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!

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

Music Is A Drug

No, really, it is. Music can significantly increase the levels of serotonin in a listener’s brain, which, as a result, positively impacts mood, sexual desires and the physical manifestation of those desires, overall cognitive function, regulation of body temperature, sleep and memory. Plug in your headphones and prescribe yourself a song.

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The ability of music to impact, and indelibly mark, our lives cannot be underestimated. Melody, and the infinite ways of conveying melody, has a way of bypassing left-brain modes of communication and injecting itself directly into our bloodstreams. Music, for me, is a roadmap to my memories. I often mark moments in my life by the songs I was listening to at the time—for some reason, I can almost always remember the music associated with the happenings in my life, which then helps me place the moment, reconstruct the event, and relive the memory with some semblance of context.

Here are just a few examples:

Nirvana’s “Drain You;” circa 1995: I played over-and-over-again while pumping myself up to call my first girlfriend and ask her out on our first date.

Weezer’s “Only In Dreams;” circa 1995: The first song I crowd-surfed to while listening to it live as Weezer played at Roseland Ballroom.

Cowboy Junkies’ cover of “Blue Moon;” circa 1999: Used as an aid for sense memory (actor lingo) in preparing for my first stage performance in college, where I had to cry in a scene.

Metallica’s “Don’t Tread On Me;” September 11, 2001: In an effort to get my mind off the tragedy that was befalling the country, and the world, just a few blocks away from the skyscraper I was sitting in, I turned on the Opie & Anthony radio show on 102.7 and listened to them play this song. It was an unabashed appeal to those listeners looking for revenge, the immediate and swift kind, as the song preaches “settling the score….and preparing for war.” It’s a song that at that moment, for better or worse, appealed to the salivary glands of a nation scorned. It epitomized the knee-jerk reaction to a tremendously complex situation that no doubt led many to initially justify the unending quagmire we got ourselves into.

Radiohead’s “All I Need;” April 30, 2010: The song that I danced to with my wife, Rachel, at our wedding. It’s difficult to put the importance of this particular merger of song and moment into words. However, what I can say is that beyond sealing our love for each other, the moment proved that you can dance to Radiohead.

Jimmy Eat World’s “Hear You Me” and Weezer’s “Mykel & Carli;” July 1, 2014 and July 5, 2014, respectively. When my sister, Briana, sunk into her coma, my wife rushed home to be with me. This was perhaps the worst twelve hours of my life—my parents had just gone on their first vacation in years; they were overseas, and thus unable to be reached until they woke up in the morning, which due to the time difference, was still a number of hours away. On her car ride home, the first song to play on my wife’s iPod was “Hear You Me,” which, under the circumstances, made her think of Briana. I didn’t know this until several days later. The day Briana died, July 1, 2014, I asked her husband—who was also a musician, like I was—if there were any songs she had been listening to recently, which had been special to her, which meant something. If so, we should learn it and play it at her funeral. He said, without thinking too long about it: “Hear You Me,” by Jimmy Eat World. When I told my wife this, she then told me how this song played in her car the other day, the day it happened, and she’d been thinking of that song ever since.

Perhaps it was Briana requesting the song. That’s certainly how it felt.

The next several days I spent learning the song and writing Briana’s eulogy and reflecting on her life, and my life with her. The minutes leading up to having to leave for her funeral, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. I felt like I was stuck. The only thing that could unstick me was Weezer’s “Mykel & Carli.” I played it on repeat, as loud as I possibly could through the miniscule speakers in my laptop, while I tied my tie, over and over again, in search of the perfect knot and proportional length.

The song is a tribute to Mykel and Carli Allan, the co-founders of Weezer’s Fan Club who were killed in a car crash on their way back from a Weezer concert.

Back in Wilson High/
Said I had these two best friends/
Till the school bus came/
And took my friends away/
Now I’m left alone at home/
To sit and think all day.

Hear you me, Mykel/
Hear you me, Carli.

The members of Jimmy Eat World were also friends with Mykel and Carli, and their song “Hear You Me” was both a tribute to them, and also an homage to the Weezer song, in which the phrase “Hear You Me” is sung to the two sisters, as though it’s trying to reach them beyond the grave. In Jimmy Eat World’s version, it’s less burning, and more mournful, with its chorus ringing:

May angels lead you in/
Hear you me my friends.
On sleepless roads the sleepless go/
May angels lead you in.

Briana’s husband, Anthony, my band, Latterday Saints (aka Guy Smiley), my wife, and Briana’s friends, Jillian and Allison, formed a group. We called ourselves “The Sleepless” and performed this song for my sister beside her coffin before she was lowered into the ground.

Music connects the dots; and we are all just dots on this planet, a wide and caustic spectrum of terra firma that is, more than often, unforgiving.

It’s music that I used as a framework for “No Alternative.” The landscape is the grunge era of the early 90’s, a milieu in which teenagers never felt more alone—this, at the very least, was the standard set by their moniker: Generation X. However, it was through music, which seemed to reflect that loneliness, disaffection and angst that brought an army of teenagers together. This movement in music, in my opinion, has never been matched—it was a cultural phenomenon, in both the worlds of alternative and rap music. It was a time when teenagers felt alienated, whether as a result of their place in the world or the hormones whirling inharmoniously inside their bodies. However, at this moment in 1994, teens were able to harness what is often uncontrollable energy through the music they played and listened to.

Music can do more than just mark one’s life, and through those markings, enhance the quality of it. If music is a drug, then life is, arguably, its active ingredient. While it’s not a cure for our shared disease of death, it gives us solace as we make our inevitable march towards it.

Music is the drug in “No Alternative”: http://bit.ly/1qmwc1A

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