A conversation with Director Linda G. Mills and her new short film, “Better to Live”

BTL_Final Poster (1)

By:Vernon Nickerson

Edited By : Colleen Page

There have been some excellent films this year at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, there is one that should not be missed;  that is ” Better To Live”  short film that is packed with more emotion than a rollercoaster ride.   The art of Montague was able to speak with the filmmaker of this wonderful and touching film Director Linda G. Mills.

Describe your journey in bringing this story from concept/idea/inspiration to fully developed story.

Linda G. Mills: I started working with The Reality Show 10 years ago as a producer of the theater production. This was in response to a set of suicides that had happened at NYU in 2003-2004.  We knew that we wanted to create a compelling way to communicate with 50,000 people, in this case students, about getting help. We wanted to direct people to one place, which was a hotline.   We also wanted, through whatever mechanism we came up with, to do this in a very compelling  way that would also have a few life lessons attached to it. So The Reality Show was really born out of that history with that goal in mind.

Fast forward 10 years later: I’m a filmmaker and it was clear to me that we wanted to tell many aspects of The Reality Show’s story, but that the suicide piece was in a sense the most provocative and compelling.  As we speak, there are 2 suicide contagions going on at university campuses and so “Better to Live” became the vehicle for not only me telling the story of the development of this amazing show and all the talent associated with it, but it could also be this compelling story of a topic that people know so little about, namely college mental health.

What was your process in crafting such a complex story to be told in less than 20 minutes?

LMG: Well that was a problem.  I think we wanted to tell the whole story of this remarkable set of young people writing and using their art in this most productive and forward thinking way. So we wanted to tell the more complete story about how they worked on issues of race, issues of anorexia, issues related to coming out, for the show which covers 35 topics. But we also knew, especially after last summer ( the death of comedian Robin Williams) that a focus on suicide and cutting and all the things associated with mental health was going to be the center point.  So we wanted at least two-thirds of the film to be focused on these more vulnerable dimensions and we also wanted to tell the larger story.

I have worked on the shorter form for two films. I love it. I think it really constrains you in the best sense of storytelling. So I’m really compelled by the opportunity to work within time frames that look more like 20 minutes.  My son is 18, he’s a freshman in college and I know what his attention span is, so I think that the short format particularly for that age group is a very compelling one.

To what extent does story drive format (short, full length feature, etc.) in your creative process?

LMG: I think the story format, when you think about stories in 3 acts, which is the general approach to storytelling, story-thinking, especially if you are going to do it in a visual format, I think then the question just becomes how much material and depth do you have?  We had an amazing story to tell, but it was really about the creative process.  I thought that lent itself to a short format that worked for the audience you were reaching out to.  I think that people do have time to watch 20 and 30 minute pieces, unless you’re getting into the television format- then you can work on 30 or 45 minute formats or 50 minute formats over a long period of time.

I’m experimenting with the short format and really appreciating it.  There are certain stories that have a kind of depth that you simply cannot nor should you try to pack into 30 minutes.

 Did any of your life journey motivate you to create this film?

LMG: Oh yes!. Yes, yes yes.  I am a therapist by training, but much of the reason  why I became a therpaist in the first place was because I was a troubled teenager.  I had many of the challenges that The Reality Show speaks to from who am I to being faced with choices around drugs and alcohol.  I think that the show really resonates with me.  For example, technology is a current issue, however, for my generation of teenagers, talking on the telephone, in my case, to my boyfriend, and getting caught for that; instead of being online and gaming all night.  The issues are so resonant for me right now- I remember that both my own experience in the first year of college as well as that of my friends about “Who are We?” led to tremendous anxiety and depression. I think that I have been consistently motivated over the ten years to think about these issues- both because of my own experience, but also because I  continue to be in a college context in which I know how compelling that darkness can be for people.

 What advice would you give to aspiring documentary and/or feature filmmakers?

LMG: Great question. These are labors of love. Those that go into the film industry know so well.  There was a huge edit that had to be done at the end of the filming; usually you go up to the editing room at a more consistent time.  The intensity that we went through to get the film ready to show at Tribeca does not lend itself to the creative process that allows you to sort of stand back from it.

I think the more interesting documentaries are those that are exploring an issue and then you kind of build the storyline from what you have; I think that’s what’s so interesting about documentary filmmaking. The only other thing that I would say is sound, sound, sound and sound. Documentary filmmaking is often done “on the fly”. Documentary filmmaking in the best sense is makeshift- you don’t know what you’re going to get and you don’t know what you’re going to use. and so always, always always provide for the best possible sound.  Most of us never do- we had six microphones for this film and we had tremendous regrets (about sound we had not captured).

What advice would you give to parents about how best to support their children dealing with the issues depicted in “Better To Live”?

LMG: Yeah, such a great question, and such an honor that you’re asking it.  As you know, the statistics are startling. Parents have direct access to their children in ways that professional don’t. Children and young people are constantly signaling to parents and other adults that they’re in pain. And the question is “How do we listen for pain?”  It is not an easy thing to do. You have to slow your life down; you can’t be multitasking while you are talking to your kids or serving them dinner. You really have to be sure that you make time to be able to look at them in the eye.  Often times the conversations you are having with them are not communicating pain, But, if you’re able to look underneath the words or even just to, for example, see on their arms if they are cutting, although they don’t always cut in places where they’re going to be seen. Its looking for the unspoken; it’s looking for the signs and signals. As a parent and a therapist, we sometimes miss those signals. They may not want to say it directly and so we just have to keep pressing so that they can say it indirectly and be there for them in those ways that they need us to be there for them.

 What does it mean to you to be an artist?

LMG: It means a couple of things. for me, it is completely liberating when I come up against a wall I can go around , over, under, tear it down, make them invisible, go through it, or let the wall go, let the limitations go. As a artists  I feel privileged to tear down those walls in such a way that liberates others to tear down their own walls. it takes a lot of courage.  The most compelling limitation associated with being an artist is there is a notion that you can flirt with danger. I worry about the vulnerability of artists in these dark places…and going to these dark places. We have to be careful not to reflect as we go deeply to make sure we have anchors to stay grounded in the present.  So what I would say is that if we are going to be artists in the best liberating sense of this word, its is Important for us to take care of ourselves.  It is not productive to make yourself unsafe.

Any final thoughts?

LMG: Part of what is so gratifying about being an artist is sharing in that art with other people. Thank you!  [TAOMR]