Animating mental illness in HBO’s “My Depression”

Writer and director Elizabeth Swados (pictured) talks to realscreen about turning her graphic memoir My Depression into an animated documentary short for HBO, and how animation is effective in visually depicting topics such as mental illness.
July 13, 2015

How do you project on film the feelings associated with not being able to get out of bed, or the discomfort of being at a party? How about the fear of stepping outside your front door? When it comes to the representation of mental illness, depression endures as one of the most difficult conditions to depict visually.

For Tony Award-nominated writer and composer Elizabeth Swados, an effective outlet in bringing a long-term battle with depression to life has been animation – first in 2005 with a graphic memoir titled My Depression: A Picture Book, and now, the animated documentary short My Depression: The Up and Down and Up of It for HBO.

The half-hour film – airing tonight (July 13) at 9 p.m. EST – follows Swados in animated form as she recounts her history with the illness and the ongoing struggle of trying to understand and treat her condition. Meanwhile, animation by Swados’ co-directors and former Saturday Night Live animators David Wachtenheim and Robert Marianetti visualizes many of the symptoms and side effects of depression through comedy and musical numbers including “Suicide Mobile” and “Doctor’s Techno Song,” all voiced by actors Steve Buscemi and Fred Armisen, as well as Sigourney Weaver, who voices Swados’ character.

The film version of My Depression has been in the works for nine years, with HBO coming on board about two years ago after Swados and her co-producer Rosalind Lichter reached out to Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, with the idea.

Sara Bernstein, senior VP of programming at HBO, says the film was a good fit for the cable net due to the graphics and music, and adds that HBO is “always open” to animation in documentaries.

“If you look at our Kurt Cobain doc [Montage of Heck], Brett Morgen has these incredibly animated segments in the film which beautifully illustrate aspects and parts of Kurt Cobain’s past and childhood, and they’re really quite effective,” she says.

“I think the animation [in My Depression] really allows for the audience to explore depression in those kinds of metaphors that she talks about,” Bernstein continues. “[Elizabeth] talks about having this cloud that sort of follows her around the whole time, and I think if it was just a straight doc and she’s giving you an interview or you’re following her in vérité, you’d never be able to have that clear visualization.”

The exec adds that HBO hopes the film – which was was nominated for the Best Documentary Short prize at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival – will spark a dialogue among viewers, and that it might “allow people to be more sympathetic and empathetic to loved ones who may be struggling, or even themselves.”

Meanwhile, an outreach campaign associated with the film sees HBO teaming up with the youth-focused Jed Foundation – an organization that advocates for emotional health and suicide prevention among college and university students – to provide resources for viewers looking for more information after watching the doc.

When asked what it is about topics such as depression that lend themselves so well to animation, Swados – who is known for such Broadway and Off-Broadway theater productions as Runaways and Groundhog - says it’s a combination of analysis and whimsy, as well as sadness and humor.

“The fact that you can deal with a subject that is very serious but you can do it in a funny way at the same time, and being able to juxtapose these emotions and facts with silliness is great for animation,” Swados tells realscreen in a phone interview.

The real hurdle, though, was transforming her book into a “living script,” she adds, and making sure the team injected the kind of tone she always anticipated, which was serious yet hopeful.

The remaining elements of production, such as the impressive array of Hollywood talent attached to the short, soon followed, with Weaver having worked with Swados at New York’s Flea Theater, and Wachtenheim and Marianetti enlisting their former Saturday Night Live colleague Armisen for the project. Buscemi – a member of the HBO family through his work on the long-running drama Boardwalk Empire - later joined as well.

Ultimately, Swados – like Bernstein – hopes to do her part in reducing prejudices and misconceptions regarding depression. Though My Depression is about as personal as a director can get in their work, she says it’s not difficult to share her story since it’s one shared by countless others.

“My feeling is that I share the subject with so many people, that it’s not really mine,” she says. “So many people are going through it and so many people have gone through it, that even though it’s very specific and very personal, ultimately it’s a very shared experience.”

  • My Depression airs on HBO tonight at 9 p.m. EST/PST.
  • Check out a trailer for the film below:

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