Talking with Mike Stutz

“You want to stop a conversation quickly? Tell someone you’d like to make a funny movie about suicide. It’s a little like asking a stranger about their favorite masturbation techniques. A sour look is followed by uncomfortable silence and a quick exit.”

This is how longtime director Mike Stutz introduces his new documentary, “Don’t Change the Subject,” which barges through all the careful whispers and outright silence on the topic with a healthy mix of warmth, irreverence and personal experience. And clowns. And stand-up comedians. It’s safe to say you’ve never seen anything like it. And now you should.

Mike as a child cradled his mother as she was dying of suicide, and it took him years and years to realize that his stepmother had done the same for her dying father when she was young. They had never talked about that shared experience. It had never come up. “If Judith and I had avoided this conversation all these years, then how many other folks out there are still busy changing the subject around the dinner table now?” They decided Mike should explore it, make a film, see if he could change the way people deal with suicide. The first plan for the documentary was to feature celebrities he knew. They all said no. “First decision: Fuck the famous people,” Mike writes in his director’s notes.

So they talked to real people. They include several suicide attempt survivors, including comic Brian Finkelstein and a man who describes jumping off a bridge, recovering in the same room with a man who had tried to shoot himself and feeling sorry for him. One young woman describes the annoying gap between the typical responses to an attempt _ “It’s just a gesture” _ and to a completed suicide. “They only see it in one extreme or the other,” she says. “It’s like, for me, to be really serious and have people believe that I’m really serious about it, I basically would have to die. But then if I were to die, everybody would be like, ‘Oh I should have seen the signs. I can’t believe she did this to me.'”

Mike has been taking the documentary to screenings around the country and plans a wider rollout later this year. He’s had encouragement from suicide prevention groups, though they’re so nervous about any mention of suicide methods that they won’t show the film themselves. “They are so cautious, so unbelievably cautious,” he says.

After watching the documentary and talking with Mike, I’m pretty convinced he can make anyone comfortable. He leapt into our conversation with several questions of his own, and after a while I realized, “I’d better start writing this down.” Here goes, easing into one of his thoughts midstream:

It was important to me as an interviewer to show respect to the person that I’m interviewing and to understand that this can be a really difficult subject to talk about. But that doesn’t mean I should walk on eggshells when interviewing them. Rather, I try to give them the space to talk honestly and openly about their experience. I think it’s condescending to speak in hushed, overly reverent tones. Talking frankly about it really helped, allowed them to open up about their stories, so they’re not treated like, “Oh my God, you’re such a freak, how did it happen?” Who ever wants to feel that way? And that’s very much the goal of the movie, to try and take some of that stigma away.

Did that approach always work?

I find that with the survivors I talked to, anyway, when we’d sit down and have an honest conversation, generally yes, it worked really well. I know sometimes when I take the film somewhere, or people hear about the film, they think it’s not gonna work. A lot of resistance: “Not respectful.” I understand that. Obviously it’s a very painful subject. But I find, with few exceptions, that when people see the movie, or we talk, they understand there’s no disrespect intended, no slighting of the problem, no “Get over it.” Of course you take it seriously. I have very rarely, almost never, talked to someone directly about the subject and had a good conversation with them and then have them say, “I think this is inappropriate.” It’s hard for a viewer of a movie like this. You have to kind of trust the filmmaker. You have to trust I’m going to take you down this path, create that hopefully fulfilling experience in the end. But I get the “Why should I trust you?” I’m just glad in general, those who are willing to go down that path are willing to go down it.

(He asks what I think of the documentary.)

It was amazing getting to talk to everyone. When you ask where did I find the people we interviewed for the movie, we kind of started off through official channels, different psychiatric connections people on the film had. Imagine, when we’d explain what the film was going to be, people would say, “Oh no, forget it.” We ended up mostly doing Craigslist postings. Also, one producer, a lovely warm person, talked with people in the field, did pre-interviews, made sure we were not going to make them uncomfortable. I didn’t talk to them until we sat down on camera. I think we only interviewed, say, 18 people, and 16 are in the movie. And it seemed that many of the folks who came to us wanted to talk to someone about it. For some, it was the first time they’d had a lengthy conversation about it. You sit down in this dark room, talk for a while. It’s nice to be able to share their story, hopefully not in a judgmental place. It’s nice to be able to talk to someone. One of the places the movie was born out of was me saying to my wife, “Oh, it’s interesting to talk to people who’ve gone through this,” and she said, “You’ve never talked to anyone?” I’d written about it but never had a discussion with others who have had suicide in their family. So I think they felt the same way. Extra rewarding to me was, the people in it have seen it, and I got really strong responses from them supporting it. A couple of folks I haven’t talked to, so it’s possible. But I know our producer Matt talked to them afterwards, to make sure they were OK. My fear would be, you create the movie and a year later people are like, “On my God, I can’t believe I did that.” It’s funny what you’ll give up sometimes. The people on your site have been very open.

The film is full of color and humor, but it seems like there’s less of that in the interviews with survivors and attempt survivors. Why?

One, on a practical level, we were low budget. We were doing it in different settings. We needed enough room where we could set up lights. The first interview is with Richard, who talks about jumping off a bridge. It’s not a black background. It was the first interview we did. We had this room not really prepared correctly, full of junk. Richard was there, ready to go, and we kind of set it up. We pulled these big 70s white chairs together and just went with it. It turned out to be a fascinating interview. But because we were always in different spaces, we were going to have 16 abstract backgrounds and they weren’t going to match at all! So it became practical. I mean, you could do things metaphorical. At least they were uniform-looking interviews. Why black instead of more color is, I really wanted to focus solely on their story, didn’t want you to be distracted by anything. I didn’t want to dress it up. The words they were saying were so important. If you look, we had a very good director of photography. One thing I’m proud of is, we left in a lot of “um”s and “ah”s, we didn’t try to cut away while they thinking. You could actually see the thoughts register. You see the thought process happening. You see them making the decision, almost as if we are seeing them say, “What I’m telling you is the truth, then I’m telling you another level of truth.” Everything about the movie, we just had to allow things to happen. Every plan got knocked off course. We also tried to interview all these celebrities, but they seemed horrified, So the interviews were with people you had not heard of before, and it was much more compelling.

Who did you approach who seemed horrified?

I don’t really want to out anybody as not participating, because it’s not their fault. They’re not bad people for having said no. It’s just surprising to me how universal that answer was. We did approach 12 to 15 reasonably well-known folks, some I’ve known personally. The answer was always very polite: “Oh, it sounds great, what a fascinating idea, let me check my schedule,” and it kind of went on from there. Sometimes it was just “No.”

(I mention the common feeling that it would take a celebrity to bring the subject into the open.)

I think it’s true. I understand why they don’t want to talk. You know, you have a site dedicated to talking about suicide, and I bet a lot of people wince when they hear about that. If it’s a celebrity, who works in comedy or lighter entertainment, the people around them tell them, “People don’t want to hear that.” You ever watch Dr. Drew? He gets that look, all sad, kind of pouty when he talks to some of his patients. As an entertainer, you don’t want people to make that pouty face. If either you attempted or someone close to you did, people are like, “Are you OK, what issues did they have?” They avoid the topic if they can. But I agree. If all the people in the entertainment industry who have attempted or even thought about it talked about it or at least said it exists, it would be tremendously helpful. The thing about suicide is, people think they’re the only one who has these feelings, they think something’s wrong about them for having these thoughts. If we could just talk, say, “Everyone has had some level of anxiety, depression, mental distress in life, and some have to cope with it every day. We all go through it.” And I’m shocked whenever I go to colleges and talk to people, how many college students don’t understand depression is a disease, that it can be treated, that we should talk about it. But they don’t know because no one talks about it, or if they do, it’s mostly hushed and downward looking. More anymore, people are opening up about their own problems. But with a few exceptions, it’s not something you’re going to volunteer. Like you said, “I’m not going to talk to someone on the street about it.” I wish we were at a place where we could talk about mental anguish to the point where we could talk about having the flu last week. And the irony is, you’re not going to catch it! I can hear that, I can feel for you, but I won’t necessary catch it.

(I ask a rather tangled four-part question about how long the interviews usually took, what parts were usually edited out, how humor played a part, if at all, and whether the interview approach differed for survivors and attempt survivors.)

They were typically 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes. I didn’t go at it differently between those who had lost someone and those who had tried it themselves. I mean, it’s all the experience of suicide, right? Obviously there are differences, but I guess I can only talk to someone and ask them questions about their lives. I let them, hopefully, guide me. I had no agenda coming in as to what I wanted out of them. I just talked to them about their experience. Everyone was pretty open, different levels of openness. A ton of fascinating stuff. I could post the raw interviews, and it would still be very interesting. In the end, what I chose to put on screen was usually that one person was going to share one angle on suicide, another person would give me a different color, all overlapping nicely. But as a viewer of the movie, I don’t need to hear it twice, you know? You asked about humor, when the interview was done, whether we joked about it. We joked about it during the interview! There were moments that were serious, but Richard, for one, was able to find dark humor in a serious subject. And Vanessa, making herself throw up because she didn’t want to disappoint her aunt. It was them sharing their own. Humor is very much a way of naming your fears. If I am able to share something that might make you laugh, you will allow me to open up about a subject where, if I approached in a guarded manner, you would not accept it. That’s why I chose to talk about my own mother’s death by using other performers, surrogates, in a semi-humorous way, semi-clowning my way through it. You’re able to step one step back. Nobody wants to sit and hear you talk about being a 12-year-old and finding their mother.

(I asked about the scene where he’s holding the bottle of pills his mother used to kill herself and saying it felt foreign to him. I wondered if he meant the idea of someone wanting to kill herself was foreign.)

I can see how you might read it that way. Even now, looking back on my mother’s death, in some ways when you’ve told the tale enough times, it can seem it wasn’t you. Actually holding the bottle of pills feels foreign because I can’t wrap my brain around that this bottle was one of the actual last things my mother held. That my mother is an abstract thought in my head now, I don’t remember specifically. But now I have these boxes of tapes, diaries. She was real as a person, but I can’t quite jump across that divide and feel her, smell her, hold her. She’s gone. I get where my mom’s mindset was, but the foreignness was in the idea that it was almost like talking about someone else. You just can’t believe whatever situation you were in, that that can just be real. In choreographing it, the whole concept of the movie is that a lot of people are not going to sit and talk to you necessarily honestly what they’re feeling about suicide, but if you allow a writer to sit in a writer’s room, or a dancer to work in the studio, etc., they’ll find it easier to talk about the subject. I wanted to put myself in the same situation. I direct people for a living. If I’m directing others, I might be able to go into it deeper. That’s my hope with the creative process in general. It’s interesting that you talk about color. When you’re depressed, the colors, everything gets very gray and you forget the details that make you want to stick around. That is to me like, all the things I’ve seen, in a sense they are the places I can be myself and find that color and detail. If the film was one giant piece of advice, it would be, “Try to find that place where you can see color, where you can feel more alive, because it’s very easy to forget that place exists and think there’s nothing worth sticking around for.” Obviously it’s more complicated than, “Oh, just go find your happy place,” but … I was reading about one of your articles, and a woman in Canada mentioned Maytree. I clicked and looked, and it seemed amazing. It seems like a place where you could have all these things sparking your brain to stick around.

(I asked him about his personal experience with suicidal thoughts. He’s mentioned being comfortable directing, blocking the scenes, but was he also, you know, blocking them in another sense?)

I’ve never been seriously suicidal. The ideation has not really been part of my funky makeup. Sure, we all have had moments where we’ve pondered. I never reached the stage where I have a plan. I go in a different direction. After my mom died, I was fairly OCD as a kid before my mom died, then I was solidly OCD once my mom died. So I had all sorts of kooky rituals. And to this day, I have to do a lot of sort of cognitive work with myself to keep under control. COD goes hand in hand with catastrophic thinking. I 100 percent understand what it is to have all sorts of thought patterns which are not what you would prefer and others think unusual. I am one large bundle of neuroses. There is one level of OCD of urges to, like, throw yourself out the window. But you have to learn not to act on it. It’s weird. It’s a good question, if some impulse suicides come from that. I have not suffered long-term chronic depression as my mother did. One thing that didn’t make it into the movie that was very interesting was my aunt Martha, as a psychiatrist, and also Dr. Kita Curry, the head of Didi Hirsch, had struggles early as kids and suffered from depression. And interestingly, both said when they got therapy as professionals, other professionals would not ask them if they were suicidal, as if it were professional courtesy. Our family has a lot of depression, but I chose my own form of mental illness. (Laughing.) It’s informed my work. I’m good at attention to detail. I can be focused for long periods of time to tiny things. It’s tiring. Very tiring. I’m guessing you have depression. Those kinds of things wears you down. I wonder, I’m always fascinated by, there’s studies of people where everyone is thinking they’re an outsider. Are there people who are truly, absolutely normal? What would that world be like? That would be amazing, to get up every day and be like, “Oh, beautiful morning!” I have no idea what that’s like. I’m generally upbeat, but there’s always something weird going on in the back of my head.

(He mentions his mother and having sympathy for people suffering.)

It must be really annoying to have people tell you to get up and take a bath. I saw the way others were treated. People are so condescending: “You just need to buck up!” Really? You are not helping me right now. I would love to not be anxious. The one weird, hard-to-explain thing that will never look good in print, which will look like more of a dramatic statement than I meant it to be, is that part of my obsessive nature is I’ve never had a level of suicidal ideation where I thought seriously about ending my life, but because of the way my mother died, the way my brain works, I think I will also die of suicide. I’m not making a dramatic statement that someday i will commit suicide. You look at the world and say, “That’s the way you die. You die of suicide.” It’s the way you see the world when you watch someone die of suicide. I want to stick around. One reason to make the film was to collect the reasons to stick around. It’s been one of the best experiences of my life. And I hope that for someone viewing it, they think the same thing. I will lose money and I will lose time, I will not gain fame, but it has advanced me leaps and bounds emotionally. And I hope that also helps at least, on some tangential level, helps someone out there.

(I ask that despite what he just said, what in his wildest dreams he’d like the film to achieve.)

A typical experience I’ve gone through, it’s rewarding but challenging, is that I’ll go to a school, fly a couple thousand miles to get there, and you’ll sit in the theater, and maybe 35 people show up. But then the great part is, the 35 people will stay there for the Q & A, and people will talk for a long time about a subject they didn’t want to talk about, so sure, there are times that I may think, “Hey, it would be great to talk to a wider audience.” But I don’t delude myself that there’s some sort of wide market for this. The suicide organizations, I got lots of compliments: “Oh, I’d share this with my staffers, but if someone mentions how they killed themselves in your movie, we can’t show it.” Then my answer is, we offer solutions. We do not do any of the things that fall into the realm of suicide contagion. They are so cautious, so unbelievably cautious. Active Minds works on campuses, and they have been really supportive. As has Didi Hirsch. But a lot of other organizations, they talked to me personally and said, “I’m glad you made it, but I would never show it to our clients.” So when you talk about the dreams, I don’t want to say this in a way, I’m very lucky to make this film, I have so many people supporting me, so I don’t mind not making money, gaining notoriety from it. But I do have days when I wonder, “Is this making a difference? When so many people are so cautious about it, am I saying the wrong thing? Maybe people aren’t talking about it for a reason.” We’re doing a festival in October called Day of the Living. An alternative way of suicide prevention. I’m very excited about that. But the battle to, like, even get something up is so big, you think, “Should I be doing this?” I don’t know the answer. I’m not totally convinced this isn’t some weird contrarian adventure I’m on. I’ve joked that if I had the money, I’d print out about 50,000 copies and leave them on bus benches for people around America. There is now with the movie a certain “If you build it, they will come” spirit to it. It’s encouraging to me.

You mention the cautiousness of the suicide prevention organizations. Can that cautiousness actually hurt?

When I read some of the interviews on your site, it was refreshing, the level of candor. I know for a fact that some of the organizations would say, “Oh no, you can’t say he took pills in the middle of Brooklyn.” I don’t want to walk on eggshells with my own answer. I think it’s well-intended. I think suicide contagion is real. But I think there’s tremendous confusion over what that really is. If you glamorize suicide, do a steamy piece on, like, Kurt Cobain, that can have a really negative effect. But I think if you’re approaching it in an honest way and you’re saying, “This is the difficult side of it, and here are places you can look to to get help,” that can never be a bad thing. “People have those thoughts. It’s OK. Talk about them. Talk to us, here are others, but talk.” I have had one person who was at one of the schools who said, “But frankly, we in the psychiatric community have become as much a part of the problem as of the solution, because we are so afraid that we shut down discussion about suicide.” And that’s not the answer. Yes, it’s possible that you could make a mistake in talking about suicide. But how many people will die if you don’t say a thing? You have studies on how many people die because people talk about it, but I’d like to see a study on how many people who’ve died because no one talks about it. I don’t think that’s fair. A movie, or a website, or a letter, or whatever, doesn’t kill someone. They kill themselves. You need to be responsible in dealing with the subject. You do have to take it seriously. You have to at least think about it. The biggest guff I take with the movie is, what is also for a lot of people their favorite part, the comic piece “Daddy’s Suicide.” A lot of people like it because it names that fear. It’s so over the top that it’s clearly satirical. But there are others who watch it and say, “How could you do that?” I’m like, “Are you serious?” We even have a slate beforehand to point out this is a theatrical performance. And then after it, the first words I say is, “OK, maybe some of my stuff is inappropriate.” I don’t know how you can think that’s a real video of a father blaming his children for his death. And yet, you hear that. And all of that said, I want to say, I get it. Some people are so close to the issue that any humor is too much to take. I shouldn’t harangue them for not liking it, but it’s just so obviously … Many people have said it. But then others say, “That was the funniest part, that’s where I bought in.” That’s the litmus test of the movie. People are fragile, you know? Of course it’s a hard thing, but we can wrap ourselves so fully in bubble wrap to keep from being bruised. I’m not sure that’s the best way to go about it. Without opening up a dialogue, without humor, how else are we supposed to explore? To me, comedy comes from a surreal situation.

This is a question very off that topic, but I wanted to remember to ask it: Do you think it’s better for a suicide to come after a warning or to come as a surprise?

I would rather have a warning so I could try to stop it.  But in the end, someone may still kill his or herself, and that is their decision. Even with a warning, you can’t always stop someone. So I don’t know for me. My mother was suicidal, I don’t know if she attempted before she died, but people knew she was suicidal. I’m not sure that I completely understood that. I knew before my mom died that there was a good chance she was gonna die. I didn’t know what to do with that information. Like, yeah, it could happen. One thing the film touches on, there’s some small part of you that goes, “Oh, the trouble’s over.” You feel kind of shitty for feeling that way, but the person was always in pain, in trouble, that at least some part of you registers that thought, even if you didn’t want it. But I suppose if my mother had sat down with me a week before and said, “I’m going to kill myself, I’m really sorry,” it probably would have been really scary, hard to process. So probably not. I did express in the movie that I wish my mother had left a note: “I love you very much, I hope this will be beneficial to you.” I don’t know, in answer to your question. I guess the right answer is, get the warning, but it’s hard for an 11-year old to process.

For all of my flip attitude, if someone close to me, my wife, my friends, committed suicide tomorrow, I don’t know, maybe my feelings would change. I hope I never find out. It would be perfectly valid for someone to see a movie like this and say to me, “Fuck you, I’ve been through a very hard time, I don’t find anything funny about suicide.” I use humor to deal with pain.  Not everyone does.

And you’ve had no walkouts during the film, no hate mail, things like that?

We do have walkouts sometimes. Usually one or two, occasionally more. But not always in anger. It’s a lot for some viewers to take. But, almost to a person, there have been positive responses. The few e-mails really lecturing and giving me the what-for about who I think I am are invariably from psychiatrists. Not social workers, or survivors, or grief counselors. I should say a vast majority of psychiatrists I’ve spoken with have been very supportive. But there have been a few that have had some choice words for me. So. But I also got some really nice notes: “I would show this to my clients, my groups.” The ones with the biggest issues seem to be the ones with the most letters after their name. I’m trying to think about responses from someone who actually attempted. Those generally been really positive: “Hey, I’m so glad this movie exists.” My actual sense of humor is so dark, so weird, that this movie is like a softer version. I think you can find humor in anything, and you should.

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