Firstly, I’d like to ask what first made you become interested in the subject matter of veterans of war suffering from PTSD?
The story and character creation began with my co-director Allie Light, who had created “Any Wednesday”, a fictionalized adaptation of a true event and her protagonist, “C’Mo”, who suffers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Upon reading the script, my curiosity was piqued as I completely immersed myself in the world of this character, an Iraq war vet living on the streets of Austin. Having been asked to co-direct the film, I conducted as much research as I could on PTSD and the stories of veterans and others who experience and suffer from life-threatening trauma, so that I could somehow identify with C’Mo and help direct an authentic performance from the actor.
It was of the utmost importance to connect emotionally with material before truly committing wholeheartedly to producing and directing Any Wednesday – that was not difficult to achieve. “C’Mo” reminded me of my own nephew, Benjamin, who at that time had been struggling with life on the rough streets of Vancouver’s East End with schizophrenia and addiction.
It was equally important for me to connect with the character of “Agnes” whose dementia was taking its toll on her, erasing the very characteristics and person she spent her entire life becoming. Agnes reminded me of my paternal grandmother who also happened to be a schoolteacher. She was bright, strong and intelligent and it was heartbreaking to witness her losing herself to the symptoms that affected her memory, thinking and social abilities.
What do you think the generational dynamic is like in this film?
When C’mo meets Agnes, he is lost. The military no longer requires his services, the war has imprinted on his brain so powerfully that it remains vigilant to any perceived threats, so much so that he has lost control.
In the car, C’Mo initiates and dominates most of the conversation. He needs something that will help him feel less loss, less alone. It’s as though with Agnes, he seeks a ‘mother’, someone who seems to embody the qualities of an idealized conception of the female parent.
Unfortunately for him, Agnes cannot give him what he subconsciously desires. In the early stages of dementia, she is in the process of losing herself. She can recall, some of who she used to be, but those memories are fading quickly. Her response to C’mo’s questions are simple, reactive and reflex.
When he finally realizes she cannot give him what he wants, he explodes but ultimately comes to recognize Agnes’s condition and is able to find the empathy and compassion to help her.
Why do you think homelessness amongst former military personal isn’t explored more in film?
I think we tend to avoid those things we fear, do not want to face or personally (and collectively) are ashamed of.
When we see war veterans asking for our kindness, our compassion and spare change as they hold their cardboard signs on the side of the freeways or in the street, our initial reaction is to see their failure. Deep down, we may feel a sense of guilt and realize that the failure is ours. We become very good at turning a blind eye to these things.
When you shine a light on the problem, which is lack of empathy, compassion, and needed services to care for those who served and surrendered their futures for our freedom, you are also holding up a mirror. Telling these stories upset people, ruffle feathers and create conflict.
Avoidance is always easier.
How much do you think the film reflects on America’s specific problem with veterans who suffer from PTSD and are homeless, or do you think it is more of a universal problem?
The film offers a mere glimpse at PTSD by offering a character, an Iraq War vet who struggles with this condition. He is a character who resonates with us – someone whose plight we can feel.
PTSD is definitely a universal issue observed cross-culturally and extends far beyond the military, but with conflict in the Middle East extending well over a decade, we can only hope the condition will be thrust to the forefront of public health priorities.
War veterans are at a higher risk of suffering from PTSD than the rest of the population due to the very nature and frequency of their experiences. As well, they face unique challenges in accessing adequate treatment.
When do you think the attitude towards mental health problems in the military will change?
This is a very difficult question to answer, because the bottom line is most likely more about finance and maintaining an efficient war machine.
One article I read said that there appears to be awareness and action being taken to alleviate the stigma associated with mental health issues, as the silent suffering of their war vets is hindering military readiness.
It stated that veterans are concerned that seeking psychological treatment will jeopardize their careers in some way and that if they do step forward that there will be some sort of adverse reaction from their superiors, resulting in potential removal from service.
This fear has triggered a mental health crisis that the military must confront – it has been reported that of those who suffer from and ultimately report combat related post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, only half will seek treatment.
Above and beyond the human toll, there are significant monetary costs –in the billions – associated with mental illness related medical care.
Here in Canada, there have been many reports detailing that our veterans are not receiving the help they need. One in ten veterans of the Afghan conflict have been diagnosed with PTSD and treatment has not been easy to access.
It falls upon the soldier to ask for help, and once they fill out the reams of required paperwork, they must wait for treatment. Although there have been many governmental promises to make access to mental health services easier through reducing the numbers of veterans per case worker and offering a 24 hour help line, much more needs to be done to address this issue.
What was the casting process for the film like?
Allie suggested that she and Julia come back to Vancouver a second time to be present for the casting.
I had spent the early part of my career working for numerous casting directors in film and television and have cast many commercials and my own independent projects, so I felt quite comfortable with setting up the session.
I reached out to various agents and asked for possible submissions with the disclaimer that although this was a project where their clients were not going to make a lot of money, this was an opportunity to work with a wonderful script by an Academy Award winning director.
The agents were agreeable and started to submit possible candidates for each of the roles, which I then forwarded to Allie.
We secured a meeting room at The Sutton Place Hotel, a film-friendly location that has provided accommodation to Hollywood actors as well as film creatives and executives for decades.
The turnout was tremendous – it was Allie’s script that had enticed these performers to come out and they came prepared, which was so encouraging. They turned up ready because they wanted the role, and weren’t simply going through the motions or winging it.
Casting a film, for me, is always exhausting – getting the actors to come to an audition is one thing, but extremely interactive aspect of the process is quite another – we have no “readers” – and the scenes we gave each actor were pretty intense moments in the film. With Allie, Julia and I reading lines opposite the actors, we simultaneously sought the promise of a performance that would capture our interest and attention.
Of course we taped each audition, so there was the process of going through the footage. Finally, we were able to remove ourselves from being caught up in the moment and savour each performance.
What has the reception to the film been like?
Allie and co-producers Julia Hilder and David Lundstedt represented the film in festivals around the world, and the film seemed to make a powerful impression with each audience.
Allie recently sent me a document of the various responses she had received after various screenings, and I am grateful for the very touching reviews the film has received over the course of its festival run.
Audiences appear to be genuinely moved by both the story and the performances. What more could a filmmaker ask for?
How does this film compare to other films you’ve worked on?
Every film project is different – how they are initiated, how the money is raised, how the cast and crew are assembled.
This was made somewhat easier by having a beautifully written script and a budget to work with.
But, of course, there is never enough money to really do the things you want to do so you have to get creative to stretch every dollar without sacrificing quality or vision.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
It would be very gratifying to have the audience walk away from the film thinking about the sheer numbers of people that struggle with mental illness on a daily basis. Whether it be PTSD, dementia, anxiety or depression, mental illness has always been something to hide, to be embarrassed about – not just for the individual but their families as well, worried about societal responses to it. I hope the film helps to shine a light on the stigma of mental illness, to say that sufferers are not alone and encourage empathy towards those who suffer.
What future projects have you got planned?
I am in post-production on a feature length documentary entitled One Life No Regrets, a personal memoir of pushing past an intense fear of singing in public through ‘extreme exposure’ – from a first vocal lesson and singing with street musicians to one-on-one with rock stars and my efforts to sing in a stadium with Irish super-group, U2. I call it my “coming of middle-age” story – a journey that has taken over ten years to produce. One Life No Regrets documents my attempt to live a life free of anxiety and fear, and ultimately, to set an example for my children.