Talking with David Granirer

Can suicide, and mental health at large, be funny? This isn’t the first time I’ve interviewed someone who believes it can, but perhaps no attempt survivor has taken on the question as directly as David Granirer. The Canadian founded and runs an organization that teaches stand-up comedy to people with mental health issues.

David sees his work as part of the growing outspokenness of the recovery and consumer-driven movement. “The idea about peers is educating people to educate themselves as opposed to having a psychiatrist come in and say, ‘Take this. Don’t ask any questions. Your five minutes are up. Get out of my office,'” he says.

Here, he talks about taking his students to perform in psych wards, the scandal of a teen’s recent suicide behind bars in Canada and what happens when a psychiatrist takes the stand-up stage as well.

Who are you?

I’m David Granirer, a counselor, stand-up comic, author, speaker and a mental health consumer. I have depression. I run Stand Up for Mental Health, my program teaching comedy to mental health consumers as a way of building confidence and fighting public
stigma.

And where are you?

Vancouver.

How did you get to this point?

My depression started when I was 16 or 17. I attempted suicide when I was 17, and I was in the psych ward for six weeks. All the red flags were there. I look back, knowing what I know now, and I can’t imagine how they could have missed all the signs. No one caught it ’til my mid-30s. So from the time I was 16 til my mid- 30s, I just thought it was normal to always be depressed. I thought everyone was like that. I had no idea there was any other way of being.

Until I was about 26, I was a musician. Then I hurt my wrist. I played guitar but wasn’t able to play any more, so I went through a floundering-around period. I started doing volunteer work with the Vancouver Crisis Center, and it clicked. I met great people, they hired
me as a trainer, and I trained as a counselor.

Then, around the same time, I started doing stand-up comedy and was asked to teach a stand-up comedy course at a local college. This was 1998. It gave me the idea for Stand Up for Mental Health. I would see people come through the class and have these life-
changing experiences after doing their showcase. One woman said she had a fear of flying, then after our show, she got on a plane and didn’t have that fear anymore. I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great to give people this kind of experience!” I taught comedy to a group of recovering addicts, then cancer patients, some of them terminal, some in remission. Then I started Stand Up for Mental Health.

But you weren’t diagnosed yet, right?

No, I started it in 2004. I was diagnosed in 1993. Yeah, being diagnosed. I’ve done lots of therapy, but getting on medication made a huge difference. I know it’s fashionable in some places to be anti-medication, but anti-depression medication made a huge difference.

Are you still on it?

Yes.

How has your group gone?

We started with one group here in Vancouver. The next year, there was a documentary called “Cracking Up” made on us in 2005. “Cracking Up” won a Voice award by SAMHSA, are you familiar with them? Thanks to the documentary, it really expanded my reach. Now I run classes all over North America. Basically, I’m contracted to run the classes by different mental health organizations in various cities.

Right now, I’m working with a group in Phoenix and I give classes via Skype. Then, at the end, I fly in and do a big show with the comics. I will also be running a group in Australia starting in the summer.

Is any subject taboo?

In Stand Up For Mental Health, the rule is nothing racist, sexist or homophobic. All the comedy is clean, no swearing, nothing obscene or grossly sexual. We’re often asked to perform in all kinds of places, military bases, correctional institutions, medical school
programs, government departments, corporations, universities, etc. We need to be able to go in and present a positive face of the mental health community. That certainly isn’t helped if people are gross and obscene. It’s really classy, well-done, clean humor. But other than that, people pretty much talk about anything: psych wards, hallucinating, times in psychosis, drug and alcohol problems, suicide attempts. Yeah, that’s pretty much whatever they want to talk about. You can see clips on the website.

Is it easy to find humor in a suicide attempt?

In some ways it’s a pretty black topic, but certainly we’ve had comics talk about it in acts and come up with really funny stuff.

For example?

Yeah. Actually, well, there’s one comic who has a great line, quite black, she says, and I’ll try to get the quote right, she says, “I’ve attempted suicide. Obviously I wasn’t successful, but I did learn one thing: that I CAN tie a knot to save my life.” So that’s an example.

When it’s mentioned, is it kind of fleeting, one joke, or is it all a comic
talks about?

I don’t think anyone just talks about one thing in their whole routine. I think in stand-up you tend to talk about different things. So, no, there’s no one who does a whole routine on suicide.

Does anyone ever point it out and say, “I can’t believe you go there?”

I think sometimes people may be a bit taken aback, but they also realize that people are not making fun of suicide attempts, they’re talking about their own lives. So when you hear it in that context, it sort of takes the edge off. So people would hear it and say, “Oh wow,
that was a pretty intense experience that person must have had.”

Do you have your own joke about it?

Yeah, I talk about my own suicide attempt. To roughly paraphrase it, the joke is, people are really afraid to talk about suicide. My friend says, “I’m afraid if I use that word, it will give you ideas.” I say, “Listen, when I’m depressed, I think about doing myself in every second of the day, so if you ask if I’m suicidal do you really think I’ll say, ‘Wow, I never thought of that before’?” So people use terrible euphemisms. Like, “You’re not going to do anything crazy, are you?” “Like talk to an idiot like you?” When I tell the joke in Canada I say, “Someone asked me, ‘Are you thinking of going to a better place?’” And I’m like, “Hey man, I’m from Winnipeg, any place is better than that.” In the U.S., since most Americans aren’t familiar with Winnipeg, I use a local reference they can relate to. So basically, it’s a joke about how afraid we are to talk about suicide, and how important it is to bring it up.

(I mention my previous interview with Mike Stutz, who made a documentary about suicide that includes humor and who has faced nervous responses from some suicide prevention people.)

We’re not specifically a suicide organization. Since we talk about so many different things under the headline of mental health, that makes it more acceptable. In general, we’ve had very little pushback. In some ways, Stand Up for Mental Health is the right idea at the
right time. Right now, the recovery movement is pushing the edge. People are looking for new modes of recovery, new modes of spreading the anti-stigma message. The fact that we came along with a unique way of doing it has been picked up by a lot of mental
health organizations: “We’d love to do something like that.” There’s been a minority of cases where someone said they took it to the board: “Comedy? You can’t do comedy about this.” But usually, once they see the documentary, the resistance is gone. I send out tons of copies. Once they see it, they totally get it. I think they’re afraid we’ll trivialize the subject, make fun of it. But then we have fun with it. Mostly what I’ve experienced was enthusiasm, interest, positive interest.

Your website mentions that you’ve performed in psych wards. How did that go?

It’s gone great. People, when we’ve gone into psych wards, they love us, you know. The patients love it, the staff loves it. Let’s face it, it’s not a lot of fun to be in a psych ward, and it’s not fun to have a mental illness. People are dying to laugh. And when you give them a
chance to laugh about it, and the comedy is actually being delivered by people who’ve gone through what they’ve gone through, it’s very inspiring: “Wow, I have the same condition, and if they’re capable of doing that, I can do something amazing, too.”

What was the first time like for you, performing in a psych ward?

The first time we performed in a psych ward, it was a place called Riverview, one of the big ones out here, probably in 2004 or 2005. They actually asked us back every year, but the audience is getting smaller because they’re gradually closing down. The first show had
probably 200 or 300 people, the auditorium was packed with people, and it was hilarious. I think the last show we did, there were 30 or 40 people. Like I say, they’re closing down. I’m not sure, but I think they’re trying to get people back into the community. But yeah, it was
great because there was staff and patients.

It didn’t bring back any memories of your own experience, walking into that setting?

I think enough time had gone by, like 25 years, so no, it really didn’t. I think I was more concerned like I usually am with things like, “Do I have the order of comics right, what parts of the act am I going to do, etc.?”

Do you change the message depending on the place you’re in?

We’re going to be doing a show in a couple of weeks for a government organization. Certainly with them, it will be more mainstream. I’ll probably do the suicide joke, but what I find is if we’re playing to mental health consumers, we can push the edges a lot more. We don’t have to worry about them being taken aback about something that’s too black. For corporate or government audiences, we keep it mainstream.

Is there something you’d like to explore but is too over the line?

Not really. The only thing I haven’t found anyone make funny is the topic of sexual abuse. I just tell people to stay away from it, not because it’s a bad thing to talk about, but because I’ve never heard anyone find any humor in it.

I see you have a Wikipedia page, and I like that it has a note at the top that says, “This page has issues.” That was kind of cute. But maybe that’s an Americanism.

I’ve seen the page, and I know it says, “This page has issues.” They think it’s like a promotional piece. Someone wrote that a while ago. And I’m not sure, to me, it seems factual. It doesn’t seem too _ yeah, it’s out of date. I should get someone to update it. I don’t know quite what they mean.

Have you had any memorably bad responses to your shows?

In general, in terms of myself, I can remember some really bad comedy experiences at crappy bars, stuff like that, just dreadful. I can remember my very first comedy experience. I had wanted to do comedy for a couple of years. I finally got the courage to do amateur night at a local club and had no idea what I was doing. The club sat about 200 or 300 people, but only about 25 were there, just a sprinkling. An empty cavern. They put me up first, threw me to the wolves. I did five minutes of dead silence. So that was my first experience. I thought, “OK, no need to do that again.” I probably wouldn’t have gone back, but this comedy course came to Vancouver, and I took it. The next time I got up there, the club was packed with all our friends etc. I was an amazing audience, an amazing night. I was hooked.

Is there any group you’d steer away from in the future in the mental health routine?

Not really. I’d say sometimes some audiences … You know, it’s really hard to say. Basically, the overwhelming number are really good. Occasionally, you run into an audience that’s real quiet. Sometimes, in part, people in the audience were heavily medicated, not responsive. But there’s so little of that. First of all, people want to be
there, they’re up for it. For corporate and government groups, there’s usually quite a bit of buzz around it. People are excited: “Wow, how often do you have comics come into the workplace?” Some people, they’re intrigued: “Wow, they’re going to be talking about
mental illness?” There’s usually quite a bit of buy-in already. I make sure the comics have good experiences with comedy. We don’t do pubs unless we’re really clearly advertising what they’re getting. If it’s a drinking crowd on Saturday night, we’re not a good fit for that
because they want a certain kind of humor. When you’re partying on a Saturday night, you don’t want to talk about schizophrenia and suicide and all that. And so I screen all the venues really carefully. I think that’s been part of the success, getting in front of the right
audiences.

Among the students, what moments stand out for you?

Probably I’ve taught since 2004, I’m thinking between 300 and 400 students across North America have taken the class. So, a lot of great moments. In terms of stories that stand out, there have also been a lot, so many. I’m thinking of one fellow featured in “Cracking Up.” Robbie Engelquist had just come out of Riverview after almost six months. He had finally stabilized. When he went in, he was really sick. He thought he had to drink his own blood; he was hearing demons, smashing his head against walls. Anyhow, he came out, and he was finally stable. But it was like he was dead. Unfortunately, the mental health system had nothing to offer him. He said, “I didn’t want to sit around all day going to groups and talking about my illness.” His mom found out about SMH and brought him to a show and he decided to take the program. But he was convinced he would fail. He had failed at everything. I mean, how do you pass school when you have undiagnosed schizophrenia? He was always in trouble with police, etc. But then he succeeded, then he succeeded again and again. He’s probably done 150 shows. He’s one of our stars. It’s completely changed his life. It’s the first time he got attention for something positive. That was in 2005. He’s still around doing shows with us seven years later. Yeah, he just turned into a really good comic, does rap music now, really cool stuff.

Is there anyone you feel you can’t work with, who doesn’t fit?

There have been a couple of cases. I remember we had one woman _ there are certain ground rules, ways of behaving, how to behave towards the class, etc. And also certain ground rules about stand-up comedy. One thing is, it’s all original material. You’re not allowed to steal jokes you read on the Internet or hear at parties and pretend they’re your own. It’s just not done. It lessens the value of the act. The cool thing about stand-up is that you’re doing something the audience can’t do, and if they see you doing jokes they’ve heard they think, “That’s no big deal, I can do that.”

Long story short, one of the comics was doing that. At first, I didn’t realize it, but people started coming to me: “I’ve heard that joke.” I did research. So basically I said, “It’s gotta be original.” She got really angry. She said in her culture they did that (used other people’s
material), and it was OK. I was like, “Um, no. This is stand-up comedy. I don’t care what you do in your culture. These are the rules you all agreed to. You know, if you’re not willing to play by them, you can’t be in the program.” At that point, she lost it on the class, and it
was easy to say, “You can’t be here.” So yeah, a small minority. I can think maybe two or three, who were not let in or asked to leave.

Going back a bit, you mentioned that the recovery movement is kind of on the cutting edge? What does that mean?

There’s a lot recovery through the arts. So people are putting on plays, one-man or one-woman shows about their stories. Ways of reaching the public that way. People also do artwork, paintings, sculpture. So I think the recovery movement, consumer-driven, is
very progressive in the sense that it’s not willing to settle for the medical model that says, “We need to get you on the right meds, and that’s it.” Meds have helped me, but meds alone are not recovery. I think the bottom line, and most people would agree, is that recovery means you have meaning in your life, whatever that meaning is for you. A lot of people find meaning in the arts and explore their talents.

We have a place here in Vancouver, Gallery Gachet, for people with mental illnesses to do their artwork, do art shows. I also work with this organization in Norwich, Connecticut, called Artreach, and they do recovery through the arts. Their big thing is to put on plays, sketch comedy, and they also have a Stand Up for Mental Health group. And yeah, they’re all peer-run, by people who have a diagnosis.

The recovery movement is a big movement, much more so in the U.S. than Canada. You guys have a much more organized, cohesive movement. And every year, you have an Alternatives Conference. I did a keynote there once on my own, about half comedy and half talk, about my program. And last year, 2012, they had it in Portland, and we did a Stand Up for Mental Health show because we have a group in the Portland area. It was really cool. We did a show for the whole conference. So Alternatives is a great example. You see the power of the peer movement. It’s great to see because you meet people
who’ve been involved in the movement for a long time, like the elders who have been around since the ’60s and ’70s, who can tell you what it was like back then: forced shock treatment, lobotomies, all sorts of horrible shit, how far we’ve come, how far we still need to go.

How much farther does it need to go? What would you like to see?

Well, sort of where we’re going is peers. Most mental health agencies now have peer specialists who work for them. So they’re actually considered an important part of mental health system. So peers are working on multidisciplinary teams, leading workshops, all sorts of stuff like that. Also, peers are helping people coming into the system find the help they need. So yeah, it’s really wonderful. I think there needs to be a whole lot more of it. The idea about peers is educating people to educate themselves as opposed to having a psychiatrist come in and say, “Take this. Don’t ask any questions. Your five minutes are up. Get out of my office.”

I did an event for Seven Counties in Louisville, Kentucky, and I worked with their peer staff. One woman was amazing. She has bipolar, and at one point the psychiatrist said, “You’re bipolar. You’ll be sick the rest of your life, you’ll never work again, you’re gonna get dementia and die.” Since then, she’s gone on and pretty much trained all the peer support workers in the state of Kentucky. She’s trying to retire right now, but they won’t let her go. She’s had an amazing career. So this person, who according to her psychiatrist
was supposed to be a useless member of society, found out single-handedly about the recovery movement and brought it to the state of Kentucky. And so I think there are still places where the medical model prevails, still a struggle going on, where those
interested in the medical model don’t want to give it up.

Are things different when it comes to people with suicide attempts or suicidal thinking?

Here’s where I think the peer model is so great. Whatever the issue is, including suicide, you would think a lot of people have been trained as peers. They’ve been through it, psych wards, suicide attempts, often numerous suicide attempts, they’ve experienced being treated against their will, all sorts of stuff. I’m thinking of some people I know. Who better to work with for someone who’s suicidal than someone who’s been through it? Obviously, I think medical specialists have a place too, but I really think that well-trained peers are just a huge asset for whatever the issue is. And personally, I think, especially with suicide.

We just had this case here in Canada, a horrendous case. This girl, Ashley Smith, was in prison. I think she was 17 or 18. She was put in prison for throwing apples at a mailman. So she was acting out. She obviously had a mental illness, but the morons in the corrections service gave her no treatment, just locked her up in seclusion and made it worse. She was transferred so many times in the space of two years. She kept trying to kill herself, and she got the reputation for being a really difficult prisoner. They kept drugging her, putting her in seclusion. They have video with her on a plane with her hands
duct-taped to the armrests. And in the videos, the corrections people say she was dangerous, but she seems to be quite cooperative. Long story short, she finally succeeded. What happened is, the guards kept getting different orders. First, if she tried to suicide, they were supposed to stop her. Then they got other orders: Stop her only if she
stops breathing. So she succeeded in killing herself.

And Corrections Canada videotaped all these incidents and then spent millions on lawyers trying to make sure the public didn’t see the videos. Finally, these videos came out, and there was a huge outcry: “What the fuck did you do with this person?” She had a
mental illness, and being in the system made it a million times worse. She received absolutely no treatment. So, yeah.

You know something, I get so pissed off I can’t remember the point I was trying to make. Whatever I was saying.

I’d have to scroll back … Oh! I remember.

I read accounts that she was trying to strangle herself seven or eight times a day. She really could have used really good peer support. Other stuff, too. But sedating her, seclusion, duct-taping her arms, I mean, they need some peers in that correctional system to make sure hat never happens again. And they need peers with the power to
make decisions, not just a token hire, “We’ll just hire one person and have them empty ashtrays.” Someone with some power to change the system.

(I mention peers in the sense of support groups and the fears that suicide attempt survivors would inspire each other to kill themselves or refine their methods.)

I think once again, that’s the kind of uninformed _ you know, like, my thought is, “Why don’t you ask people if they want a support group like that, rather than make the decision for them?” In class today, one woman was saying, “I don’t go to support groups because it makes me more bummed out.” My thought is, first, “I don’t blame you.” Also if that’s all groups are, I don’t think they’re very well-run. Yes, you need to be able to talk, but if all people are doing is talking about how terrible their lives are, yeah, I think the group needs to be more than that. I think we need survivor groups, and my guess is, most people
who have survived suicide attempts want that and don’t want to be left on their own.

In the professional world, the psychiatrist people, how is their sense of humor?

Most psychiatrists I’ve encountered have a great sense of humor. One performs with us regularly. Also in Ontario. It was fabulous, they were in the green room before the show and they were just as nervous as the comics. The boundaries melted away. They weren’t
on that psychiatrist pedestal. In general, they had a really good sense of humor and welcomed this project.

In general, how do you break the ice on this subject?

Like in our daily lives? I think two things. Two different perspectives. If you suspect a friend is going through a bad time, it’s important to be direct. It’s a huge relief if you say, “Are you thinking of committing suicide?” Because finally, someone gives them a chance to talk
about it, rather than sort of pussyfooting around it, like, “Are you thinking of going to a better place?” Just ask someone directly.

I think that if you are someone considering suicide, obviously it’s a lot harder. It’s really hard to go to someone, “Hey, I’m thinking of committing suicide.” Sometimes, the best place to start is a crisis line.

What if it’s in your past and you want to bring it up? Like, while you’re getting to know someone?

I think people have pretty good instincts. Obviously, it’s not something you’re going to talk about over coffee on a first date. I think most people have a sense when a relationship, a friendship, is building toward a place of trust. So yeah, I think I would say use your instincts
because they’re usually right. Some people are ready to talk about it. It depends on the responses they’ve had.

Where else do you want to go with this?

What usually happens now is that an organization will contact me and have funding for a group, then there’s no more funding and it doesn’t continue. What I’ve been doing is creating another phase when the initial program is over. The comics then have monthly classes and continue performing. I want to have more of these ongoing groups in cities across North America. Australia is also looking pretty good, maybe the UK, New Zealand. Obviously, I don’t speak any other languages.

What’s your favorite memory from this work?

So many great experiences. I guess I’d say my favorite part is once the group is trained. I love the experience of flying wherever and doing a show with them. It’s such a wonderful experience, meeting the group in person, watching them step through that ring of fire. How
great they feel. And so I guess what I would say is, I love performing, but I also love making other people into the stars, giving those who never had that to the chance to be a star.

Who else are you?

I’m pretty ordinary. I have two kids. A 14-year-old boy who actually has been doing stand-up comedy since he was 5. He’s done shows talking about what it’s like to have a dad with mental illness. He’s taken a break the past couple years, but he’s coming back to it now. My daughter is awesome, 21, in the third year of university. My great wife and I have been together 16 or 17 years. I have two wonderful cats. Yeah, when I’m not on the road, I have a pretty ordinary life. I enjoy that ordinariness, no drama, no chaos. Sort of a really nice happy life.

I had meant to ask earlier if you ever get tired of talking about mental health issues.

No, I enjoy it. It’s something really important to me. I find I’m one of those people who has to be doing something he feels is important. I’m really intense, passionate about things important to me. This is one of them.

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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.