72. Berlinale 2022
Starring: Chrissy Metz, Wyatt Oleff & Fin Argus
With festival season in full swing it’s great to have the chance to see another feature film that is based on a short film (the first being the Sundance Premiere of ‘Piggy’ directed by Carlota Pereda). Stay Awake is adapted from director Jamie Sisley 2015 short film of the same name which won the National Board of Review Student Grant and the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance for Best Narrative short.
Read out full review here.
Before we start I want to congratulate on your Special Mention for Stay Awake at the Berlinale. What did it mean to get that type of recognition for your film?
Jamie Sisley (JS): It was unbelievable, it’s such a great feeling and I am so grateful to be able to bring Stay Awake to the Berlinale. And then to receive something like this really makes me feel good that we can get some recognition for our film. It feels good that everybody who believed in the Stay Awake might feel great about that but most importantly it's great that the topic will get out there a little bit more as a result. I'm very thankful to the Jury and thankful that to everybody at the Berlinale, it is such a nice surprise.
Stay Awake is based on your short film of the same name which won multiple awards, did the response you got for your short add any additional pressure on you as you started your festival journey with your feature?
JS: I'm not sure if I felt any additional pressure. Creatively I wanted to do better. With the short I was very fortunately to see it a lot as it played at different festivals. It got to a point that every time I would see it I would be like ‘I could have done better there’. So I came into the feature really wanting to do better, to tell a story that was stronger and people would feel more emotionally resonant with.
This is the second short-to-feature that I have seen this year and it’s been interesting to see some elements of the shorts still evident in the feature versions. Were you always aware that you would adapt your short into a feature?
JS: I 100% was not. I came into the feature feeling I can back up the short a little bit more. One of the reasons I wanted to go into filmmaking was to tell some kind of story about this issue because it personally affected me for a very long time. I didn't feel like I could tell other stories until I got this one off my plate if that makes sense. I needed to do something here and I think after I did I was pretty happy with being ‘finished’ with the topic and I sort of wanted to move on.
And then the film got into festivals and, as I’ve said before, at every festival I kind of became like the festival therapist you know, everyone's mom. Everybody came up to me telling me that their mom, dad, uncle, aunt, brother, sister had had an issue with addiction and it was really incredible to realise that this film was providing an opportunity for people to talk with somebody else about this issue which I could really relate to it.
The U.S Opioid Epidemic is a taboo issue. It's embarrassing to some people to talk about it. And when I realised this, and understood that our film could be useful to a lot of people, I started to think that maybe I should look into making a feature out of it.
"When they came to me my task was making sure that they got to bond with each other as much as possible because they had already done so much with their characters and I'm very grateful for that."
One of the things that I thought was really powerful about Stay Awake was how you never sensationalised or trivialised the subject of drugs in your film. It is easy in our social media driven discourse to see drug dependency and the wider social issues become the butt of the joke, a cheap shot. And we see this everyday in the press in how they treat those in the public eye, celebrities etc who might have drug issues. I couldn’t help thinking about how these small town and small communities deal with this epidemic and how the press narratives that are created may act as triggers to them.
Maybe Stay Awake will encourage people to be a little bit more respectful and reflect of how we view drug addiction and how we understand people that are going through that process, irrespective of the social position they come from. How important was it for you to tell this story without feeling as though you needed to sensationalise or be more gratuitous with drugs and how this is usually portrayed in films?
JS: I really appreciate you saying all that and this was a big part of my childhood. My teenage years growing up drug dependency and use was always something that was on my mind. I remember a lot of the time when I was growing up it was exactly what you just said. It's just in movies and television, especially in the media there would always be jokes about certain drugs. Xanax was always the popular joke that people still to this day, I would hear jokes about this all the time. Like you, I understood Xanax is prescribed by a Doctor and people think that it's safe. It was always tough for me because in a room right next to me my Mom would be high off of Xanax and passed out and I always felt disconnected to how people didn't understand that these drugs were a real problem.
It's been really great to see that the last couple of years Opioids have received a lot of attention in this regard which is kind of what you are saying. I feel like people are treating Opioids with more respect now as they understand the dangers of them. It's been a long time coming. It makes me very happy that society is starting to change their attitude towards that subject, but there's a lot of other prescription drugs that also need this type of recognition. In whatever way a film can sort of provide that context I hope Stay Awake might be a small part of that discussion.
In terms of the gratuitousness for me this film was really more about the caretakers, it wasn't about the drug use itself, it was about the people, the loved ones. It's a love letter to the loved ones who have to go on this rollercoaster ride with people that they love in their addiction. So I really tried to focus more attention on that because that's not a point of view that I have seen expressed a lot as opposed to the actual drug use itself which I think most people focus on. And we've seen it enough now in films.
The way your three central characters bond seems quite genuine and there is a touching intensity to this closeness. In regards to all of the Covid restrictions that were probably in place was there much time to rehearse with your actors before you started shooting and how did you still solicit these emotionally rich performances from each of there with these restrictions?
JS: A lot of credit is due to the actors. All three of these actors are very busy in their own and as you say COVID certainly impinged upon our ability to get a lot of face time together. Luckily for me we did a lot of Zoom calls and that was helpful and then every actor came very prepared. It was very obvious that they had done their homework. I probably spent a couple months before we got into pre-production just talking with Chrissy Metz (Michelle), Fin Argus (Derek) and Wyatt Oleff (Ethan) and going through their characters as well as being a support to them in whatever way their process called for. Once we got on set it really showed, they really took to their characters and all three of them had done a lot of work on their own. When they came to me my task was making sure that they got to bond with each other as much as possible because they had already done so much with their characters and I'm very grateful for that. I don't think every filmmaker is this lucky when their actors really take the film and the issues seriously. And Chrissy, Finn and Wyatt certainly did.
What was it like working with Chrissy Metz, who is also an Executive Producer, I felt that she really got to the heart of who Michelle was?
JS: I could have a long conversation with you right now about how grateful I am for Chrissy and to have ever met her. She is one of the most selfless people I've ever met and she completely understood the story giving 100% of herself to it. I think she really humanises addiction and I think that's kind of what you're getting at and I couldn't agree more. I've seen a lot of films over the decades where addicts are the villains or demonised and I wanted to try to humanise this character. Chrissy just couldn't have been a better partner and collaborator to show that side of addiction.
She's also such a supportive person. There were times on set, for example, when out of nowhere on a Friday, and it was like super hot, ice cream sandwiches would suddenly arrive for the whole crew and nobody would take credit for it, but we all knew it was Chrissy. She does things in addition to being a brilliant actor and she takes her role very seriously. She's also just a really good person and such a great leader. I literally can't say enough good things about having the opportunity to work with her.
Because of your personal connection to the themes within Stay Awake what would you say was the most challenging scene for you to film?
JS: I mean to be really honest with you the filming of it wasn't as hard for me as the writing. I think for me when I was directing Stay Awake I was able to compartmentalise a lot of my own personal feelings. With the subjects matter the writing was a lot harder, as a writer you know what I mean, writing is really hard. It is a long solitary process where you have to just be there with your demons and this subject is a tough part of my life. So that was really difficult and I think some of the scenes that I had the most difficulty with might not be the ones that would be the obvious ones.
One scene that I did have trouble with was a scene where Ethan is out in the hospital hallway by himself, a long hallway, just in the middle of the night at the hospital. That was a position I was in a lot. I remember being by myself in a hallway at 3 or 4 am hearing the codes being called across the intercoms, watching stretchers come in from car accident and then seeing my mom and my brother asleep. That scene conjured up a lot of emotion in me.
There is a gentleness to the way you bring up drugs and the way that this issue is affecting the family. But I think going back to what you said earlier an important aspect of your film is this relationship between the Doctor and the family. This is a Doctor that is prescribing ‘Michelle’ her medication, not someone in a park late a night. The subtle acts of rebellion from the brothers shows how aware they are of this wide and complex issue and that their mother’s Doctor holds some responsibility for the condition she is in. Do you think there needs to be more of conversation about the role that pharmaceutical companies and the medical profession are playing in the prescription drugs epidemic in the U.S?
JS: I hope so. I definitely have my thoughts about the role that Doctor’s play in this entire mess we are in and it is tough. I do feel part of the reason that we are in this mess is become there are some Doctor’s that don't take their oath seriously. The medical community is a business after all and sometimes that understanding seeps into how I think we've arrived at the current situation. Now, with all that being said, I have a lot of respect for Doctor’s. One of amazing things that has happened through the making of Stay Awake has been allowing me to speak with a lot of Doctor’s for research purpose to make sure that I got all this right. I do think there needs to be more discussion about that subject because I think we have a lot of respect for the medical community and the public are supposed to trust them. Perhaps it is this breach of trust between the medical community and the public that is one of the reasons we're in the situation we are in. A lot of the times Doctor’s will say that they are very excited that this sort of storyline is included because they recognise that there are bad apples in the medical community who make them all look bad. Which is a shame because there are great Doctor’s out there that shouldn't get grouped in with the bad ones.
Even with the seriousness and emotional that is at the heart of Stay Awake you still managed to create a wonderfully touching coming-or-age story as well, particularly from Ethan's perspective. Was that always the intention to explore Ethan's sexuality without going into it too much?
JS: I think there were a couple of different reasons for those storylines. I know when I was growing up with the issue with my Mom that obviously wasn't the only thing happening in my life. I was a teen, I had teenage things going on and I wanted to show that this wasn’t the only thing going on in Ethan and Derek's life. I wanted to make their story feel more authentic to who they are and make their characters feel more universal in that regard. And then in terms of sexuality one thing that I feel a lot of the times when I've seen sexuality portrayed in film, it's always the lead storyline.
There is always a big spotlight shined upon, the subject of sexuality and discovery, it’s always the main focus and I'm really glad that as a community we've had those stories, but in a way I hope that we can start normalising these narratives. Sexuality is a very normal part of people's lives and I don't really wanted to normalise Ethan's journey as someone who's figuring out their sexuality instead of making a big deal about it. I think by doing that a little bit it will make things feel more normal. I keep using the word ‘normal’ but I don’t know what else to use, no one should feel anything more than that as this is a normal thing that people go through.
I think that's an important thing to say particularly for LGBTQ filmmakers. It is unfortunately the word that you have to use is normal but the more you do normalise these experiences and stories the more people can actually relate and connect to the characters because audiences are seeing themselves in those similar situations. Whether Straight, Lesbian, Gay, or Trans it doesn't matter who you these are universal experience that we all have. And I think that you're right. I think the types of films that stand out tend to put as normal a spin on how they discuss and how they explore the sexuality or sexual experience of a character. That was definitely something that you did really well here. You allowed Ethan to have a normal (that word again) coming-of-age story with moments of desire or wishful thinking that are touching and truly universal.
JS: I just want to say I think what you just said is eloquently put about what we're talking about with sexuality. I think that's really well said and I think we need stories where that topic is front and centre. We need those, they are important, but I think just as much in 2022 we need stories that make it an undercurrent or that make it just a normal everyday part of someone's life.
Would you consider revisiting the characters again?
JS: Sure. I mean if I feel like there's more to be said about the subject or if it's really cool. I think one of the coolest parts about writing stories is that in five years I'm probably gonna have a very different understanding of the situation than I do now because hopefully I'm gonna live, grow and experience new things and hopefully I'll succeed and definitely fail. All of those different experiences will lead up to probably something else that I'll want to explore in a story. And that very well could be these characters in this topic or it could be having children. That sort of excites me to think where things will be in and what I might want to explore as a storyteller.
One of the questions I've been asking a lot of filmmakers lately is the role of short films as in general most audiences only see them during a film festival. What do you think could be done to encourage more accessibility of short films to a wider public?
JS: That's another great question. I think short films are obviously sort of the first stop for filmmakers. My dad's a painter and I'm always so jealous of him because every night he gets to go home and paint, if your film costs a lot of money it can be impossible to experiment, right. It's tough and shorts are great and they costs less money to make. They're really important, I think they are an important launchpad and opportunity for filmmakers to start out and tell stories that they feel are important. I don't know what should happen but I have a feeling that over the next couple of years there's going to be more opportunity for shorts.
It just seems like people's attention spans seem to be veering in that direction where people are more accustomed to watching short form content than they used to, sites like YouTube or Vimeo. Even in some of our more traditional press outlets I'm finding that The New York Times, I love The Times Video Stories that they put out and they're usually short form. It seems like things are going in that direction and if there's a demand for it, which I hope there is, more platforms might emerge to help support that experience.
Finally, what would you say has been the most valuable lesson that you’ve taken from making Stay Awake?
JS: One thing that I've learned is just how prevalent this issue is over the years. I was saying earlier, I think I was surprised when the short came out by just how many people seemed to care about this subject. It was always something that was very important to me but it was a little bit of a shock when people started sharing their own stories and the same thing has already started to happen with the feature.
I really mean it when I say that this film's a love letter to the caretakers because I think a lot of people are dealing with this subject. I read somewhere that there's like 21 million Americans alone every year that have to deal with addiction or some kind of addiction. And if you multiply that by 2 or 3 times that's all the caretakers. So there's a lot of people out there who are just in America which is one country, multiply that by several times more and you see how big the issue is. I think people need to us this issue more and I think stories provide such a great opportunity to open up this discussions. They open the door for these kinds of conversations to happen and so I think this has been a valuable learning experience. It makes me really happy that in whatever way Stay Awake can it'll help open up more of a discussion.