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2022 New Jersey International Film Festival The Mental State Filmmaker Interview with Director James Camali

NEWS | FEATURES | PREVIEWS | EVENTS

By Al Nigrin


originally published: 06/04/2022

2022 New Jersey International Film Festival The Mental State Filmmaker Interview with Director James Camali

The Mental State
screens on Friday, June 10 at the 2022 New Jersey International Film Festival. Here is my Interview with Director James Camali:

Nigrin: Your film focuses on Andy Cady, an artistic loner, whose severe mental illness causes him intense hallucinations and delusions of his deceased, former-Navy SEAL uncle. What made you want to make this film?

Camali: Just a quick correction, Dylan is not Andy's uncle in the film. Dylan is an uncle in the play, but I decided to make him Andy's father in the in the film. I thought making him a father made the emotional connection easier to digest in a story laced with a lot of topics and characters. It's hard to discuss the reasoning for this film without mentioning where Andy's story takes him. The film ends in a school shooting scenario, which was a topic that I was extremely interested in covering. I feel as though I grew up in the age of school shooters. Columbine happened when I was about eight years old. Then, while I was in my second year of film school, I was shooting a short film not far from Newtown, CT when the Sandy Hook shootings happened. After these tragedies news anchors would speculate on what caused the shooters - often teenagers - to perform such an act, usually claiming one specific reason as motivation (ie. violent video games, bad parents, they were inherently evil, etc.). Eventually, I was fed up because that wasn't the truth. The truth was that those shooters were humans and a large variety of factors likely motivated them like many other choices in our lives. Sometimes those actions were also compounded with factors of severe mental illness. I felt that not approaching this issue with the proper empathy was allowing it to continue. Thus, I set out to tell a story about a school shooter and someone with a severe mental illness with empathy to understand their actions. Now, I don't want this story to be interpreted as a generalization of school shooters, nor is it a generalization of someone going through episodes with severe mental illnesses. Not everyone who was a school shooter had a severe mental illness, and not everyone with a severe mental illness is violent or intentionally violent. That's very important to me. I want this to be a glimpse into one story that will allow audiences to think more deeply about the emotions and factors that others go through in a similar event.

Fortunately, Josh Adell wrote a fantastic play about this subject matter with the same goals in mind. I was excited to adapt it. He wrote it for high school students to perform to open a dialogue between them, their parents, and the faculty. Josh introduced Andy's hallucinations and delusions as a way to experience his relationship with Dylan. Making Andy an artist gave him a good amount of depth as a character. It showed that he was a talented kid with a lot of promise and emotion, which made him likeable or at least give the audience something to hope for with him. I was very lucky to have Josh's play as a solid foundation to adapt from.

Nigrin: Is the title of your film meant to be a double entendre?

Camali: Yes, the title of the film (and the play) is a double entendre. While Josh was writing the piece, Kentucky had some one of the worst mental healthcare access and laws in the United States. He felt that "The Mental State" spoke to Andy's state of mind and to the actual state the story is set in. Kentucky has improved it's mental healthcare in the state since, however, I kept the story set there. I felt that this was a very American story, so I liked keeping it in a state that was sort of in the heart of the US. I kept the title because I felt like it still worked well. Obviously, Andy's state of mind still stuck. Also, the word state holds a lot of importance to our country as a community. So, "state" felt like it encompassed the community that ultimately fails Andy. 



 
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Nigrin: Your film also interweaves a lot of issues that are very prevalent in our society today like opioid addiction, mental illness, religion, etc. Were you looking to highlight these issues in your film?

Camali: Absolutely. Many were issues that Josh Adell incorporated in his play. Many were issues that I wanted to incorporate in a film before finding his play. It's a story that set out to understand how an event is caused by the convergence of many factors (or issues). In our research, we found aspects of all these other issues often coming into play while dealing with school shooters or teenage mental health or healthcare access. In both the play and the film, we did the best we could to make them prevalent without them overtaking the story.  Being a story that encompasses many issues, one issue I've been asked about that doesn't show up in the film is race. It was something I thought deeply about while casting, especially since we see a lot of color-blind casting these days. To me, race is such a strong subject matter and issue in American society that I think it would have had too much of an influence on the motivations of characters had it come into play. It felt like school shooters in the news are often white, although that may be a symptom of the news cycle. But to keep with that trend I had to look outside of Andy's immediate family to cast as a person of color. For example, I was close to casting Brian as a person of color. However, in doing so now brings up many questions to Andy's motivation: would I be saying that Andy is racist? Would I need to show the influences in Andy's life that would lead to him villainizing a person of color? How would I approach those influences? As a white person, is my perception of those influences and issues within this topic accurate? Etc. These sort of questions would come up as I went through the character tree. Race is a delicate subject matter that I unfortunately didn't have the bandwidth to give it the appropriate treatment, especially as a white person. Perhaps I didn't even need to bring it up here. On one hand I regret not pushing myself harder to explore the issue as a storyteller. On the other hand, I love everyone's performance and I wouldn't trade them for the world. 

Nigrin: You wrote, directed, and produced this film. Was it a challenge to perform all these functions?

Camali: Yes. I also co-edited the film, shot drone footage, some B-Roll footage, and wore many other hats. That's what happens on an indie sometimes. I'm very grateful for others who had to wear a few other hats on this project as well, Ronnee Swenton especially. He co-produced and basically did all of the post-production outside of editing, and even that he worked on. It was a challenge, but we learned a lot during the process. That knowledge is not something to be taken for granted. While I truly love every aspect of filmmaking, I would advise myself to wear less hats in the future. With that said, do you know of a quiet room with a big hat rack where I can sit and do nothing for a while?

Nigrin: Jance Enslin is great playing Andy Cady as is the rest of the main cast. How did they come to be part of your film?

Camali: I was very fortunate to work with our casting director Patricia McCorkle. Many of the actors were cast in a fairly standard way: sending breakdowns to talent teams and posting it on sites like Actors Access, then holding auditions, and casting from there. We received between hundreds to thousands of submissions for each role. Pat's team did a fantastic job at narrowing each character's submissions down. Then I went through the about 50 submissions per role. Finally, we held in person callbacks. I gave everyone pretty tough audition scenes because the film calls for some tough moments. Pat has a strong background in the NYC theater scene. I love stage actors, so I trusted her input fully through the process. There were a lot of very strong actors who came in. Ultimately, we decided to stick with the best actors for the roles. This film is such an ensemble piece that I'd hate to talk about one actor without diving into another.  Jance brought the most versatility to Andy out of everyone who auditioned. He had a good balance of carrying a sense of innocence we still have at that age, while keeping his troubled past and current state of mind at the surface. I met with him at a diner after his final call back to get know him personally and discuss the project further. He related to the character Andy in many ways, so I felt really good about casting him. Carly Pope, who plays his mother Angela, crushed her audition. She needed to cary a similar sentiment as Andy. Angela is still in this high point of her sobriety when we meet her, a bit "born again" with that sense of innocence injected back into her. However, she continues to carry her troubled past. Carly brought all of that in the audition. It was amazing. I was absolutely in awe of Alyssa Sutherland's audition. She plays Andy's Aunt Dana. Alyssa has to be one of the best listeners as an actor I've seen. She's so present with her scene partner at all times. Dana being the family member whose more keen to Andy's struggles needed to be a good listener. Casting Bethany and Brian was interesting. Those two had a lot more work than one might realize. Their characters' intentions and emotions needed to toe a line at all times between Andy's perceived reality and who the characters actually were. In Andy's mind, Bethany is a damsel in distress, while Brian is this dark presence out to hurt her. Alison Thornton and Blaine Maye, who played Bethany and Brian respectively, did an excellent job at showing Andy's perception, while bringing a more truthful version of their characters to the forefront. We casted a few local actors as well. Quinn Hemphill, Delaney Stevens, and Jake Froehlich played Brian and Bethany's friends. They were a great group of young actors who were attending Syracuse University and Ithaca College near where we shot. We had a few actors who didn't audition. Bryan Greenberg, Michael Gladis, Jim-True Frost, William R. Moses, Remington Moses, and Nathan Wallace were all actors that I either worked with, knew personally, or knew their work and spoke to about their parts before casting them. Bryan Greenberg was very eager to play this part. It was something outside what he's usually cast as. He came to our meeting with some really great notes and ideas for the character. 

Nigrin: Ronnee Swenton’s cinematography and lighting is also amazingly good. Tell us more about his work on your film. 

Camali: Ronnee and I met in the first week of film school at The School of Visual Arts. We've been working on almost every project together ever since. It's been such an incredible experience to watch his cinematography skills grow throughout the years. We wanted an image that had a "film" look. It's fairly known in the industry that the Alexa is the best or one of the best cameras for that approach, so we shot the film on the Arri Alexa Mini with Cooke glass. Initially, Ronnee and I had the grand idea of shooting the sections of the story when we're in Andy's perspective on 16mm film with different lenses to distinguish it from the second half when the story is out of his perspective. However, neither one of us felt like we had enough experience with film to pull it off within our budget. We decided to stick with digital and bring a film look in post. Opting for a film look was deliberate for the story, not just a visual preference. These characters are meant to be in a low-income area. Unfortunately, many low-income towns are rundown, degraded, old. To us, those traits evoked images with texture, not images that are crisp and clean. Film, no matter the stock, has a beautiful texture, so we felt a film texture would help emphasize that. Ronnee meticulously oversaw the post process to make sure we were applying a film texture that met that vision we shared. For as long as I could remember, Ronnee was never afraid to let his images live in shadow. Even as early filmmakers when many young cinematographers that we knew were blasting light at their subjects and over-lighting scenes, Ronnee was there shaping light with shadow. His images sometimes remind me of those from Gordon Willis. Ronnee's approach to the use of shadows was necessary for a story that is undeniably bleak, dark, and brutal.  In regards to the color, we deiced to keep the saturation levels low throughout the film. While that's something one can do in post (and something we did a tiny bit), it's also a testament to the color coordination between our costume designer, Gregory Gale, and our production designer, Bryan Wolcik, and Ronnee. A slight tangent, but this was Bryan's first time being the lead production designer on a film. I was very proud of his work. And Gregory is an extremely accomplished costume designer for Broadway. His approach to the details of color and costume leaked on to every aspect of the visuals for this film. I'm very grateful for his creative presence on this film.  As far as shot selection, Ronnee and I didn't take as much time in pre-production to shot list as we would have liked because we were wearing so many other hats. Also, we had some locations change dates or dropout on us last minute. We were spending our first few off days finding a new church and new hallways within the school to shoot in. That lead to us kind of shooting on the fly, which isn't always a bad thing. It gave way to some fun blocking and shots sometimes. Ronnee and I have built a strong trust over the years. We often do not need to discuss how a shot should be framed. We usually will suggest the same shot or framing to each other in the moment. That sort of relationship is very important between a director and cinematographer. We're extremely proud of how the third act school sequence came out visually. It was always our intent to make that section feel much more visceral and cinéma vérité. We did the best we could to save the more extreme hand-held look for that section, which was something we ripped off from the end sequence of Chinatown. I think it was very effective for the moment.   Aside from Chinatown, we mostly pulled visual influences from The Place Beyond the PinesWinter's Bone, and Fight Club. I'm also a big Yasujirō Ozu fan, which lead to a lot of the shots of characters center-framed in close-up looking straight down the barrell of the lens. Ronnee was also handling all the of VFX work down the line, so he always kept that into account on set while lighting and framing. 

Nigrin: Are there any memorable stories while you made this film or any other info about your film you would like to relay to us? 

Camali: While the story takes place in Kentucky, we shot the film in Syracuse, NY. It had a great tax incentive and one of our producers worked with a lot of great crew up there. We didn't really plan for snow. We had two planned days of exteriors to shoot at the high school. The way the schedule worked out, we had to shoot one of them on one day and the other about two weeks later when we could come back. Well, guess what happened when we came back... Fortunately, the snow made the scene much more dramatic looking. Also, the story is supposed to take place over the course of a couple of months. The snow helped us naturally transition to a new season to make it feel like the timeline went on longer. Another school memory was that we had to film while students were taking their SATs upstairs, so I feel I need to apologize to any student who scored less than perfect on their SATs that day.  When we scouted the house for Brian's party, we didn't realize that owners had cats. Ironically, the only person allergic to cats was Ronnee, our cinematographer. Poor Ronnee's eyes were itching and watering the whole night.The amusement park scenes take place at Sylvan Beach Amusement Park on Oneida Lake about 40 minutes outside of Syracuse. Keyword for this story: lake. We originally visited the amusement park in the summer. What a beautiful season for an amusement park on a lake. It's warm with a gentle evening lake breeze. However, we shot in the fall. Fall in the Syracuse area gets very cold. It gets even colder at nighttime. It gets even colder when you're near water. And I'll tell you what, that gentle lake breeze really picks up in the fall. I think it was about 4 degrees one of the nights we filmed at the park. Our crew roughed it that night, they were champs. The cast too. They would sit in the warm cast van nearby, jump out, shoot the scene, then get back to the van. I don't know how their dialogue wasn't filled with chattering teeth. I could still feel that cold in my spine to this day. Our schedule overlapped with Thanksgiving, so everyone had a few days off but many of us were stuck in Syracuse. I usually spend Thanksgiving with my family in sunny Florida. Here I was in snowy Syracuse. But, luckily, our key hair stylist, Ashley Miller Hansen, invited myself a bunch of us over for Thanksgiving! She served up a frickin' amazing meal and made us feel like family. And Jance made hummus! It was an unforgettable holiday. 

Overall, I'm supremely thankful for the cast and crew on this set. I grew up making movies with my friends in elementary and high school. It may sound silly, but there's no sense in making a film if I don't feel like I'm hanging out and making something really cool with my friends. I try to bring that mentality to set. Indie film sets lend themselves to a very summer camp vibe. Everyone gets together for this whacky, otherworldly experience to try to make something really great. Sometimes people get along, and sometimes they don't. Luckily, everyone grew to be super close on set. Since there wasn't a lot of films that were shot up in Syracuse at the time, most of the crew had worked together on other projects before. They had a strong sense of comradarie coming into the picture. It was really up to me, Ronnee, and the cast to just fit in with them. And they made that super easy.

2022 New Jersey International Film Festival The Mental State Filmmaker Interview with Director James Camali



 
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The Mental State screens at the 2022 New Jersey International Film Festival on Friday, June 10, 2022 – Online for 24 Hours and In Person at 7PM!

The Mental State – James Camali (Brooklyn, New York) 
In the heart of rural Kentucky, a high school senior and his family struggle to cope with the true identity and intentions of a dangerous town shooter. The film follows Andy Cady, an artistic loner, as he covertly follows the directives of a local, Navy SEAL veteran, Dylan. Dylan convinces Andy to believe destructive conspiracies. Andy's impoverished, single mother, Angela, worries about Andy's health and safety when Andy's recent erratic behavior and beliefs causes him to emotionally harm a fellow student. Angela tries to find resources she needs to keep Andy out of trouble until the film crescendos with a tragedy at the local high school. 2022; 105 min. To buy tickets to see it click here

The 27th annual Festival will be taking place on select Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through June 12. The Festival will be a hybrid one as we will be presenting it online as well as doing select in person screenings at Rutgers University. All the films will be available virtually via Video on Demand for 24 hours on their show date. Each ticket or Festival Pass purchased is good for both the virtual and the in person screenings. The in person screenings will be held in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ beginning at either 5PM or 7PM on their show date.  Tickets: $15=Per Program 

For more info go here: https://2022newjerseyinternationalfilmfestival.eventive.org/

 



Albert Gabriel Nigrin is an award-winning experimental media artist whose work has been screened on all five continents. He is also a Cinema Studies Lecturer at Rutgers University, and the Executive Director/Curator of the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, Inc.





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