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Interview: Sandra Nettelbeck (Helen)

I think that is the greatest gift to any director – when it is as meaningful and significant to an actor to embody a character, become part of a story, as it was for Ashley to portray Helen.

This was an interview conducted for the 2009 edition of the Sundance Film Festival. E1 Entertainment has released Helen at the Quad theater in New York City this weekend.

Sandra Nettelbeck

Sandra Nettelbeck Helen Sundance Interview

Eric Lavallee: Can you discuss the genesis of Helen – how did the initial idea come about or how did this become a story you wanted to tell?
Sandra Nettelbeck: My dearest childhood friend committed suicide in 1995 after she had been ill for a long time. My life has been effected by depression in different ways, and I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have a personal story to tell about its impact on his or her life, but many people still don’t know much about it, most of us don’t understand it and certainly don’t know of the extremes of this disease. The statistics are staggering: it is estimated that by the year 2020 depression will cost more years of healthy lives than war, AIDS and cancer put together.

But a disease doesn’t make a film, just like death doesn’t make a story. It was Andrew Solomon’s 1998 article in the New Yorker about his own experiences with depression that encouraged and inspired me to start working on the script for Helen. What I was interested in was how this illness, which tends to rob you of the ability to connect with other people, can potentially destroy the strongest bonds in our lives: the love for a man or a woman, a mother or a father, possibly even the love for your child. I wanted to find the best people, the ones who have it all, who love each other as much as a person can love another person, who seem safe and happy, and let it happen to them – because sometimes it does.

I didn’t want to make a movie of the week, a how-to-defeat-depression-movie. I wanted to make a very intimate film that stays close to its main character and doesn’t treat her as a patient. The film largely maintains Helen’s perspective, which means it doesn’t offer any easy answers or explanations and at times appears as enigmatic as the disease itself.
Here lies the challenge: depression breaks down communication. But love, relationships, storytelling, it’s all about communication. So this is what I was trying to do, to tell a story about people who deeply love each other but who lose the ability to communicate, to express or receive that love, through absolutely no fault of their own. How do they handle that – and how do I handle that, as a filmmaker.

Sandra Nettelbeck Helen Sundance Interview

EL: What kind of research did you do in the field of depression in order to refrain from old clichés?
SN: I read every book I could get my hands on. Andrew Solomon’s book, The Noonday Demons, is still the most important one to me. I think it is a milestone. But research alone doesn’t insulate you from falling into the trap of old clichés. It was important to me to not attempt to explain everything. The film doesn’t make the claim of having all the answers. I don’t think one can, and I don’t think it’s that interesting.

EL: How did you come to decide that the the Pacific North shoreline would be best suited for the story-line’s setting?
SN: I always knew it was a North American story, and I always imagined the seasons in the film – but other than that, I think it could have very well taken place at the East Coast as well. What did matter to me was the open water. The Ocean was always an important visual element in the film, so naturally we were looking for a coastal, seasonal setting.

Sandra Nettelbeck Helen Sundance Interview

EL: Can you elaborate on what kind of work went into the pre-production process: was it difficult to get a German film production co. to finance a film shot oversees?
SN: It is definitely a challenge, but maybe a question better asked my producers.

EL: If I understand the timeline correctly – this would have been Ashley Judd’s first role after her own reported bout with depression.. How were you able to convince her for this role and in your opinion what “advantage” did it have in her own understanding/interpretation of the character?
SN: Lucky for me, I didn’t have to convince her. She responded passionately to the script and the story when she first heard about it. She was deeply committed to this project from day one, and she was ready and prepared to give herself to this complex and difficult performance in a way that doesn’t happen very often. I think that is the greatest gift to any director – when it is as meaningful and significant to an actor to embody a character, become part of a story, as it was for Ashley to portray Helen. Of course it is also a huge challenge. How much do you push someone on this journey, and how do you protect them. I had to rely on Ashley to draw the line, all I could do is offer her my guidance, my presence, a safe haven any time she needed it – and ask her to trust me as a director. I think she is a brilliant actress, and what she is able and willing to share with us on the screen as Helen is nothing less than extraordinary.

EL: What aesthetic decisions did you make prior to shooting?
SN: Many. For example: The color green was not to be in the film. Which you can imagine was quite a challenge shooting in the Pacific Northwest. My dp Michael and I discussed the visual esthetics at great length prior to shooting, as we always do, and later on with our production designer. What we wanted the houses to look like, the setting at the Sea, tha overall framing, the format, the steel blue, grey, white colors, and how the film loses its color as it moves along. The images become more and more monochrome, appear drained and cold, as Helen descends deeper and deeper into isolation. Michael and I have worked together for 14 years now, I’ve been working on HELEN for 10 years. The many conversations he and I had had over the years about this project helped us enormously. Very early on, Michael begins to gather images that are meaningful to him in the context of a film we are preparing, and through those images we gradually define the look. Of course it is a great privilege to work with someone you know that well and share so much with. We speak the same language, visually and conceptually, and we don’t need to explain much to each other anymore. The challenge was to explain our vision and our mad (sometimes maddening) perfectionism to everyone who hadn’t worked with us.

Sandra Nettelbeck Helen Sundance Interview

EL: If you could name just one – what stands out as your most favorite experience you had during filming?
SN: There were quite a few perfect moments, but if I’d had to single out one in hindsight, I’d say the rainbow incident, which probably ranks both in the low and high category. A glorious rainbow appeared while we were shooting the exterior for the Ocean sequence. Michael wanted to wait for it to disappear because it looked so stunning in the reflection of the window you would think it was fake. This must have been the longest lasting rainbow I have ever watched in my life, and it agonized the hell out of all of us because we trying to get a complicated crane shot done in high winds before dark. So we shot a few takes anyway, with the rainbow still there. I ended up using one of those in the film, and today, I am happy every time I catch the glimpse of that rainbow in the window. I think it is extraordinary and was meant to be there all along, we just didn’t know that at the time.

EL: Anatomy of a scene: What was the most difficult sequence to film during production?
SN: The ECT sequence. It was a huge challenge for all of us to get that exactly right.

EL: What are you hoping that future audiences will take away from this film?
SN: What any director hopes, of course: a meaningful experience, the gratification of not having wasted their time and money. But beyond that, all I can say is that if even only one person walks away from the film with a new understanding of what may be happening to them or someone they know, inspired to make a change in her or his life, or the life of a loved one, to seek help, find hope, put up a fight and keep going, then it was all worth it.

EL: After what might have been an emotionally taxing drama – are you looking to go back to return lighter fare such as Mostly Martha?
SN: Yes, something more along the lines of Mostly Martha is what I have in mind. I’m also developing an adaptation of a beautiful little French novella, which is bittersweet and funny, but also quite heartbreaking.

Sandra Nettelbeck‘s Helen recieves it world premiere at the 25 edition of Sundance Film Festival on Friday, January 16 at 8:45 p.m. at Library Center Theatre.

Here are the other screenings:..
Saturday, January 17 at 9:30 p.m. at Rose Wagner Performance Center, SLC
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

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist and critic at (founded in 2000). Eric is a regular at Sundance, Cannes and TIFF. He has a BFA in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013 he served as a Narrative Competition Jury Member at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson's This Teacher (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022 he served as a New Flesh Comp for Best First Feature at the 2022 Fantasia Intl. Film Festival. Current top films for 2022 include Tár (Todd Field), All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen), Aftersun (Charlotte Wells).

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