by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
How do you make a film about mental illness and depression fun? It’s one of the tougher screenwriting challenges — taking a character who is broken and unhappy, and still making him or her entertaining to watch. If you’re trying to pull off this feat with one of your own scripts, you should definitely watch screenwriter Jason Filiatrault’s new indie dramedy, Entanglement.
Directed by Jason James and starring Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) and Jess Weixler, Entanglement starts off with the main character trying to kill himself, and as powerful and heartbreaking as the scene is, it also manages to be funny. Layered emotions characterize the whole film, which explores mental illness and how we all make it through each day with depth, whimsy, and a great deal of charm.
LA Screenwriter’s Angela Bourassa spoke to screenwriter Jason Filiatrault about how he crafted this story, manic pixie dream girls, and the symbolism of water.
Angela Bourassa: This film obviously grapples with mental illness, but it manages to do so with whimsy and humor. How did you go about portraying depression in a way that was both serious and funny?
Jason Filiatrault: For myself in the writing, it was all about being true to the emotion of the character. I wanted very much to portray Ben’s life as it felt TO HIM, and I think with everyone that involves ups and downs and things that are funny and serious. And the other side of that was just being very clear that it was illness and not weakness — it’s not a flaw in Ben that he has an illness, the flaw for Ben is that he thinks there’s a simple, easy answer.
The humor and and whimsy all stemmed from contrasting the idea of these very twee indie films and magic realism and then looking at it and asking, “What’s the darker side of that disconnect to reality?” But it all comes from trying to be true.
Angela Bourassa: I noticed, you were careful never to name any specific conditions or disorders. What was the thinking behind that?
Jason Filiatrault: The thinking there was twofold. Firstly, I’m not a doctor by ANY means, so even to attempt to accurately diagnose the character would be disingenuous. Even in consultation with doctors, it then falls into making sure everything is exactly right. And then beyond that, it was not wanting Ben’s character to be an example of one illness. It’s not a film about a character whose mental disorder defines him, it’s about a man looking for answers and connection — so I hoped that by not labeling Ben we could make it more about the journey than just what he had.
Angela Bourassa: Throughout the film, water is an important symbol. Water can represent rebirth or freedom or death or powerlessness or any number of other things… so I’m curious, was water an important element of the story for you from the get-go, or did it gain significance as this project developed?
Jason Filiatrault: Water was among the bigger ideas in the writing, definitely. For me it was about being connected and how water is so fluid and the waves and currents can tie a whole planet together — but then also water is just inside us and part of us. That seems very pompous as a statement, but I think in writing you kind of have to grab a few visual and symbolic things to just return to — and water was an easy one to see. It was a good handle and it allowed me to seem like a slightly better writer than I am.
Angela Bourassa: [Laughs] That’s great. What movies or shows were you watching as you wrote the script?
Jason Filiatrault: Amelie, Eternal Sunshine, some Wes Anderson for whimsy, and always Billy Wilder. The Apartment especially is a pitch perfect combination of comedy and drama.
Angela Bourassa: How long did it take to get this script right? How many drafts did you go through?
Jason Filiatrault: We went through three drafts — two in development and then one in prep. Plus a decent amount of tweaking for production — like changing locations and some lines and logic stuff. But I was lucky that everyone felt we had a good script to start with and we could build on that.
Angela Bourassa: I feel like Hanna could be aptly described as a manic pixie dream girl, but as the plot develops, her character certainly moves past that trope. How did you go about crafting the character of Hanna? What were your thoughts on how the audience would receive her?
Jason Filiatrault: Hanna is absolutely a manic pixie dream girl, in every literal sense of those three words. And that was very intentional. That was the whole thought that got me started – looking at how to write a deconstruction of a manic pixie dream girl type film and what the furthest extent of that relationship could be. What’s the dream? What’s the mania? Who’s the girl? Those thoughts drove a lot of the early thinking on the film, and then it was just waiting for a story to fit that into.
As for her character — it was very much grounded in thinking about what Hanna wants, what does she really think she wants in life, and then how to make that impossible. And I hope the audience comes to love her — or least understand who she is and why she is the way she is. If that makes sense, it might not make sense.
Angela Bourassa: It makes sense. Did you get to be involved in the casting? Jess Weixler in particular feels like she’s going to be a superstar someday very soon.
Jason Filiatrault: I was as involved as any writer has the right to be, which is to say I gave my opinions but Jason James [the director] had the final say, as he should. He’s a smart guy and he gets the blame if things fail. That said, Jess Weixler is totally a superstar – in every way. She’s so talented and so kind and so generous and the most honest and open performer. She took an arguably impossible character and made her real. I think we were lucky to have her.
Angela Bourassa: I always like to ask, what do you wish you had known when you first started writing?
Jason Filiatrault: I wish I had been more prepared to let go. It comes up in the film a lot — but the idea of letting go of control and certainty and just giving your script over to people you trust and talented people and people who get it and like it, and then seeing what they do? That process is the best and it’s humbling and every writer should let go and learn to enjoy the feeling.
Or not. Do whatever, it’s your script.
ENTANGLEMENT will be in theaters and On Demand / Digital HD February 9, 2018.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.