Director Vincent Sabella on Honestly Portraying Schizophrenia in 'Elizabeth Blue'

Vincent Sabella_ - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of PMK BMC

"When I think about all of the mental problems I have, I always say it’s a blessing in disguise, that my brain works different."

With his feature directorial debut Elizabeth Blue, writer/director Vincent Sabella tackles mental illness — specifically schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety — all of which Sabella grapples with personally.

The film tells the story of Elizabeth (played by Anna Schafer), who recently got released from a mental institution and is now planning her wedding. With the love and support of her fiance, Grant (Ryan Vincent), and the help of her new and determined psychiatrist (Suicide Squad's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Elizabeth is doing her best to maintain a normal life.

In addition to his own experience with mental illness, Sabella enlisted the help of his psychiatrist for the film in order to make sure its portrayal of the diseases, the language used, and the medical terms were all correct.

According to Schafer, who says she’s "honored" to have been chosen to tell Elizabeth (and Sabella's) story, the efforts paid off. "Working with Vinny was an extremely rewarding and eye-opening experience. It's rare when playing a character, that the director is that character," she said, adding, "every hallucination is something he heard, he saw, he felt. As an actor it was an incredible insight to what schizophrenia is and what it looks like."

Sabella is known for his Oscar-qualifying short films Anonymous and Note, as well as Imagination of Young, which was nominated for several awards at the Idyllwild International Festival of Film in 2015.

The film has a limited release in theaters starting Friday.

Below, Sabella gets candid with The Hollywood Reporter about the stigma surrounding mental illness, his experiences with it and what he hopes audiences take away from the film.

How autobiographical is the film?

I would say it’s about 97 percent autobiographical. All the medications Elizabeth is on, I take. All of the mental health issues she has, I have. The only thing I would say wouldn't be the same is that I was never planning my wedding. I suffer from schizophrenia, OCD, depression, anxiety and I’ve been dealing with that all my life, and the good thing is, now, I haven't had to go through a medication change since 2010. The film is actually based on a year [2010] when all my medications failed, and I took that year from our lives — me and my husband Joseph [Dain], who produced the film — I took the year to really put into the film because the first script was an over-the-top rom-com, and it mocked schizophrenia and I wasn't a fan. When the time came, I was asked to do a rewrite, and I instantly knew exactly what this needs to be. The only thing that made it from the original script to this script was the fact that her name was Elizabeth Blue — but I gave [her name] a different meaning — and the fact that she was getting married and had schizophrenia.

Were you ever worried about portraying these issues in the wrong way?

It wasn't so much that I was concerned with portraying it in the wrong way. I think my actress, Anna Schafer, was concerned about either going over the top or not going far enough. How I work is, I really sit down with my actors and I talk with them from the day they get cast and I just really make them feel safe and comfortable. Nothing is off limits, and we just talk and talk and talk and talk. And that's what I did with Anna, I talked with her and nothing was off limits. We shared everything, we got really personal and that was when she felt completely safe and she knew how far to go with the character.

It was really good for her because I was able to tell her what it felt like and my husband, Joe, was able to tell her what it looked like. So, she had both sides and it was very much an advantage for her. So I wasn't concerned about not being accurate, she was very concerned and wanted to just get it right. When we were on set, she told me, "You're not saying anything to me." And I said, "I don't have to!" because she was just nailing it. Everything that she was doing was just effortless and flawless. 

Was it difficult for you to do something so personal, or was it more cathartic for you?

I wrote and directed my first short film in 2013, called Note. It stars my friend August Roads, who actually wrote three original songs for Elizabeth Blue and performed them. When I wrote Note, it was based on me when I tried to commit suicide when I was about 16 or 17 and I left behind a suicide note. And it basically gave you the top 10 tips on how to write the perfect suicide note. So that was my first cathartic experience. But going into this, this was a different experience, and I wouldn't say it was cathartic. It was stressful at times, especially when we were casting the character Tim [played by Christopher Ashman]. Tim is a real hallucination of mine. All the hallucinations in the film are real: The raccoons are real, Tim is a real hallucination of mine who is just vicious. So when we were auditioning Tim, I started to have an episode and lucky for me, [my husband's] office is on the same lot as we were, so he was able to come get me and give me medication. That was really hard. And then when we got on the set, I had to walk off twice. And we pre-warned the cast and crew, if I had to leave the set, Joseph would jump in and finish directing the scene. That happened twice and that was probably the hardest thing for me, to leave my set, because I've never left any of my sets before.

They call it a breakthrough, when you start to hear voices, and I was on the cusp of having a bad episode. So, it wasn't really cathartic. It was at times very stressful, but otherwise it was a phenomenal experience from start to even now. It's been a phenomenal experience.

What was the hardest scene to write?

The toughest scene to write was probably the mother fight scene, when Elizabeth is confronted by her mother. Me and my mother go back and forth in our relationship. It's topsy-turvy. Basically, when I was writing it, I was going back to arguments that we had and thinking of things that she said and that I said. And originally the scene was so long, we cut it way down. I don't know if it's so much the case anymore, but [my mother] was very much in denial for a very long time. She wouldn't accept the fact that I had mental illness. When I was a kid, I remember screaming that someone is in my closet, and she thought it was an imaginary friend. So, she ignored it. To some extent, when I was growing up in the '80s, no one talked about mental illness. To her, I guess it was an imaginary friend, but for a long time I blamed her for her not understanding. So we've had an up and down relationship, and right now we are really good. Probably [only] until she sees the movie, though. (Laughs.)

What do you want audiences to get out of the film, or put a different way, what do you wish people understood more about mental illness?

I really just want to raise so much awareness and stop the stigma. I saw what my husband went through when I was having a really bad year in 2010. It was very difficult for him to have an outlet, or to have friends to talk to, because it's easy for other people to say, "Oh I had a fight with my wife, or a fight with my husband." But you don't really hear people say, "I came home and I found my husband in the closet, screaming, hiding from the raccoon." So it's very isolating. And that's the way people with mental illness and the people who love them feel, they feel very isolated like they have nobody to talk to and nowhere to go. I really want to start a dialogue about just being able to talk about schizophrenia. And that's the other thing, we see commercials on TV for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder. There's nothing on TV about schizophrenia, because no one wants to talk about it. People are scared of it and nobody understands it. Nobody knows what it is. I mean, it's shocking that we live in a day and age where [schizophrenia] is diagnosed all the time, people suffer from it, and so many people don't know about it. It's just baffling to me. I just really want to raise awareness. I want people to talk about it. I want people to see that we're just normal like everybody else. Our brains just work differently than everybody else. When I think about all of the mental problems I have, I always say it's a blessing in disguise, that my brain works different. 

I just really want people to understand what the illness is, and get a grasp on it. It's just like any other thing. People suffer from it. People suffer from cancer, from HIV, from multiple sclerosis. There's so many things, and mental illness is just another one of those things that people struggle with. And you have to choose to get through the struggle and get motivated and get going and choose to live your life, and not sit around. That's what I’m trying to do — I'm just trying to live my life.