Life and Death… and Life

This annual essay begins with this word and these numbers: Briana.07.01.2017. This is the designation I used to label the file of this document.

Each time I attribute another year to my sister’s name, I wish it could somehow bump the one etched on her gravestone. That way I might have a few more days left with her. While three years have passed since she died, Briana’s presence remains, and in many ways, grows as each day passes. A few years ago, she received a camera—a toy camera called a Diana that was brought back into vogue by the Lomography movement—for Christmas. I inherited the camera after she passed, and it’s been sitting on my desk ever since.

Last month, I decided to load some film into the back of it and take it with me on vacation with my family. That way, in a sense, it was as though Briana was with us. My parents took me and my wife, Rachel, to Paris, bless their hearts, and every time we stood awestruck in front of a stunning piece of art, a historic landmark or marveled at the culinary delights on the plates in front of us, I tried to imagine my sister there, looking through the lens I was looking through. It brought me comfort, and a sense of pride—pride because I knew she would be taking the same photos I was.

When I returned from our trip overseas, I stopped in Valhalla, New York and visited Briana at her grave. I had saved the last photo on my last roll of film for her place of rest.

While using her camera may have allowed me some comfort, and perhaps some perspective, it provided brief brightness to what is a determined darkness. Over the past year, my nightmares have worsened: they’re recurring, and they each involve the same thing: spending time with my sister—who is alive in the dreams—but with the knowledge that she’s about to leave this world. The thing is, while I can talk to her directly in these dreams, if I mention her impending death, to her or to anyone else present, the outcome is still the same. I can’t save her no matter how much I want to or how hard I try.

Perhaps, in some sense, one might find it therapeutic to be able to communicate with dead relatives on the dreamscape; however, the dream version of myself is unable to enjoy the experience. All that he, I, can think about is the fact that my sister is going to die and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.

Invariably, the dream version of me begins to weep, my avatar’s subconscious convulsions trigger the muscles of my body and wrench me from my slumber. I wake abruptly, consumed with the feeling of despair, convinced I am weeping—but I am not. I am cold; I am stoic; I am dead. At least that’s how I feel immediately upon waking.

The third year, some say, is the worst. It’s hard to compare. It’s probably pointless to even try.

This week leading up to the third anniversary of my sister’s death is a unique one for multiple reasons, and strangely enough, some of those reasons tend to involve her. It is the week following Episode 8 of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” a stunning masterwork by David Lynch. “Twin Peaks” was Briana’s favorite television show and I have no doubt she would be smitten with the revival series. This episode was very much about death; namely, humanity’s capacity to cause it. This is also the week I am scheduled to lock picture on “No Alternative,” the movie inspired by my sister and her rapping.

There is also something else that makes this time unique: I am expecting my first child.

My wife, Rachel, and I will be having a boy in December. This revelation is both exhilarating and terrifying, and in this case, I’m not sure there’s much of a difference between the emotions. When Briana passed, there was a simultaneous upsurge of some of my closest friends having babies. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the loss of life in my own life by the addition of life in theirs. I felt like the universe had nailed a target to my back; what others gained, I would lose.

The fragility of life is an ever-present concern, given what happened to my sister, and the thought of bringing a child into the world—the world as I understood it—had always seemed a precarious proposition. But what I’m learning, and hope to continue to learn, is that life is an antidote to death. I have no idea what kind of father I’ll be; I just know what kind of father I hope to be, and will do everything in my power to transform that hope into life.

Life is hope, isn’t it?

My sister loved children; she worked with children; she wanted children. I hope my child will get to meet my sister through me, through my family, and through all the wonderful pieces of artwork she left behind for us.

If family is life, and life is an antidote to death, family is something that will never die.

Project Semicolon: R.I.P. Amy Bleuel

Drug addiction, mental illness, and suicidal behavior—which is often a result of one of the two aforementioned issues—are among a handful of problems that our culture has traditionally viewed as moral failings, rather than from physiological disorders. While some progress has been made in this realm, it has not been nearly enough to effect substantive change. Approximately 1 out of 4 Americans suffer from mental illness—that’s roughly 80 million people. Not all health insurance plans cover mental illness; in fact, states have been pushing back against expanding the Medicaid portion of Obamacare that would cover the mentally ill. The Trump administration plans to push this back even farther, eliminating mental illness and drug addiction coverage as an “essential benefit” for Americans seeking insurance. This could translate to millions of mentally ill people not receiving the care that they need.

Drug addiction, mental illness, self-harm and suicidal tendencies must be destigmatized before we can adequately address the issues as a society. Amy Bleuel made it her life’s work to fight for this cause. It is with profound sadness that I learned of Amy’s death this past week. She was a friend of mine and she took her own life.

As the news of the death of Project Semicolon’s founder hit, I perused the internet, perhaps in an effort to engage in a form of communal electronic grieving. There were tributes, of course, as she did so much for so many, but I was disheartened to find numerous posts condemning her death as an affront to the cause—how could someone fighting for others to live, willingly choose to die? In fact, the inspiration behind the now iconic semicolon tattoo is: “In literature, an author uses a semicolon to not end a sentence but to continue on. We see it as you are the author and your life is the sentence. You’re choosing to keep going.” These were Amy’s words, and she chose not to keep going.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s not a choice. Mental illness is not a choice.

My sister, Briana, was mentally ill. Her illness resulted in an addiction to drugs. She was addicted to drugs when she tried to throw herself out of a car I was driving at 60 miles per hour. She was addicted to drugs when she overdosed at my wedding. She was addicted to drugs when she died at thirty years of age.

Mental illness is a disease, and it killed my sister. It was a disease that not only detrimentally affected her, but also her family—my parents’ entire lives revolved around monitoring my sister’s illness and subsequent drug addiction. They know what it’s like. I know what it’s like. And lots of people know what it’s like. But there are also a lot of people who don’t want to acknowledge the seriousness of the illness. And when people do talk about it, it’s usually the people who know little to nothing about it—these people are largely under the impression that it’s not really a disease, or it’s the type of disease that can be talked out of someone. That’s just not how it works.

Just as you can’t talk someone out of terminal cancer, you can’t talk someone out of drug addiction, or out of suicidal ideation, or out of self-harm, or out of mental illness at large. These afflictions can be treated—there is hope, which Project Semicolon sought, and continues to seek, to bring sufferers—however, we don’t choose to be afflicted by such things. Sufferers are victims of these afflictions.

The people who live with these afflictions must push the boundaries of what is considered the “norm” and fight for drug addiction, mental illness and suicide to be included in the same conversations that include such life-threatening epidemics as cancer, AIDS, other deadly diseases. Those who believe the suicide of someone who fought so hard to prevent the suicide of others invalidates her cause, invalidates Project Semicolon, must ask themselves: If someone fighting to prevent cancer in others were to die of cancer, would that invalidate that person’s cause?

Guess what, it’s the same thing—the only thing separating the two diseases is stigma.

The issue of mental illness must be destigmatized. This is the impetus for making my film “No Alternative,” an endeavor that Amy and Project Semicolon supported wholeheartedly. I’m an indie filmmaker working in a business that has, as of late, marginalized personal filmmaking. The film is inspired by my sister’s story; her story isn’t over, because I’ve made it my mission to tell it.

I made this point clear when I got my semicolon tattoo in support of both my film and Project Semicolon’s campaign to end the stigma. It is a tattoo of a semicolon as part of a typewriter’s type-bar. I’m a writer, first and foremost. In the ensuing weeks after my sister died, I came across a journal of hers, which she kept as a patient in a long-term rehabilitation program for addiction. There was quite a bit of writing in its pages, but the only mention of me was a single line that read: “My brother says I shouldn’t waste my talent.” The context had to do with channeling her tumultuous emotions into her art. It wasn’t until several months later, the grief worsening and my productivity hitting a brick wall, that I thought, perhaps, I was meant to read those words, and furthermore that she wasn’t talking about me, about what I said, but that she was talking to me: she was telling me that I shouldn’t waste my talent.

The semicolon tattoo on my arm is there to remind me of this realization, this post-mortem message from my sister to keep writing, to keep making movies, to keep creating art. It now also reminds me of Amy and her struggle and how we all must keep fighting everyday, not only for others, but for ourselves—until the stigma is lifted, we as a society will continue to suffer. My filmmaker friend, John Sandel, summed it up recently when he said: “History can be charted by our efforts to see the causes of disease. “Miasmas become microbes; demons become neurologies … what do we confront in suicide? What epoch of understanding must we enter, to see this for what it is? Who will live, into that new era, who would otherwise have been lost to the error of our misconception?” I’ve personally lost more people my age from mental illness, addiction and suicide than from any other illness. When will we collectively accept this reality, and furthermore, do something about it?

Our stories aren’t over; we continue to tell them—we must continue to tell them in order to end the stigma, and we must continue to tell them in honor of Amy.

***If you’re in need of help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.***

NO ALTERNATIVE: “…And That’s A Wrap!”

The last time I updated my blog, we had yet to begin production on “No Alternative.” Perhaps it’s a testament to the all-consuming nature of production that you have not heard from me since! I am therefore extremely pleased to write that we’ve finished principal photography and the film is in the proverbial “can.”

On the set of “No Alternative.” Photograph by Joshua Sarner.

It want to reiterate that I would not have been able to get this far without the help and support of everyone who contributed to our crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. Because of the strength of the Indiegogo campaign and your stalwart support of the cause, this project has gained the attention of magazine, newspaper and television outlets around the country. It also attracted the interest of investors who also believed in the film — both in its message, and in its commercial viability.

I can honestly say that everyone involved in the filming, from the actors to each and every crew member, was emotionally connected to the material and brought their A-Games to the set:

It was an absolute pleasure to work amidst such a passionate and talented group of people. The leads, Michaela Cavazos and Conor Proft, impressed me more and more each passing day. They were outstanding as Bridget and Thomas Harrison and I can’t wait for viewers to see just how outstanding their performances are on screen. I was also thrilled to work with veteran actors, Kathryn Erbe (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) and Harry Hamlin (“Mad Men”), who played the Harrison parents. I can’t thank them enough for their passion, generosity and faith in me as their director. Coming-of-age movies about families are hard to make in Hollywood, but I truly feel this movie was meant to be made — it was a near-impossible task, but everyone’s contributions made it possible. And it was not only monetary contributions: people donated their time, their 90’s era vehicles, their wardrobe, their food, their houses (as locations and for lodging), their instruments, their band logos and music, among many, many other valuable goods and services. My hometown, the City of Yonkers, could not have been more accommodating throughout the process — it has always bee a dream of mine to shoot this film there. This project was about as grassroots as it gets; and you know what, each and every step of it was invigorating!

Left to right: Conor Proft, Kathryn Erbe, William Dickerson, Harry Hamlin, Michaela Cavazos.

I’m extremely excited to be heading into the next phase of the film: the editing phase. We have a wonderful editor, Natasha Bedu, who has spent a lot of her time recently cutting the Emmy Award-winning series “Intervention” on A&E. Natasha couldn’t be more excited to be part of the team, and I’m thrilled to have her on board!

As we venture into post-production, our fiscal sponsor, From the Heart Productions, has encouraged us to continue raising money for this final, and crucial, part of the process. Those looking for end-of-the-year tax deductions, all contributions remain fully tax-deductible. Please share the project, if you haven’t done so already, and consider adding to your contribution if you feel compelled to do so — we’ve already done so much with a relatively small amount of money (by Hollywood’s standards), a little bit more will assure we get the best post-production sound and color correction we can swing. Here is a link to our current campaign:

https://bitly.com/noalternativefilm

Thank you so much for your support! I wish you all the best this holiday season!!

 

“No Alternative”: Pre-Production Begins

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Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Or, more precisely, casting and locations and storyboards, oh my! Lately, my days have been a triptych of both beautiful and nightmarish imagery, all in service of the pre-production of “No Alternative.” Pre-production has even infected my dreams: the latest one was an elongated hike, alone in the mountains, but thanks to the inexplicable logic of the dream medium, the terrain was the movie itself, and I wasn’t even halfway to the precipice.

However, the most turbulent time for me, with respect to my subconscious, is after filming ends: 3-4 weeks after wrap, I begin directing in my sleep. My wife gets woken up to find me sitting up in bed, pointing at things in the room while calling “action” and “cut” and shouting my DP’s name “Rob” a lot. It makes for some interesting evenings.

If you’ve ever directed a film, you understand how it consumes your life. That’s why pre-production is such a critical part of the process. You can’t go into battle without a battle plan, right? I can’t stress enough, the Hitchcockian goal of striving for boredom on set; he often remarked that he was bored on set, because he had already made the movie before he got there. He was simply witnessing the execution of his vision.

Striving for this is a great thing. Will you be bored on set? Unlikely. However, you will stress a lot less if you’ve already broken down the script, done your beat sheets, and storyboarded the whole damn thing.

That’s where I’m at. I’ve broken down the script, I’ve beat out all the scenes—I know each and every character’s objectives, obstacles, action verbs, adjustments, circumstances, physical life, backstory, and perhaps most importantly, I know the subtext of each scene. In a perfectly constructed scene, the camera films the subtext—the subtext that is translated from the page into a visual metaphor on the screen. I’m smack in the middle of storyboarding. I would love to sit in a secluded corner and visualize the film in such detail that I will have tested and troubleshot every possible shot in my mind. But I have casting and location scouting to do!

In all seriousness, if you’ve done your beat sheets properly, you shouldn’t have to test and troubleshoot every possible shot imaginable—if you know what the scene is about, and you’ve identified the subtext, there is only one way to shoot it.

We’ve been able to recruit a wonderful casting director in Judy Bowman, who is based in New York. We are shooting the film in Yonkers, NY, the fourth largest city in the state, which sits just north of the Bronx. I believe Elia Kazan once said that casting the right actors is 85 to 90 percent of directing a successful film. Woody Allen also said that 80 percent of success is showing up. So, I figure if I cast the film mostly right and show up most of the time, the film will be gangbusters.

Casting is its own art form. This is a very small, independent movie; however, in my experience, actors want to work, and if they see themselves in a part, your chances of booking them for the role are high. We are dealing with a cast primarily of teenagers, which means we’ll be auditioning a lot of people for the majority of the roles. The roles of the parents, however, are such that we might attract bigger name cast members—they’re big parts that can be shot out in a relatively short period of time. You obviously want to find the right people for the roles, but “names” typically don’t audition for independent films. It’s understood that an offer (money, backend points, etc.) is made to an actor before that actor will read the script. That might strike some as snobby, but if you think about it, if name actors (they’re classified as “name” because they’re in demand) responded to every request to audition for an independent film, their days would be completely occupied with them.

From my standpoint, it’s a bit of a gamble. If you’re going to make an offer to an actor, you want to do your due diligence and become as familiar with that person’s work as possible. You should also, if possible, contact those who have worked with that actor before. Most other directors, producers, actors, will extend you the courtesy of sharing their experience with said actor. This courtesy was extended to me once in the past, and it saved my film (and sanity): I ended up choosing not to work with an actor who was problematic on other people’s sets.

We are in the midst of making a few offers and lining up auditions. It’s exciting, but can also be anxiety inducing. While Kazan’s statement regarding actors is sound, logically; actors are also just one part of many parts of the filmmaking process. If you put all your stock in them, you are doing your story, and vision for that story, a disservice.

I will be getting back to my storyboards momentarily; while some directors don’t like to do them, I find they’re essential. You are basically making the movie (sketching every shot of it) before you make the movie, and that would tickle Alfred Hitchcock. And if it would tickle Alfred Hitchcock, I must be doing something right. The sooner I can see my movie in its entirety spread out in front of me, the easier it will be to breathe.

[This piece was originally published in Film Slate Magazine]

An Inside Look Into the Making of “No Alternative”

I’m thrilled to announce that Film Slate Magazine will be publishing a series of real time updates on the pre-production, production and post-production of my film, “No Alternative.”

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“No Alternative” is a personal film that, these days, is near impossible to get made in Hollywood. I’ve written a great deal about how the decline of the middle space of filmmaking has essentially mirrored the decline of the middle class in this country—the chasm between the one percent of filmmaking—tent-pole blockbusters—and the ninety-nine percent—indie films, which have been relegated to shrinking microbudget levels—has never been greater, or more stark.

I’ve directed a few features and never really considered crowdfunding as an option, but Hollywood’s rather myopic focus on the “biggest” and “broadest” has led indie filmmakers like me to welcome such an avenue—we’ve always had to beg, borrow and steal, but such an ethos has never been more germane to independent filmmaking as it is right now. Inspired by my sister’s real-life struggles with mental illness, “No Alternative” couldn’t be more personal to me, and therefore it made for a good project to attempt to crowdfund. Through my research, I’ve found that people are more likely to contribute to a person with a personal story, with a cause, than to simply a story itself.

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We raised over $50,000 through Indiegogo and continue to raise funds through our non-profit sponsor, From The Heart Productions here: https://bitly.com/noalternativefilm. The campaign attracted a lot of attention and drew support from a great deal of people, including Amazon Studio’s own Ted Hope. We’ve been able to raise eighty-five percent of our budget from outside investors who were also drawn to the project and its accompanying crowdfunding campaign. It’s important to remember that crowdfunding campaigns are not only about raising money, they’re also about establishing, and subsequently building, your base. This base includes supporters, fans and potential business partners like investors, producers and keys of departments. The crowdfunding page for your film serves as its “go-to” hub for people interested in it. The best part of it is: if they like what they see and hear, they can be a part of making the movie a reality!

I’ve been open and honest not only about my personal connection to the material, but also about the filmmaking process itself. I’ve written a book on microbudget filmmaking and plan to put my experience and theories on the subject to the test on this film, and I will be keeping a journal of sorts of the process and publishing it in Film Slate Magazine over these next few months as we make “No Alternative.” Stay tuned!

The Interview: A to Z with Angelica Zollo

I am thrilled to be interviewing artist, filmmaker and supporter of “No Alternative,” Angelica Zollo this week. Angelica recently graduated from NYU’s Gallatin School and will be directing her first feature film, the fascinating “Trauma is a Time Machine,” this fall in New York. I have no doubt she is going to be a filmmaker to watch!

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WD: First of all, Angelica, thank you so much for supporting “No Alternative.” How did you find out about the campaign?

AZ: My boyfriend, a fellow filmmaker passed on an article that featured your campaign. I read about your film and watched your campaign video. I was immediately struck by the personal and moving story that you are telling. As someone with mental difference and as someone very interested in telling real stories about using art to express and heal both from living with a mental difference and grieving a loved one. I really connected to the story. I wanted to help in any way I could. It is so important to tell stories about these things, these real experiences that so many are frightened to talk about.

WD: It is extremely important, and I’m glad to see that you want to tell these types of stories as well. I also see that you’re an artist who wears many hats — writing, photography, singing, and of course, filmmaking — do you prefer one medium over the others? If so, which medium and why?

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AZ: I love all of these mediums. I have always loved writing ever since I was little in many different forms. Film has been with me my whole life as I grew up in a family of storytellers. Photography is something I have always done and I constantly get inspiration from photographers’ work. Music also is a big part of my life. I admire so many different artists across many genres. Singing is a healing place for me. It is so important to have a safe place to work through regardless of the medium. There is catharsis in making things and then sharing them, in letting them go, and then hopefully whoever connects with it will feel something and have some kind of response or healing of their own.

WD: You mention catharsis as something artists experience upon the completion of their work. I couldn’t agree more. Do you also think catharsis is something necessary for the experiencer of the artist’s work to undergo as well?

AZ: Definitely, I think it is an experience that hopefully is shared between the viewer and the creator. Regardless of the feeling experienced, hopefully the viewer can relate to something or think they have felt that or know what something is like, or maybe it is just an imagined feeling that now they can see be played out on screen.

WD: Who are some of your artistic inspirations and role models? And why?

AZ: There are so many! My parents are both film and theatre producers and my grandparents also were in film, writing and acting. I am constantly in awe of their hard work and passion for telling stories. I am inspired by artists who aren’t afraid to use their own voice to speak about things that are not necessarily talked about or are difficult. There are also so many incredible female storytellers that have important stories to tell. Not enough of them are heard.

I am constantly watching, reading and listening. I watch loads of old films, and try to watch as much as I can. To name a few new and old: Agnes Varda, Billy Wilder, David Lean, Mike Nichols, William Wyler, George Cukor, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Susane Bier, Andrea Arnold, Howard Hawkes, Spike Jonze, Derek Cianfrance, Hal Ashby, Frank Capra, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, Luis Bunuel, John Cassavetes, Chantal Ackerman, Spike Lee, Xavier Dolan, the list goes on and on. I know I have forgotten so many!

WD: I’m thrilled to hear that you’re about to make your first feature film. You describe the film, which is called “Trauma is a Time Machine,” as exploring the manifestations and experience and healing of trauma through the eyes of a young woman named Helen. This sounds like a very character-driven, emotional film. Why do you want to make it? Why this story?

AZ: Trauma and healing from or working through trauma is something that I really wanted to tackle on screen. So many of us experience trauma in many different forms. Something that I know from experience and from talking to others is that trauma is fragmented, it is in pieces. Our entire nervous system changes in trauma. We go into survival mode and have to face it in some way, there are so many different stages. Trauma isn’t linear. I’m interested in trying to give trauma a narrative and a timeline on screen in a realistic way. I also knew this was a story I wanted to tell and with my close friend Daisy Bevan as the lead. She is a fantastic actress and artist and I knew I could trust her with this story. She is fearless and genuine and incredibly intelligent. I have always wanted to create with her.

WD: Stylistically speaking, you state “The film will be a deep look into the mindset of Helen, an artistic, fragmented, realistic, but also at sometimes dreamlike view at what it feels like to experience and heal from trauma, a way to structure trauma on screen.” How are you visualizing this concept? Will this venture into surrealism? Have you thought about the camera work; the point of view of the film?

AZ: This will be a challenge, showing the manifestations and healings of trauma on screen, but also an exciting one. It will definitely venture into the dreamlike and the surrealist. It will be from her point of view. We will be following Helen’s journey in its fragmented nature. As she picks up the pieces, the viewers will as well.

WD: Following that: is their a sci-fi aspect to the film? I mention it because of the phrase “Time Machine” in your title.

AZ: It does sound a bit sci-fi! The story behind the title is that I really believe that trauma brings someone on a kind of journey into time travel. One can be anywhere, anytime, and the feelings of trauma can flood back at anytime and anywhere.

WD: I noticed that we share a number of filmmakers whom we admire, including Luis Bunuel. Since your film delves into surrealism, I’m curious, what’s your favorite movie of his, and is there a movie of his that has inspired any of your stylistic choices for your film?

AZ: I am not sure what my favorite is, but I love “L’Age d’Or” and “Un Chien Andalou.” The surrealism and dreamworlds created, the editing, the art and references to photography, the bizarre and the romantic.

WD: You’re from London, but currently living in the States. Do you feel like the U.S. is a better environment to make movies in? There has been an overwhelming, and rather disconcerting, trend of Hollywood films eclipsing the world of indie filmmaking; a world in which it seems “Trauma is a Time Machine” belongs. Are you worried about the viability of such an emotional and personal film in the current state of blockbuster movie fare?

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AZ: I love London and will always feel like a Londoner. There are so many great London filmmakers and films being made there. There is a lovely sense of community in the film world there. There is also a bit of an indie renaissance happening at the moment. I think it always was, but more voices are being heard. All I can worry about at the moment is making the best film as I can and having as many people see it as I can. I think truth and trust in the story is all you can really focus on.

WD: Have you heard of “The Fifth Wall?” It seems your film may be classified within this new
movement of independent film. What are your thoughts on such a movement and where your film fits, if at all, into it?

AZ: I read up a bit on this. It is definitely an interesting type of filmmaking. I guess my film could fit in it, but I am not too conscious of what it could fit into or not fit in to. I am just focused on the story and bringing together a team of people who I trust and connect to the story to bring it to life.

WD: When do you plan to begin production on “Trauma is a Time Machine?”

AZ: We begin shooting at the end of August in New York City.

WD: What are your plans for the film after you make it?

AZ: I would just love as many people as possible to see it. We will be submitting to festivals.

WD: What do you see yourself working on in the future? Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?

AZ: I will continue writing in many different forms and hopefully produce films and theatre. There are a couple things in the works development wise at the moment. I also would love to continue singing in some way or another. I will have some of my music in my film.

WD: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten from another artist or filmmaker? In turn, what’s the best piece of advice that you’d like to give to aspiring artists?

AZ: Create as much as you can. Make decisions even if they turn out to be the wrong ones, film is collaborative and everyone learns from each other. Believe in your story and trust your intuition. Listen to each other. A genius editor once told me: “It is not what you leave in, but what you take out.”

WD: I love the quote: “It is not what you leave in, but what you take out.” This can be applied to much more than editing!

AZ: It was said by the brilliant editor Stuart Baird.

WD: Where else can we find you online and learn more about what you’re up to?

AZ: I have a photography website: angelicazollo.com and a sound cloud page with some recordings www.soundcloud.com/atozmachine.

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I’d like to extend a huge thanks to Angelica Zollo for the interview and encourage everyone to check out her photography and music, and to keep an eye out for her debut feature film “Trauma is a Time Machine.” The above photos were taken by Angelica Zollo and are featured on her website.

Triptych: The Three Doors

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July 1st, 2016 marks two years since my sister, Briana, died. It’s surreal to write those words. I promised myself that I would post a piece of writing either about, or inspired by, my sister annually on this date. It is this commitment I honor forthwith.

The grieving process is something that does not end. It’s just not that simple, though I, and others I’m sure, wish it were. It’s akin to the aging process, meaning that we cannot stop it; we must accept it and embrace it as a part of our life. Death, in fact, is as much a part of our lives as life itself. I’ve grown a great deal over the past two years, largely due to the tragic and untimely, passing of Briana. The notion that heartbreaking events put one’s life in perspective is accurate. I have dedicated the past decade of my life to pursuing my dream of making movies. This dedication moved me to Los Angeles, over three thousand miles away from my family, away from my friends, away from my sister. I rarely saw Briana these past ten years, and when I did see her, she was so numbed by drugs in an effort to shield herself from the debilitating effects of her borderline personality disorder that our reunions were limited, disconnected and generally worrisome.

If there’s one thing in life I fear most, it is regret that I fear. Regret is something that terrifies me—will I find myself on my deathbed regretting the choices I made during my tenure in this life? Regret, as both a literary and cinematic theme, consistently weaves its way through my work. It is, perhaps, a bit of an obsession, as any decent artistic theme should be, really. It is also obsession that brought me here to LA in the first place; it is obsession that has fueled my filmmaking pursuits.

My sister and I both shared a love for movies. While I decided to pursue movies as my artistic outlet, she decided to pursue painting, and one of my favorite pieces she created is a triptych of movie theater entrances—those ubiquitous square portals that exist inside a variety of multiplexes worldwide. Movies were, and continue to be, important to my family—the shared experience of going to the movies and watching these emotional rollercoasters on the big screen together and reacting to them collectively, has had a profound effect on me. Briana had a terrific laugh, and we shared many laughs together at the movies (not to mention countless laughs when we both discovered “Da Ali G Show” back in the day). That is why this particular painting—or, rather, three paintings—holds a great deal of meaning for me, and why it hangs on my wall today.

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The entrance to a movie theater is a magical thing: it’s like the door to a spaceship that transports you to worlds you could never fathom existed in other people’s minds. You proceed down a carpeted hallway, within which the unmistakable smell of buttered popcorn wafts through the air, to a succession of doorways, each entrance identical except for the glowing title of the movie that occupies the cavernous room beyond the door that week. Once you sit down in that plush seat, and the light of the projector illuminates itself above you, you are instantly whisked away to an endless number of worlds that stand immune to imaginative limitations.

I am in a business where imaginative limitations are something I stand firmly against. This distaste for such limitations extends to my personal life, particularly in light of the fact that my sister is no longer with us—you see, she is still with us, and it is because of memory and imagination that she is. Behind each of the doors she painted, projects a piece of her life.

In the final paragraph of my novel, “No Alternative,” the dead narrator describes how he would like to be remembered:

I have become the impression that’s perceived by my sister, or that’s how I’d like to be remembered, if given the choice. However Bridget remembers me. The extent of my existence, the part of me that remains and makes a difference, is captured in the colors she uses to paint me on the canvas in her head. And I hope she continues to paint.

It has been difficult for me to regain my focus on filmmaking. Part of the point of my novel was to demonstrate to my sister—while she was still with us—just how devastating it would be to lose a sibling through the realization of how important that sibling relationship is to the characters post-death. In a manner of speaking, the relationship I have with my sister today, post-death, has become more important to me than ever. Briana has become the impression that’s perceived by me. The extent of her existence, the part of her that remains and makes a difference, is captured in the light I use to project her onto the screen in my head.

I’ve made it my mission to use my craft, the craft my sister and I held dear, and every resource I have at my disposal—through both my own means and the goodwill of others—to capture her spirit on film, the film based on my novel, which was inspired by her life. The film is “No Alternative” and I have no alternative but to make it.

NO ALTERNATIVE: To Be Continued…

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It has been an incredibly rewarding, and equally exhausting, few months. I launched my first crowdfunding effort for “No Alternative” on Indiegogo, which succeeded in raising over $50,000 for the project. While it missed the mark of my goal, this is a big chunk of the budget that will, no doubt, help the film get off the ground.

I have so many people to thank for their stalwart support. People I went to school with—every school I’ve ever attended: grammar school, high school, college, graduate school—were there for me. My filmmaking mentors in those schools, like Steve Vineberg, Ed Isser, D.C. Fontana and Jim McBride, all threw into the pot. People who I’ve known all my life, people who I’ve only met once or twice, came to my aid. There were total strangers, who took time out of their days to watch the crowdfunding video and read up on the project, that contributed, some of whom contributed very large sums. There was even some celebrity love from the likes of Greg Poehler (“You, Me, Her”), Cassidy Freeman (“Longmire,” “Smallville”) and Kimmy Robertson (“Twin Peaks”). Perhaps most inspiring was a donation from the head of film production at Amazon Studios, Ted Hope, a renowned producer and studio head who prides himself on supporting indie film and director-driven, personal movies.

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The campaign for “No Alternative” struck a nerve, as evidenced by our 500+ backers, features in publications like Filmmaker Magazine, Film Slate Magazine, Indiewire and Moviemaker, and the countless messages I’ve received from people affected by mental illness on a daily basis.

As many of you know, the character of  Bri Da B in “No Alternative” is inspired by my sister, Briana, who suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. One of the ways she was able to cope with it was through rapping. When the character of Bridget becomes Bri Da B, that transformation into someone else helps lessen her pain. “No Alternative” has always been a love letter to my sister, a plea for her survival. That’s why I wrote the novel that the film is based on. I wish I could tell you that plea was successful. But, unfortunately, I can’t. The majority of my sister’s life was a battle fought against her mental illness, drug addiction and suicidal behavior. A battle she ultimately succumbed to.

While she may have lost her battle, I’m hopeful we can win the war—and after talking to so many other sufferers out there throughout this process, I’m confident we can. The issue of mental illness must, and will, be destigmatized and “No Alternative” is just one step in that direction.

I also must thank From The Heart Productions, who sponsored us as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that supports films that contribute to society. Each donation pledged to “No Alternative” not only helps our film, but also helps other socially conscious films get made. From The Heart has encouraged us to continue raising money for “No Alternative,” and is hosting an extension of our crowdfunding campaign on Network For Good.

What we’ve raised thus far will help us through pre-production and lead us into production. But, we aren’t quite done. This second campaign through From The Heart is meant to build on the momentum we’ve gained and get us through production and into post-production. Remember: EVERY DOLLAR COUNTS. The more we can raise, the higher quality we can achieve—whether it means we can pay for one or two extra crew members, secure an additional day of shooting, or be able to afford the rights to the perfect 90s soundtrack—quite literally, each and every cent matters.

The link to the new campaign is here: http://bit.ly/1qmwc1A

The spirit of “No Alternative” is DIY—do-it-yourself, punk rock, an ethos I truly believe in. But I can’t make this movie alone—I need your help to make it. Please share, contribute and help us continue to build on this momentum into production! In doing so, we can keep the very important conversation about ending the stigma of mental illness alive. I am extremely grateful for the support thus far. Thank you so very much.

All Writing Should Be Eulogies

I’m the go-to guy in my family for eulogies. Someone dies, I’m you’re man. In one respect, this may seem flattering, if not comforting; in every other respect, it’s quite the opposite.

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I remember being in the hospital, sitting next to my sister while she was on life support. She had stopped breathing and was without oxygen to her brain for approximately 40 minutes before the fire department eventually broke down the door and paramedics got a ripple of a pulse back in her.

She was pronounced brain dead. She was going to die. In many respects, she already was.

I sat next to her the day before we were to take her off the breathing machine and the drugs that were stimulating her heart with my laptop open. My parents asked me to write the eulogy, and of course, I would; I was expecting to—Briana would have wanted me to, that I know, without a doubt—but I wasn’t expecting to write it with her in the room. She was still alive, technically, and I began writing her eulogy. I never dreamed that I would be doing such a thing. I had to ask my father “Do I refer to her in the past or present tense?” Again, a question I never thought I would have to ask in a million years. When I say I was writing, what I mean is I stared. Unable to bring myself to start writing, I stared at that blank page for longer than I’ve ever stared at any other before or since.

In that moment, that blank page was my sister. On one hand, her life was taken from her at far too young an age; on the other hand, her life had been mercifully relieved of the burden of her demons. Both sides were ostensibly a blank page; both the beginning and the end, the end and the beginning. For me to write on this page, a page that was pure, that represented both life and death, seemed beyond the scope of my expertise. I felt ill-suited for such a task, a task that was unfair for me to undertake, but also a task unto which I was the only person suited.

I was reminded of Ernest Hemingway when he purportedly said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Every story has been told before. I recoil from the thought of how many people have sat next to a loved one who was dying—one who was unable to be helped no matter how much you wanted to and were willing to help. What hasn’t been told before is the way I, or you in this similar situation, experienced it. To be compelled to write about it is thoroughly human, because the act itself extends beyond us—and beyond the limitations of our expertise—and touches others. The act itself provides both a sense of solace and mutual mourning, which will ultimately provide a sense of hope and unified catharsis as the weight of the tragedy is redistributed to the shoulders of others.

It was once the consensus of the mainstream that the best kinds of art come from the worst kinds of tragedy. The idea of the tortured artist was accepted, and in some cases, the path considered noble. In recent years, this idea is considered unnecessary and pretentious. If you haven’t experienced this type of tragedy, how can you possibly write about it? The answer is: you can’t. You can fake a lot of things, but you can’t fake emotion. If you haven’t experienced this type of tragedy, you haven’t been scarred by it, then you should enjoy the life that you have. I cannot enjoy my life the way I used to, because I am permanently scarred. However, art can help, art can manage, art can guide me to rediscovering how to live again, because learning to live again is exactly what needs to occur, or frankly suicide is as rational an option as any other.

Eventually, I began writing; and it was the best fucking writing I’ve ever done:

http://williamdickersonfilmmaker.com/eulogy-for-my-sister/

While it strains reality to label anything inside this tragedy as a gift, I believe that my sister, in this moment, was giving me a gift. In the ensuing weeks, I went through her things and came across a journal of hers, which she wrote while in a six-month inpatient rehabilitation program for drug addiction. There was quite a bit of writing, and the only mention of me in her journals was a single line that said: “My brother says I shouldn’t waste my talent.” The context had to do with channeling her emotion into her art, as a way of leaking some hope through that din of despair. It wasn’t until several months later, as the grief was exponentially worsening and my productivity hit a standstill, that I thought that, perhaps, I was meant to read those words, and furthermore that she wasn’t talking about me, about what I said, but that she was talking to me, addressing me. Her words were staring back at me from the page: she was telling me that I shouldn’t waste my talent.

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Hemingway wrote: “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.” Living people die, characters do not—characters live on in the eternal mediums they’ve been brought to life within. Perhaps, paradoxically, writing good characters means writing about death, for death is the precipice upon which life precariously leans over, for to stare over that edge is the only way to truly experience life. This is why all writing should be eulogies. To understand death is to understand oneself, one’s fellow man, which is to say, man can never really be understood. Man is an unknown—to treat man as anything else but an unknown, is to ignore our monumental insignificance amidst the unfathomable scope of our universe.

What we can do, as writers, as filmmakers, as artists, is allow another person into the unfathomable existence of another—of one of Hemingway’s “characters.” To do so brings solace, a sense that we’re not alone in this collective struggle, and the act of doing exactly that is art’s sole, and often noble, purpose. To do so makes certain that others know they are not alone at the bedside of their dying kin; there are others there, too. There are others who know.

If Briana’s talent as an artist was her gift to me, then my film, “No Alternative,” will be my gift to her, and to those who both knew her and didn’t get the chance to know her. Bridget, aka Bri Da B, is the best character I’ve ever written, and that’s because I barely had to write it—it wrote itself; this role inhabits the soul of my sister.

Please help me bring this role to life; help me keep the flame of my sister’s life aglow. Check out the campaign to do just that here: http://bit.ly/1qmwc1A

Suicide: The End, and the Beginning

I think a lot of people who say they don’t think about suicide, think about suicide.

I’m not saying they think about committing suicide, but the idea, the notion, the concept, is pervasive in our culture, and frankly, our DNA. It’s there, bubbling underneath the surface. As I write in the opening lines of my book, “No Alternative”:

Suicide is a universally human phenomenon. It’s what separates us from the animals, despite the fact that people shun it and cloak it in taboo. Animals do not commit suicide, at least that’s the common wisdom. It is this received wisdom that reveals something about our attitudes on the subject, as suicide is most always painted in the light of shame and pity, something we reserve for lesser beings than ourselves. In actuality, suicide is a refined and selfless act, usually a result of many thoughtful hours, days, months, or years of meticulous and steadfast preparation. Suicide is not thoughtless; it’s precisely the opposite.

Perhaps I think about suicide more than others—I wrote an entire novel on the theme, in an attempt to prevent others from succumbing to self-harm. My idol killed himself when I was 15 years old. His death was the reason I picked up a guitar, because I wanted to learn all of his songs, perhaps in an attempt to somehow keep his spirit alive. His suicide not only united many alienated teens in 1994, but it also led tragically to a number of copycat suicides. In retrospect, every song on his band’s album, “In Utero,” reads like a suicide note. We didn’t realize it before—we rarely do realize it before—it’s only after one commits suicide that everything that came before, that led up to it, seems so patently obvious.

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While my parents and I believe the overdose that led to my sister’s death was accidental in nature, she had attempted suicide several times in the past. Two of those times were, seemingly, in direct response to me.

I live in Los Angeles, California, though my family still resides in Yonkers, New York—as did my sister while she was alive. One of the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder is a constant need, and consequent demand, for attention. Pay attention to me! in its most severe incarnation. If the sufferer of BPD perceives a lack of attention, it often leads to a concentrated feeling of abandonment, which can then metastasize into rage and recklessness, or worse, self-hate and self-harm. I only get to visit New York about twice a year; so understandably, my parents spend a lot of time with me while I’m there. Two of those times, in attempts to redirect their attention back to her, my sister tried to kill herself.

When she did try to kill herself, she always managed to do a pretty good job. She put herself into a coma on more than one occasion. I was by her side one of those times. When she awoke, the drugs having been eliminated from her system, I asked her, “Why are you doing this?” In one of her most sober of moments, she looked up at me and said: “I don’t want to live anymore.”

Suicide is the thing; the goal; the beginning and the end; the next big thing; the be all, end all; the eye in the sky – it’s the Tylenol bottle with the 20 bonus pills, because swallowing an entire bottle of Tylenol can kill you.

Suicide is an option; it’s an alternative; it’s aqua seafoam shame; it’s dead of a shotgun blast to the head.

Suicide is the lyric of a song; packaged inside a gold record.
Spinning.
Spinning.
Spinning.
Spin the black circle.

While I might be able to rationalize that my sister is in a better place—that she is finally free from the terrible yoke of mental illness and addiction around her neck—it is still impossible to accept. I alluded to this in a letter I wrote to her while she was in one of her comas, and within inches of her death, a letter that I also included in my novel. Here is an excerpt:

Dear Briana,

The moment I’m writing this, you’re unconscious in the hospital, a stomach full of charcoal, and you’re on a ventilator because you cannot breathe. They say you might not make it. I don’t know what I’d do if you don’t, because I can’t bear to think about living in this world without you in it.

You’re my little sister, and big brothers are supposed to protect their little sisters. And I’m weeping right now because of how incredibly helpless I feel—I’m right next to you, but still a thousand miles away. It tears me apart to think that I somehow failed you as a brother. Out of anyone else on this planet, you’re the person that most resembles me; genetically, we have the same make-up. By killing yourself, you would be, literally, killing a part of me. For you to leave this Earth is an abstraction my mind simply cannot accept.

Right now, I’m hoping for one thing, that you will be able to read this letter. I can’t bear the thought that you might not be able to—that you might not make it. That can’t happen. I love you so much, Bri, more than anything, much more than myself. I might not have ever said those words, but I’m writing them right now.

If you need a reason to live, and all you need is one, here it is: I want you to live.

I’ll be with you forever, whether you know it or not.

Love,
William

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One thing that I am grateful for is that my sister did awaken from that coma, and she did get to read that letter. In fact, she apparently read it often at times when feeling the siren call of suicide reach out to her.

It did give me some consolation, in my grieving—a grieving that will continue until I, myself, am in the ground—to know that Briana read how much I loved her. There are many people who, for one reason or another, never get to convey their personal feelings to those who they love most. Then it’s often too late. At least it wasn’t too late for me. Not that time.

However, regret looms, and it looms large and it looms heavy.

Regret is a theme that weaves its way into all of my work, and that’s because it’s a theme that weaves its way through my life. I would often avoid communicating with my sister—when she called, I wouldn’t answer; when she texted or messaged me, my responses would be terse and included the phrase, “I’m really busy.” My dime store psychoanalysis of my behavior might be that I wanted to keep my interactions with her brief and dispassionate, for fear of saying the wrong thing and potentially setting her off, something siblings are experts at doing.

What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and pick up that phone, or write an overly verbose and emotional response, but I can’t go back in time. I ignored my sister; I ignored her while pursuing my often quixotic attempts of getting my movies made out here in Hollywood. Putting my work ahead of my family is something that concerns me greatly; it concerns me, because I’m sure I’m guilty of it. If I regret anything, I want to use that regret for the good. I don’t want to ignore it, I want to reroute its impact on me. The truth is the regrets will never go away. I can use it in my writing, and my filmmaking—that I can do. Does this make me feel better? I think in a lot of ways it does; even though I know it won’t erase them. It exposes me to the pain of these regrets; it forces me to relive them, since ignoring things doesn’t make those things go away. Those things must be dealt with.

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I honestly don’t know if my grief is changing. And I shouldn’t use the word honestly because that implies that other things I’ve written aren’t honest. I’m trying to be honest. Somehow, though, this inevitably leads to me beating up on myself. It’s easy to blame, and feels good to blame, because it makes things black and white, and it’s easiest to blame myself. Because I’m still here, I can hold myself accountable—there’s no need to issue a warrant for my arrest, I can lock myself up whenever I see fit.

My sister is gone, and in many ways I grieved for her before she died. I was told on two occasions that she wouldn’t make it through the comas she put herself in, when she tried to take her own life. I was told to be prepared for the worst. I grieved then, even though she ended up surviving; I also knew that as each day passed, there was a distinct possibility that she would not be there. Every call I received from my parents, just seeing their names on my phone, filled me with dread. Were they calling to tell me something had happened to Briana? This was always the first thought in my mind.

When my parents call now, that thought is no longer there. While that knee-jerk dread is gone, I wish it were still there, because that would mean that Briana was still there.

Perhaps this film is my way of giving her the attention I should have given her before; the attention she deserved as my sister. Perhaps it will do some good for those thinking about committing suicide, to see how suicide affects a family in this story. That is certainly my hope. Perhaps this will help alleviate some of the regret that weighs me down, that shames me on almost a daily basis.

One thing goes without question: I will regret not making this film. There is “No Alternative” but to make it.

And I need your help to make this film a reality: http://bit.ly/1qmwc1A

William Dickerson is Stephen Fry proof thanks to caching by WP Super Cache