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Tribeca Women DIrectors: Meet Elizabeth Swados (My Depression)

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
April 14, 2014 10:00 AM
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Still from "My Depression"

Perhaps best known for her Broadway and international smash hit Runaways, Elizabeth Swados has composed, written and directed for over 30 years. Some of her works include the Obie Award-winning Trilogy at La MaMa, Alice at the Palace with Meryl Streep at the New York Shakespeare Theater Festival, and Groundhog at the Manhattan Theater Club. Her work has been performed on Broadway, off-Broadway, at La MaMa, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, and locations all over the world. 

Swados has had three books of poetry published by Hanging Loose Press, most recently The Contest, published in 2013. Her book, My Depression, A Picture Book (from which this film is based) won the Ken award from the National Alliance of Mental Illness. The book is being published this year by Seven Stories Press to coincide with the film's premiere. (Press materials)

The 28-minute short "My Depression: The Up and Down and Up of It," which Swados co-directed, will debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 17.

Please give us your description of the film playing.

My Depression: The Up and Down and Up of It brings light to my decades-long struggle with depression. Poignant yet humorous, the animated short film takes an often misunderstood condition and brings greater clarity to it, illuminating the symptoms, emotions, and side effects associated with depression. 

From masking [my] condition, to fighting everyday emotional ups and downs, to [my] efforts to find coping mechanisms, the film uses animation, humor and song to make a difficult and sometimes taboo topic more accessible and understandable. Based on my award-winning book, My Depression: A Picture Book, the film features the vocal talents of Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi and Fred Armisen and is directed by Robert Marianetti and David Wachtenheim along with me.

What drew you to this story?

The script came from a book I wrote several years ago called My Depression: A Picture Book, which was in a graphic/comics form of pages of line drawings and captions that described my experience with depression and my search for relief. 

The most unusual aspect about it was that it was very, very true but funny. I stepped back and looked at myself and tried to bring some relief to the pain that usually comes with the subject. I described symptoms, messy situations that I got myself into, problems I had with people, and ugly thoughts I had about myself, and I did all of this in a kind of dry, Thurburesque manner. This approach worked extremely well, and so when it came time to adapt the book to a film, I kept the humor, as well as the extreme pain and ultimately the negotiation between my depression and my living a good life. I'm especially lucky because the book is being re-issued right now to coincide with the film, so it will have a second life.

 
What was the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge was to keep a balance between my experience and experiences that would be universal, so that people could identify with what I was talking about and find themselves in my dilemmas. By keeping it extremely personal, but using line drawings and goofy cartoons, I could get away from the usual cliches that are associated when people talk about their experiences with mental illness. This distance makes the film, I think, quite unique.
 
What advice do you have for other female directors?

Hold on tight and keep your head down. It's really rough out there, and no matter how much progress people think is being made, there's still a great deal of distance to go before women have the power and the resources that men have. I find this to be true in the theatre as well. It's a bit of a sham that things are getting so much better. I'd take out the "so much" and say they're getting "a little better," but my biggest piece of advice is to keep perspective, strength and a sense of humor, and never give up.
 
What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?

That I am extremely serious and self-involved and that I lecture people with my strong politics and social issues. This couldn't be further from the truth. I barely take myself seriously at all and am always watching for my own stupid mistakes. I have great love for my audiences and I try very hard to create works with which they can identify. I don't try to preach at all, I just try to live out loud and have people watch and hear me and my characters. 
 
Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

I'm scared that there's too much stuff. There's television, there's television on iPhones, there's movies, there's movies for Youtube and Netflix, there's series, there's series that are like movies on iTunes or Netflix. Pete Seeger, who was a friend of mine, once said that there's so much music coming out of radios that people can't hear it anymore. Stravinsky once said that he wished that he could make all of his audiences walk miles to his concerts so they would really appreciate them when they got there, rather than having such easy access. 

I'm just afraid everything's going to homogenize into everything else, and the great core of the arts, the pulsing, passionate, singular heart, is going to disappear. It's just too much. Everybody should slow down. I want people to surprise me with great works. I want people to blow me away with the unexpected, and I want art to remain a reflection of human experience, whatever it is. Not just technical inventions that can record other technical inventions.

 
What's your favorite women directed film and why.

Among my favorites is Mira Nair because she understands ritual and parties and music and family disasters and she's very theatrical and very funny, and most of all she makes musical theatre on the screen without even knowing it (or maybe she does know it). It's always great to go to one of her films because you'll be filled up as if you've eaten a great meal.
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