Actor/writer Elliot Frances Flynn (“Shoplifters of the World”, “Mare of Easttown”), is an emerging talent who has been a strong supporter of Cinema Femme over the past year, and I’ve gotten to know her more through our social media and virtual events. This year, she made her feature debut in the dramedy “Shoplifters of the World”, and has appeared in the Netflix thriller “Things Heard & Seen” and HBO’s hit drama series “Mare of Easttown”.
She sent me a link to the short she stars in, entitled “Memories of Rain”, directed by newcomer Elizabeth Mehling. I have never seen anything like this film before, and I mean that in a good way. The short explores the mind of a young queer woman named Ava. As she struggles with her mental illness, we are are brough deeper into her mind as she confronts the physical form of her condition. This takes us on a colorful and vibrant journey that utilized stop-motion animation to convey the underlying message that it’s okay to not be okay.
Mental Illness is not explored enough onscreen in a real way. The way that “Memories of Rain” dives into the subject is outside of the cookie cutter mold of how onscreen characters with mental illness have been portrayed. This includes LGBTQIA+ people who suffer with mental illness and are not represented enough on the screen. I was fortunate to interview Elliot and Elizabeth about their short. During our interview, we broke down the animated aspects to the film, and the deep truths that lie beneath.
Tonight you can watch their short (18 minutes) followed by a LIVE Q&A. Register to this free event, donations are welcome with our Pay What You Can model. See link.
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this film?
ELIZABETH MEHLING: I started writing “Memories of Rain” right before my freshman year of college. For context, this was my senior film at Purchase College. I’d been thinking about it for four years, but what I thought about it initially as something not even remotely in the ballpark of what the film turned out to be. I had been just thinking in abstraction.
I wanted it initially to be an experimental collage art film, but then I realized this was not what I wanted to say. I still wanted to keep the aesthetic points of the film and then develop it into a sort of narrative. I was thinking about the film through the lens of the physicality of mental illness, and seeing mental illness as a physical antagonist instead of just this inner conflict.
The first major breakthrough was making mental illness an actual character instead of it just this inner-dimensional thing. But also, we literally go inside the protagonist’s mind too. So we take everything into that collage effect of the film with a sort of physicality. That definitely enhanced the story aspect of it a lot.
ELLIOT FRANCES FLYNN: Elizabeth and I had met after she attended a screening for another short I was in. And that was years prior. We followed each other on social media after that. When I heard about this project, I knew it was for me. I was just really struck by the story and the character breakdown. I knew that I could slip into the character, and bring her to life. I felt pretty confident about that. And I was familiar with the animation portions, like the rotoscoping. I was also really happy to see a character who is queer when the story was not about her coming out or struggling with her sexuality.
MARTIN: Why did you decide to mix mediums and make animation part of the story?
MEHLING: The stop-motion element actually was one of the first things I thought about, even before I’d gotten a full story together. I knew by my senior year that I wanted to end this project by doing a really ambitious stop-motion film. And then, of course, I proposed that to the people who were mentoring and teaching me. Their eyes got really wide, and they were like, “oh my gosh, this is going to be too challenging, this is going to be too much.” And I did feel the weight of that decision. There were stages where I was freaking myself out and I was like, “oh my god, how am I going to do this?” But then I just got it together and thought of allowing myself to be absorbed in the act of being able to touch all of the elements of the film, physically by hand.
In a way, when you animate, you have to become an actor as well, because you have to be physically motioning. The speed in which you move things, and the style is also in a way its own form of acting, like Elliot mentioned with the rotoscoping. We had filmed the short with the physical actors, or I should say my “human” actors. They did the voice work for it, so we do have that sense that the physical presence of the film throughout the entire process. It wasn’t just that we went from having a physical LIVE performance, and then just had it completely on the computer from that point on. It changed its form in an interesting way as it was being made. It was coming to life from one form to the other.
Animation has just always been a big part of my life. It’s the first cinematic language in which I found out how to speak. It is the first language I learned to speak in the realm of cinema, and I wanted to bring that back.
MARTIN: Elizabeth, was this film at all inspired by your experience with mental health?
MEHLING: I did draw a lot from my own experience dealing with depression and anxiety and not having a certain language to put to it at the time. But what I also did in developing the film was I spoke to other people around me who had different types of conditions, like I know someone who was bipolar and someone who had OCD. I know someone who had Asperger’s Syndrome. So it was just gathering information by asking the question, “How would you view your mental illness if they were a physical person sitting in front of you?” The descriptions provided offered a lot of interesting insight. That insight also played into how I viewed my antagonist, and how that would change for my character throughout the film. In a way, it was a challenging film. There were parts about it were stressful. But when you’re working through it, it’s therapeutic in an interesting way too.
MARTIN: Talk about the animated form of Elliot’s character Ava.
MEHLING: Thinking of the design, I didn’t want to do anything that was going to be super-specific in terms of appearance. Because the reflection of who she is, is what we’re seeing around her. The stop-motion Ava is in her mind. During the film we see her power is being taken away, like she’s fighting against something. In that context she would appear to be this very basic-looking concept. She has become this minor character in her own head, which is interesting. The challenge was I didn’t want to give her a mouth at all because we wanted her to find expressions in another way. Elliot gave a very expressive performance, even without just having the mouth or even blinking. It was like, ‘How do we get around that and how do we still emote without having the face change at all?’
MARTIN: Elliot, how was it working in the animation landscape?
FRANCES FLYNN: Elizabeth is blowing my mind right now, because every time Ava appears in her stop-motion form, I’m like “she’s so cute.” I just see her little head and her arms, and they’re so cute. But I never thought to ask why she looked that way. I didn’t know what she was going to look like. I guess I can comment on that pre-animation stage. Because we did the whole movie, and so a small portion of the movie is actually LIVE action. But I still went through the motions of the entire plot, and the entire emotional journey. Something about that as an actor was really quite freeing. I knew that my motions could be big because it will inspire literally what stop-motion Ava is doing. This gave me the freedom to be very big in my emotions, but also very vocally expressive. This opportunity doesn’t usually come to me as an actor. Some people say I have an interesting quality or a weird cadence to the way that I speak, and what my voice sounds like. So I usually end up gravitating to parts that are more mumblecore-y, kind of weird to watch and listen to.
This part gave me a moment to just use my voice and my body to express and to emote. There was a feeling of a weight being lifted by not thinking, ‘does my face look okay? Am I giving a good performance?’ As stop-motion Ava, it really allowed me to go to a very truthful and emotional place, which was great.
MARTIN: What do you hope people see in your film?
MEHLING: My biggest thing is just a new way of thinking about the context in which we display mental illness on screen. Because I remember there were so many times that I went through conceptualizing the film, and realizing that so many depictions of mental illness tended to center around these really dark palettes, and just a sense of violence, or whatever. It was really muted, and in contrast making it like this is exciting. Even though she has this problem, there is still all this color that’s happening and this vibrance that is still going on. I wanted to have the two come together.
What I hope that people see is that you are many different things, and you’re not just entirely your condition (diagnosis). You have your condition, your condition does not have you.
FRANCES FLYNN: I think the message behind the film and what the film really comes down to is that it’s okay to not be okay. And more than that, it’s okay to ask for help. And that the asking may be hard, but it’s so, so worth it in the end, because the people who love you will be there to help you.
And at the festivals we’ve screened at so far, the discussions that we’ve had afterwards with the audience and with other filmmakers have been so rewarding. These conversations would just start about mental health and mental illness, and with people who we’d think we have nothing in common with, like this one older white man, very “Jersey”, who are saying “yes, that’s what that feels like.”
I mean, we made this movie about a Y2K girl brain, but still our audiences, regardless of their age, are taking something from it, and really seeing themselves in it with their own struggles, and hopefully their own triumphs as well. And that has been so rewarding to see.
MARTIN: Is there something you learned about yourself in the process, either as a director or an actor?
FRANCES FLYNN: I was really grateful for the experience of being on the film because I worked on it at the time when I had just crossed into adulthood. One of those side effects of becoming an adult that really kind of troubled me was just trying to reign in your emotions for the sake of maturity, ot even push your emotions down, or any kind of hard feelings that you have for the sake of productivity. I realized that I was pushing a lot of stuff down. And this film allowed me to feel my feelings, and it felt good to cry. I think that was one of the most rewarding moments on the film for me, and there was more than one, but when we filmed the scene where Ava wakes up in her childhood bedroom with the young version of herself, I was crying and everybody else was crying. I think sometimes when we’ve had these horrible growing pains, to use a blanket term, sometimes the nostalgia reaches a debilitating level. People always try to say stuff to you, like, “what would you say to your younger self?” Or “would you treat your younger self like that?” Putting myself in the place where I’m speaking to my younger self was just so emotional. Just thinking about it now, I can feel my face turning red. Something about the moment was very healing for me personally. It also allowed me to contribute to an important moment in Ava’s journey as well.
MEHLING: I will say that the one thing I’ve learned, the biggest thing, is don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help from people, at all. Because that was definitely something I challenged myself to do, especially since I think you get pigeonholed sometimes. I have this one vision and take care of it myself. But then you realize that this person can do this, so let them do that. Let’s give people the space, and not just people like your AD, or producers, or people helping you build sets, but also your actors. You should give them space to just be, and it just adds so much to your story. You don’t have to keep reigning people in, because it takes an army to make a film.
MARTIN: Last thoughts?
FRANCES FLYNN: It is important to bring mental health in the queer community into the spotlight. I was reading a statement from the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI), about the percentage of adults that have mental illness, and queer people count for almost half of that percentage. We all know that queer people face many more dangers than the average person, specifically Black Trans women, who are probably more likely to be most at risk to have mental illness. This story feels important to bring queer mental health into the spotlight.