Exclusive Interview: Elizabeth Blue Writer/Director Vincent Sabella

As soon as I saw Elizabeth Blue I knew I’d have a lot to talk about with Vincent Sabella. Sabella makes his feature film debut writing and directing the story of Elizabeth (Anna Schafer), a schizophrenic woman released from an institution planning her wedding.

Sabella has a history with schizophrenia and experiences the sort of vivid hallucinations Elizabeth does. His firsthand understanding comes through in the film, so we got personal talking about bringing Elizabeth Blue to life. Elizabeth Blue is now playing in theaters.

WLE: What was the book you gave Anna to read?

Vincent Sabella: It was called Surviving Schizophrenia and it’s actually a manual for families, consumers and providers. It’s by E. Fuller Torrey MD. It’s a huge book. It’s basically dictionary sized. My husband had bought it for me after we’d had this very horrific year in 2010. I started reading about it because I really wanted to understand my illness. So he bought me this book, I read the entire thing and I got a real insight into my own illness based on this book and it was fantastic. When the time came, I was like, “Anna, I know it looks like a dictionary, but I would love for you maybe to read a couple of pages here and there, a chapter a night if you can.” She read the whole book. It gave her a lot of insight.

WLE: What made you decide to tell a story of a woman’s experience with schizophrenia?

Vincent Sabella: I have to backtrack a little to answer that question. Basically, the script had been lying around for about five years. My husband’s company had purchased it. They knew there was something in it that was special but they couldn’t figure out what it was and it just laid around. I remember when they first got the script, I saw it on my husband’s desk and asked, “Joseph, what is this?” He said, “It’s a script my company just bought. It’s not very good.” I read about 40 pages and I couldn’t read anymore. It was an over the top rom-com. It basically mocked schizophrenia and just didn’t put mental illness in a very good light at all. What I did was I just put it out of my head. Five years later, it was lying around on his desk again and I was like, “Joseph, what’s going on with this project?” He goes, “Absolutely nothing.” I said, “Do you think I could read the whole thing again, try to anyway, and do a page one rewrite on this?” He was like, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Let me just write it and then you read it.”

I forced myself to get through the entire script and I started a page one rewrite that I finished within a month and gave it to Joe. He was like, “This is fantastic.” In writing it though, I knew what it had to be. I knew it had to be a very personal story so I was like what story is more personal than my own story? So I drew from this very difficult year in 2010 when all my medications hit a plateau. They basically all failed. So Joe that year in 2010 took a year off of work, moved his offices home and basically went with me to the psychiatrist every day, Dr. Bowman. Between he and Dr. Bowman, they got me on the right regimen of medication. It took about 11 months to a year to get me back to life again and not having hallucinations every day.

When I began to write the script, I was like, “I can write this as myself but I want this to be a story about mental illness. I want it to be a love story. I don’t want anything to distract you from the fact that it’s about mental illness. I felt if I was going to do it as a guy or a guy and a girl who played opposite ways, if Grant had been the one with schizophrenia and Elizabeth had been the one consoling him, I didn’t think it would be so impactful. And also I didn’t want to do it as a gay love story because I wanted to reach a broader audience. I wanted to show everybody mental illness is universal. Not that that couldn’t have been said using gay characters, but to be honest, my husband is a producer so I tend to think in terms of what’s marketable, what will people want to go see? The audience for specific kind of genre movies is difficult and this is already difficult because it does deal with mental illness and it is a drama.

That’s why I was very hellbent on it being a straight couple and Elizabeth being a girl because she would be more vulnerable.

WLE: Was Alfred D. Huffington the writer of the first script?

Vincent Sabella: Alfred D. Huffington is the writer of the first script. Actually, that writer took their name off the script and the film because they were not happy with it. That’s basically a pseudonym. They want nothing to do with this. It kind of saddens me because this would not exist without that writer’s original story. I took two story points from the script. I took the fact that she was a young girl planning her wedding and she was suffering from mental illness. I also took the name Elizabeth Blue which I gave an entirely different meaning to.

If that was me in the situation, I would be ecstatic and thrilled that I had something to do with this. I almost feel like this writer cut of their nose to spite their face. Now unfortunately all these amazing things are happening and they’re not a part of it. I feel like it goes into a little bit of entitlement. It’s kind of disheartening to me.

WLE: Anna captured not only the physical symptoms but conveyed what it must feel like to live through this. How did you work with her to get there?

Vincent  Sabella: First of all, I work very closely with my actors months and months and months leading up to principal photography. We just talk and talk and talk. I was like, “Listen, I need you to trust me and I have to trust you. That’s the only way this is going to work, so we need to be completely honest with each other. I need to ask you personal questions. I need you to ask me whatever you want to know about me. I’m an open book. That’s how we’re going to communicate for the next five months.”

And that’s what we did. We met three to four times a week. We were on the phone almost every day. Anything she wanted to know, anything I thought of, if I woke up in the middle of the night and I thought of something, I sent her an e-mail. We worked very closely and I was able to tell her what it feels like. My husband Joe, dealing with me, was able to tell her what it looked like. She had the advantages of both sides. I really broke her down and just dug in. I was like, “Listen, I need to know what your weaknesses are. What are your insecurities? Show me a few of your insecurities. I’m going to ask you can I use your daughter?” She hesitated for a moment and said absolutely. I was like, “Good answer, because I was going to do it anyway” because I knew that I needed to tap into things that she loved beyond anything in the world. I know her daughter is just her world to her.

All the preparation we put in before this, she was so well prepared. She was so committed. Her commitment level, I can’t even put into words. I would work with Anna 100 times over. There’s something so damaged and layered and brilliant about her that she just tapped into so many different things.

WLE: How do the hallucinations manifest for you? Is it like A Beautiful Mind where they can fool you into thinking they’re real?

Vincent Sabella: I have a very specific type of schizophrenia. I can hear, I can see, I can feel them, they can touch me. My hallucinations are very manipulative. I do believe that sometimes they are real. If you go back to the first Dr. Bowman scene in the film when Elizabeth says, “I got into an argument with a fireman in the supermarket that actually wasn’t there,” that really happened to me. There’s times where I have come home and I was like, “Joseph, I want you to meet my new friend, Sal.” I’ll come up the steps and he’s like, “No one’s here.” When he says that, it snaps into my head.

I have been dealing with this for so long that I think I’m at an advantage, that I know when Joe tells me there’s nothing there, I’m like, “Okay, let me take some medication. Let me calm down and everything will subside.” I definitely can be tricked. It’s frightening but I think I’ve got a better manage on it in the years because I’m starting to know when it is real and it isn’t real. I still get those moments where I don’t know the difference.

WLE: I never knew it could trigger your sense of touch, so there’s nothing you could go on to ground your reality.

Vincent Sabella: Yes. When that happens, that’s very frightening. One night I got up in the middle of the night to brush my teeth. My hallucination, Tim, was standing behind me. I could feel his breath on the back of my neck. It’s such an insane feeling, and I don’t mean insane in a negative way. I’m just saying unless you’re able to experience it, you don’t know how it feels other than it feels real. It’s so real. You get those moments and you’re just like, “All right, I just need to calm down.”

I try not to feed into the hallucinations anymore. One of the things is, if you carry on a conversation with them, the episode will get worse and worse and worse. You don’t want that to happen. I’m kind of trained now how to handle it but that’s not to say that, and it hasn’t happened in a long time, but there are situations where I completely go into a full on schizophrenic episode.

WLE: Anna said it happened once on set where you heard a noise that wasn’t real. Could it happen while we’re talking?

Vincent Sabella: Oh, absolutely. There’s no rhyme or reason to when it happens. It could basically happen now. It could happen while I’m driving. It could happen in a store. It could happen anywhere. I think the episode she’s referring to was when we were doing chemistry reads actually. We weren’t on set and I started to hear something. Everybody’s telling me it’s the water cooler. I’m like, “No, it’s not. No, it’s not.” My anxiety level just started to build and I just started to slowly start walking around the room. Then my walk became a quicker pace. The quicker pace became a run and I started running around.

Anna, in reading the script, was having a very difficult time understanding the train scene. I said, “Don’t worry about it. Let’s get on set and I think it’s something that’s going to have to develop organically. I’m going to talk to you as much as I can about it with you. I’m going to prepare you as well as I can. I promise, I will get you there no matter what.” When I had this episode, she knew exactly what it was going to look like. It was kind of a little blessing in disguise that that happened. I watch that scene to this day and I lose my breath. She’s so incredible in that moment. I can’t say enough about her in that moment. It’s surreal to me. As a filmmaker, I cannot want a better performance from your leading lady. She was just brilliant.

WLE: The soundtrack has everything from “At Last” to Darlene Love to The Muppets. How did you choose the music?

Vincent Sabella: When I began writing the script, I always incorporate music into what I’m writing. I wrote the script and all those songs were written directly into the script. What I wanted to do though is I wanted music that played against the scene. It played against what was going on. After the train scene and he slaps her, “Today I Met The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” begins to play. Etta James, “At Last,” she finally found the love of her life but suddenly no longer. The Muppet song was a song I remembered as a kid. I was like, “I can incorporate this somehow.” When she’s writing in her journals, she’s writing all the little notes. Somebody get the flowers, somebody get a ring. I was like, “It’s the perfect way to close out the film.”

Coincidentally, we are the only film to ever ask for the rights from that song from that movie. That’s honestly pretty cool to me that we’re the only film to ever ask for the rights to the Muppet song.

WLE: Funnily enough, my sister played The Muppets’ “Somebody’s Getting Married” as her wedding march.

Vincent Sabella: Oh wow, that’s fantastic. I wanted it to be a little eerie and I wanted to bring the whole story together with everything she was writing. It all worked out seamlessly. The fact that we got every single song that I wanted is just another blessing.

WLE: The cinematography does so much with still and empty spaces. How did you work with your DP on that?

Vincent Sabella: My cinematographer, Joel Marsh, he’s just amazingly brilliant. When all this was coming into play and were putting together the team, I was getting a whole bunch of really awesome people and a lot of big cinematographers wanted to meet me. Antonio Calvache who did In the Bedroom. I had a couple meetings with cinematographers who were interested in the project that were being sent over.

Joe actually had produced this movie called Patient Seven. I knew I wanted the film handheld and steadicam the whole time. I was like, “I want very few things shot on sticks. This needs to be handheld and steadicam because I need it to feel like something’s always watching her. Something’s always lingering. Something’s always following.” The camera needed to be its own character.

So I got Joel Marsh’s reel and I seriously must’ve watched his reel about 10 times. I was like, “This is incredible.” He came from a recommendation from one of Joe’s movies he just shot steadicam for one day. Met with Joel. I brought him a book I created of shots that I love from other films, coloring and we went through the book together. He was like, “Wow, you put this together?” I was like, “You have no idea. I’ve seen this movie straight through. I have a complete vision so this is what I’m looking for and can you do this?” He knew so much about cameras and what to use and what we should go for and his interpretation. He was absolutely fantastic.

I told him I wanted a lot of one takes and a lot of long shots and I want him to hold a very long time. I wanted it to feel uncomfortable in moments but not uncomfortable to the point where you had to look away. I wanted it to be more that you were uncomfortable but you felt sorrow that you were watching this girl suffer so much. Joel came on and he gave me everything I wanted that I can’t even explain to you. We had such a great working relationship, he knew what I wanted. Every day, we would have a two minute talk before we started shooting and basically I didn’t have to really talk to Joel the rest of the day because we had such a clear shot list. We both shared the same exact vision of how this film should look. It was effortless.

Joel fought me on one thing, one thing the whole shoot. It wound up not even making it into the movie. For a 10 minute argument compared to the entire shoot, I would work with Joel over and over again. He is a cinematographer people should definitely look out for.

WLE: What was the argument?

Vincent Sabella: We had originally shot this little scene and we were happy with it, but I was watching dailies on the weekend. I went back to him and said, “I want to reshoot this just on a plain background.” He put up a real fight for it but I understood he wasn’t fighting with me just to fight with me. He was fighting me because he really believed in what we originally agreed on. It didn’t wind up making it into the film anyway.

WLE: What was it that happened in 2010 that aggravated your symptoms?

Vincent Sabella: Basically, it was just my medications hit a plateau. Everything just stopped working. It started very slow. Joe started to notice a change in me. I started to feel very different. I was very short-tempered. I was having minor hallucinations and I wasn’t saying anything because I thought they would pass. One day it was full blown hallucinations all day long. It was basically due to the fact that all my medications hit a plateau. It was up to Joe and the real Dr. Bowman to come up with a regimen. We tried so many medications in that year. My body reacts very quickly to medications so if they’re not working, we know right away. When we finally got the right medication, it was like a light switch and there I am, I’m taking all these new medications and they seriously kick in within a day or two. I’m totally fine and then my husband Joe is all frazzled. I’m in a great happy mood but he’s not himself.

He’s like, “Vin, listen to me. It’s been a very difficult year. I’ve been taking care of you for the entire year. You’ve got to just cut me some slack. I’ll come back but it was traumatizing to watch you. I love you so much, to watch you in such pain and horrific circumstances, to not be sleeping because I’m worried you’re going to be running down the street, it was a very difficult year. I’m so happy you’re feeling better and I’m so happy we got you on the right medication but you just need to give me some time to heal.”

I did and it took him a couple of months that he finally bounced back. It was about a month and a half and life continued. Life never stopped no matter what and through it all, we laughed every single second. Every single second. That’s why in Elizabeth Blue we showed she’s depressed but she can smile and she has moments of laughter. She has moments that she reflects on things. It was very important to show that a person with mental illness can have all these feelings and have all of these different emotions going on at the same time. It was just very important to me to tell the story honest and truthful. I think I accomplished it.

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