My mother committed suicide when I was a kid. You see what I did there? In the time that it took to read that sentence half of the people who might have read this article decided that they must have something better to do than think about some guy’s dead mom. If you’re still reading this, the odds are you have had a suicide in your own family or group of friends or you’re familiar with depression and mental illness on some level. So how can I get you to stop reading too? Oh, I know. In the years after my mother’s death I wrote and performed lots and lots of comedy about suicide and mental illness. I even restaged my mother’s death scene with two clowns for a movie. Yeah, that should take care of it. Now I can write without the pressure of having any actual readers following along.
How do I know this magical formula for ridding yourself of potential followers? I wrote and directed a documentary about suicide called Don’t Change the Subject. It’s funny. It’s a lot of other things too but the funny part is the one that seems to cause the biggest stir.
Now I’m out on the road doing sneak previews at colleges and for various mental health groups. The screenings have been amazing. Those who have come have been unbelievably supportive and positive. They’ve said stuff like this:
“What you have created is truly a unique masterpiece.” – Sarah Marks, San Diego Trauma Intervention Program
“This is great. A really lovely, warm, inspiring, moving film about a subject that, yes, no one talks about.” – Nev Pierce, film critic
“This film can save lives so it deserves to be seen.” – Dr. Michael Blumenfield, PsychiatryTalk.com
That’s the kind of stuff that keeps you going as a filmmaker. BUT there is a catch. Notice I said “those who have come” to the screenings. Most people who see the movie like it. Many love it. But most people out in the world would rather jam a fork into their eye before going to anything with the word suicide attached to it.
‘Hey Mike,’ you say in your best movie producer helpful voice, ‘what about the millions of people out there in support groups, suicide prevention networks and other mental health related organizations?’ One well-known indie film advisor referred to this huge potential pool of audience members as “low hanging fruit.” It is true that many, many people in that world have been very helpful to me both in the making of the movie and in its current pre-official release state. I am incredibly grateful for all of their help. But for many others in that field it begins and ends with that whole humor thing.
The suicide community, and yes it is quite a formidable community, can be very skittish about anything that steps outside a very tried and true approach to suicide in the movies. For many, if a film is anything other than a therapist interviewing survivors in a controlled environment with very strict guidelines, it just shouldn’t be done. As one PR director for one of the biggest prevention groups in the nation told me ‘we reject almost every movie about suicide that we see. So the fact that we even thought about endorsing yours is a compliment.’
There is a very good reason for trepidation on their part. If you talk about suicide in a way that glamorizes it or feasts on the gory details or even just obsesses on the act itself you can trigger others to commit suicide themselves. It’s real. I don’t dispute this. It’s called, among other things, suicide contagion. No one in mental health or in the media wants to help trigger anyone’s suicide. On that we can all agree.
But here’s the catch. One of the best ways to stop suicidal feelings is to talk about them. If you are feeling suicidal you need to talk to someone and to do this you must move beyond the shame that often accompanies these feelings. Where do a lot of these shame feelings come from? Well, you can start with whole boatload of misinformation surrounding this taboo subject. People have a lot of (excuse the phrase) crazy ideas about suicide and about people who suffer from depression or other mental illnesses. We need to combat this misinformation by talking more about suicide and mental illness. Most in the suicide community agree on this. But how should we talk about it? Well, that’s where the agreement ends.
For me, I wanted to make the movie that I would have wanted to see after my mom died. I was a weird, somewhat lonely, smart-ass kid. A softly lit, tastefully done, highly understated series of interviews would have been about as interesting to me as my pre-algebra homework. But a movie with punk clowns, weird animation, funny stories about dark subjects and a comic yelling the “F word” a lot? Oh yes, that would have piqued my interest. So I made that movie.
But before you applaud me for my courage and convictions I must admit, that wasn’t the movie I set out to make from the start. When we began the process I thought I would gather together some well-known musicians, actors, dancers and others who had experienced suicide in their lives. I would go fly fishing with the daughter of a famous author who died of suicide, hang out in the studio with a rock star who writes cool songs about death and marvel at the talent of a world-famous dancer while he told me about his mother’s unfortunate demise. I sort of pictured John Lurie’s old show Fishing with John on IFC only instead of a fascinating film guy like John hanging out with other fascinating film guys like Jim Jarmusch it would be a unknown, not particularly fascinating guy whose mom killed herself talking with fascinating guys like Jim Jarmusch.
Then…everyone said no. Now, many of the people I asked to participate I actually do know personally. I’ve been in TV and theater for a long time and have worked with a lot of pretty well known performers. Sure, we’re not friends, we just work together and they probably don’t give a damn whether I live or die but each of them had their own very personal experiences with suicide, either their own attempt or the loss of someone close to them. You’d think at least one or two might sit down for a twenty-minute chat, if only to help encourage others to stick around. Yet every single one said no. Actually one said yes. Carrot Top. If you learn nothing else from this article please know that Carrot Top is actually an incredibly nice guy. But I digress.
It wasn’t that they wouldn’t do an interview for a small film. I’ve had some pretty recognizable names do some pretty lame projects for five hundred bucks and a ride from a PA. No, over and over it became clear from the various PR flaks and friendly assistants that it just wasn’t all that prudent to be associated with suicide. It does make sense. It’s hard to talk about and no one wants to come off as a victim especially if their job is entertaining others. The more I thought about it the more I realized I was asking a lot.
This is where a smart filmmaker would have taken his ball and gone home. But throughout my life if there is one constant it is that when someone tells me that something I’m doing shouldn’t be done my answer is always “F**K YOU!” Usually I use those actual words. Again, it’s not because of any kind of courage. It’s because I am an idiot. If there is an open door I will always choose the window. So I set forth to make a funny movie about suicide without a single recognizable name attached.
That’s when things got really interesting. I had no money, no crew and no actual subjects to film. But I knew this movie had to happen. I knew it was the right thing to do, maybe not for the world, but at least for me. Then people just started to show up. Like some sort of indie documentary version of Field of Dreams all sorts of likeminded, stubborn, ‘f**k those who tell me what I can’t do’ type of people just showed up. Some were people I had worked with before but many weren’t. They just heard from a friend that we were making this movie and for some strange reason it seemed like a good idea. An incredible Director of Photography, an unbelievably positive and driven producer, a savior of a Line Producer, a world-class editor, a funny, fantastic composer, the list goes on and on. In the end one hundred and ten people volunteered their time, their skills, their passion and their endless patience to the movie. They all said ‘yes, I will do this movie that has no chance of ever making a dime. Yes I will spend months or even years working on this project because I think it should happen.’
Most amazing were the dozens of suicide survivors who came to us to share their incredibly intimate stories of tragedy and triumph and allowed us to explore their innermost feelings about what for all of them were the most challenging times in their lives. As these stories unfolded more new people came to us as well, people with vibrant, fascinating, complicated, amazing lives who; for many different reasons, weren’t able to go on living. They are mothers, sons, brothers, sisters, and friends who, with each story, reentered the world and joined our quest.
So it is most of all for them that we move forward with excitement and passion. So far many of the big film festivals have chosen to ignore us. Not a problem. We’re sponsoring our own festival called The Day of the Living, inviting theater companies, dance companies, artists and filmmakers to tackle suicide and mental illness in their own unorthodox, thought-provoking and perhaps even humorous ways. The festival is the first week of October in Los Angeles and if you know of a good company or artist or you think that you have the right demented mindset to create a short film (2 minutes or less) for the festival then contact me at mike (at) dontchangethesubject (dot) org.
What we lack in money we make up for with unbridled stupid optimism. We have made something worth seeing. We are talking about something that must be shared. We will not wait to be given permission. So we go forward, one screening at a time, spreading the word that you can celebrate the dead without fearing them. How do I know? I see it in every living room, classroom and theater that I am invited into with the movie. Some folks might look around and see a few empty seats in between our viewers. I see a full house with my mother sitting in the front row every time.
For more information, including a preview and screening dates go to:
Mike began his career on the stage, careened into television and then wobbled over to documentary filmmaking where he now happily resides.
In the early days there was a lot of tap dancing and smiling on the community theater stages of San Diego. Then Shakespeare and wannabe avant-garde work (twenty years after it was avant-garde) at UCLA Theater Film and Television. Then off to New York for a healthy mix of musicals and downtown experimental work (see UCLA training) with a company he has now headed for over twenty years called Hoffenrich. Working with the incredibly talented actors and actresses in Hoffenrich, Stutz began to see that if you create something new and different some folks will actually come see it and a few might even like it.
He also learned that it’s hard to live on fifteen thousand dollars a year in New York City for eight years. Thus came television back in LA. He did some good work that he was proud of, directing some really funny comics and actors on Comedy Central, TBS, Nick at Nite and other networks. But he also did some pretty bad work. Please don’t make him recount it here.
Suffice it to say like some artistic Prodigal Son he reached a point that he needed some forgiveness for his televised transgressions. He was either going to make something he could be proud of and really cared about or he was going to die trying. So, wanting to live, he created Don’t Change the Subject, a darkly comedic documentary about suicide. The movie is a very personal project. Suicide and denial are a not so proud tradition in Mike’s family. It’s been in his head for a very long time and he’s glad to finally let it out. It was taking up far too much space that could otherwise be used for trivia and petty grudges.