Horse Girl ending Alison Brie
Alison Brie appears in <i>Horse Girl</i> by Jeff Baena, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

(Horse Girl, the new film Alison Brie and Jeff Baena co-wrote and Baena directed, may be best seen cold. It’s magnificent, but the following details from a post-premiere Q&A may tell you more than you’d like to know.)

Horse Girl star and co-writer Alison Brie says she drew on her grandmother’s schizophrenia to create a film that makes the audience understand what it’s like when you can’t tell what is and isn’t real.

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The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is now airing on Netflix, is a rarity in the way it addresses mental illness. Never succumbing to voyeurism or shock value, it empathetically follows the ferocious interior logic of the main character, Sarah (Brie), who finds comfort in a horse as she begins to believe in frightening conspiracies. Like Sarah, we have a hard time deciding whether she’s lost touch with reality, or no one else can see the truth that she does.

In a brief Q&A after the film, Brie was asked about playing such an endearing character.

“A lot of her personal history comes from my own personal family history, growing up hearing stories about my grandmother’s schizophrenia and stories of my mother’s experiences with that and having a personal fear of the mental illness in my bloodline and when that may show up at any time, and how would I deal with that?” Brie said.

“I’m glad that you think she’s a really lovable character because I think we always wanted her to be sweet and never coming from a place of anger. Obviously, she’s very scared. She goes through a lot in the movie.”

She added: “A big objective for us was to put the audience in Sarah’s shoes not knowing when certain things are real and not real.”

She recalled a hike with her co-writer and director, Jeff Baena, in which she told him they should make “a sci-fi thriller about a woman who has a family history of mental illness, and things start happening to her and she doesn’t know if they’re real or not.”

Baena also drew from his own family history: He grew up riding horses with his father, and he remembered his first stepmother once having “an episode” during a family trip to Ireland.

He said he and Brie tried to avoid melodrama in favor of a well-rounded portrait of living with mental illness.

“For me the ultimate goal is to humanize this character as opposed to just sort of compartmentalizing and judging and throwing it away and being done with it,” he said.

Baena and Brie are guests on the latest episode of the MovieMaker Interviews podcast, which you can listen to here:

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Here are highlights of the episode, with timestamps:

2:00: Alison Brie and Jeff Baena interview begins.

2:45: How the film suffered from skepticism and misunderstandings, and how the Duplass brothers helped make it a reality.

3:40: How much did Jeff Baena and Alison Brie want the film to be open to interpretation?

4:20: Alison Brie: “We certainly designed it so that upon multiple viewings people might pick up a little bit more of what we feel like is the through-line to the story.”

5:30: “A major crux of the film is how terrible it can be to not be able to trust your own mind.”

7:10: A tech issue arises and is handled in a humorous fashion.

10:30: Jeff Baena:”I feel like genre’s kind of like the bumpers at a bowling alley…”

12:28: What is a horse girl, exactly?

14:50: Your host is scared of horses.

Horse Girl is now in theaters and on Netflix.