When it comes to the issues of and surrounding mental illness, David O. Russell, showrunner Jason Katims, Netflix executive Ted Sarandos and producer Brian Grazer universally agreed that the best way to overcome the attached stigma is to talk about it, particularly onscreen. The four entertainment heavyweights convened Thursday at the Paley Center for Media for the “A Leading Role: How Film and TV Can Change the Lives of Children” panel.
Each of the men know someone close to the issue, whether it’s Russell’s son or Katims’ son, both of which have Asperger’s, or even have a personal connection, with Grazer’s dyslexia. Together, they emphasized the importance of broadcasting these issues via their respective modes of storytelling.
The foursome concurred that one of the fastest ways to overcome any stigma is to make it a part of everyday vernacular, something Russell did with “Silver Linings Playbook,” Katims has done with “Parenthood,” Sarandos has done with “Derek” and Grazer did with “A Beautiful Mind,” among many other projects.
Russell spoke about his experience making the Oscar-winning “Silver Linings Playbook,” saying that the film was “a gift from my son to me. I would have never made it without him.”
The screenwriter and director, who called himself a “writer for hire,” spoke about the balance between keeping the story dramatic and funny.
“I don’t try to make comedies,” he said. “I just try to make characters with real emotion, grounded in a way. They are funny like some of my outer borough relatives are funny. They just are who they are.”
He also noted that he purposefully shortened the amount of time the lead character, played by Bradley Cooper, had been away seeking help. “I do know the story of someone going away for a few weeks or months to collect themselves.”
Authenticity, both accurately representing the illness but also how it affects the surrounding characters, was a constant theme during the Thursday morning event. Katims spoke in depth about drawing from his personal experience with his son in the development of the character named Max in the NBC show “Parenthood” (which is executive produced by Grazer and his partner at Imagine Entertainment Ron Howard).
“It’s certainly more autobiographical than anything I’ve written before,” Katims said. “I was able to tell that story in a way that was going to get all the nuance of it,” he added.
To tackle the topic of Asperger’s, Katims used his own experience but also brought in seemingly anyone and everyone he knew that had a personal involvement with the mental illness. To help inform the writers, he also didn’t shy away from continuing to share personal experiences, the good and the bad, to help inform the character.
Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content creator who oversees the show “Derek,” with the titular character played by Ricky Gervais, talked about being on the exec side of green-lighting projects.
“I’m interested in people and situations on television that you don’t see, things that TV would have shied away from,” he said. “We have a responsibility, not in a heavy handed way, but to show mental illness in a way you can learn from without being preached to.”
According to Dr. Harold Koplewicz, the president of the New York based Child Mind Institute, 1 in 5 children, or 20 percent, of all children suffer from some kind of mental illness.
Grazer, a partner in the panel, bridged the gap and spoke about how he is driven “from characters and understanding character.”
In “A Beautiful Mind,” Grazer said he took some time with the storyline and figuring out how a schizophrenic mind functions. Ultimately the script chose first to introduce an alternate but very real reality for the lead character, played by Russell Crowe, and then transition into the outside world.
“Goodness lies within lots of storytellers, and a moment, an entry point that allows them to really embody it all,” Grazer said he searches for.
These men and fathers are not alone. Currently on television, ABC’s “Black Box” revolves around a bi-polar neurosurgeon and TNT has “Perception,” a show that centers on a schizophrenic neuropsychiatrist, to name a couple.
But these issues go beyond Hollywood. In the wake of the Newtown elementary school shootings, Russell met with Vice President Joe Biden and members of Congress to discuss mental illness. Each of these men sit on boards at schools or non-profit that work to bring these issues to a broader audience.
“With ‘A Beautiful Mind’ we helped show an entry point into how people think. We can empower great characters,” Grazer added, saying “perspective is everything.”