Interview with Laura Dern – Director of "Grace" from Lifetime's Call Me Crazy: A Five Film

Photo courtesy of Lifetime Network Copyright 2011

We recently spoke with Laura Dern – who directed Grace, a short in the upcoming new Lifetime film Call Me Crazy: A Five Film – via conference call. This new film tells a story about mental illness through five shorts: Lucy, Eddie, Allison, Grace, and Maggie. Each character, by which the shorts are named, shows a new perspective on dealing with mental illness, whether it is yourself or a family member. In particular, Grace, explores life through teenager Grace’s (Sarah Highland) eyes, who has a mother (Melissa Leo) struggling with bipolar disorder.

Call Me Crazy: A Five Film will air Saturday, April 20th at 8/7pm CST on Lifetime Network. To find out more about the film, visit Lifetime’s website, or follow this link. Check out the interview with Laura below.

Are there some ways the shorts are just plain different and maybe better than full length films?

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, film-making, or performance, there is leeway to kind of do it differently than you ever would in an hour and half or two hours.

Are there some points where you just plain emphasize with Grace in your own mind? I mean you had a colorful, outspoken mother. Are there times where you were kind of like Grace as a kid and thinking, “gee, I wish I had a dull mother like everybody else has”?

Well absolutely. I think that far more of the world than any of us know, because some of us are left with only our own experiences… [as a child], there’s nobody else to check in with 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 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.

What did you find challenging about directing this particular film?

Laura Dern on the set of Grace.
Laura Dern on the set of Grace, of Call Me Crazy: A Five Film.

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.

And what do you think it is about this film that will really connect with the viewers?

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 more known for being in front of the camera. What made you decide to go behind the camera for Grace? What drew you to direct this project in particular?

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, 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 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… even 5%, wouldn’t that be magical.

Watching Grace, I loved 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 all that out, or did you know going into it “This is how we want it to look.”?

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.

So how did you prepare to direct on a small budget?

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.

There is a very clear difference when she’s having depressive episodes, and when she’s having manic episodes – like when she takes the girls shopping. What approach did you take for the different scenes?

You know, relying on a totally brilliant actor like Melissa Leo, really spending time talking through it before we started and really spending time speaking to specialists and someone I know who has the disorder – [though it manifests] 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 [you still see] it’s not healed.

Photo courtesy of Michael Desmond and LIfetime Network Copyright 2011
Sarah Hyland, Aimee Teegarden, Melissa Leo, and Melissa Farman

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.

The mother/daughter relationship is such a hard one to begin with, but adding in this extra level of disorder… it’s such a powerful relationship that they have in the film.  How did you try to bring that out?

Writing 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. 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 postpartum 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. 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.

You feel so bad for the Sarah Hyland’s character because, for some of these kids, you lose your childhood in a sense. How do you feel about mothers and their children watching this together, or maybe just children watching it, and afterwards wanting to find help – resources or programs?

Laura Dern and Sarah Hyland on the set of Grace, of Call Me Crazy: A Five Film
Laura Dern and Sarah Hyland on the set of Grace, of Call Me Crazy: A Five Film.

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, incredible teen [Alcoholics Anonymous] 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 to 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.

Roughly how many days do you think you had between when you got the go ahead and when you had to start filming? How many days did you have to film it and how long did your portion end up being?

It’s sort of like childbirth… it’s all a blur now. I believe it was 3-1/2 days or 4 days of prep. I think each of us got about four days to film. It’s pretty quick. I believe – and Lifetime may be able to confirm that for you – but I believe that’s the case. The post-production process was sort of a couple of days in an editing room, although, that extends a bit as you continue to mix and work on a little more and loop things.

Okay. And, if it was done so quickly, did they have the casting all set? Did you already know it was going to be Melissa Leo and Sarah Hyland when you signed up?

No…. So I’m not trying to be wimpy here when I say I was just trying to figure it all out. It moves quick. These are the same decisions you have to make on a two-hour feature when you have a ten-week pre-production.

So Melissa Leo, that’s no surprise because we knew she could do big. But Sarah Hyland, we hadn’t seen her do 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?

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.

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