When “Bridesmaids” came to the screen in 2011, I was floored by its all-women ensemble. I had not seen a female comedy like that before in that way, and I wanted to see more of it. When I watched “Withdrawals” for the first time, I felt the same way. Like “Bridesmaids”, the short film is a comedy anchored by a talented female ensemble. But what makes it different is it touches on a side of mental health that is not represented enough onscreen. I’m grateful for this short. It makes me laugh and brings awareness to mental health in a real way. This film is so important for representation, but also for the comedy film genre.
I was fortunate to speak with Jorja Hudson, the director and writer of the film, along with producer Kelly Stier. We spoke about the UCB roots to this film, Jorja’s own story with mental health, and how behind the scenes, Kelly facilitated a safe space for the cast and crew in production. What these two are doing for mental health in the industry onscreen and behind the camera is inspiring. I was first introduced to their film as a selection for our inaugural short film festival in August 2020. Their short “Withdrawals” premiered on Vimeo this week, and you can watch it below.
“Withdrawals” Synopsis: After witnessing the death of their childhood icon and feeling nothing, four friends decide to quit their antidepressants together and all experience different side effects.
How did you come to this project?
JORJA HUDSON: I was living in New York and doing comedy at UCB. In 2016, I had anxiety and I talked to my doctor about it. She put me on Lexapro, which is a common go-to antidepressant. It made me feel very numb and like a zombie. I hated what it did to me, so I stopped taking it cold turkey, which you’re not supposed to do at all.
Over the next couple years, I spoke to various friends about it and learned that they had also done the exact same thing. I thought it was so fascinating that the same dose of the same drug could effect three or four women of the same age completely differently. I wanted to adapt it into a short film, and it took a while to get there. Eventually I met Kelly. She came into my life and helped me make it.
KELLY STIER: I had just taken a step out of the industry for a minute for mental health reasons. I had met up with a friend that Jorja and I both knew, and she had a friend through UCB that she recommended I meet. I had also done UCB. Anytime you meet people who go to UCB, they say that you’ll be friends, and usually they’re right. Jorja and I met up for coffee, and she said I have some SAG paperwork that she didn’t know how to do. I said, “I got you, let’s go.”
Jorja told me the premise and I was so excited about how open she was about discussing mental health. I had felt that my time in the industry had been about anything but cultivating a safe space to explore mental health and mental illness, especially in the creative field.
I was very impressed in the cast. Can you talk to me about the casting process?
HUDSON: They are basically all people I knew through UCB. I had never worked with Fareeha Khan before. I did this cold reach out and thought, ‘I hope this cool comedian cares about my email,’ and she was happy to get it. I had worked with Charlotte Gilbert, Jenny Gorelick and Andrea Simons before, and I put together a table read. When you are writing something that’s biographical, Sometimes it can be really hard to divorce yourself and your friends from the characters that will be fictional. When I write, I try to picture people that I already know, which makes it easier, so when the time came to put together a table read, I just reached out to them. And they were on board, which was great.
STIER: I wasn’t really involved with the casting. I hopped on later on the scene. I dealt more with getting our background actors, which was really kind of testing. I don’t know if you know this, but when you live in New York City, no one can ever make it to Brooklyn if they are in Manhattan [laughs]. So we had trouble getting some folks, and less people showed up. Then it was about troubleshooting, like how do we make this scene look full? That’s where I landed into casting. They were much more into pre-production when I joined on.
I was curious about the significance of having the music artist who commits suicide inspire all of the main characters to stop taking their medication.
HUDSON: That was really a tricky one for me to come up with because I was trying to think what would effect four people in the exact same way that could be universal. I also had to think about how we would shoot that. I didn’t want to show anything too graphic, like somebody getting hit by a truck or whatever. It ended up being something that kind of worked.
I really appreciated how you brought female friendship to the screen. There was a chemistry between all four women through four different personalities. Can you talk about that?
HUDSON: Luckily with improvisors, usually they can get along pretty well. I don’t know if it’s our hidden anxiety that we are always over-performing to make each other laugh, but it just worked. Like I said, I had worked with most of them before, so I just knew in my gut that they would be easy to get along with. And it was a small crew, so it was easy to have in-jokes and stay intimate. Kelly was also instrumental in making sure that we had a safe space to talk about these things, because we did share mental health stories on set with one another, just unprompted.
STIER: To add on to that, going into this, what I found really awesome working with Jorja was we talked about our previous work on sets, and how we actively try to carry not only what we say in the story, but really mean it when we come to the set. For example, it was very important to have a good vegan set, with food that was good for everybody. Also, we mentioned quite a bit that this was a sensitive subject. We just made sure that everybody felt safe. I think you find it easier to bring the magic to the screen when that’s actually happening behind the scenes.
What do you hope people see in this film?
HUDSON: I think people will see different things based on their experience with antidepressants or lack of. Obviously people’s journeys are so different about that kind of thing. But our goal was to share this story that is kind of not talked about. I don’t know if it’s technically taboo, but the fact that it took years to have friends tell me about it was because I felt that we should talk about this. I want to empower people who are watching to talk about their own mental health stories so we can keep breaking down the stigma around it, because there really shouldn’t be any. Hopefully people can feel seen and represented on screen, like, ‘I’ve also experienced this and I’m not alone. I’m not crazy, and it’s okay to talk about it.’
STIER: I think that Jorja and I have a shared vision in this as we’ve explored the film during its different productions and phases. We wrapped the film a month before COVID hit New York City, and then both of us had big life changes in terms of where we lived. For me, I hope the film empowers people the same way that it has empowered Jorja and I to talk about our own mental health, to feel vulnerable, to let other people open up to us about it, and to break the stigma, because it’s no use.
I love how the film captured all the stories of the four women dealing with their withdrawals in different ways, and how they intersect with one another. Can you talk to me about the editing of the film?
HUDSON: Yeah it’s like how they say ‘you write the story three times,’ when you write it, when you shoot it, and then when you edit it. When we were editing, there were bits that came out differently than the script when parts had to be cut or not cut to streamline it. I was getting notes when I was still writing the script. A lot of people were like, ‘no, we should weave these stories in and out of each other and see everyone in every scene.’ I thought about that and I get that, but I don’t know, maybe it’s my artistic or pretentious director brain that likes the idea of there being four separate vignettes. Sometimes mental health is very isolating and you do feel very alone in those moments, and it’s rarely captured when you’re out with a group of friends. It’s usually in those lonely moments, so I just liked the idea of separating it out like that. I think it could have worked either way, but yeah, I liked how it came out.
Kelly, can you talk more about the producing side of the film, and your role in it?
STIER: I hopped on initially to get the paperwork going because we had found out that one of our actors was SAG, and we wanted to follow everything the right way. Specifically when you are doing indies, and you’re in the indie world, budgeting is already hard. When you get one SAG actor, everyone turns SAG. After a lot of back and forth with SAG, I learned so much about the paperwork side and on top of that, I expressed that I just wanted to continue to be a part of it creatively. So yeah, I just started working with Jorja in getting that stuff together, coordinating travel, locations and food. We hired all of the cast and crew together. More of the producing I’ve done on the side involves finding investors for the project. So we started to do that and through that, we’ve started to meet other people and other mental health places. It’s slowly now been snowballing into connecting with more mental health advocacy and producing.
I’m interested in hearing what you both have learned during this process.
HUDSON: In terms of filmmaking, I always say it’s good to know your “why” and to be able to back up your story, because when people start asking you about it, and questioning it, and what you are trying to say, you have to really know what you are trying to say. To me, it’s such a time capsule of the time just before Kelly and I both moved out of New York. It was winter just before the pandemic and it was kind of the last time everyone was on a set together. To me, it’s in its own nostalgic world to me already, if that makes sense.
STIER: I think I knew this before and it was kind of just reiterated this time around. It’s kind of like every time you turn around, something is going to go wrong, and it’s important to keep your attitude and your breathing in check. Remember the “why”, why are we doing this, and what is this for? You need to take a step back and really take problems in real time, while analyzing the best way to do it for the film in respect to everyone’s boundaries and comfort levels. The second thing is I love the way that Jorja directed because everybody had an input into the story. I learned that when I work with future collaborators, I really want to be around, because it added so much extra to the process. Our audio guy gave us a story about brain depth. We’d never even heard of that, and it ended up being in the film. So I just thought that was a special kind of synergy that I want to be around always now.
What’s coming up? Do you see this short going into feature length?
HUDSON: I think we’ll see what happens with the film when more people see it publically. Having just made this, I was like, “this is the best thing I’ve ever made, more than anything else” and the film got rejected from so many places on the festival circuit. I think the fact that the film is so original and unique has something to do with that, because it’s not necessarily that sellable if there isn’t anything like it, which is fine, but it is a lesson we learned quickly. The right people who get it will get it, and for the people that don’t, that’s fine. They’re just not the right audience. So we’ll see who comes out of the woodwork and sees the film and gets it, and believes in what we’re trying to talk about. A lot of people aren’t comfortable talking about mental health, so it may upset people. We’ll see. I mean, it definitely could be turned into a feature, but it just depends on the public reaction.
Is mental health a theme you’ll be taking into your directing projects in the future?
HUDSON: I actually don’t like directing at all. I mostly write, which is what I want to do. For this, I just had such a specific vision when I wrote it that I thought, ‘Well, I also need to direct it and edit it.’ I love doing those things, but I’m not trying to be a director.
In terms of mental health being a theme, I think both of us are taking that into our careers and into our lives in general. Over the course of the pandemic and the industry shutdown, there wasn’t much that we could do, so we just started talking about it more on social media. I think that’s something that has helped my career take off more just by talking about my experiences with mental health. I don’t know if that’s exactly a next project, but it’s a direction where it took both of us.
Kelly, do you have anything coming up with producing?
STIER: Yes. I’m in the same boat as Jorja, because we are on the edge of the release for this, so it still feels like very much letting go of this project and discovering what the next project is. I echo what she said. I’m specifically looking to produce or write things or be involved with comedy in any vicinity, because that is what makes me happy. I would love it for mental health to be involved, because like Jorja said, we’re taking our advocacy into other realms. Jorja is on TikTok, and I’m getting involved in other volunteer groups. What’s coming up is that we’ve figured out our space as writers and producers, and I think that was such a big task in itself. We don’t know what to expect and what’s going to come out of this. So we are just keeping our heads down, and working ahead, and seeing what comes to us next.
HUDSON: To be open to whatever is the right next thing.
Any last thoughts?
HUDSON: I want to say thank you for believing in our film and for including us in your festival because you are a person who gets it and understands what we’re trying to do. We love you for that.