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Boy Interrupted: Interview with Filmmaker Dana Perry

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The documentary film Boy Interrupted -- to air on HBO on Monday August 3 with a DVD release to follow on August 4 -- not only tells the story of a 15-year-old's death by suicide, but it also tells the story of a mother's anguish dealing with her son's lifelong disease of bipolar mental disorder. You want to brush it off, this is someone else's tragedy, but the truth is, frightened parents are hearing more and more of such cases. Something's up in the Zeitgeist: my own daughter, now in her early 20's, has attended four funerals of classmates, graduates of her Riverdale private school, in the past few years. And what about the granddaughter of another friend, a talented poet attending a summer program in Italy: what made her hang herself? And another boy this past spring, hurling himself from an unwatched window at a Manhattan school into the yard where others were at play. Privileged, talented, much loved children all.

Of course, each case is individual. Boy Interrupted reveals Evan Perry as charismatic, his mood swings inexplicable. His paternal uncle Scott committed suicide, so you ask, is it genetic? His mother explores many questions without sentimentality, even including stills from her son's unsuccessful suicide attempt. If you are such a mother, experiencing this tragic, personal event of your child's mental illness, how do you cope? What are the signs? How do you protect your child from himself? And what if you have the ultimate, unthinkable circumstance to outlive your child, what then? Hoping to learn more, I sat down with filmmaker Dana Perry.

"Would you look at me differently if my son had died of cancer? People come to the conclusion: It must be the parents' fault. We are no different than anybody else. We did not torture our child. Honestly, I'm just a regular person. It happened to my family, to my mother in law's family. I go to the Jed Foundation and I see a thousand mothers who this has happened to, rooms full of survivors. This problem crosses geography, class -- and it is that much worse for people who are not educated, wealthy, and who are not flexible in their jobs, who do not have access to resources."

Q: Was there more you could have done for Evan?

"The question is not, did you do everything you could. The question is, where do you get the information. As advocates for a mentally ill child, Hart (Dana's husband and production partner) and I were dedicated. But, what do I do, and how do I get the information? There's no manual. When Evan was first diagnosed as bipolar in 2000, I found one book. Today, you'll see shelf after shelf. It's the new ADD. You see it on the cover of Newsweek, a series in The New York Times. We are now comfortable medicating our kids, maybe too comfortable. We are finding out, 50% of college students have difficulties. And we are lucky. The tens of thousands of dollars we spent was worth it. Horrible as our experience was, we could pay for Wellspring where Evan was in a class with two people and it cost $500/day. He flourished and came to life. But no one can afford that. The question is, where are the resources? Now there are more. We did everything we could think of."

Q: And still, he wanted to die?

"I've battled depression but I've never experienced an ongoing wish to die. I can only appreciate it by observation. Martine, Hart's brother's fiancé, says observing Scott, he got into a hole and it is completely consuming. Combine that with a kid's all-consuming self-consciousness and now distinguish the symptoms of bipolarity from the normal problems of a teenager or young adult -- they are already bipolar, lacking in judgment -- combine that with chemical imbalance, you've got extremes that are already there magnified to unbearable extremes. So where is the line between normal and mentally ill? Do all kids rage for hours and have to be sat on? The illness is powerful and you have to keep treating it. "

Q: Did you ever say to yourself, this is a phase? He will grow out of it.

"With Evan, even at age 4 or 5 it was clear. We found out, bipolar people are very clever. He learned to tell us what we wanted to hear. If he said anything, if he displayed dangerous behavior, it was known in our family he would be hospitalized. He was very clever in hiding it. Doctors told us we could keep him alive, but he would never be cured. We wondered, what are we going to do when he is out of our jurisdiction? We often talked about how we might outlive him. At the time Evan died we weren't thinking suicide anymore. He was doing well in school; he was popular. Most shocking to me was when he did it. We weren't expecting it."

Q: The film shows Evan from the time of his birth. Take me through the stages of making this film.

"I am so glad I chose to make the film because it guided my grief. While it was painful and challenging, I looked forward to it everyday. Making the film was a good way to use my days because I couldn't do anything else. Like a detective job, editing, reshaping the material, looking at it in different ways, I could ask myself, what can I learn? As a filmmaking family, we film ourselves extensively. Evan had his own projects. Like most people, we'd take hours of our vacation and put it in the closet. You're not aware what you are capturing. It was only after he died that I began to see what you see in the film. His moods were so mercurial, bound to catch. You see something in the film, and say, Hello, that was a cry for help. We never followed Evan consciously to track him for a film. When he died I asked two friends to film the funeral. I felt, this is so wrong. This should not be happening. Film it. Once that happened, I was sure I would do interviews with his friends. The project started as something to do on weekends. Then HBO came in. We do commercial work for television, for example, we made a 4 hour series The Drug Years, interviewing celebrities, musicians, pop culture figures. Nothing like this film.

"We never worked with HBO before. Sheila Nevins and Nancy Abraham offered good editorial and structural advice and emotional support. They could appreciate what I was trying to do: This is the Mother's Lament."

Q: What do you want to accomplish through this film?

"This is a movie one wishes one did not have to make. Maybe it will break down walls, and stigmas about talking openly about mental illness, to free people to do so without shame. The film asks a lot of questions in a public fashion and stirs up discussion about why we as a society are ashamed about mental illness. Educating people is a real challenge. And, education and treatment is the only suicide prevention. Let's get the word out. We set up a website: www.boyinterruptedfilm.com/"

Regina Weinreich is the author of Kerouac's Spontaneous Poetics (Thunder's Mouth) and editor of Kerouac's Book of Haikus (VikingPenguin). She co-produced/directed the documentary Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider. She blogs on www.gossipcentral.com