Sunday, June 28, 2015

Q&A with Director Sean Ackerman about His New Documentary on Kelley Gibson

Sean Ackerman and I have known each other for about 15 years. I can't believe it's been that long. It feels like yesterday when we met on the production of Todd Solondz's film Storytelling. We have lots of stories about that production but that's for another day.

Director Sean Ackerman

In those 15 years, Sean and I have made two feature films together: Straight Line and The Diary of Preston Plummer. And during that time, Sean went to medical school too. He is now a child psychiatrist/indie filmmaker. I love working with him because he brings such a well-rounded vision to anything he does. His life isn't solely about filmmaking, which is nice. And he's a new dad!

On top of all of that, Sean recently told me he was going to make a documentary. I was really happy to hear this as I love doing both narrative and documentaries. It's nice to know others who like to create both kinds of films.

And he recently launched a Kickstarter for the film, which is doing really well. They are in the home stretch of reaching their $40k goal. I suggested that as he nears the deadline for his crowdfunding campaign that we talk about the project here.

So that's what we're going to do. Let's talk about the film he wants to make about Kelley Gibson - a really remarkable young man.

Kelley Gibson
But before you read the Q&A, watch Sean's Kickstarter video - it will tell you all about the story he wants to tell:


Q&A with Sean Ackerman

Tell us about your new project and why you want to tell this story.

I've spent the bulk of the last 9 years training to be a child psychiatrist. In that time, I've seen a lot of good being done by the mental health system in this country, but obviously there is also a lot to be desired that isn't being done. This story does great job not only pointing out what usually isn't done, but it also provides a way forward. That is, it's not a story that just complains about gaps in health care, instead it offers real solutions. Plus, it's just an amazing and entertaining story, and from a filmmaking perspective, that's the first thing.

You're a medical doctor and filmmaker. Do you see this project as the perfect marriage of both of your skills?

Perhaps? But when you make a movie, you're mostly just making a movie. I'm really just a filmmaker when I create this documentary. However, my medical/psychiatric knowledge, I hope, will bring some authenticity/authority to it that another filmmaker could not. These are really, really complicated issues, and I hope I can do them justice.

There's a strong music element to the story. Can you describe why music is so important to this story?

Well, music is important for a lot of reasons. Broadly, it represents the idea that people who struggle with mental health issues are way more than their diagnosis. In the past Kelley has been given diagnoses of bipolar I and autism. Those are the sort of things doctors like myself tend to focus on. But it's not what really matters. What matters is that Kelley is happy and active, and in part for Kelley that is due to music. Beyond that though, on a pure science level, there is strong evidence that playing music actually changes the brain, and being a musician can actually help people improve focus and mood. On a whole other level, in this story music is important to Kelley's family. Kelley's father, Eric, is one of the most popular and accomplished bluegrass musicians in the country. Bluegrass is a family thing, and family is more important than psychiatric medication. Family can help you recover, and family can tear you apart. So, music really stands in for a lot in this story: Kelley's personal identity, Kelley's family, and it also literally impacts the structure of his brain.

This project is a documentary but you have also directed narrative films. How is making a documentary different from a narrative film? Do you like one over the other?

From a creative perspective, I'd way rather shoot a narrative project. There is more freedom. However, from a public policy perspective, I think real life is more powerful. This project is in part about offering some ideas to improve outcomes in mental health, and so I think it's important to stay 100% in the real world. Thus, a documentary.

What are your hopes for this film?

First, I want it to be super entertaining because that is the first rule of storytelling. The ultimate goal though is for it to be seen by the important stakeholders and policy makers in mental health, and to hopefully influence those people a bit. Essentially, I would like to see mental health shift more towards helping people find their strengths and deal with their environments, and have less emphasis on acute interventions and medications. I mean, medications can be very important, but for most people, they are only a small part of the puzzle. For some, medications solve everything, but that's not the norm. Most people who suffer from mental illness have something going on in their lives that contributes to their psychiatric issues, and we need to spend more time working on those issues while also helping people build their natural strengths.

Why crowdfunding?

We are doing crowdfunding for a couple reasons. First: I wanted to see if the story resonated with people before I broke my back to make the movie. With that in mind, I didn't really put much effort into the Kickstarter video itself because I just wanted to see if people liked the feel of the raw story. Second reason: because we'd like for a big chunk of the profit to go to a charity, if we have fewer investors to pay back, we have more moola to give to our charity of choice.

What advice can you give up-and-coming indie filmmakers?

Know what you want. I have a weird career as a doctor and indie filmmaker. It's not easy to make work but I've made it work because I've been clear about what it is that I wanted for a long time. So know what you want and then you'll figure the rest out.

Click on the box below to check out Sean's Kickstarter campaign. I hope you can contribute and spread the word. This story needs to be told. Good luck Sean and Kelley!

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