Girl, Interrupted

Hollywoodmovie.com, December 26 1999

By Jarratt Carson

The 1960s proved to be a tumultuous and changing time in our country, both politically and socially. It was the time of Woodstock, a cultural event that defined the generation. Americans were encouraged to live life with total abandon, indulging in sex, drugs and rock-and-roll; the code by which all young people lived. This era is the setting of Susanna Kaysen’s best-selling memoir, Girl, Interrupted, the basis for the new film by writer/director James Mangold (Copland, Heavy).

Academy Award nominee Winona Ryder played the 17 year-old Kaysen. After “downing fifty aspirins and chasing it with a bottle of vodka,” Susanna explained to her friend-of-the-family psychiatrist that she “just had a headache”. She was quickly diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder based solely on ambiguous symptoms, and to her bewilderment, checked into Claymoore, a private mental institution.

Once there, scared and unsure, she found herself in a world inhabited by seductive and disturbed young girls. Lisa (Angelina Jolie) was the charming but unpredictable leader, Daisy (Brittany Murphy) a pampered Daddy’s girl, Polly (Elisabeth Moss) was a self-inflicted burn victim, and her roommate, Georgina, a pathological liar, played by Clea DuVall. Susanna was the sanest of them all, but had no choice other than to go along with the program of the institution. The story then followed Susanna and the other girls and how they became connected with one another, sharing their experiences in the institution.

The novel touched many people, and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for several weeks, catching the attention of a much-younger Winona Ryder. “I read the book when I was 21, in galley form. My father is a writer, and he’s friends with a lot of publishers, so he got it before it was ever printed. So, I was able to read it early and I just flipped out. I had a really strong reaction.”

The acquisition of book rights in Hollywood is a tough, competitive venture, and when Ryder set out to acquire the rights, she discovered that they had already been optioned. As Ryder explained, “As soon as I read it I called to see if I could option it.” Fortunately for the actress, that person, producer Douglas Wick, (Stuart Little, Wolf) ended up producing the film. She continued, “Doug had just optioned it when I read it, so I kind of teamed up with him immediately and he was gracious enough let me come on board.”

Wick added, “This was an odd case, because all the studios had turned down the book. Everyone gets the manuscript so early. Someone told me it was very good, it was actually just coming out within a day or so. I read it that night and bought it the next day with a discretionary fund I had at the studio. I was able to buy things the studio didn’t want. That book thing works a million different ways.”

What attracted everyone associated with the film to the novel was the story and real-life characters said the film’s star, “I was really captivated by the book and I was really drawn to the character [of Susanna Kaysen]. She was one of the few characters I’ve read who was so brutally honest without being self indulgent, which is pretty rare in literature, especially for female characters. I was [also] drawn to the edginess of the book and the honesty. It has a really edgy humor, and I thought that if there was any way that it could be brought to the screen, I would really want to be involved.”

Doug Wick obviously agreed, as he added, “The book is such an exquisite piece of literature, the writing is really gorgeous.” He continued on a more personal level, “When I read Susanna’s book, it felt so much like I completely connected to it, like finding a place in life. The other thing which I connected with is that the book is so smart, and tough, and funny. That, in no way is it a kind of sentimental, and what might be considered an ultra-girlish, story. It’s neither boyish or girlish, it’s just really good, clear, smart work. It evades any categorization. It’s just fine writing.”

Young, upcoming actress Brittany Murphy (Clueless) who played Daisy, expressed a childlike fondness about Kaysen’s novel, “You have to read this book. I recommend it to everybody. I recommend it all the time. I buy it for people all the time. It’s such a fun, quick, insightful, witty, tear-jerking, great read. I read it in the kitchen with my mom out loud before we filmed the movie.”

Each of the actors found the making of Girl, Interrupted to be one of their most unique experiences, due to the subject matter of being in a mental institution. Ryder, for example, had to deal with her own bouts of anxiety during filming. Ryder explained the challenge of going to the edge of sanity in this way, “It’s something I wondered if I could do [or not]. I was terrified to play a character that was full of fear and anxiety knowing that I [too] had been full of fear and anxiety. Certainly, it’s not something that is past tense for me – it’s something that you battle with your whole life. It’s not something that I’ll never experience again.”

She goes on to equate the act on the set, “To play an anxiety attack, you have to get an anxiety attack. You don’t know how to put a lid on anxiety attack; I don’t know how to put a lid on anxiety attack. When the director says ‘cut’, I don’t know how to end the attack. So, in some of those scenes I would go back and recall these anxiety attacks, and then Jim [Mangold] would say ‘cut’ and I would not know what to do. My heart would be going million miles an hour and I would be sweating, and I would be feeling like I felt when I was 19. It was kind of scary.”

Ryder was not the only performer in the film that dealt with such problems. The actress found that Brittany Murphy also had such an experience and explained how it helped both of them during filming, “I can say that Brittany Murphy was prone to anxiety as well. We sort of bonded on that, and it’s a wonderful feeling, kind of in a sick way, when you meet somebody who has anxiety like you. It’s like ‘Oh, you too!'” she added, relieved, “In a way, the one thing you learn about is, say I was having one and you told me that you were having one too, I would immediately start trying to help you, therefore mine would go away. So I would immediately apply myself to you. So you could just fake having one and mine would go away.”

Director Mangold, whose films have all been character-driven dramas with strong central characters, discussed his thoughts concerning what his actors had to go through in tackling these difficult roles. In particular, Mangold talked about the experience of working with Winona Ryder. “I consider myself Winona’s friend. From the first day I met her, that was one of the attractions of working on the film; that there were tastes that we shared. And there was a trust, a kind of an easy rapport we had from the beginning.”

When asked about Winona’s bouts with anxiety during filming, he responded with a calm resolve, “I would worry about her as I would a friend. It wasn’t anything that a hug, or a kind word, or kind of settling her down, like reading a book or listening to a good album wouldn’t fix. There is a difference between visiting these places and having them take over. I think the anxiety that can take over while shooting a movie is your impatience at how it takes three months for you to carry this character through this journey. You’re just left with way too much time to think about the next day’s work, and the next day’s work, and so on.”

When asked to explain her personal experience taking on the character of Lisa, Emmy-Award winning actress Angelina Jolie (George Wallace, Gia, The Bone Collector) responded by saying, “I don’t think she is a sociopath. I don’t think she is. [And] I do feel like I was there. I do feel like I knew those girls.” She went on to explain how she chose to play the character, “I just stayed in her. I was just like her during the film. She was just a certain kind of character.” Films that have an ensemble cast tend to develop stronger professional and personal relationships, because the actors appear in so many scenes together. Each of the stars was so close to the character they played that they soon created a unique bond on the set. Angelina Jolie had this to say, “I was really silly with the other girls. We took over my trailer. Even some of the other girls [with smaller roles]. All these people were so honest, so we spent time together and were all in character. I was Lisa, and would just come in and say ‘Let’s go to New York. Let’s just go, right now.'” She concluded, “It was a great experience and we took care of each other, we all liked each other and learned from each other. I learned so much from them.”

Many who see Girl, Interrupted will find it easy to compare to the multi-Academy Award-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (1975) starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Mangold’s one-time mentor, Milos Forman. Mangold elaborates on the inevitable comparison, “Milos Forman was my mentor. I wrote Heavy under his tutelage. I knew this story was very distinct, and I had my own strategy about telling the story. I saw it as a kind of fairy tale. Milos’ film was a very important expose on one level: a real-life penetration into something awful on in this country at the time, in state institutions.” Mangold described his film, “My movie is about a troubled young woman. There is no cleverness involved. She’s tried to kill herself and she finds herself dropped in this other universe; not a government-run dumping ground, but a very fancy, Harvard-like expensive place.”

Both films took place in the 1960’s. Cuckoos Nest was a box-office and critical success, but as producer Douglas Wick points out, that can be a double-edged sword, “I’ll tell you where it helps you. It was in the early stages of the project’s life. The shorthand in Hollywood is that everybody’s always looking for a quick reference. There’s twenty funny examples which come to mind, but when they quickly say, this is a “Female Cuckoos Nest,” that quick reference helps you because you’re being referred to a hit movie. It has a practical effect. On a creative level, I think we all would rather it weren’t so – because this is totally it’s own creative source, so we try to serve the book. We were never saying ‘Let’s do a “Female’s Cuckoos Nest,” let’s go imitate one.’ What we want to say to the audience, is that good work has happened, come and see these performances, come and see this story, come and see exciting new work.”

Mangold also appreciated his actors as he said, “In my mind, a director not learning from his actors isn’t directing. The whole idea of you arriving and putting a wet rag on your head, and you know what every frame is going to look like and that every actor is a puppet, is ridiculous to me, to my way of working. Sometimes, the ideas you get are ambiguous and you need help to ferret them out, and when you have the best relationship you have with your cast you can achieve that and much more.”

The cast members credit the director of capturing the essence of Kaysen’s novel, despite having to cut certain aspects from the film, “Jim did an amazing job,” said Jolie. “He had to make certain choices, but he did an incredible job, and captured so many things.”

Mangold responded, “I can’t take all the credit. My job at times is that I have to see the movie. A great actor will see things through their character. I might see things different than Winona, than Angie, than Vanessa, because I’m seeing the [whole] picture. There’s only one way for an actor to completely understand their part of the work, and that’s to fully and completely inhabit this person.”

Co-producer Kathy Konrad, described the method she and husband, Mangold employed for casting Girl, Interrupted, “In this movie, we had such committed actresses coming in to read. Everybody felt very deeply about this film and it brought out the best in everybody. It was hard because there were so many people to consider.” When deciding upon the final cast, she commented, “It just happens in the moment. They just came in and they just were. It was an instinct thing.”

Mangold described the instinct of filmmaking as a kind of inspiration for this movie. “The way I think about it, I think I am after things that only happen once. That it’s unique, specific, and it’s what makes movies magical. You could never be this close and have it be the same. The whole magic of film to me is the entering that kind of intimacy. You’re watching this film and get to sit closer and look deeper into the eyes of Angelina or Winona or Vanessa Redgrave that most of the people you exist with in the world. It’s a strange kind of intimacy and a very magical one that this camera and this lens can push so close and can reach right into someone’s eyes and into their heart. Never can happen in another medium.”