What happens when you take two award-winning actors and a child prodigy, and combine them with a talented writer/director with a personal story to tell? The film Canvas. One of only a handful of mainstream films that depict a family dealing with mental illness with empathy and a healthy dose of reality, for writer/director Joe Greco, this story was a lifetime in the making-his own.
This award-winning film has been critically acclaimed by the New York Times and Rolling Stone, and Chicago Sun Times reviewer Roger Ebert praises the film as "a serious film about mental illness and a sentimental heartwarmer, which succeeds in both ways."
Based on Greco's life growing up with a mother who has schizophrenia, the film neither "romanticizes nor demonizes" mental illness, Greco emphasizes. He describes the process of writing Canvas as "extraordinarily cathartic." It allowed him to reach a place of understanding and acceptance about his mother's disease.
The film reflects a realistic journey many families experience during the illness of a loved one-uncertainty, loneliness, even shame. More importantly, it gently reminds us how essential it is to reach out for help-and to each other-every day in order to reach the same place of acceptance that Greco did.
"This film was my opportunity to communicate what I felt had not been communicated in cinema before, which was to portray the illness accurately. Secondly, I wanted to really show the terrible hold it has on a family and the person who is affected by the illness," explains Greco.
As he was growing up, his mother's illness caused her to do things that sometimes left him embarrassed, frightened, and frustrated. In Canvas, Greco tells his story from the perspective of the character Chris, a 10-year old boy. In one compelling scene, Chris wakes in the night to the sound of his mother shouting outside their home in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. While neighbors look on, Chris's father desperately tries to convince his wife there are no voices and she's safe at home; at the same time, he tries to protect their son from witnessing his mother's pain.
The talents of the cast were critical to depicting the story realistically. Chris is played by newcomer Devon Gerehart. So convincing is his performance that, Greco says, one must wonder if "he was born to play Chris." Academy Award winner Marsha Gay Harden and Emmy Award winner Joe Pantoliano of the Sopranos play Chris's mother and father. According to Greco, "Both Marcia and Joey are incredible parents. So they brought a perspective and dimension to the film that only their life experience could bring."
As serious as the story of Canvas is, both Greco's writing-flecked with humor-and his artistic direction focus the audience on how a family works through an intractable problem. The reality is, Greco says, "We are all, at one time or another, touched by some sort of dysfunction, I believe. That's why so many people can relate to this film."
In fact, while filming the movie, Joe Pantoliano faced his own reality when he began to recognize he'd been suffering from depression for years and needed to seek treatment. The combined experience of working on the film and dealing with his own diagnosis made Pantoliano aware of how scared people are to talk about mental illness. As he began to talk openly about his own depression, others would say things like "No kidding, me too!" As a result, he created a nonprofit organization called No Kidding, Me Too! which is dedicated to removing the stigma of mental illnesses.
The single most important message for people to walk away from the film with, Greco believes, is "No shame." Reaching out for help…loving and supporting friends and family…opening up about our own experiences…is what Canvas is all about.
For years, "I would get angry at my mother and sort of forget that it's not her fault. If I do get angry now, I know it's the illness and not her. That's really the difference."
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Canvas writer/director Joe Greco talks more about his mom and other motivators for the film:
BH: As both the writer and director of the film, can you describe the challenges of getting the movie written, funded, and filmed?
JG: It took a lot. From script to screen, the film took over 10 years. Writing was one of the more difficult parts of making the film because it was so personal. On one hand, because it took so long, it was very frustrating. I wanted to tell my story. On the other hand, the long gestation period of the movie was a blessing and helped the movie; it helped me to gain objectivity.
I also didn't want to make a film that was depressing. Even though Canvas has some sad moments, I'm really happy that people consider it a hopeful movie. To do that, I needed to divorce myself from the facts and just tell the emotional truth of what occurred. Because it took as long as it did, I was able to see the forest from the trees, separate myself from the experience, and just craft a story that was true to my experience but more true to the emotion of what I was going through, what my mother was going through, what my father was going through.
It's easy now to say it was a blessing, and I'm glad it took as long as it did. But, during the time I was on this journey and trying to make it, it was so arduous and so frustrating because a lot of people wanted to take the story and take the movie into a direction that I didn't want to take it. They didn't want to portray the illness the way I wanted to portray it.
BH: What do you mean by "people wanted to take the movie in a different direction?" Did they want more controversy?
JG: Well, sadly, mental illness has not been portrayed accurately in cinema. Most of the time it's either been romanticized or, more often, demonized. I didn't want to do that.
Some people feel mental illness needs to be exaggerated or controversial to be interesting. The struggle then became for me to convince people who were potentially going to fund the movie that it would still be interesting to an audience. I thought it would be more interesting because it's about the effect it has on the family; it's as real and human as possible.
Ultimately, I decided to produce the film as an independent film. As a result, I got to make the film exactly as I wanted to. I had complete creative control, cast approval, and final cut. I also didn't have to worry about compromising the film's integrity. Ultimately, I got to say what I wanted to say.
BH: Did you ever fear a genetic component of schizophrenia?
JG: Yes. I was certainly terrified growing up. That's why I wrote the scene when the character Chris has a nightmare about hearing voices.
The onset of mental illness is late teens/early 20's. So, when I was in college, I was really scared that one day I would wake up and hear voices like my mom. It was a genuine concern. I'm 36 now, and they say once you hit your 30's, you're out of the woods…
BH: How is your mom doing now?
She still lives with the illness, but she takes her medicine and is doing well. I think she's doing much better than she ever has. She's active in her church. She and I speak almost every day, which is something we didn't always do. She's keenly aware of how she needs to take her medicine and listen to her doctor. For a while, my mother would never admit that she has to take the medicine. She takes much better care of herself now.
BH: What do you think of mental health parity?
JG: Mental health parity is becoming a wonderful movement and will, hopefully, finally pass in this country. The great thing is that it's not just a Democratic issue or a Republican issue; it's a human issue. Members of both political parties are realizing it's not a partisan issue, a young v. old issue, or a black v. white issue.
Mental illness affects all of us. Marsha Gay Harden and Joey Pantoliano were recently at a Congressional briefing in Washington, DC with some leading politicians on both sides of the isle. We're going to Denver soon to meet with a Democratic delegation there and will, hopefully, do the same with the Republicans.
Congressman Patrick Kennedy has certainly been an incredible advocate. But there are many Republicans who are in strong support of mental health parity, just as there are Democrats. It just so happens that there have been difficulties getting legislation passed, but I think the tide is turning. It's not an issue that one political party owns, nor should they claim ownership of. Mental health parity is about educating people and getting laws passed to protect them.
BH: What would you say to get people to support parity?
JG: I find that those who have not been supportive are not opposed to it; it's just that they have not been educated about it. They don't realize how important it is to get people the help they need. If we don't do that, we're going to pay for it down the road, not just from a human, social aspect.
Parity makes economic sense, as well. For example, the largest mental health system in the country is not a mental health hospital. It's the LA County Jail. Either we are going to pay for mental health treatment that people need, or we're going to have to build new jails. We need to get people help instead of putting them in prison, where they're never going to get the help they need.
Both presidential candidates, McCain and Obama, acknowledge how important it is to help veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Helping people is an issue we can all agree on, unlike tax cuts. Parity is fundamentally a social issue. People need to get treatment; otherwise, they fall through the cracks, which inevitably hurts us all, as a country, later on.
In addition to getting treatment, it's important for people to realize mental illness is not a death sentence. In fact, when someone realizes they have a mental illness and seeks treatment, there's no reason why they shouldn't live a normal, high-functioning life.
BH: Joe Pantoliano, who played a leading role in Canvas, started the organization No Kidding, Me Too! to help shed light on the stigma individuals with mental illness experience. Did his work on the film play any part in his desire to bring awareness to the cause?
JG: It's a direct result of the film. It was while filming that he started to suspect he was suffering from depression. It was only after he spoke with doctors did he realize he'd been struggling with the illness for years. Then he began to experience the stigma, as did I growing up.
While making the film, we all encountered stigma. Many people were afraid to buy the movie because they were scared by the subject matter. Joey started the No Kidding, Me Too! organization to take on the issue of stigma and discrimination, using the power of celebrity and a sense of humor to really bring attention to mental health and make it less scary.