Elizabeth Blue: Using the Power of Film to Rewrite the Dialogue Surrounding Mental Illness

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It’s amazing to me that I not only made a feature film, but that it’s actually going to be in theaters, because if I’m being honest, I never really thought about being a filmmaker specifically.

I always loved art, movies, music and fashion. As a kid growing up in Queens I had a natural talent for sketching and drawing. As a young adult I worked in retail and eventually in window dressing for GAP. When I moved to Los Angeles my husband encouraged me to hone my talent as a painter. He even built me a studio in our garage so I had a space to work in. I would always incorporate fashion and movie themes into my paintings and I painted in collections, which is an oddity in the art world but those collections always told a story with a beginning, middle and end. My medium was spray paint because I loved how I was able to manipulate the paint and texture. My career as a painter was starting to take off. I had a curator and a publicist and I was starting to secure solo and group shows in some of L.A.’s premiere galleries. My art was selling. It was exciting.

My first short film basically happened after my third collection. I didn’t have a strong enough idea to start another collection, and I was feeling creatively stifled. So one day I had this idea for a short film called “Note,” about a teenage boy who decides he’s going to commit suicide—but not before leaving behind a video diary on how to write the perfect suicide note. The film also tackled mental health and was one of the reasons behind the character wanting to commit suicide. As the saying goes, “Write what you know,” so that’s what I did, and I based the story on my own suicide attempt when I was a teenager. Even the words in the note left behind by the main character were identical to the one I wrote when I was a teen. When the process of writing, casting, shooting and editing was all said and done, I was hooked. I found myself so much more satisfied creatively than I had been as a painter.

I was fortunate enough when I was making the film that my mental illness never got in the way. But as a general rule, I’ve never really allowed it to keep me down, even in the worst of times. It’s something I’ve never allowed to control me—rather, I use it in my work.

But that goes with anything. Soon after we wrapped the short I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, blood lymphoma to be exact. I made a quick recovery in five months, thanks to the amazing doctors and nurses I had at Cedars Hospital, but also due to my husband, Joseph, who confidently said, “You’re not going anywhere.” After I went into remission, I was more determined to follow my newfound passion for filmmaking more than ever. I recently started writing a script called 22 Days, based on the time I was in the hospital. It’s a love story influenced not just by my battle with cancer, but more so by my husband’s devotion to me. He slept on a cot in my hospital room for those 22 days, never once leaving my side.

The point I’m trying to make is that nothing has imposed limitations on me—not my mental health, or cancer, or anything else. I am the only one who can impose a limitation on me by allowing myself to be affected by something I deem as an obstacle. I refuse to let my mental illness hold me back from anything I want to do or be. I never really think of myself as mentally ill. I’m just like everyone else. If anything, having all these challenges in my brain is a blessing in disguise. I welcome these odd gifts I have been given. They make me think and see things a bit differently. At times it can be frightening but with a painfully, beautiful outcome because that’s what I choose.

Anna Schafer as Elizabeth in Vincent Sabella’s Elizabeth Blue.

I made two more short films after “Note”—“Anonymous” and “Imagination of Young.” All three went on to get into festivals and win awards for directing and writing, and two of them even qualified for submission to the Academy Awards and although nothing came of it I thought to myself, “Who the hell am I and how awesome is that? By this time I felt ready to tackle a feature and had several scripts in various stages of development when Elizabeth Blue landed in my lap. My version originated from a script by another writer, which was supposed to be a comedy. It made fun of mental illness in a way that was not entertaining, and yet I was drawn to the simple theme of a young woman dealing with her mental health issues while trying to plan her wedding and live a “normal” life. For my film, I drew inspiration from a time when all of my own medications failed. I essentially did a page-one rewrite of the script I found and wrapped it around that one theme.

It was such a difficult year when my medications failed. Joseph took off work the entire time because he refused to put me in a mental hospital, which would have definitely happened otherwise. We worked tirelessly with my psychiatrist to find the right combination of medication, which we finally did by the end of 2010. So when the opportunity to make Elizabeth Blue presented itself, I realized that these difficulties had happened for a reason; now I had an amazing opportunity to use my own experiences for a script. Many people around me, including my husband, expressed concern about me taking on something so personal and wondered if it would trigger an episode, or even a full-on mental health meltdown. Personally, however, I didn’t have a difficult time writing the script. I knew exactly what it was going to be and how I was going to tell it. My challenges came when we started shooting.

It’s important for me to say that I have advantages that many other people with my mental health condition do not have. I have a great psychiatrist, I’m on medications that are working for me and I have an amazing support system that includes my husband, friends and family. I know how lucky I am to have this. That said, I don’t care for the notion that I might be identified by my illness—as a person or a filmmaker. As I mentioned before, I’m not limited by my disorder, which, for the record is officially known as schizoaffective disorder. In my particular case it combines anxiety, depression, OCD and a rare type of schizophrenia in which I can hear, see, touch and be touched by my hallucinations. I know, it sounds daunting. But it’s not. And it’s because I don’t allow it to be.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve struggled and I have my down times. I even recently tried to commit suicide again because I hit such a low due to a bout of bad depression, but I bounced back. It’s a balancing act, but it’s based on choices. If you have any kind of illness or disorder that makes life more difficult, you might have to work harder than the average person to get past everyday challenges, and that can only happen if you work at it. For me, it starts with some basics, like taking my medication every day. The rest of it is one day at a time. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true. You just have to stay in the moment and take it one day at a time. It’s also important to inform those around you about your illness. This was something we had to be mindful of during the casting and shooting of Elizabeth Blue.

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2 Comments

  1. Tom

    October 5, 2017 at 8:47 am

    This was an incredible story! Congratulations and good luck!

  2. Rose

    September 5, 2017 at 2:41 pm

    Congratulations! I’m going to try to get tickets for the screening at the Ritz in Philadelphia

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