’s why I think everyone involved wanted the end of Grace’s story to be that she can love her mother, but not stop her own life by feeling so responsible. That she has to live her life and that is of course what her mother would want. So, hopefully that’s the message within it.
Q:Yes. So Melissa Leo, that’s no surprise because we knew she could do big. But Sarah Hyland, we hadn’t seen her do kind of a quiet sensitive drama role like that. Did that surprise you when you cast her and she was able to do it or did you know ahead then if she could do it?
Laura Dern: You know, I was really hopeful. I mean I think that her instincts are really subtle and really pure. I think that’s why she is so funny on Modern Family. Her humor is sort of just being kind of an idiot at times, but not playing it. That’s what so kind of adorable and infectious about her. I think to make the piece work, we needed to have someone we really loved who was delightful as well as honest, and I had seen some footage of her doing some more dramatic things. But I just felt like she was a wonderful actor, and the hope is a wonderful actor can do anything, you know.