June 3, 2021
Although Mental Health Awareness Month is observed in May, WIF is committed to spotlighting the filmmakers, scholars, activists, mental health providers, and projects that uplift this issue throughout the year. Recently, we had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Linda Mills, director of the new film THE REST OF US, which explores a mental health crisis on a university campus in the wake of 9/11 and a cluster of student suicides. Dr. Mills is the director of documentaries like AUF WIEDERSEHEN: ‘TIL WE MEET AGAIN and BETTER TO LIVE. The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.
WIF: Tell us about the genesis of THE REST OF US. You’re currently the executive director of NYU’s Center on Violence and Recovery: what were you seeing in your work that led you to tell these overlapping stories at this time?
Dr. Linda Mills: It became obvious to me that we were not talking about suicide prevention in ways that it needed to be. In particular, we were not talking about the stories of a diverse population who might be experiencing mental health [challenges]. And as we’ve seen in the last several years, there really has been an increase in vulnerability among new populations: African-Americans, Latinx… we’re starting to see an increase in suicidal ideation and attempts. And it was so important that we start to address these issues in popular culture so that people could see themselves inside these stories.
WIF: You bring up the fact that these issues are increasingly becoming apparent to us, the mental health challenges faced by communities that have not had a spotlight. There are some really brutal truths that are laid bare in this film and some tough issues that the audience has to confront along with the characters. For instance, we see students asking, “Hey, would we be having these campus-wide conversations about mental health if the only person who had died by suicide was Stayci, a young black woman?” What were the sorts of conversations that you were having with the writers as this film developed to say, “Okay, we need to foreground this. We need to put this front and center.”
LM: Yeah. So we brought together Ricardo [Pérez González], who was the co-writer with Laura [Moss], and is also somebody who does devising work. “Devising work” is where you bring together a group of experts, activists, people who have considerable experience in a particular area to start to test out what the story might be about. And so we use[d] devising sessions. We had several of them that Ricardo led where we talked about a particular issue of vulnerability, resilience, suicide prevention. We talked about an issue, even 9/11… What would a story look like that might address or try to address this issue? And so we used a diverse group of activists as well as mental health providers—including me—to try and think through, ok what would a story that tells a much more diverse pathway to thinking about mental health look like? And it was through those devising sessions that then, together with Ricardo and Laura, we worked collectively to create a much broader story about complex layers of mental health and how different groups might be affected differently.
WIF: The backdrop for this particular story, the story of confusion and fear and pain and trauma and loss, is the larger trauma of September 11, 2001. How do you see that framing at work in the narrative? What do you think it adds?
LM: What is obvious is that each generation has a particular way [of coping]. School shootings were very much defining [for] Generation Z. I wanted to take this large event because you don’t know exactly how it’s influencing people, but you know that it’s there in the zeitgeist… You don’t exactly know, is it racism? Is it 9/11? Is it the influence of COVID? We never know exactly and can never tie it back precisely, but those events very much influence the levels of trauma and resilience that students can sustain, or certainly the resilience they can find, but also the trauma they can and cannot sustain.
WIF: [THE REST OF US] was really effective in showing the incredibly complicated calculus to uncovering how people respond in any given moment. As you say: is it COVID-19, is it racism? Is it economic precarity? And rather than one thing, it’s this potent cocktail of all of these things at once.
LM: And let me say one other thing, then there is also the personal vulnerability, and that’s what we were trying to capture: the combination of things, which is how somebody comes to the world. And Maddie’s case with her grandmother, who was always smiling and died under these very confusing circumstances, you know, so it’s both the personal, but it’s also this, as you described it, this lurking of what’s going on in the larger culture, and how does that influence people differently? Yeah.
WIF: One of the quietest and most devastating scenes in the film comes when Maddie’s parents come to collect her things from the dorm room that she shared with Amy, and her mother asks the Dean,”Did she talk to anyone?” And the Dean says no, she never reached out to any faculty members or staff at the university. And her mother says, did anyone reach out to her? It’s such a crucial reminder of the things that we owe each other. Can you talk about scenes like that in the script that particularly resonated with you?
LM: Yeah, there were so many… the parents became, in a sense, this wonderful mechanism by which we could illuminate exactly what you’re talking about, which is these moments of our responsibility to reach out to each other and how we just miss them. So part of the film was really to highlight those opportunities for people to see, “Wow, just a small reach across the divide can go a long way.” And I think that institutions have to come to realize, just as the Dean says: I’m a person, I’m not an institution, and this affects me. And so the question is, how do we do better at the institutional level to personalize? And that really has to be a collective action. That has to be that each of us both feel that sense of responsibility at the individual level, but also at the collective level.
And so you start to see universities, colleges, high schools, where there have been contagions, where you start to see the ways in which you build out peer and other programs, to be sure that when you see that vulnerability, it is each of our responsibility to do whatever we can to make sure that if somebody feels that sense of responsibility, and isn’t talking about it, isn’t even asking necessarily, but in this quiet way, you see the signs. And those are the moments in the film that I feel are the most important and the most effective.
WIF: So what would you say to the viewer who recognizes, “Yes, I want to do better. I want to not be purely reactive when a traumatic event like this happens or when I see someone struggling. I want to be more connected. I want that communication to have more substance.” But because they themselves are not a mental health professional, they feel that they don’t have the tools.
LM: I certainly hope that nobody’s walking away from the film thinking that their obligation is to somehow save someone. So, so much of this is building a network of support so that if you happen to be on that front line, all you have to do is create the bridge. There has to be a depth of mental health support that comes in to help everybody feel as though the expertise is there. And it’s really important to understand the difference between the peer support that is so crucial and can be so frontline on the one hand, and on the other hand, not to put further burdens on young people who themselves might be struggling. So that’s the trick. There has to be this direct line between them and the mental health providers who are so essential for providing the kinds of in-depth work that is necessary to be able to resolve a mental health crisis.
WIF: Can you talk about how you create an atmosphere on set where your cast can really safely explore the incredibly challenging feelings that are going to arrive in the course of telling this story? How do you draw out the performances you need? How are you ensuring the mental health and safety of your cast?
LM: We did several days of training first with the crew, so that the crew understood the complexity of what we were facing. And there was a kind of bootcamp associated with the film because it was part of Stockade Works’ initial efforts to try to train people in the film industry. We were sort of dealing with a lot of levels here. One, we were dealing with young professionals in the film industry, and two, we were dealing with really sensitive material. So we did several sessions around what does it mean to be part of [this] effort which we are going to have to explore on set in the rehearsals. By the way, it was 110 degrees. I mean, it was a very low budget film, very difficult circumstances. And so we also were dealing with kind of the physicality of it. But all that is to say, you have to prepare first.
WIF: What sort of advice would you give to other directors to lay the groundwork of doing this kind of preparation with crew for taking care of their teams?
LM: I would say a couple things. I really worked to cast using as much of my mental health expertise as anything, because I knew that we were going into very challenging territory. So I think that if you’re doing a mental health film that you really need full consultation with a team of people, frankly—I mean, I draw on my own therapeutic expertise, but I didn’t do it alone. I drew on friends and colleagues who had this expertise to make sure that every scene was ultimately delivered in a way that was sensitive to the issues.
[If] you think that you’re tackling material that really could go to a moment when we’re all struggling with that vulnerability, it’s really important to at least have on speed dial and consultation, mental health support. I think we need to take that very seriously and I think we need to take it very seriously in the film industry.
WIF: How long was this the shooting process and then the editing process for the film?
LM: I want to say it was 20 days or something. We did a few pickups afterwards, but it was I think it was no more than three weeks. Wow. The editing: a year and a half. That’s what happens in a low budget film. You have to work with what you have. The editing was so necessary and why it took so long; finding the right music and finding the right sentiment and making sure as best as one could that we weren’t in any way advancing or romanticizing suicide. And that really was the highest priority.
WIF: Okay. So last question: where do you see THE REST OF US fitting into the ecosystem of your other films? How do you position specifically the impact filmmaking that you do?
LM: I was really seeking to tell this story in a way that I didn’t think documentary film could. And that’s despite the fact that I’ve done a number of documentary films, from my own personal family story to seeking out the stories of others. So I really felt like if we were going to represent the complex things that we needed to capture, from 9/11 to racism in the system, and the outcomes of mental health, that all of those things had to be well-represented in the film. And the only way you could do that was the liberty of using a narrative approach. So all that is to say it clearly is designed to, from my point of view, to capture a story that one couldn’t really tell in a documentary format.
My goal was to elevate suicide prevention. So how do you do that in a documentary? It’s much, much more difficult because you also have to stay true to what the subjects are telling you, right? And sometimes they tell, they might share with you something that would run counter to what was really this goal of making sure that this was a film about “the rest of us,” those who were left behind. That was the complex array. That was the idea of the narrative feature rather than going in the documentary route. It just offered a kind of freedom that I felt. It was so necessary to telling an authentic story that did not do harm.
Directed by Dr. Linda G. Mills, artist, author, scholar and Executive Director of NYU’s Center on Violence and Recovery, THE REST OF US is available now on demand across most platforms.