Ashley Judd in the title role in "Helen", directed by Sandra Nettelbeck. The film is about Helen, a successful professor who falls into a deep and severe depression. "Helen" will be shown at the Sundance Film Festival out of competition in the Spectrum series.
THE POPCORN REEL FILM FOCUS - 2009 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
"Helen" Neither Hell Nor Heaven For Sandra Nettelbeck
By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
January 13, 2009
(With corrections included)
"I'm here on the 12th floor and I look outside and all I see is brick. In San Francisco, you see ocean."
Sandra Nettelbeck isn't exactly complaining about this. She's resting at her hotel room at 60 Thompson in New York City as she makes this observation about views close and distant over the telephone to her interviewer, before heading off to Sundance later this week to show her new film "Helen", which is being screened for the first time in North America at this year's Sundance Film Festival, out of competition as part of the Festival's Spectrum series. "It's good to rest here a little before going out there, you know?", she said of New York before flying out to Utah. The German filmmaker has always wanted to end up living in either New York or San Francisco. It simply appeared that at this moment San Francisco was her preference. After all, Miss Nettelbeck, who directed the immensely popular romance comedy 2001 film "Mostly Martha", spent most of six years from the late '80's to the early '90's in the City by The Bay, during which time she had a three-and-a-half-year stint in the film program at San Francisco State University, and spent a little time in Los Angeles. You get the feeling that her heart belongs to the Fog City as she speaks of San Francisco. And the climate there is a little warmer, 60-plus degrees, on the early morning of which the conversation with the director took place.
Miss Nettelbeck was in a cheerful mood, though still a little jetlagged from the flight from Germany that landed in New York less than 24 hours prior when, slightly more harried and jetlagged, she had initially contacted her interviewer to schedule some conversation time. While she speaks about "Helen", she revisits "Mostly Martha", the German-language hit film which in 2007 was remade into a Hollywood film called "No Reservations", directed by Australian filmmaker Scott Hicks and co-written by Miss Nettelbeck. "I was convinced that it was never going to see the light of day," she admitted, citing that exhibitors, festival people and numerous others told her that "Mostly Martha" would fall flat on its face. It was rejected at numerous film festival festivals, but shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it found a distributor. "Suddenly no one remembered how much they hated it," she recalled.
Filmmaking has come almost naturally to Miss Nettelbeck, who was born in Hamburg in 1966 and moved to Berlin in 1994, where she has resided for the most part ever since, though she lived in France for a time. "I've always been really privileged," she said, referring to her experiences in filmmaking. "It's been rather easy for me", she cited, mentioning that the substantial and consistent creative control she has over her work was very much "against the odds". Directors have to fight hard to preserve their films at times, and as you listen to the director talk you sense that Sandra Nettelbeck has had to do her fair share of fighting to keep her vision intact, that in a sexist and still predominantly male world of filmmaking things weren't exactly handed to her on a silver platter. The question that gives rise to this assumption is never asked of her, but one finds it hard to imagine that in a world where, at least in Hollywood, only Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can get whatever film they want made in the studio system, that Miss Nettelbeck didn't encounter some substantial resistance.
The answer to the unasked question was answered by the director, whom with five films under her belt, had to persist and dig in with her latest.
"'Helen' took ten years to get made. I've worked really hard to get these films done," she revealed.
For all her industry, she seemed to get little respect from some producers in both Europe and America. She said that she kept being told that "Helen", which she also wrote, was "'a great script, but can we do something else?'"
The something else was "Mostly Martha", and even after that film won big audiences and critical largesse, she got this response from producers about "Helen":
"It's a great script, but can we do something else?"
The next something else was directing "Sergeant Pepper", a film about a talking dog.
Miss Nettelbeck took "Helen" to eQuinox, a screenwriting workshop she described as "a European version of Sundance"'s own screenwriting workshop.
It was after this that "Helen" finally got a green light, and last year the film became a German-Canadian production.
"Helen" is about a 40-year-old professor (played by Ashley Judd) who has everything in life that one could want, including a loving and supportive husband, a teenage daughter (!) and a strong circle of friends. A successful life, a solid relationship and economic comfort. Helen's world turns upside down after she gradually but steadily suffers from a severe depression which makes her suicidal. The film also stars Goran Visnjic, who plays David, Helen's husband, and Lauren Lee Smith, who plays Mathilda, a manic depressive who forges a strong bond with Helen. Ms. Judd is in every scene of the film.
"This film is about what love can do for you," the director said.
"Helen", filmed by Michael Bertl, Miss Nettelbeck's cinematographer of 14 years, is inspired by the author Andrew Solomon, who wrote the story The Anatomy Of Melancholy in the New Yorker Magazine in January 1998, in which he chronicled his own descent into depression over more than two years at a time in his life where everything was going right for him. He had come to terms with his mother's death. He had books published (which would later include The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression) and had good relationships.
Cinematically, "I wanted to explore what went on when life was at its best", said Miss Nettelbeck, who kept a ongoing communication with Mr. Solomon, whose New Yorker article she was fascinated by.
"I knew that this was going to be my next story", she said.
Winning Mr. Solomon's support and blessings, the director moved forward with the journey, carrying the complex story of life's demands and hardships to the finish line. (Mr. Solomon has since prevailed over his depression, and in the magazine article he attributed doctors and medicines as the only things that kept him from being moored in a permanent hell.)
Sandra Nettelbeck also had her own connections to Helen.
"I lost my oldest friend", she said. The woman Sandra had known for many years had tried to commit suicide multiple times over a period of about 13 years.
"Her first attempt was at 18, and she finally died when she was 30," Miss Nettelbeck lamented.
The pain of that ordeal continues to affect the director, who said of "Helen" that "it's a very demanding film", and ideally would have been a director's cut. "The script was too long, I will freely admit that," she added. Miss Nettelbeck also edited "Helen", which she said is "not a movie of the week and doesn't explain a whole lot." Shot in Vancouver over 45 shooting days in 2007, "Helen" has been received at prior festivals and venues in an extreme way. "People reject or respond quite strongly" to it, the director noted. Ahead of her arrival at Sundance Miss Nettelbeck acknowledged that a positive reception to "Helen" wouldn't be universal. "I know the film's going to get heat," she said, mentioning that part of "Helen" deals with electric shock treatment. "This [treatment] is a conscious choice made by millions of people who suffer from depression and I was very sensitive to that fact. There's no way I would ever exploit that," she said, perhaps anticipating criticism. She mentioned at least one producer who had fomented an outrage that the filmmaker felt went a little beyond the pale and scale in the context of such a sensitive topic. "Shock treatment has helped at least 70% of those suffering from depression," Miss Nettelbeck said, noting the extensive research she did on the illness and its treatments in the U.S., mentioning that there was "remarkably little" information and studies done on the subject of depression and treatments in Germany.
As if to further convey her serious and sensitive treatment of the illness of depression in the film and the pervasiveness it has in the lives of millions the world over, Miss Nettelbeck said that "in ten years I have not met one person who didn't have a story to tell about depression, whether it was their own, or their mother's, a friend's or someone else that they knew."
At the same time, Sandra Nettelbeck emphasizes that "Helen" isn't solely about depression. "It's a love story, and if only one person walks out of there understanding and relating to what they saw, then that would be a good thing."
It would also be a good thing if the Berlinale (Berlin Film Festival) being held next month would grant an invite to "Helen" to its big dance, which the director is still awaiting from her home country's very prominent festival. Miss Nettelbeck expressed a mild puzzlement about the situation but hoped that Berlinale would grant her film the invitation. ("Helen" had been turned down by the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, though at the time the film was not yet finished.) When asked, Miss Nettelbeck talked about the feeling of surrendering her films to the public after completing it and then watching it again with an audience of strangers. "I'm terrified. Completely terrified. I mean, there's no way of telling. You think, 'God, I've fucked this one up! I should have worked so much harder. I should have changed the music!"
Despite the angst that typically accompanies a director's initial public exhibitions of her work, with "Helen" as with all of her cinematic endeavors, Miss Nettelbeck has the comfort of knowing that "I worked as hard as I possibly could." She praised the work of all the actors on "Helen" and was thrilled by the work of a relative unknown on the big screen (if not television), the Vancouver-born Miss Smith, 28, as Mathilda.
"She does an extraordinary job."
Though Miss Nettelbeck says that "I'm not that social", as a person, she said that "there's so much I would rather do with other people", when it came to collaborating on a film that wasn't her own. She said that she had been "dying to do something for someone else", specifically writing a screenplay for someone else or directing someone else's script for the big screen.
With the mention of her own film "Mostly Martha", Miss Nettelbeck was asked about overseas filmmakers whose films get remade into English-language Hollywood productions. The question hadn't even finished being asked, when the director spoke in no uncertain terms. "That's not gonna happen with "Helen", I tell you that!", she said, with laughter in her voice. Referring to her film, she added, "These are English actors. What are they going to do, make a French version out of it?"
"Helen" runs for one hour and 59 minutes.
"Helen" screening times and locations at Sundance in Park City, Utah unless noted:
Friday, January 16 at 8:45 p.m. at Library Center Theatre
Saturday, January 17 at 9:30 p.m. at Rose
Wagner Performance Center, Salt Lake City
Monday, January 19 at 11:30 p.m. at Library Center Theatre
Thursday, January 22 at 11:15 a.m. – Racquet ClubSaturday, January 24 at 6:30 p.m. at Redstone Cinemas, Kimball Junction