Addictive Personalities: 20 Years of Madness Explores Friendship, Filmmaking and Mental Illness

Directing, Sensitively

In granting Royce access to his life history, White—vibrantly charismatic but with a temper—agreed to be depicted in a less-than-flattering light. Indeed, gaining the trust of all his (often bitterly honest) subjects was crucial for Royce. He encouraged input from many of the film’s primary characters, including Ryan and Hornacek. The finesse this required, the director says, was worth it—“all these people are exposing really personal things that they’ve never spoken about in public before, so I felt a lot of responsibility to keep them involved. The last thing I want to do is to make someone struggling with mental illness feel like they’re being taken advantage of or exploited.”

The director did do a bit of creative facilitating, though: “creating spaces for moments” that he needed to play on camera, like the critical first reunion between White and Hornacek (now a carpenter living in Detroit). “I wouldn’t let them see each other until the crew was in town because I wanted to make sure we were documenting it.”

He also made it clear whose film it was from the start: “The only way it was going to work was if I had full control over the final film. It couldn’t be a vanity project.” Yet Royce admits that his investment in the project wasn’t purely as an observer. “It may sound arrogant to think a documentary can have a positive effect—like I can have an effect, by making this film, on these people’s lives. But it was a goal of mine [to help] some of these people who are struggling.”

Editing 30 Minutes of Madness at a Public Access Studio in Detroit

Editing 30 Minutes of Madness at a public access studio in Detroit in the ’90s

Shooting the bulk of 20 Years of Madness took place over a month and a half in the middle of 2012. The lean budget was raised in part with two Kickstarter campaigns (which netted the filmmakers $25,000), and a handful of private backers—one of whom, Matthew J. Suhr, was a former classmate who had followed the show as a teenager. The crew of five (“a line producer, a first camera, a second camera, a sound recordist, and Jerry”) shot on a hacked Panasonic DMC-GH2 DSLR, which allowed for “a much less compressed format—being able to keep it really small, or make it big when you need special stuff,” Royce says. (White, on the other hand, shot the new episode on the Panasonic AG-455 S-VHS, in keeping with what he had used on the original show in the ’90s.)

Editing began in August 2012, and didn’t wrap until August 2014—two years in which Royce poured over 500 hours of footage, both new and archival, almost entirely himself (“after six months, it was hard to pay someone else”). As much input as he received from White and co., Royce struggled to maintain his position as the most objective man in the room: “You get so close to it that you really have to create artificial breaks to get some space.”

Agony and Ecstasy

Despite the setbacks and the scars, 20 Years of Madness shows a group of friends whose deep affection for each other overrides time and difference—and results in a 15th episode they are all proud of. By the doc’s close, successful screenings are held, celebratory firecrackers are lit, emotional speeches and letters are delivered (one note, addressed to White from a cast member, says, “I’ve been locked in a day-to-day funk for years, and you have the key”).

“It felt seamless coming back together,” says White. “There were a few people I approached who just didn’t wanna be a part of it, so they weren’t there. But the people who agreed to it were really excited to have this chance to reconnect, and in the years since, a lot of those bonds that were reformed have continued to stick together.”

It’s a testament, he believes, to the ultimate power—the fulfillment and the thrill—of creating 30 Minutes of Madness together. “Some of my friends have really gone through tough things, but when we come together, we return to that place of fun and creativity. I feel really moved by the fact that the show had an effect on other people as well as on me. A lot of them are on their current paths because of the influence of the show, or it gave them the DIY spirit to do something different.”

Our conversation returns to the idea of filmmaking as a kind of primal urge, often in defiance of reason—a drug, and, with its healing powers, a lifeline as well. Royce, who has worked as both a documentary editor and cinematographer for years, empathizes perhaps more than he’d like to with his subjects: Like him, “a lot of these characters are living the life they have to live. There’s an interesting parallel between addiction and art.”

Speaking of devotion to an art form, what about both men’s decision to go to film school? White currently has “about $300,000” in student loan debt. “As someone who started making home movies with my friends, I embrace the DIY mode of filmmaking,” he says. “And for a long time I was like, ‘I’m not gonna go to film school.’ But I needed a place that could give me the craft, because I was often doing things in a made-up way. My experience at USC hasn’t replaced guerilla filmmaking for me—it hasn’t replaced even Robert Rodriguez’s 10-Minute Film School. It’s just more tools in my toolbox.”

Royce has a different take on it: “Often I hear people say, ‘If you don’t have rich parents, you shouldn’t go to grad school.’ For me, it was the exact opposite—by getting access to student loans I had the opportunity to do something that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. I left home at 16; I’d been financially independent since before then. I’ve always worked two or three jobs. You don’t have time to go off and make a film for two or three years. And although 20 Years wasn’t a USC film, the format of going to school there gave me the flexibility to go and make this film on the side.”

Whether he has a choice in the matter or not, Royce wants to continue going as long as he can. “It’s tough. Every movie might be your last. But the success of being a filmmaker, for me, is that as long as I’m doing something—even if it’s for YouTube, or my personal website—I’m still doing something.”

“And able to share it with your friends,” says White. MM

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20 Years of Madness has screened at the Slamdance Film Festival, Freep Film Festival and the Cleveland International Film Festival. For upcoming festival screenings, visit the film’s official website.

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