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Daily Bruin Online, January 10 2000
By Jessica Holt, Daily Bruin Senior Staff

FILM: Star Winona Ryder finds personal meaning in story of hospital patients

Depression can hit anyone, regardless of status, age, race or sex.

Winona Ryder’s latest movie, “Girl, Interrupted,” opening nationwide this Friday, chronicles the compelling true story of Susanna Kaysen’s struggle with depression at age 17 – a struggle which led her to the brink of insanity and back.

An adaptation of Kaysen’s 1993 bestselling memoir, the film follows Susanna’s life during her two years at McLean Psychiatric Hospital (called Claymoore Hospital in the film) beginning in 1967.

Executive producer and star Ryder was on hand to talk about “Girl, Interrupted” at a press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Attached to the film for six years, the actor found the subject matter particularly meaningful. Her own experiences with depression and anxiety in her late teens led her to feel a deep connection with Kaysen’s life.

“I made a conscious choice to open up and talk about that time in my life, which has been strange for me because I know how nauseating it is when actors complain,” Ryder said. “We’re very lucky and blessed.”

“We’re sickeningly well-paid people who have very charmed lives, but there is also a lot the public doesn’t see,” Ryder continued. “A lot of darkness and demons that I think everyone in the world has. Everybody … has struggled with loneliness and confusion.”

Ryder knew she wanted to make this extremely personal story into a film and speak to young people, especially about the normal feelings of being misunderstood.

“Susanna Kaysen’s book just really captured a mood – that time in your life that is so confusing and so lonely and so oddly funny and weird,” Ryder said. “She captured it with such honesty yet without being self-indulgent, which is something I hadn’t seen captured since Salinger wrote ‘Catcher in the Rye.’”

Growing up in a time when many radical changes were occurring in the American social fabric, Kaysen, just out of high school, felt deeply confused and insecure. She ended up “chasing a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka.”

As a result, her parents sent her to the mental hospital where Kaysen confronted the gripping confusion in her life. Years later, Kaysen began writing vignettes about the time spent in the hospital and eventually compiled a searing novel that resonated with all types of people.

After Ryder read the book, she contacted producer Douglas Wick who had bought the rights to the film. Six years later, James Mangold came on board to revise the script and direct. This pairing finally brought the film adaptation into fruition.

“It was just kind of these series of vignettes in a mental institution which were neither saying it was a terrible place or a great place but were just kind of events,” Mangold said. “I felt like someone had to attack the material with vigor, also more loyalty to the feelings, themes and points of the book.”

The director felt audiences would connect most with Kaysen’s universal conflicted feelings of confusion.

“We all wake up and try to figure out why but never are sure. There can be periods of our life that we really can’t blame on our ex-girlfriend or mother or anyone and in fact we just feel shitty,” Mangold said. “That’s interesting. And some people get lost in the spiral of that.”

Kaysen almost got lost in that spiral. But her experiences in the mental institution made it clear to her that she wanted to be a writer. She also came to a realization about the confusion which almost destroyed her life.

Yet it was not until she began writing down her memories that Kaysen really found clarity. The resulting book, meditative in tone, focused mainly on her thoughts and feelings of that time.

So in writing the script, Mangold expanded the other characters mentioned in the book, especially that of Lisa, a charming over-the-top sociopath, played by Angelina Jolie. Critical to the film’s dramatic structure, Lisa became important to Mangold because she symbolized a type of freedom that Susanna did not quite possess.

“Some of what we think of as crazy is also just speaking the truth all the time which, let’s face it, we can’t do.” said Mangold. “Part of the rules of life is not saying what you are thinking.”

While creating the role of Lisa, Mangold worried he could not find anyone to fill the outrageous “lines in a coloring book” that he had drawn. When Jolie came to read for the role, the search was over. After reading every single scene that Lisa was in, Mangold knew that the film could be made.

“I was exhausted afterwards but also knew she was going to be Lisa. Not only that, but I actually felt like we had a movie,” said Mangold.

Jolie, who just garnered a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal, brought the needed energy, vitality and impulsiveness to the role of a girl truly walking on the edge.

“I looked up sociopath – I went to the library and they said to look under serial killers. And you read about them and they’re just not aware. They live on impulse so you can’t analyze them,” Jolie said. “You have to throw the books away and say, ‘OK, what do I really feel right now?’ and just do it. And sometimes you do things that you’re pretty scared of.”

But this spontaneous abandon translated into a very truthful performance mainly because Jolie could relate to her character.

“I remember being very upset that I wasn’t (crazy). That I wasn’t a vampire. I wanted to be on stage and think I was someone else,” said Jolie about her own adolescence.

Jolie’s connection with the part, Mangold’s conviction in presenting the truths behind Kaysen’s message, and the overwhelming power of Kaysen’s story are what Ryder is counting on in reaching the larger public.

“I hope the teenagers who feel alone out there will see this movie and say, ‘Thank God.’ Because movies like this aren’t really offered, and I would like to offer it,” Ryder said. “If I had seen this movie at 19, I would have taken a lot of comfort in it.”

“Life is just weird. Life is a mess,” Ryder said. “This world is a mess, and anyone who understands this world I would worry about … We’re normal to feel crazy in a way.”

FILM: “Girl, Interrupted” to open in theaters nationwide Friday.