Tonight at 8:30 PM and tomorrow at 6:15 PM, Darious Britt will be at the Gene Siskel Film Center to introduce Unsound, the new movie that he wrote, directed, starred in, and financed himself. Unsound is a labor of love in more ways than one, as the story is based on Britt’s real-life experience of caring for his mother, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder. The movie is as much about the sorry state of our public mental-health care system, which places far too many obstacles between mentally ill people and the treatment they need, as it is about the mother’s condition. When I spoke to Britt the other day, he said he was less concerned with exposing social problems than with telling a good story, though Unsound succeeds entirely with regards to both.
Ben Sachs: More and more independent filmmakers these days have to double as their own distributors, doing the work of submitting their films to festivals and setting up screenings elsewhere, and you’re no exception. I wonder if the tasks of promotion are especially challenging in your case, since the film you’re promoting is based on such painful personal experience.
Darious Britt: Going through [the experience] was rough, but I’m in a completely different headspace when I’m talking about it as a film. It’s not as tough as it may seem. When I was making the movie, I was approaching [the story] as a director. I wasn’t reliving it.
How much of the story is taken directly from your own life?
Pretty much the whole movie is taken from my own experience. What happens are the facts, but I sculpted them so they could be accessible to an audience. I had to shorten things and extend things to make them into a film. If I scripted the film exactly as things happened, it would be really boring, because these things take time.
At the same time, the film does give a sense of how long it takes to get anything accomplished within our public mental-health care system. I don’t think people understand that if they haven’t had firsthand experience with the system, so I appreciated that Unsound takes the audience through it step-by-step.
The legal aspect of [the system] is one of the things that compelled me to tell this story. Because the struggle of [caring for a mentally ill relative] isn’t just dealing with the family member, but having to fight the whole system. Everybody’s afraid of getting sued, so you have to wrestle with so many people to get someone into care, and that compounds how tough it is to get them back on track.
Half of the struggle I went through was dealing with the hospitals. They would release my mom without telling me, and she’d be out on the street with no purse, no cell phone, nothing. So often I would drive around, hoping she was just hanging out in an alley somewhere—that’s terrifying. If the system wasn’t as inaccessible as it is, I think we wouldn’t be seeing so many of these stories.
You often end up feeling stuck in the system, which would seem like a difficult thing to translate into a narrative film, since narrative is often about moving forward.
When I wrote the first draft of the script, I just regurgitated exactly what happened. I found that people didn’t connect with that. I realized that when you’re making a film, your goal, first and foremost, is to engage the audience. You can’t impact someone with a story unless you apply craft to what you’re doing. Even if you have the best message in the world, your audience is going to fall asleep on you if you aren’t sculpting it in a way that engages them.
I thought I could hook the audience if I dealt with the topic of mental illness from a personal standpoint. A lot of films either skirt the issue or handle it with camp. I rarely see films that explore the full depth of [a mentally ill person’s] struggle and how it impacts her family.
There aren’t many films about mentally ill characters that really go into their day-to-day domestic lives.
Or when they do, they’re kind of soft. You know, they get it, but they don’t get at it. I wanted to show how ugly it is, for both those people and their families. Because the people taking care of them, they are not saints. Caring for a schizophrenic can bring the asshole out of you! A lot of times I said things to my mom that were extremely hurtful, things I never thought I would have said in a million years.
You don’t present yourself in the film in the most sympathetic light.
I wanted to be truthful about how tough it was. Yes, I shoved my mom into a bathroom [when she got violent]. I’ve talked to other caretakers and caseworkers—some of them get driven out of their minds, working with people with mental illnesses.
You say that making the film didn’t feel like reliving your experience because you were caught up in directing it. But you also play one of the main characters. How did you prepare as an actor?
I hadn’t acted before this. I took some acting classes when I realized that I would have to act in the film. I didn’t intend to act in it, but I couldn’t find an actor I liked to play the role, and my choices were limited. There aren’t many African-American actors out here in Tucson, Arizona. So I took the acting classes, acted in some short films, and then jumped into this.
How did you find Toreenee Wolf, who plays your mother?
I spent an entire summer looking for a lead actress. I knew it was going to be tough in Tucson. I had all of three choices, to be honest, to find someone who fit the demographic. One woman I auditioned wasn’t even the right age—so, really, I had only two choices. Toreenee didn’t have the body type I envisioned for the part, but when I met her in person, I just knew she was the one. The way she carried herself, the way she dressed. . . . She didn’t even know what she was auditioning for. I met her on her own terms.
She’s great in the film. How did she prepare for the part once you cast her?
Toreenee’s not classically trained. She comes from a performance art background, and she also paints, writes poetry, and makes music. She works in a way that’s unique to her, very image-driven and not so concerned with logic. I showed her clips that I recorded of my mom, and she studied them for how my mom moves and speaks. She also started a journal and wrote her in the language my mom used [when she was delusional].
Because of her performance art background, she’s used to throwing herself into the abstract. She also comes from a family with a history of mental illness. I don’t recall exactly what her dad suffered from. It wasn’t schizophrenia, but it caused a lot of hardship for her family.
It’s quite a coincidence that she also had firsthand experience with this.
I think she appreciated what we were trying to do with this film that much more because she saw some of her own life reflected in it.
Most scenes in the film play out in very patient, static shots. This feels appropriate to the subject matter—you’re literally forcing the viewer to stare at the facts head-on.
My cinematographer and I decided against handheld camerawork early on because we felt that had become overused. We didn’t want the camerawork to call attention to itself. We wanted the material to pull people in on its own merits.
I wasn’t. The aesthetic came in large part from our budgetary restrictions. I didn’t have a lot of money to make this, so I couldn’t afford a very large crew. I didn’t want to be bogged down with a lot of gear—the more gear you have, the more hands you need to move it. Also you need trucks, you need permits to park them. . . . The cinematographer and I asked how we could say what we wanted to say in the most economic way. An example of this is the scene where I bring my mom home from the hospital. Seeing her walk [from my car] across the courtyard [of our apartment complex] says it all. She doesn’t wait for him to get his keys out of his pocket, close the trunk—she just starts walking.