“Mental illness is very prevalent in our society and it is not spoken about enough. It’s still very very taboo, and it is understandable, because it can be embarrassing and difficult. Talking to these people and hearing a variety of different stories encouraged me to first of all to put this on the screen, and secondly it reminded me that people experience the same diagnosis with the same name, in so many different ways.”

Julia Kots on “Inez & Doug & Kira”

“I’ve never been diagnosed with anything. I’ve never gone out and have had myself examined in any shape or form. So I can’t really say I do or I don’t, but I know I feel extremely. And more than anything when I read this script, as an actor, or not even as an actor, I fell in love with the girl. I wanted to tell her story, I wanted to do her justice. And I knew that I could.”

Tawny Cypress on “Inez & Doug & Kira”

If you let your life be defined by your circumstances, you will always be held captive by them. I’ve come to a place in my life where I’m strong enough to recognize that. Because I’ve gone through it, and recognized the humanity of my illness, I no longer let that define me. Recently I’ve come out about being bipolar, while being encouraged by what I’ve seen recently onscreen, from Zendaya’s character Rue in “Euphoria” to Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Lexi in last year’s “Modern Love” series. These characters struggle with manic depression in a real way, rather than being rendered caricatures. You can read more about my analysis of these women in my personal essay, “Not just Gilda, but Rita too”.

In my essay, I express how the movie screen has not accurately portrayed what it means to be bipolar. When I saw directed by Julia Kots’ new film, “Inez & Doug & Rita”, I felt it was important– being in the position I am, as a film journalist with bipolar–to speak to the filmmaker, who also wrote the story centered around not just a bipolar woman, but her twin sister, and the man that loves them both. On the surface you could see this film as a tragic tale of a woman with bipolar, but it is, in fact, an examination of three flawed people who struggle through the circumstances they are in. This is not a happy story, but what I’d like to call a “real” story.

What Julia did throughout this film is tell a “real” story of complex characters, and brought mental illness to the screen as part of it. She was brave enough to give it a diagnosis on the screen, whereas in most cases, you see a muddle of undiagnosed symptoms that are seen more as characteristics of a character. I was fortunate to speak to Julia as well as Tawney Cypress, who plays Inez, the woman who struggles with bipolar. We had a great conversation about the topic of mental illness onscreen, the construction of the film, and the sixteen-day filming process where they collaborated with a talented group of actors including Michael Chernus (Doug) and Talia Thiesfield (Kira). While I spoke to them about their film, I opened up about my mental illness, and it did add another layer to our conversation, which I appreciated. The film comes to streaming on Tuesday, September 29th, on various platforms.

Julia Kots and Tawny Cypress

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?

JULIA KOTS:  I have been really interested in portraying mental illness, especially suicide on film for various reasons. Some of those reasons come from personal experiences, but also I’ve known people that have some experience with it. I’m interested in end of life matters, along with personal rights, and the right to die with dignity. Although that’s not really addressed in the film per say, there is a political angle for me, personally as well.

First of all, I’m very flattered that the film spoke to you, and you found some truth in it. So, thank you. I personally am not bipolar. I’ve had a life-long struggle with depression, but I’m not bipolar. A very close friend of mine is bipolar, and I suppose there are parts of the character that are works of fiction, but there are themes that are drawn from experiences that she has had. To tell you the truth, after I wrote it and I started to try to get the project off the ground, so many people opened up to me who I had known for many years that they were struggling with their medication, or their brother was institutionalized, and it was mind blowing to me. It was mind blowing because knowing somebody so closely for so many years and you don’t know this stuff about them.

Mental illness is very prevalent in our society and it is not spoken about enough. It’s still very very taboo, and it is understandable, because it can be embarrassing and difficult. Talking to these people and hearing a variety of different stories encouraged me to first of all to put this on the screen, and secondly it reminded me that people experience the same diagnosis with the same name, in so many different ways. I was afraid I would not do justice to this particular illness. But I was just encouraged through my conversations with others that this was just this particular fictional character in the story. It’s okay, because maybe some other people who have this diagnosis experience it differently. It gave me the permission that I felt that I needed to bring it to the screen. 

Inez (Tawny Cypress) in “Inez & Doug & Kira”

TAWNY CYPRESS: I’ve never been diagnosed with anything. I’ve never gone out and have had myself examined in any shape or form. So I can’t really say I do or I don’t, but I know I feel extremely. And more than anything when I read this script, as an actor, or not even as an actor, I fell in love with the girl. I wanted to tell her story, I wanted to do her justice. And I knew that I could. I could bring to the screen the same sorts of things that she feels. I knew that I could express that in a way that captured the girl that I thought she was, kind of a sad and broken girl that she could never fix the things that were not perfect going on in her life. So for me it was the way the character was written, thanks to Julia.

I fell in love with Inez instantly. I was so happy that I got a chance to show her to everybody. Because I think that she is a beautiful girl. Bipolar disorder is a trait of hers, that should not have defined her, but it did. As far as mental illness goes, it really needs to be normalized, because as Julia and you expressed, it is prevalent, everywhere, different forms of it. It should be something we can talk about, and do the regiment you need to do to have a happy life, and live a good life. There’s no reason why it should be a stigma against anybody. 

MARTIN: Talk to me about the casting process.

KOTS: I had a relationship with an amazing casting director, Paul Schnee from Bard / Schnee Casting. I’d known him for awhile. He usually casts big movies, like the Oscar winning “Spotlight”, and the “Pitch Perfect” movies. He does independent film as well, but he’s on a way different level then this movie. So when we were ready to start pre-production, I reached out to him, I asked him if he knew of any up and coming casting directors who’d be willing to work with a micro budget. He asked to read the script so he could see who it might be right for. He  read it right away, and he said “why don’t I do this.” Our entire budget is what he usually gets paid, but the script spoke to him for one reason or another. I never asked him why, but he did it. If it wasn’t for his expertise and connections, this script would never have gotten in front of Tawny, Talia, or Michael. I’m first and foremost so grateful for his work. He is the one who found these amazing people for me. 

Tawny Cypress with Michael Chernus on set.

MARTIN: How was it for you Tawny? The three of you, your relationships seemed so natural, and the chemistry was so great between you and Michael. How was it for you working together?

CYPRESS: First of all, they are incredible actors, and it was a joy to get to play with them. I don’t know if you know about the production of this movie, but we shot it in 16 days, during the hottest summer of New York City. Most of our scenes were shot in one townhouse in downtown west village. So we were all on top of each other with our skeleton crew. We literally had no space for ourselves anywhere. We had to make bonds quickly, and it wasn’t hard because we were doing this great thing together. It really helped, although it was excruciating, but the close proximities really helped bonding us together, very quickly. We relied on each other very very quickly.

Tawny Cypress on set.

KOTS: The three of them were such troopers. They were incredible, because as mentioned there was no space for them. And the fact that they were able to get themselves in these incredible emotional depths, in physically arduous positions, it’s unbelievable what they did. We did this Q&A somewhere and I was saying this to the audience and either, you (Tawney), Talia, or Michael said “well it made it easier to get really upset because there is no air conditioning, really hot, and we all were so close together.” 

CYPRESS: So true. You can look at it like a torturous situation, but it really helped to build everything to get heated with the bonds and the emotions. It really helped. I think Julia did that on purpose (laughing).

KOTS: I did not do it on purpose, I swear (laughing). I think the one takeaway is that with whatever project I do I swear I will find green space for the actors, and provide water. It was just that we were so bare bones in budget. We had this one day of rehearsal, and it was the same time as our load in. There was all of this hammering and drilling while the actors are meeting each other for the first time. I remember we were doing the scene between Tawny and Talia, and they both started crying, and it seemed to come so natural to them. I was stunned that the two of them could reach this emotional depth so quickly, especially with all the chaos around them during rehearsal. I remember Talia told me, “I’ve never acted with someone who’s looked so much like me.” It was great because they got that sisterly connection that I was hoping that they would have, it was right there, and it was visceral from the very beginning. 

CYPRESS: It definitely was. I remember that moment, and Talia is right, when we look like what we do, and your acting with someone who looks like you do, that doesn’t happen ever. It was a real surreal experience.

Inez (Tawny Cypress) and Kira (Talia Thiesfield)

MARTIN: I did appreciate it, I don’t know if you’re referring to two women of color onscreen-

CYPRESS: And with green eyes, you never see that. 

MARTIN: Julia, your background is in editing, and it shows in the film. Can you talk to me about the editing process for the film, specifically with the flashbacks, and the layers of the story? How did you use editing as a tool in your storytelling?

KOTS: I always knew the film would take place in three different time spaces: in the present, the flashbacks of the past, and the dream scenes that gradually turn more and more surreal. And then the three different time spaces would meet towards the end of the movie when Doug has the drunken binge. The past, the present, and the surrealist part all combine together. So I always knew that part. There was two years between the first draft and the shooting, and the parts that changed in the writing were the timeline order of the flashbacks. The flashbacks are not chronological, rather they are structured along the emotional needs of the story. I do recall that there were a couple of days where I had all the scenes written out on index cards, spread all over my room, and I was just rearranging them. My cousin opened the door, and she saw the scene and she said “you’ve lost your mind. You look like a crazy person.” Kind of the way Doug looks at the end when he is arranging the photos on the bed. 

Julia Kots, on set.

Most movies are shot out of order, but our order, was out of order. It was particularly challenging for everyone, from the actors to the cinematographer, to the costume designer with continuity and everything. What I did was I created a spreadsheet where I assigned a real existing date to each team. For example, this scene happened on Saturday, January 14th, 2003. You could sort them in excel by script order, or by chronological order of time. That helped people out, but it was definitely an extra challenge to these amazing actors on top of all the physical challenges of the production.

MARTIN: Tawny, what about you with all of these layers?

CYPRESS: The layers, I’m an onion (laughing). Like I said, I read the script, and I fell in love with Inez. I definitely wanted to do her justice. I read a lot of books on bipolar disorder, from a professional point of view, a clinical point of view, the view from the people who’ve been through it, and through the people who’ve been through it with them. That’s where I started.

Inez (Tawny Cypress) and Doug (Michael Chernus)

As far as getting on set and getting to those places, one, the writing was so good, it was easy. You know, really, acting, if you just say the words, if you just say them the way the person would say the words, then usually that will lead to the emotion that you’ll need for the scene. I also heavily relied on music. I would separate myself to listen to different music to get into character. There was a lot of Tracy Chapman, and Sam Smith. For the manic episodes, there was a lot of Violent Femmes. And I would just get into a frame of mind. You didn’t have a lot of space to yourself, it was really just a lot of closing off completely and sort of training your mind to be raw. You imagine your skin, you peel off your skin, and you feel the tingles on the inside. That’s what you do, you ramp it up to an 11.

Inez (Tawny Cypress)

KOTS: After the shooting was over, Tawny wrote me a really nice thank you card, and sent me a flash drive with the playlist that she was using all along to get into character. It was such a wonderful and unexpected present because I wrote it and directed it, but she had this own construction of the character. I knew that she would sit there with headphones, but it sort of gave me this other layer of the character that was her own that I didn’t know anything about.

CYPRESS: I still have that playlist actually. I listen to it sometimes. Also, the charactizations, you’ll see the lawyer in her when she gets manic, and starts pacing. That’s her in the courtroom stating her case. I wanted to keep the professionalism that she had before she fell off the rails a little bit. Those sorts of little quirks.

MARTIN: What do you hope the audience will take the most out of this film?

KOTS: The only thing that I can hope for is that it inspires people to think about new subjects, and talk about them. I feel a lot of films that touch upon these subjects have a very didactic message. It’s very sanitized, and it’s very one-sided, like how suicide is a terrible thing, and we need to help people. Yes that was a side I wanted to show, but also how Kira feels, it’s very justified as well. How her grief is different then Doug’s grief, and how both are completely justified. I hope to add a degree of complexity to it, and show the different points of view of the people who are involved. I wanted to show the damage that mental illness inflicts on the person with the diagnosis, and to the friends and family around them. 

Kira (Talia Thiesfield)

MARTIN: And what about you Tawny?

CYPRESS: It is about a woman with bipolar disorder, but for me it’s a story about sisters. It’s about a bond between sisters, and what happens when things get in the way of that bond. In the end, for me, it makes sense that it ends with those two together in the bathtub, sharing those moments within their lives. It was the final thing the sister did for the other sister as a sacrifice to their self. She did one final thing for her sister, in spite of herself. She was going to do one thing, and then she stopped doing that, and asked her, “What do you want me to do?” And she did that instead.

For me, that’s a story of love, and a story of sacrifice. Bipolar disorder is almost a character in this story. It’s one of the things that get in the way of love. And I agree with Julia, it’s three perspectives on this disorder. It’s a completely different way of looking at it. It’s the person going through it, the person who loves that person, and the person who loves that person and is so fucking over it. There are those perspectives. And I feel that is not shown enough onscreen, the people that are involved with the person with the disorder.

Julia Kots on set with Talia Thiesfield

KOTS: Each of the three main characters do some horrible things-

CYPRESS: -nobody’s “good” in this story, we all do pretty shitty things. 

KOTS: They are also all very full of love. I was trying to show that, not to have like a “movie of the week” with a disease, and how they survive-

CYPRESS: Right, like how somebody gets saved at the end.

MARTIN: This is a film with fully dimensional characters, and I appreciate that. Especially female characters. All of these characters felt real.

CYPRESS: This is a woman who’s really trying her best to put her best foot forward, but she keeps getting in her own way. It wasn’t even so much the disorder, it was all the things she did along with the disorder. If she had just gone with it, and accepted it within herself, that this was something she could handle and that she could live with and work with her story may have went differently. But she never was able to to even accept it within herself. She tried so hard to get other people to accept it. It just ate at her, it just killed her. 

Julia Kots on set

MARTIN: Julia, advice for emerging female filmmakers?

KOTS: Run, while you still can (laughing). All jokes aside, it’s a really brutal industry. It takes a long time, barring with a windfall of luck. It takes so many years. I remember people would say, you need to make your first film by your 30, and all the people who are saying that are actually men. Well, I think for women, that means 40, right? I look at the average what a female director looks like, versus what a male director looks like, at the red carpet at independent film festivals,  the women are older. Women have a biological clock, and you have to pay so many number of dues in this industry. I think women should just think twice about it. I don’t have kids, I will not have kids, and I’m pretty sure that the fact that I chose to be in this industry is one of the biggest factors in that decision. Of course there are plenty other of women who do have kids, but you can’t do it by yourself, you can’t be single mom and try to do a film. It’s just financially not possible. 

I think it’s a very unfriendly industry to women. People are obviously building these initiatives of all kinds, but how they’re working, I don’t really feel they are working. Not in my personal experience. Maybe it will for your readers, maybe in your generation. 

CYPRESS: It can’t all be roses and sunshine, it’s good to have some clarity there. 

MARTIN: Final thoughts?

KOTS: I can’t say enough how lucky I am to find all of these amazing people who gave so generously and selflessly to this project, like Tawny, like everyone in the cast and crew. These people took a chance on somebody who had never done a feature film before, and had a tiny micro budget. I don’t know where I’d be without them. We could not do this film now with the pandemic, I’m so incredibly lucky. 

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