Long before the Internet existed, filmmakers were fascinated by the human face. Some of the most transfixing moments in a film by Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen occur when the camera simply holds on an actor in close-up, providing us with an intimate window into their psychology, which is illustrated through every inflection, hesitation and fleeting expression. The extent to which filmed confessionals can serve as a mode of connection with the outside world is provocatively explored in Michael DiBiasio’s new movie, “The Videoblogs.” Rebecca De Ornelas stars as Margaret, a woman whose experiments with “vlogging” are accidentally discovered by a troubled teenager, Vee (Phoebe Allegra). The two strangers forge an unexpected connection, inspiring Margaret’s longtime friend, Cass (Masha King), to try conversing with her own webcam.
DiBiasio and De Ornelas spoke with Indie Outlook about modern technology, mental health and the steps they have taken to make a difference with their film.
How did you first begin your collaboration, and what was the experience like working on such shorts as “Sex and Justice” and “Multiverse“?
Rebecca De Ornelas (RD): Michael and I were friends for a little while before we started dating and we used to talk about film a lot. Then when we got engaged and saw the cost of a wedding, we were like, “Uhm, let’s make a movie instead.” So we did. That’s how “Sex and Justice” was born. We learned a lot about the way the other person worked and we kept things super professional onset. No one even knew we were a couple till after we wrapped! It was my first experience producing so there was a major learning curve. I also played the lead, so it definitely helped me practice letting go of control, knowing when to switch hats from producing to acting. There were lots of labor pains with that film and we made a lot of mistakes, but the kinds we needed to make in order to learn what not to do next time. Then came “Multiverse” and that was a lot smoother for sure. We put everything we had learned in between making the two films into practice. I guess we learned a lot because we still show “Multiverse” a lot but “Sex and Justice” is… Well, where is “Sex and Justice”?
Michael DiBiasio (MD): We really believe in each other’s talent and potential, and have become more comfortable challenging each other over the years. “Sex and Justice” was the start. That film has been put in the vault, but it was a huge growth experience for us that laid much of the groundwork for future success, at least in production terms. “Multiverse” was a big step up. That film took a long time and a lot of work and patience. But when we saw the first finished cut, we felt like we had leveled-up. It gave us the confidence to dive deeper and aim higher with “The Videoblogs.” It also opened us up to the idea of greater and more widespread collaboration. While “Multiverse” was being finished, we shot a lot of guerilla-style work with a sketch group, the members of which became friends and collaborators who would join in on the production for “The Videoblogs.”
What sparked your interest in tackling a project involving issues of mental health?
RD: My own struggle with mental health. I’ve battled depression for a long time now and “The Videoblogs” enabled me to hold a mirror up to that. I didn’t like what I saw at first but when we started telling people about the film and they were curious and interested, I was like, “Oh, these things need to be said. People want them to be said and we can actually help people by saying them.”
MD: We’ve both benefited greatly in recent years from taking greater care of our mental health. Making “Multiverse” and sharing more of myself on my blog and even on Twitter and Facebook—it helped me to see that I had been doing too much, and suffering too silently, alone, for too long. Similarly, in watching what the country has been going through for so many years now—we just felt like there was something else going on, beneath politics and outside the news of the day. We felt like people were suffering, because we were suffering, not only from outside forces but from trying to cope with a general lifestyle that in some way seems to be getting worse for many people (working too hard, or too unhappily, for not enough or for the wrong things). In other ways, we saw avenues for hope—social networking, grassroots activism activated by today’s technologies. We wanted to tell a story of what life looks like, privately, for so many people who have to put on a brave face in public, despite their pain.
Were there particular instances of stigmatization regarding mental health that you have observed that may have played a role in forming “The Videoblogs”?
MD: We definitely feel that the depiction of mental illness in popular culture could use an update, and a broader, more representative one at that. One of the reasons we make independent films is because it’s one of the few avenues with the potential to make a big difference, while at the same time, from that independent place, challenging the status-quo put forth and guarded by people and companies who benefit from it going unchallenged. People who can’t admit or are shamed from admitting they need help—they’re easier to keep in line, aren’t they? The fact of the matter is, though, all of us will suffer mental health crises in our lives. Some of us live with specific illnesses that are often depicted without sensitivity or nuance in mainstream channels.
RD: Yep. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve heard on TV or in real life, “She’s so bipolar.” The term bipolar and many other names of mental illnesses are thrown around like adjectives, like characteristics. Who would ever say, “Ugh she’s so cancer”? No one. Ever. So what do we do to change that? Well, in addition to politely pointing out the ignorance of that statement to the person, we can represent onscreen those with mental illnesses or just those that struggle with mental health. If we represent them in a real way, a way that honors who they are and what they struggle with, we can hopefully bring about more understanding and ideally, compassion.
I’ve personally found some videoblogs very interesting—both serious and satirical ones—and wonder how you went about making them cinematic. Rebecca has a wonderfully expressive face that draws the viewer in (she reminds me of a young Allison Janney).
RD: That’s an amazing compliment! I’m embarrassed now and will let Michael answer this one in more depth. For me, I just had a camera super close up in my face and I had to pretend like I was seeing my reflection. It’s probably better that I couldn’t. I’d be picking myself apart.
MD: It was definitely an intention to both honor the format as it appears to most of us in life (as web videos) while not ignoring the fact that “The Videoblogs” is a film, with filmic pacing and hopefully a narrative tone to match. So, it was a bit of a dance. As we did with the remainder of the film, we sought to trust the script and the performance. For the writing, a lot of the vlogs are stream-of-consciousness, first-draft outpourings. They saw little to no editing, even if we’d later trim out some parts or cut some entire “entries.” The performance part is due entirely to Rebecca, Phoebe and Masha. They worked hard to ensure that those monologues came from within the stories and lives of their characters. When we toured with the film in May, we received a lot of feedback in regards to people empathizing with Margaret, Vee and Cass. That’s obviously an intention for any story, but to hear from people that they felt a kinship while watching the videoblog portions—that feels good. To me, that means, in risking ourselves personally, we found something that privately resonated with the audience on an individual level. To bring it back around, that in itself gives us hope that we’ve honored the spirit of vlogging and journaling within the context of a relatable story about everyday life.
What do you believe is the worth of conversing with “a mirror that remembers but doesn’t judge”? Would you say there is an inherent catharsis in articulating your feelings out loud, which can serve as an intermediate step toward opening up to someone else?
MD: I think that’s exactly right. We live in our own heads all day and night. There are ways to get out of there, temporarily, but among them only a few are healthy and sustainable. As a writer, I’ve long benefited from the gift that is the compulsion to privately (and as time went on, publicly) externalize either what I couldn’t understand, and sought to, or couldn’t comprehend or handle (and needed to get out). To return to an earlier point, I think there’s been a shift, in recent years, in how the average person treats their private thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams. Especially with each generation, we seem increasingly able to recognize, by publishing and feeding back with one another online, that much of what we suffer from or feel is universal. I think that also happens on the micro, within ourselves.
For all that universality, we’re complex, dynamic creatures. Taking moments to stop and freely (and/or bravely) explore what’s going on in our heads and hearts, it provides a means of learning what otherwise might remain hidden as we go about the often dizzying tasks of living life. It’s benefited me hugely to learn to externalize the basic mysteries of living my life as I do (or want to), and then explore and reflect upon what I find out. As the film hopefully illustrates, that isn’t always a pain-free or easy process—but the end result can be some degree of foundational peace, or self-acceptance.
RD: Despite what I said in my last question, mirrors can actually be great. In my own head, I always think my feelings and thoughts are unworthy of being expressed aloud, or are so out there that no one could possibly relate. Conversing with “the mirror” can bring some objectivity into play. And then there’s the articulation to another person, which I always find so difficult, like I’m sure so many do, but I have been practicing it anyway. What I’m learning is that people don’t think the same way I do about myself (they think more positively of me) and a lot of people have the same thoughts and feelings I do. That’s validating and sort of helps me to work from the outside in, ya know?
What are your thoughts regarding modern technology in general, and how it can serve as both a barrier and a bridge to the outside world?
RD: It ain’t going nowhere. Might as well find a way to use it for good rather than evil. Evil would be to use it to hide from the outside world, sit at home or in public with the screen in your face, never engaging with the world around you. Good would be to use it to connect with like-minded people that don’t live next door and you can’t meet in person today, but that you can maybe meet next week or next month. We met a lot of people on tour for the very first time that we had only known through Twitter.
MD: I think the potentials of modern technology, like so many other things in life, are what we make of them. On the side of actual equipment and devices, we’ve seen how they’ve always changed and will continue to change the world. They can be leveraged for harm and for good. When you bring the networking technologies into it, and the rise of data, and start thinking about the future of computing and artificial intelligence—it gets murkier. I know there are arguments already out there suggesting we’re already post-human, so to speak, because of our reliance on machines, especially in terms of how they’ve begun to supplement our brains. Bringing it back to the present, and to the ground level, I can’t say that it’s bad. Definitely it’s not bad in moderation, and with the acknowledgement that some fundamental part of us will always be earth-bound and have that mammalian need for connection that will probably always enjoy primacy over any future modes of thought or behavior.
Especially now that the barriers to producing high-quality content have been lowered (though it still takes talent and an enormous amount of work to arrive at that quality and get the content out into the world), we’re watching network technologies afford people who are willing and brave enough, the opportunity to hack away at paths towards happiness that were previously reserved disproportionately for the very lucky. To me, those are paths back towards some of the very humanity that earlier forms of technology, and capitalism, have shackled or stunted. It’s an exciting time, especially if we’re able to maintain or pursue healthy relationships with our technologies, and keep our priorities in order.
How did you go about planning screenings of the film complete with panel discussions, and what have the conversations been like at those events?
MD: It was our goal from early on to tour with the film. That was basically the next step, after having privately screened previous projects successfully, in-person, here in NYC and in Providence, where I grew up. We’ve sort of been DIY, in the contemporary sense, from the beginning. While it’s a complicated topic, we’re not completely sold on the film festival circuit, in today’s environment. Especially when working with budgets as low as ours, we really felt we needed to question the spending of every dollar. Our audience has been good to us over the years, and we also wanted to respect our relationship with them, and in doing so, find more of our tribe. What that looked like, in terms of the tour, was going to where we had champions, or felt we could find some, and try to meet more people like our people.
Our hope is also that, in forming up-close relationship at screenings, which only grew in scope and depth during those Q&A discussions, we’d encourage and empower them to help us make some noise when we’re on iTunes, in front of a much larger potential audience. What we’re really trying to do with this film, at the end of the day, is to show people who are suffering from depression and anxiety—that they aren’t alone. Not only are they not alone, they’re surrounded by like-minded people going through some of the same things. Together, we can help de-stigmatize mental health in the eyes and ears of mainstream America. The conversations we had after the screenings were beyond encouraging. We had people explicitly ask how, once they left the theater, they could pivot to a more empathetic place among anyone they might meet in the future who might be suffering. Apart from hearing from others in attendance who felt they were seeing their experience on screen, there’s no greater compliment for us than that.
RD: We started with New York and Providence, where we had the most people, and then expanded to the cities where we knew a couple of people who knew people, and we just went from there. The organizations that agreed to participate in the screenings were contacted by straight up old school phone calls. Those work well when you are passionate about both the project and the cause the organization works for. Conversations at the events exceeded my expectations. It’s like “The Videoblogs” created this small crack in the window and the people at the screenings busted that window in. Such honesty flowed from them. It was amazing. I can’t even put it into words.
What inspired you to do The Videoblogs Dialogue contest, and what have the submissions been like?
MD: Early on in the life of the film, we were fortunate enough to be under consideration for a bootcamp program in NYC where we were applying with the film as a sort of non-standard project, since our intention has always been to operate more like a startup than simply a production. While we weren’t ultimately selected for the program, we did have a great meeting during the interview process, wherein the idea for The Videoblogs Dialogue was born. It mostly came out of a challenge from the leader of the program (Gary Chou at Orbital) to think about how to take our intention with the project—to contribute to a greater dialogue on mental health—and think beyond the one-way broadcast structure so typical to old media content that we had grown frustrated with.
Rebecca was really the one to run with the idea for the contest, once it came up in conversation during that meeting. For us, it became a way to get behind that desire to do some good with the film, in a very concrete and measurable way. Personally, I just love the idea of gifting the experience we’ve gained (sometimes the hard way) over the years, to young people who hopefully won’t have to wait as long as we did to really get down into the real issues that were standing in the way of our health and happiness, as people and as artists. The submissions have been completely inspiring, and very touching. These young men and women are so much more courageous than we were at their age, which is an encouraging sign. We’re looking forward to helping our winner create their own short film on mental health.
RD: VBD is a passion project for me. Like Michael said, it came up in an interview. The interviewer was like, “we know you can make a movie but what else do you want to do with this film?” I don’t know if anyone has ever asked me before about what the greater purpose of my art is. People always assume it’s solely about self-expression. That gets old. It’s not enough. I’m not in my 20s anymore (don’t tell anyone) and I am ready to get my head out of my ass and help others create their art. I no longer merely want to make statements. I want to facilitate dialogues. Art begets art. So that’s how VBD was born. I hope it’s a pilot for more. And the submissions have been amazing. Raw, honest, creative, simple, just beautiful. Go watch them here.
What was the selection process like in terms of finding jury members and sponsors for the contest?
MD: We reached out directly to people and companies who we felt were supportive or would be supportive of the cause. Paul Gilmartin provides such a service with his podcast, The Mental Illness Happy Hour. I reached out to him via his website, and he graciously accepted the invitation to join the jury. Ashely Esqueda expressed interest in what we were doing as soon as she read about it on Twitter, and shortly after we connected, I asked her to participate. She’s on the board at Take This. Alice Spivak has taught Rebecca so much of the craft of acting over the years, so we knew she’d be a good judge of the applicant’s potential to deliver later on their short film if they won. That was similarly the reason I reached out to Grace Parra, who is a friend who I’ve watched work very hard to do well on screen, and who I knew would also be supportive of what we’re trying to do with the contest. Seed&Spark, Big Vision Empty Wallet, and 4MileCircus have all been great supporters of ours with “The Videoblogs,” so we weren’t surprised when they agreed to help with the prize packages. They’re all very supportive of young, independent artists.
What future projects do you have planned, and could you see aspects of the Videoblogs project expanded further?
MD: I’m almost done with the second draft of a new script that sort of appeared out of the ether earlier this year. It’s very much a continuation of what we explore in “The Videoblogs,” with a lot also in common with our most recent short film, “Multiverse.” With that short, we felt like we “turned pro” on a cinematic level. “The Videoblogs” was our attempt to take the next big step forward on a story and performance level. This new project combines and continues these two ambitions, to the extent that it’s almost a complete amalgam of the two, thematically. Story-wise, it would be another deep dive into both the psychology of self, and the shifting identity of isolated men and women in a tech-enabled society. At the same time, I’m very excited to try to get it made, but also scared about that next leap—which probably isn’t a bad thing. We have to keep risking ourselves in order to grow.
RD: I’ve been doing a lot of film lately, which is great, but I’m going to take some time to do theater. I’m working on a one-woman piece, written and directed by my good friend Vanessa Shealy, and I also just wrote a short play I’m hoping to produce in a few months. The theater company I work with is talking about reviving a show I was in last year, and I have to do that—not because anyone is making me. I just can’t not be a part of things. Michael is writing a script so I’ll have my red pen ready to make edits and make it better. [laughs] Then we will make another movie and another and another. “The Videoblogs” will always be our first feature and I don’t ever see it not influencing every project thereafter. No matter what, we are going to keep making work that spurs conversation. I won’t do it any other way.
“The Videoblogs” premiers on iTunes, Amazon, Verizon and Frontier Cable on Friday, July 22nd. For more info on the film, visit its official site.