THREE CHRISTS: Jon Avnet on Depicting Mental Illness in Film

Walton Goggins as “Leon,” Richard Gere as “Dr.Stone,” Peter Dinklage as “Joseph” and Bradley Whitford as “Clyde” in Jon Avnet’s Three Christs. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

Jon Avnet has written, directed, and/or produced such classic titles as Fried Green Tomatoes, Up Close & Personal, and Risky Business. Most recently, he’s been a director and producer on shows like Sneaky Pete and Justified. Today, one of his passion projects comed to theaters and digital.

Three Christs — directed by Jon and written by Jon and Nicholl Fellow Eric Nazarian — follows the true story of one doctor who brought together three paranoid schizophrenic patients in the late 1950s who each believed they were Jesus Christ. The film’s illustrious cast includes Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage, Bradley Whitford, Walton Goggins, and Julianna Margulies.

I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Avnet about his preference for writing with a partner, the changes he’s seen in the film industry, and the extremely high bar he set for himself in depicting mental illness effectively in Three Christs.

Angela Bourassa: What was it about this particular story that stood out to you? Why was this the story you needed to tell?

Jon Avnet: Well, I thought the premise of three people who thought they were Jesus Christ being put in a room by a professional was really quite interesting, so that grabbed me. And then as I read the book, I saw that the writer – the character Richard Gere plays in the film – he’s so empathic. He really cared about these people, and I thought it was really noble what he tried to do even though he clearly went over the line. I thought it was a great dilemma.

From a writing standpoint, what I tried to do with Eric [Nazarian] was first understand paranoid schizophrenia – which took me a really long time to learn whatever I learned, and I’m not a professional – so that base would be solid, and then see how I could make this [schizophrenic] speech make some sense. If I could take the words from the actual book and the transcripts I had – if I could make them understandable to an audience – wouldn’t that allow them to experience the characters as people? And that’s what I always wanted – for them to see these people as people. Not as patients, not as victims, not as numbers. To understand them as people and understand that they deserve to be treated as people. And in this case, very lonely people who were for the most part warehoused, drugged, and treated in a very inhumane fashion. Not always out of malice – often out of a lack of knowledge and resources, and by the way, it’s that way now, unfortunately.

But in that story, I felt that there was this opportunity to try to get into this language which I thought, from a writing perspective, was about as interesting a language as Shakespeare. And then as a director, I felt that the avenue to making it accessible was not just what was on the page in terms of words but in terms of the behavior – so while their words might be confusing initially, you come to understand them as you see their behavior. A simple example is, the character Brad Whitford plays, when he’s asked to sit down, what does he say? He says no. What does he do?

Angela Bourassa: He sits down.

Jon Avnet: So after a while, you get him, right? Ultimately, the behavior was everything. Another example, when Richard asked Brad Whitford’s character to sit next to Peter Dinklage’s character, you see how difficult it is for him to sit next to another person, and this is very truthful for paranoid schizophrenics, because they tend to isolate themselves or have what professionals call a perimeter of safety. They want to be isolated enough so they don’t have to flee or attack or hide in some form or another. So when you look at the major accomplishment that Richard’s character had of getting these guys to sit together and play cards – how wonderful would that be? So, those were all challenges to me that drew me to this, and it was a high bar I set for myself to try to get it right.

Peter Dinklage as “Joseph” and Bradley Whitford as “Clyde” in Jon Avnet’s Three Christs. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Angela Bourassa: That actually leads into my next question. I feel like we as writers are being held to a higher standard these days – and rightly so – when it comes to depicting things like mental illness. Did you feel that pressure while you were writing and directing this and did it effect the way you approached the project?

Jon Avnet: I felt – irrespective of the outside world – that it was obligatory for me and Eric to get the world right. I had a psychoanalyst who worked with me on the script, basically trying to educate me on paranoid schizophrenia, so that we would be as accurate as we could be. So the standard that we have today – which I applaud – was something that I wanted to exceed. It had to be accurate. The behavior had to be accurate. The words – much of which came from the actual book or the transcripts – were accurate.

Then the question was, was the way they were spoken accurate? Could the actors find that in themselves? And I think it was a very demanding and, again, a very high bar. And I have to say, working with Peter, Brad, Walton, everybody – I was humbled by how hard they worked and how much effort they made in rehearsals and how scared they were about getting it right. So, yeah, that was front and center on our mind.

Angela Bourassa: This is a script that you co-wrote. Can you talk a bit about that process? Do you prefer writing alone or with a partner?

Jon Avnet: I prefer working with somebody else because I hate myself and everything I write.

Angela Bourassa: (Laughs)

Jon Avnet: I’ve had the good fortune to work with many brilliant screenwriters, and I cannot measure up to them and I am painfully aware of it. But I can tell a story and I have some skills to make up for the many weaknesses that I have. So in this case, working with Eric, what I wanted was to have somebody else do certain things so I wouldn’t hate it just because I did it – so I could look at it objectively. That was very important.

Angela Bourassa: You have such a long and prolific career – it’s fascinating to hear you be so self-effacing. Is that something you think has been a benefit to you or a detriment across the years?

Jon Avnet: Well, listen, I love film, I love writing, and I’ve read many a brilliant writer, and I think it’s very apparent how good they are, what they can do, and how they can turn a phrase, and I rarely am able to reach where I would like to be. And writing is the most primary thing for me, but what I aspire to – I’ll never reach what I want.

So it helps me enormously to have someone with whom I can collaborate. And then I have all these wonderful friends who are really talented who rip everything apart, and I benefit from that. That’s one of my great benefits – that I have these people who will look at my stuff in early phases and tear it apart.

Angela Bourassa: Right. So then, of writing, directing, and producing, which one do you enjoy the most?

Jon Avnet: I enjoy the directing the most. That’s where I feel I’m most comfortable, particularly working with actors. I feel very comfortable doing that, I feel the actors are comfortable, and I’ve been fortunate to have great actors in many of my movies to protect me. This was a great group. It was very challenging stuff portraying paranoid schizophrenia. It was very difficult for them to understand this speech.

Bradley Whitford as “Clyde,” Walton Goggins as “Leon” and Peter Dinklage as “Joseph” in Jon Avnet’s Three Christs. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Angela Bourassa: What sort of work did you do with them to prepare?

Jon Avnet: Quite a bit. Well, Walton worked on the script for four years. Richard, about sixteen to eighteen months. Brad, three or four months. And then Peter for the rehearsal period and a bit beforehand. But the rehearsal period was the key, because in order to understand the language, you had to understand the behavior, and the behavior came from certain terrors that are endemic to paranoid schizophrenia, so they had to understand how one would walk from one place to another if someone else was there. And they had to internalize that into everything.

Peter said to me at one point, “How do I avoid the typical tropes and tricks? How does one play someone who’s insane?” And – for once, I was actually quite articulate – I said, “You play him sane. He’s sane – everyone else is insane.” And that really was helpful to Peter. I also had this psychoanalyst who came to rehearsal and talked with the actors and helped answer questions from a professional standpoint. That, I think, gave them some comfort.

Angela Bourassa: To go a bit broader for a minute, since you’ve had such an amazing career and you’ve been around for a while, I’m curious – over the last few decades as the industry has changed quite substantially, what are some of the changes that you’re happiest about and what changes are you most concerned by?

Jon Avnet: I’m happiest about the fact that we’re getting many more diverse voices. I spent a lot of my life – I was always interested in stories about women, because I found their behavior more interesting, so most of the things I’ve written and directed have been about women. And obviously to have women writers, directors, producers, and women’s stories… it’s really great. I hate that – I have another form of self-hatred here, but – enough with the patriarchy.

Angela Bourassa: (Laughs)

Jon Avnet: I’m not terribly interested in my story. It doesn’t mean that my work isn’t valid, but I’m much more interested in women’s stories. And the same goes for diverse voices. That’s something that took forever.

I think the fact that these stories can get made and get seen is the good part of streaming, which is the present and will be the future. I do hope that films that are made for the theaters – for instance, Three Christs I made for the theaters – are screened in theaters in a communal setting. I mean, when this movie screened at Toronto, I think there were about 2,200 people in that cavern. And to see them laugh and enjoy these characters and descend into their world with them and fall in love with them… it was one of the best screenings of any movie I’ve ever had. And to be honest I was very surprised – that they picked up on the behavior, on the humor that was implicit. You know, to miss that because you’re watching at home, that’s a shame.

But again, the tradeoff is that more people see more diverse work, and that’s good.

Three Christs is in theaters, On Digital and On Demand today – Friday, January 10, 2020.

~

Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.

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