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Interview with Sandra Nettelbeck: Writer/Director of Helen

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I didn't really know much about Helen (except that it was going to be released this summer) until I got an email from Sandra Nettelbeck, the director asking me what I knew about when her film was coming out. I was surprised to get the email from a woman who has a track record (Mostly Martha) and has a film that premiered at Sundance and that has a very high profile star (Ashley Judd.) But that's the business and films get lost and lots of time don't even get released. The good news is that 18 months after its premiere at Sundance, Helen will finally see the light of day this weekend in NYC and shortly thereafter on DVD.

Sandra Nettelbeck answered some questions about the film.

Women & Hollywood: In the press notes you talk about how you were inspired by your friend's suicide to tell this story. Why did you work so hard and long (10 years) to get this film made?

Sandra Nettlebeck: I was profoundly shaken by the death of my friend. The terrible loss, the painful questions and self-doubts that inevitably come with such an experience stayed with me. But it wasn't until three years later, when I read an article in The New Yorker by Andrew Solomon about his battle with and survival of his own depression, that I started working on Helen. Andrew's story of survival inspired the story of Helen, and I felt it was a hugely important story to tell. So many people are affected by this deadly illness, and so many people still know so little about it. I am convinced that the lack of information, support and acceptance that clouds clinical depression costs lives every day. I wanted to do my part in trying to change that. This kind of motivation, to feel that you have something to say that will matter, make a difference, possibly help other people, goes a very long way.

W&H: Mental illness is a very common theme in films yet we usually see other people commenting on the person who is ill. Here you give us almost an x-ray of a person living with depression. Why was that important to you?

SN: It was important to me to try and tell the story from the perspective of Helen. We've seen plenty of films about mental illness, addiction, etc. from the perspective of the husbands, wives, parents, children, friends, about how they experience it when a loved one falls ill. I wasn't interested in that, even though the family plays a crucial role in Helen as well. I wanted to show what it is like inside of depression. Shed a light on the enigma of a hellish disease and the extent to which it can ruin us. Depression, by nature, is the loss of communication. Film is all about communication. That's a tricky opposition to balance throughout a two-hour drama. Hopefully, I managed to give a glimpse of what it can be like to live in such a skin, give the audience an idea of what it feels like when these walls are closing in on you.

W&H: This is not an easy movie to watch, but it is hopeful and redemptive. What can you say to people who might be put off and not want to make the effort to see a "hard" movie especially in the summer.

SN: That it may be even harder to watch it in the winter! No, seriously, this is a tough movie in any weather. And I'm sure it's not for everyone. But in ten years I have not met one person who was not in some way directly or indirectly affected by this illness. Everyone had a story to tell. Consider the numbers for a moment. In the US alone, almost 20 million people suffer from depression, more than twice as many women as men, and it is the leading cause of disability in the country. And these are just the ones we know about, the ones who got treatment, who managed to face the fact that they need help.

But Helen is also, first and foremost, a love story. It asks the question that I always ask, and that really is the one question that I never get tired of asking - what love can do for us. Helen gives a big answer to that. No matter how hard or dark it gets, I know there is hope and love, and I think the movie compounds that. How crucial it is not to give up hope, under any circum­stance. Not as the one afflicted, nor as the one trying to help. I've met a lot of people who shook my hand after the movie because they either finally felt under­stood or did understand in a way they hadn't done so before. So I do believe this film can make a difference. And as a filmmaker, to me that is the proudest moment.

W&H: How did you get Ashley Judd?

SN: Actually, she got to me. Somebody gave her the script to read and she wrote me a passionate letter about how much it would mean to her to be involved in this film. What she hadn't been told was that, at the time, I already had a lead actress committed to the project. Ashley and I met anyway because I was very moved by her conviction and enthusiasm, her readiness to take on such a challenge. A few months later, fate would have it that my lead actress had to leave the project due to another prior commitment and ill-timing. So I called Ashley and asked her if she would still consider the role. She said yes right away, and lucky for me, she was available. I think it was meant to be. The film was as personal to her as it was to me.

W&H: Ashley Judd goes to depths we have never seen from her before. How were you able to get such a stark and brutally honest performance from her?

SN: Ashley was ready and prepared to give herself to this complex and difficult performance in a way that doesn't happen very often. I think that is the greatest gift to any director - when it is as meaningful and significant to an actor to embody a character, become part of a story, as it was for Ashley to portray Helen. Of course it is also a huge challenge. How much do you push someone on this journey, and how do you protect them. I had to rely on Ashley to draw the line, all I could do is offer her my guidance, my presence, a safe haven any time she needed it - and ask her to trust me as a director. I think she is a brilliant actress, and what she is able and willing to share with us on the screen as Helen is nothing less than extraordinary.

W&H: There are two different forms of mental illness dealt with in the film, depression which Ashley Judd's character suffers from as well as bi-polar disorder which Lauren Lee Smith's character Mathilda suffers from. How were you able to choreograph the scenes between the two actresses who were both dealing with very different emotions that needed to come out onscreen.

SN: As a director I do everything to make the actors feel safe, and if they trust me, they can go to places they haven't been to before. There is also something truly intimate about Lauren Lee Smith's performance, something very private and raw. I don't think you get that if the actors don't believe you'll do right by them or if they're not convinced that you know what you're doing, that you will protect and appreciate what they give you. I think both Ashley and Lauren felt extremely self-confident inside of their roles, and I myself had very precise ideas about each of the characters that I was able to convey to the actors. So nobody got lost. I think it was this clarity that guided us through the scenes. There was never any doubt in my mind about their relationship, how they affect, oppose, care for and love each other for who they are. The very thing that drives the two women together, their ability to accept each other and give each other the space (and company) they need, their unique relationship within the story, their dynamic opposition and alliance is also what makes the scenes work, and ultimately how Ashley and Lauren worked next to each other. And even though they deal with different illnesses, Mathilda knows depression, as it is part of her condition. She knows how Helen feels, and this is their common ground. Helen on the other hand doesn't know mania, she can't follow Mathilda to that place. She doesn't understand the terrifyingly appealing ambivalence of bi-polar disorder that Mathilda feels and lives with, and that is precisely where she loses her.

W&H: Depression and mental illness in general is pervasive yet is still stigmatized. The most fully functioning person could all of a sudden be plunged into such deep depths. What do you want people to learn from this film?

SN: That it can happen to everyone. That it often happens to people you least expect it of. Also, of course, and this is particularly challenging, people have to understand how fine and fluctuating the line is between unhappiness and illness. That people, including and especially the sick ones, often can't tell the difference - sometimes until it's too late. Many people would never get as sick as they do if they would find help sooner. The stigma is everywhere, maybe even particularly in the hearts and minds of the people who are ill. You very often hear severely depressed people wish they had cancer, broken bones, anything other than depression - in other words, a "real" illness. Something one can see, point to, identify, isolate. Depression is invisible, often masked (by alcoholism for example), and it afflicts the mind, so it robs us of the very organ we need to cope with it in the first place. It can be a deadly cycle. When you're inside the illness, you not only lose your grasp of reality, of perspective and hope, you also lose your ability to understand and rationalize your condition. Death becomes attractive because it seems to be the only means to heal the disease.

What I want people to learn above all else is that there is no shame in seeking help and that the best help one can offer as a loved one or friend is to help a depressed person find that help. Nobody expects people with diabetes to "pull themselves together" and try living without the insulin. But there are many people who would still be alive today if they had found the proper professional help at the right time, and this includes medication. You can see, I do think we have a lot to learn and I could go on and on. If I had to sum it up, once again, I'd say, don't be afraid or ashamed to ask for help, don't give up hope, and don't give up the fight.

W&H: You also really try to get to the heart of how mental illness is so misunderstood. When Helen's husband David (played by Goran Visnjic) says to her psychiatrist, Helen is unhappy, the doctor responds - your wife is not unhappy, she is ill. Can you talk about how hard it is for people to understand mental illness?

SN: It's a bitch. Like I said, we can't point to it. Multiple sclerosis doesn't look like a broken heart. Cancer doesn't feel like sadness. Clinical depression however moves within this realm. And we're inclined to solve our own problems, get a handle on things, tough it out, move on, not whine, take control, be a winner etc. Even when depression is at its worst, when your despair is beyond belief, when you can't get out of bed, when you feel nauseated all the time, when you can't sleep, when you loathe yourself inside and out, when nothing makes sense and you don't feel love for anything, when you can't stop crying and all you can think about is how best to end your life - even then, the idea that it is your fault, that you really only need to pull yourself together and you'd get better, can easily manifest itself. And it's not surprising. The lines are almost impossible to draw, and it's hardly ever completely exclusive of one another. At the other end of the spectrum one may draw the line too easily. As if a pill is all you need. I can tell you this: at best pills can help you manage depression, they can help you learn to live with it, they can lift the most paralyzing black blanket and enable you to get back some control, to live your life in a way so you are no longer a victim of your illness. But they're not a cure. They can't make you happy. Happiness is still very much our responsibility and has nothing to do with the disease. Just as it is our responsibility to deal and address conflict that arises, face necessary struggles and respect and accommodate love and relationships. Happiness is no guarantee and can't be medically induced. The ability to live your life fully however is something one can be robbed of by the disease. And all this is just the tip of the iceberg. Depression is long, tedious, hard work, and once you get through the thick of it and are lucky enough to survive it, the real work begins (like it does at the end of the movie). Even under the best of circumstance, when you have people who love and try to understand and accept you for who you are, living with this illness is hard.

W&H: The film premiered over a year ago at Sundance. Why did it take so long for it to come to theatres?

SN: More often than not it is frustrating, demoralizing and sometimes infuriating how little control one has over this aspect of the filmmaking process. Not to say that there has ever been an easy time to release a challenging film, but the last couple of years certainly haven't been favorable for independent drama. I have to say I am very happy that the film will see the light of day at all in the US. I feel that that's where this film really belongs. I surely wish it had gotten a lot more exposure than it has.

W&H: What are you working on next?

SN: I'm adapting a French novella about an American widower in Paris. It's a charming, bittersweet and melancholic comedy. It reminds me in many ways of Mostly Martha and once again revolves around the themes that you can find in each one of the five films I've made so far - who is part of the family, what we do for love and what love can do for us.

Helen opens in NY at the Quad today and will be out on DVD August 10th.

Originally posted on Women & Hollywood