Ashley Judd in the title role in "Helen",
directed by Sandra Nettelbeck. The film is about Helen, a successful
professor who falls into a deep and severe depression. "Helen" will be
shown at the Sundance Film Festival out of competition in the Spectrum series.
THE POPCORN REEL FILM FOCUS - 2009 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
"Helen" Neither Hell Nor Heaven For
Omar P.L. Moore/The
January 13, 2009
(With corrections included)
"I'm here on the 12th floor and I look outside and all I see is brick. In
San Francisco, you see ocean."
Sandra Nettelbeck isn't exactly complaining about this. She's resting at
her hotel room at 60 Thompson in New York City as she makes this observation
about views close and distant over the telephone to her interviewer, before
heading off to Sundance later this week to show her new film "Helen", which is
being screened for the first time in North America at this year's Sundance Film
Festival, out of competition as part of the Festival's Spectrum series.
"It's good to rest here a little before going out there, you know?", she said of
New York before flying out to Utah. The German filmmaker has always wanted
to end up living in either New York or San Francisco. It simply appeared
that at this moment San Francisco was her preference. After all, Miss
Nettelbeck, who directed the immensely popular romance comedy 2001 film "Mostly
Martha", spent most of six years from the late '80's to the early '90's in the
City by The Bay, during which time she had a three-and-a-half-year stint in the
film program at San Francisco State University, and spent a little time in Los
Angeles. You get the feeling that her heart belongs to the Fog City as she
speaks of San Francisco. And the climate there is a little warmer, 60-plus
degrees, on the early morning of which the conversation with the director took
Miss Nettelbeck was in a cheerful mood, though still a little jetlagged from the
flight from Germany that landed in New York less than 24 hours prior when,
slightly more harried and jetlagged, she had initially contacted her interviewer
to schedule some conversation time. While she speaks about "Helen", she
revisits "Mostly Martha", the German-language hit film which in 2007 was remade
into a Hollywood film called
directed by Australian filmmaker
Scott Hicks and co-written
by Miss Nettelbeck. "I was convinced that it was never going to see the
light of day," she admitted, citing that exhibitors, festival people and
numerous others told her that "Mostly Martha" would fall flat on its face.
It was rejected at numerous film festival festivals, but shown at the Toronto
International Film Festival, where it found a distributor. "Suddenly no
one remembered how much they hated it," she recalled.
Filmmaking has come almost naturally to Miss Nettelbeck, who was born in Hamburg
in 1966 and moved to Berlin in 1994, where she has resided for the most part
ever since, though she lived in France for a time. "I've always been
really privileged," she said, referring to her experiences in filmmaking.
"It's been rather easy for me", she cited, mentioning that the substantial and
consistent creative control she has over her work was very much "against the
odds". Directors have to fight hard to preserve their films at times, and
as you listen to the director talk you sense that Sandra Nettelbeck has had to
do her fair share of fighting to keep her vision intact, that in a sexist and
still predominantly male world of filmmaking things weren't exactly handed to
her on a silver platter. The question that gives rise to this assumption
is never asked of her, but one finds it hard to imagine that in a world where,
at least in Hollywood, only Steven Spielberg and George Lucas can get whatever
film they want made in the studio system, that Miss Nettelbeck didn't encounter
some substantial resistance.
The answer to the unasked question was answered by the director, whom with five
films under her belt, had to persist and dig in with her latest.
"'Helen' took ten years to get made. I've worked really hard to get these
films done," she revealed.
For all her industry, she seemed to get little respect from some producers in
both Europe and America. She said that she kept being told that "Helen",
which she also wrote, was "'a great script, but can we do something else?'"
The something else was "Mostly Martha", and even after that film won big
audiences and critical largesse, she got this response from producers about
"It's a great script, but can we do something else?"
The next something else was directing "Sergeant Pepper", a film about a talking
Miss Nettelbeck took "Helen" to eQuinox, a screenwriting workshop she described as "a European
version of Sundance"'s own screenwriting workshop.
It was after this that "Helen" finally got a green light,
and last year the film became a German-Canadian production.
"Helen" is about a 40-year-old professor (played by Ashley Judd) who has
everything in life that one could want, including a loving and supportive
husband, a teenage daughter (!) and a strong circle of friends. A
successful life, a solid relationship and economic comfort. Helen's world
turns upside down after she gradually but steadily suffers from a severe
depression which makes her suicidal. The film also stars Goran Visnjic,
who plays David, Helen's husband, and Lauren Lee Smith, who plays Mathilda, a
manic depressive who forges a strong bond with Helen. Ms. Judd is in every
scene of the film.
"This film is about what love can do for you," the director said.
"Helen", filmed by Michael Bertl, Miss Nettelbeck's cinematographer of 14 years,
is inspired by the author Andrew Solomon, who wrote the story The Anatomy Of
Melancholy in the New Yorker Magazine in January 1998, in which he
chronicled his own descent into depression over more than two years at a time in
his life where everything was going right for him. He had come to terms
with his mother's death. He had books published (which would later include
The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression) and had good relationships.
Cinematically, "I wanted to explore what went on when life was at its best",
said Miss Nettelbeck, who kept a ongoing communication with Mr. Solomon, whose
New Yorker article she was fascinated by.
"I knew that this was going to be my next story", she said.
Winning Mr. Solomon's support and blessings, the director moved forward with the
journey, carrying the complex story of life's demands and hardships to the
finish line. (Mr. Solomon has since prevailed over his depression, and in
the magazine article he attributed doctors and medicines as the only things that
kept him from being moored in a permanent hell.)
Sandra Nettelbeck also had her own connections to Helen.
"I lost my oldest friend", she said. The woman Sandra had known for many
years had tried to commit suicide multiple times over a period of about 13
"Her first attempt was at 18, and she finally died when she was 30," Miss
The pain of that ordeal continues to affect the director, who said of "Helen"
that "it's a very demanding film", and ideally would have been a director's cut.
"The script was too long, I will freely admit that," she added. Miss
Nettelbeck also edited "Helen", which she said is "not a movie of the week and
doesn't explain a whole lot." Shot in Vancouver over 45 shooting days in
2007, "Helen" has been received at prior festivals and venues in an extreme way.
"People reject or respond quite strongly" to it, the director noted. Ahead
of her arrival at Sundance Miss Nettelbeck acknowledged that a positive
reception to "Helen" wouldn't be universal. "I know the film's going to
get heat," she said, mentioning that part of "Helen" deals with electric shock
treatment. "This [treatment] is a conscious choice made by millions of
people who suffer from depression and I was very sensitive to that fact.
There's no way I would ever exploit that," she said, perhaps anticipating
criticism. She mentioned at least one producer who had fomented an outrage
that the filmmaker felt went a little beyond the pale and scale in the context
of such a sensitive topic. "Shock treatment has helped at least 70% of
those suffering from depression," Miss Nettelbeck said, noting the extensive
research she did on the illness and its treatments in the U.S., mentioning that
there was "remarkably little" information and studies done on the subject of
depression and treatments in Germany.
As if to further convey her serious and sensitive treatment of the illness of
depression in the film and the pervasiveness it has in the lives of millions the
world over, Miss Nettelbeck said that "in ten years I have not met one person
who didn't have a story to tell about depression, whether it was their own, or
their mother's, a friend's or someone else that they knew."
At the same time, Sandra Nettelbeck emphasizes that "Helen" isn't solely about
depression. "It's a love story, and if only one person walks out of there
understanding and relating to what they saw, then that would be a good thing."
It would also be a good thing if the Berlinale (Berlin Film Festival) being held
next month would grant an invite to "Helen" to its big dance, which the director
is still awaiting from her home country's very prominent festival. Miss
Nettelbeck expressed a mild puzzlement about the situation but hoped that
Berlinale would grant her film the invitation. ("Helen" had been turned
down by the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, though at the time the
film was not yet finished.) When asked, Miss Nettelbeck talked about the
feeling of surrendering her films to the public after completing it and then
watching it again with an audience of strangers. "I'm terrified.
Completely terrified. I mean, there's no way of telling. You think,
'God, I've fucked this one up! I should have worked so much harder.
I should have changed the music!"
Despite the angst that typically accompanies a director's initial public
exhibitions of her work, with "Helen" as with all of her cinematic endeavors,
Miss Nettelbeck has the comfort of knowing that "I worked as hard as I possibly
could." She praised the work of all the actors on "Helen" and was thrilled
by the work of a relative unknown on the big screen (if not television), the
Vancouver-born Miss Smith, 28, as Mathilda.
"She does an extraordinary job."
Though Miss Nettelbeck says that "I'm not that social", as a person, she said
that "there's so much I would rather do with other people", when it came to
collaborating on a film that wasn't her own. She said that she had been
"dying to do something for someone else", specifically writing a screenplay for
someone else or directing someone else's script for the big screen.
With the mention of her own film "Mostly Martha", Miss Nettelbeck was asked
about overseas filmmakers whose films get remade into English-language Hollywood
productions. The question hadn't even finished being asked, when the
director spoke in no uncertain terms. "That's not gonna happen with
"Helen", I tell you that!", she said, with laughter in her voice.
Referring to her film, she added, "These are English actors. What are they
going to do, make a French version out of it?"
"Helen" runs for one hour and 59 minutes.
"Helen" screening times and locations at Sundance in Park City, Utah unless
Friday, January 16 at
8:45 p.m. at Library Center Theatre
Saturday, January 17 at 9:30 p.m. at Rose
Wagner Performance Center, Salt Lake City
Monday, January 19 at 11:30 p.m. at Library Center Theatre
Thursday, January 22 at
11:15 a.m. – Racquet Club
Saturday, January 24 at 6:30 p.m. at Redstone Cinemas, Kimball Junction
For more information and tickets, visit
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