Interview: Doug Blush

It’s a snowy, slushy winter afternoon in a coffee shop on Carlton Street in Toronto where filmmaker Doug Blush is curled up at a table near the back. He’s swinging through town to promote his latest work, the documentary Of Two Minds which focuses on people living with bipolar disorder, but he’s on his way back from Peterborough after talking about his work as the editor on the Oscar nominated documentary The Invisible War.

Extremely personable in real life, Blush shows a real love of personal stories of all kinds be they light and hopeful or sometimes dark, tragic, and infuriating. Emanating from his wife’s own personal experiences with a sister who struggled with bipolar disorder in the 90s before anyone really knew what it was or how to deal with it, Blush tells the story of three (technically four) people and their ways of dealing with the soaring highs and crushing lows of the mental illness formerly known as “manic depression.”

Blush – who has also worked on the well loved documentary Wordplay and the recently acclaimed Twenty Feet from Stardom as an editor – made Of Two Minds as a true labour of love of the course of several years that saw bipolar awareness become a rising concern in daily pop-culture discourse. As the film makes it’s way to Toronto this weekend we talk to Blush about telling personal stories instead of clinical facts, audience reactions, and his hopes for the movie.

Side Note: I, , the conductor of this interview and someone who is also bipolar, will be conducting Q&As with Mr. Blush following the 9:10pm performances of the film at the Carlton Cinema on Friday and Saturday this weekend (March 1st and 2nd), so if something isn’t answered here (and why would it really be if you haven’t seen the film) you should probably come out to the screening.

Dork Shelf: Well first of all, as someone who struggles with bipolar disorder as well, I wanted to let you know that I think you did an excellent job with your work on the film and that it’s something really personal for you, as well.

Doug Blush: Thank you! I really appreciate that! And this really also goes out to my wife, Lisa, who was a key element in getting this film going. She was really the key impetus and it really wouldn’t exist without her and her sister. I was compelled by the fact that this was going to be an amazing set of stories, and she was compelled by wanting to make peace with her sister and to come to grips with and get some understanding of this.

DS: And that’s a really hard thing to do with family in a situation like that as an outsider looking in.

DB: Oh, for sure, and I think that’s why we kind of turned this one away from being this sort-of found footage movie about her. We just do a little bit at the beginning and a little thing at the end and all the rest is just modern day, which I think was a better way of tackling it. It’s a little more modern and not all “Woe for the middle 90s when no one was talking about this.” Now people talk about it, but not enough and we want more people to get involved and be engaged with the process and general understanding.

DS: I think it really is at a point now where we are talking about it, but there isn’t much of a real sense of understanding about it.

DB: Right! And there’s no way for people to deal with it without direct experience, so why don’t we just bring the direct experience to them? That’s what makes something that can take down that wall. Here’s some people who are living that day-to-day and they aren’t celebrities of any kind. These are real people.

DS: It’s the kind of thing where you can talk to someone and they might not get it right off the bat even when you explain it, and it’s an interesting way to go by telling all of these personal stories and not going the clinical, dry route…

DB: One of the first choices we made.

DS: It seems like that would be the much harder way to go, and if I were to make a film about my own experience with this I would probably go the clinical route because it was the direction I really know and understand probably the least about. How hard was it to separate from that?

DB: You know, what you just said is exactly where we came from. We started by saying that this is a disease that’s codified with these textbook elements and we talked to a lot of psychologists and treatment specialists and all these other people, but we realized as we went along is that’s what the community sees all day long. They get all these things from powerpoints to flyers and everything in-between, and that’s been done. That’s available online and it’s everywhere you go. But what we really wanted to do was sink our teeth into the lives of regular people and not just rehash celebrity chatter about it. That was what we always sold it on was that it was about people’s stories. We always went back to that square one of being human and seeing where it goes like an actual documentary would and should and try to find out where these stories begin to go.

We picked these three people as our primary characters, but we had picked up a few more along the way who have comments here and there, but these are the ones that really stuck. There’s so much more and we could have done so many other stories, but that was just enough to temper this.

DS: Carlton is a heck of a character on his own. Now there’s a guy who has really lived life.

DB: (laughs) I really loved hanging out with him. He was really like the Orson Welles of the movie. He’s sort of that renaissance guy, but I tell you, the only reason he’s stable and with us today is because of his wife. She’s a rock behind him. But he’s a really great guy to pal around with because he can go with you down some random side street in LA and he can say “Oh, yeah! I was down there smoking crack and cross dressing!” I think that adds sort of that edgy flair in a way because his story is so interesting and so revealing and it’s not really like watching a film anymore, but like watching someone just telling you about an amazing moment in their life. Then it all reconnects that it’s all generating off one thing and showing that these are the extremes that you can go to and there’s a lot of stuff that can come out in the end when you decide to no longer live in a closet in any aspect of your life.

DS: One of the thing that’s interesting about Carlton and a lot of bipolar people that I know that seems to be common is that they are all usually really creative in some way and they all tend to be really prolific.

DB: Yeah, I’ve noticed that, too, and all three characters are really classic examples of people being creative, and I think that’s a natural thing. One of my favourite floating theories – and I forget who said it and I know it’s been said more than once – is that we would still be in caves banging rocks together if it weren’t for bipolar people. Where are those great leaps and where do they come from? Where are those great surges of thought coming from? Probably not necessarily from day to day thinking to go out and try to kill a bear or a lion for dinner or something. It’s from that grand flight that takes us to the next level, so we might owe a lot to bipolar, actually.

DS: Now when you are doing a film like this that ends up being so close to your wife and your family, how did it all come about?

DB: She truly was the progenitor of the film. She was reading that New York Times style section that Liz appears in during the film and she said “I always have been looking for an angle of how to get into this story.” She had been thinking about this for quite some time, but she never got deeper into it until she saw that New York Times article and that was the spark. The day that paper came out was the day the film began, and she really tore into it. Again, I say this film exists because of her, and she sort of cold called Liz and said “Hey, do you mind if we come and invade your life and look into this big statement you just made” and Liz was apprehensive at first. “Well, people have tried, and I don’t know…” And she’s so wonderfully demure at first and so incredibly charming and by the time we got out there and we got done with the first day of interviews she was totally into it. We realized there was this deeper warmer story with everything around her and her past and her family, but that central story of her scraping the absolute bottom of the barrel and losing years to it and then coming back and owning it like that is in some ways my favourite story in the film because if you just let it out into the world and learn something from it, not only do you own it, but you can benefit from it and help others with it.

DS: When you are working on this film and you’re interviewing all these people, did you find that in a way when your wife saw what you were doing that her own feelings toward her family were becoming informed by everything else that was going on?

DB: I think so, because she was very legitimately the co-director and co-writer of the film in some ways more than me because she has more experience with it through her sister than I ever could meant that her experience involved her trying to talk to her sister through the gulf of time from the time that we lost her. I think that really worked for her. She tuned into what she thought her sister would have been feeling at those times, and in a way this was something that she knew her sister would be so excited that she was doing, and that she had found a way to communicate to other people and bring them together.

In the 90s when it was still known as “manic depression,” that wasn’t there. There was still the notion to keep it quiet and to not talk about it too much.

DS: That’s really true because bipolar wasn’t even a term I heard until the mid-90s.

DB: And by that point it suddenly became brandable. (laughs)

DS: It went through this really weird phase in the 90s as well where it was generally seen largely as a disease that only women really got, which patently wasn’t the case.

DB: Exactly, yeah! There were so many wrong thinkings about it, and I think it always tended to get undermined by the “sexier” issues of things like schizophrenia. There have been so many films about schizophrenia and so much discussion, and bipolar rose up as a common, shared thing. With bipolar people it’s just something in your personality. Sometimes you’re very vivacious and outgoing and other times you aren’t heard from for a few days on end. It doesn’t attract attention until you realize it’s something that people share. Now there’s all this mainstream press interest in it with Silver Linings Playbook and Homeland and dozens and dozens of celebrities who are coming out and talking about it in different ways. I think it’s a closet that’s busting open.

DS: Well, on the downside, it almost seems like it’s becoming “cool” in a way. And it’s not a knock against your movie or Homeland or Silver Linings because I like all three, but since the sort of rise in awareness a lot of people will come up to me and say they think they’re bipolar in some way and I just think “Nope. No way, man.”

DB: Absolutely, and we’re definitely worried about the hipster aspect of it.

DS: But one of the things that I think your film does really well is that it shows how relatable this diagnosis can be to an outsider because of how differently everyone experiences it. There are clear similarities, but they have vastly different situations and ways that they cope with it.

DB: Exactly, and just looking at how they deal with medications. One of them is very adamantly against them. One of them loves them because it helps stop them form going through cycles. Liz is hopeful and positive about them. Petey wants nothing to do with them, but he also wants nothing to do with bipolar at all, either. (laughs) Cheri is more nuanced, but she pushes back against them because of the cost and the side effects, so she tries to find a project that works that doesn’t include any of that stuff, but with varied success. She would be the first one to say that she doesn’t do it idly either and that if something isn’t working she will go straight back to meds. I think right now it’s a balance of alternative medicine and meds, and I know she would love to live med free eventually.

DS: Then that gets into the stigma against pharmacology when it comes to mental illness in general and how it can still be looked down upon.

DB: And then you also get into the tricky idea that you might not be getting the right stuff. Do you have someone there who actually listens to you and says that were going to adjust and redo this or if they have a catch-all that says “That’s the one.” That’s another really complicated issue, and we really didn’t want to go to much into the pharma thing, but there are other films that are tackling those issues, but I think Cheri sums it up by talking the general American system that states that these pills cost $600 and she can’t get them because she doesn’t have insurance and if she does then she can’t get them covered because bipolar is a pre-existing condition, and that’s the Catch-22 of the American system is that if they could find something they can write you off for, they will tag you and you can’t be covered.

DS: And it’s even worse with mental health issues because it’s not something you can really see out in the open.

DB: I think, though, we are heading to a different era when it comes to things like that sadly because of incidents like what happened in Newtown. I think mental health is about to get a lot of attention both positive and negative in the next coming months. My hope is that we’ll get some kind a natural positive and we’ll be trying to help diagnose and not stamp certain courses of action on people and be a lot more open on treatment. There are so many ideas coming out right now about sleep, and diet, and regulation of certain elements in your life that will eliminate a lot of the complications that will come up, and I think that if doctors are more open to that and they aren’t so dependent and tied up in knots over pharma, it would be beneficial.

DS: And there’s always the social stigma towards that outside the medical complex, and it’s always compounded and made worse by stress, and one of the thing that is different is that you show how the highs and the lows of bipolar disorder can always be different. No one ever “bottoms out” in the same way. Were you surprised that there were these differences since your wife had really only seen this one version of how things could happen?

DB: Yeah, and what I really appreciated about it was that I was getting an education when Lisa already had one. I obviously knew people through my life who were bipolar and I just never knew that. It was part of the discover process for me, and while you could see that she knew and understood a lot of the issues at hand, I really didn’t know it that clearly, but when I saw these people in the film, other people in my life made sense. That’s my hope for people who are outside of this looking in be it from releationships that have gone bad or issues with parents that maybe there was a rational explanation as to what was going on and you can make amends with that. Suddenly a bit of knowledge outside of personal things and feelings can make you feel something other than how badly you think you might have been treated or how you couldn’t understand someone’s behaviour. I’ve already made contact with people from my past to let them know that I understand it. I hope people can really get that as well as the camaraderie of sharing their own experience.

DS: When you were working on this movie, you were also working on several other projects at the same time. Was this a movie that kind of came together in piecemeal when you and your subjects had time?

DB: Yes. I’d love to say I worked on it straight through, and I wanted to, but this was a case where I might have a Wednesday off in the middle of working on something else and I would say that we would go interview someone that day because we wouldn’t have another chance again for a week or a month or whatever. I probably in the course of working on Of Two Minds, I was working on maybe five or six other features in one form or another, and unfortunately the golden triangle of having enough budget, time, and desire. There was always plenty of desire and a reasonable amount of time, but there was zero budget, so we had to do it whenever it was funded by the other things I was working on. (laughs) But we managed to muddle through, and we spent big block of time during the summer before last and just going through it all to put it together.

And Lisa, once again, just stepped into the editing room and we would talk back and forth very strongly about a lot of things, but it ended up making the film stronger. But I think in the process we had 4 years of pre-production, shooting, post-production, and now the festival process that we have had so many more great ideas and met so many more people that we could make another film just from the stuff we didn’t put together.

But I’m glad we can finally get this out there and start the discussion because at the screenings we often get people coming up to us after like it’s the first person they have ever told this to anyone about. I think that’s one of the great things about the film and it’s that it gives people cover. “I know these people because I am one of these people” or “I’ve lived through this with one of these people.” There have been lots of tearful Q&As where people come up, and we aren’t therapists, so the best we can do is be there to listen and to share and give it to everyone and deal with it in some way.