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Interview with the director of 'The Year Between'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You're in your first year of college, and nothing's going right. You're fighting with your roommate, stealing from thrift stores, eating too much and sleeping too little, until one day, everybody - your family, your classmates, you - have had enough. You go home, and finally somebody calls it. It's bipolar disorder, and the road to getting back on track is not going to be an easy one. That's the premise of "The Year Between," the touching, sad, funny, at times hilarious feature film debut of writer-director Alex Heller, who also plays the main character, Clemence Miller. Here she is trying to explain her diagnosis to her family.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE YEAR BETWEEN")

ALEX HELLER: (As Clemence) All right, so you got mania and depression. So it's basically two diseases, but one.

STEVE BUSCEMI: (As Don) So then it's mainly mental?

HELLER: (As Clemence) Hundred percent mental, Dad.

BUSCEMI: (As Don) Well, that's good. At least you're going to survive it.

HELLER: (As Clemence) I mean, not necessarily.

EMILY ROBINSON: (As Carlin) As a future med student, I obviously know what a mental illness is. There's a medical explanation for why she's a mess.

HELLER: (As Clemence) That's, like, rude but accurate.

WYATT OLEFF: (As Neil) Can I go now?

J SMITH-CAMERON: (As Sherri) Where do you have to be on a Monday night?

MARTIN: As you might have guessed, the film is inspired by Heller's own experiences. And when I talked with her recently about the film, I started by asking her how she landed on treating what could have been a really heavy story with comedy.

HELLER: I always have just been interested in comedy and like to use humor to connect to people and, in a bit of a more challenging way sometimes, you know, like the character in "The Year Between," using it as a coping mechanism and sometimes in a really inappropriate and distasteful way. But the reason that I think comedy is important for this story is because, for me, like, I have seen a lot of content surrounding mental illness that feels very heavy and dark and depressing and often represents the most extreme parts of mental illness. And not to say that there isn't, like, validity in all of that, it's just that I wanted to add something to that that shows the in-between moments, the more mundane, the hilarious, the everyday because I've been, you know, treated for over 10 years now, and that's most of what it has been for me.

You know, there are really high highs and there are really low lows, but there's a lot of other stuff too. And so I really wanted to show this, like, holistic version of it. And I will say that "The Year Between" is a comedy based in honesty and truth and lived experiences. It is not a PSA on how to handle mental illness.

MARTIN: (Laughter) No.

HELLER: Everyone has to find their own journey. And so, yeah, I just wanted to add that as well.

MARTIN: Well said, so thanks for that because, yeah, definitely no. But one of the other things that really struck me is that you let people in on how hard this is for Clemence, your main character, but you also let people in on how hard this is for everybody else in the family. And I just want to play this clip from the film. Remember, the setup is that Clemence has - is a first-year in college. She's left school and moved home because her illness is spiraling. And this is the scene I'm going to play, where her younger sister, who's played by Emily Robinson, who's pretty tightly wound, is really worried about getting into a good school. And she gets her first acceptance, and Clemence doesn't take the news well.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE YEAR BETWEEN")

HELLER: (As Clemence) You thought I might be - what? - like, proud? Like, you thought maybe I'd give you, like, a little gold star on your spreadsheet of accomplishments?

OLEFF: (As Neil) What's your problem?

HELLER: (As Clemence) Why don't you go back to texting your stupid-ass friends about how much we embarrass you? Just - yeah, call up swimmer Kyle and cry about how hard your life is.

OLEFF: (As Neil) Right. Sorry. 'Cause your life is so hard. Yeah. Do you have cancer?

HELLER: (As Clemence) Don't even. Don't - my mental illness...

OLEFF: (As Neil) Are you dying, Clemence? Because mom might be. And you're just - you're making it so much harder for all of us. So thank you.

MARTIN: That's Wyatt Oleff, who plays the brother. And as we said, Emily Robinson plays Clemence's sister. Steve Buscemi - hilarious as the dad. And J. Smith-Cameron plays the mom. I think people might know her from her role on the HBO show "Succession."

So going back to something you said a few minutes ago, that you didn't want to make this, like, a PSA. But I think that there's something really important about the fact that you give these other characters their space to talk about how this is affecting them. I think other films - I'm not a student of this, but I think other films that I've seen, you know, maybe there will be, like, one tearful scene with the sibling where they say, this is so hard for me too. But you really give everybody kind of their space here. I was just wondering why that was important to you to do.

HELLER: Thank you for saying that. I mean, from the very beginning, when I was diagnosed, my mom was sitting on that couch next to me when I received the diagnosis. She came to my first few appointments. I just remember feeling like, in that moment, my family was diagnosed with this mental illness in a weird way. It wasn't just something that was given to me. I mean, it's - it was something that my family was dealing with my entire life, but also didn't have the words for or know quite how to help me. And so basically, I definitely want to make a case with this movie that, you know, mental illness doesn't just affect the person who has it. It's very impactful to everyone who cares about that person and everyone who's in their circles in life - you know, friends, family, romantic people. It's just - it affects others, and what they choose to or have to go through is brave in its own right.

MARTIN: One of the things that I'm trying to convey to people is that this film really is really funny, but it's not stupid funny. It's funny in the way of things that could really happen in life. I mean, all of the characters are hilarious. Like the - you know, your colleagues at the store, you know, and trying to sort of deal with you. You know what that reminds me of is that I think one of the other things I noticed and appreciated was how you focused on Clemence as a person. You get to see her finding a job eventually, you know, making friends eventually, going to parties, you know, hooking up, making dumb teenager mistakes. And so it's - you know, yes, it's her bipolar disorder, but it's one part of her. It is not her, if that makes sense. It's kind of like a coming-of-age film. Is that - you know what I mean?

HELLER: Absolutely. Yes. I think that is a huge feat if we're able to do that with this movie because we don't want to show a character who's defined by their mental illness. This is a character who is struggling with mental illness but is also struggling with a certain type of personality that has - that is partially a product of the mental illness and behaviors and coping mechanisms, but is also just this person and how they grew up and who they are now and what they're going to do with that in order to function in society. So it's a duality of treating a mental condition, but also just, like, growing up and becoming an adult.

And there is a line that - it's so cringe to quote the movie - but the line that I think Clemence has that sums it up, which is a question to her therapist, which is besides the whole mental illness thing, I'm wondering if I have a bad personality, which is a real question and something to reckon with. So, yeah, and then I just want to say...

MARTIN: Forgive me for laughing when you said that...

HELLER: No, please.

MARTIN: ...Because I wasn't sure - that was one of those...

HELLER: We should laugh.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know because it was one of those lines that when she said it, I felt like - as a mother, I was like, oh. But then it was really funny.

HELLER: (Laughter) I love that.

MARTIN: Because I kind of wanted to vote, you know?

HELLER: Yes. And to your point about humor, I'm glad that it doesn't read as farcical. I think it's important - it's my taste to just have humor that's so rooted in truth and honesty rather than a more sort of jokey or elevated humanity. I like to, like, live in the most ridiculous parts of the believable real world. It's important to always rely on truth because this is going to be polarizing to some people. And you have to be able to come back to saying, this is from lived experience. This is based in truth. We're not making fun of bipolar disorder. We're just exploring different parts of it from an honest place.

MARTIN: Do you feel like you learned anything about yourself in the course of making this film that you wouldn't if you hadn't made it?

HELLER: At a certain point, this story stopped being just my story and my personal journey or my diary entry. It's a movie. I had to let it go. I had to make it a piece of art and make it accessible to other people. And I think something I definitely learned is how to create art from a personal and truthful place while being able to also separate yourself from it. And that has been really important while dealing with some very heavy topics for myself. And I also - I learned about my ability to do all these big roles at one time - writer, director, actor in a movie and getting wigs put on me every other scene. And it's a lot.

And I guess I'll pat myself on the back for doing it and for - and, yes, it was extremely intense, you know, especially with the confines of an indie movie. But I think that I - by having my hand in all these different things at once, a benefit of that is that I think the movie does end up with this cohesive feeling and voice that is, of course, a cumulative effort of our amazing big team. But part of that also being, like, my being able to have hands in multiple things.

MARTIN: That was writer and director Alex Heller, who also stars in her new movie, "The Year Between," which is out now. Alex Heller, thank you so much for joining us.

HELLER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.