A Filmmaker Makes a Movie with an Unexpected Ingredient
image by Elizabeth R. Mealey
Depression is not known for being a great creativity booster. In my experience, it is more like one of the little Pac-Man antagonists – zooming around, gobbling up all creativity that dares to cross its path. That’s a more or less scientific explanation of how we end up with creative block.
And yet, sometimes depression can turn around and surprise us. At some point in the midst of my own eleven-year depression, I took the feelings of depression – of emptiness, of fog, of profound incompetence and confusion – and channeled them into a movie. The movie was called – what else? – Creative Block. It’s the story of a young artist, suffering from depression, who takes an object and makes something beautiful from it. The object? A literal block. It seemed only appropriate.
Some people’s depression is caused by utterly nothing – it’s purely biochemical. Others suffer a deeply traumatic or saddening event that upends who they are. I’m fully aware I’m lucky; the latter never happened to me. My own precipitating event was minor: at 17 years old, I didn’t get into drama school, after practicing and hoping and planning on it since the age of 12.
The event was unimportant but the effects were profound. I shut down creatively, yet at a pace so gradual I didn’t even realize it until it had happened. I quit writing, something I used to do every day. My flow of ideas slowed, then stopped. I felt as if I had lost my center, so strongly had I identified with going through conservatory training as the entryway to a career in theatre and film.
Fast forward to several years of depression later. I had slogged my way through several creative projects that were murderously hard to get through under depression’s yoke, but which nonetheless I believed in: a musical, a puppet play, a very funny webseries. Still I was working at a much slower pace than before, and each project was surrounded on each side by seemingly interminable bouts of greyness.
Then, from somewhere in the fog, came Creative Block – a film bursting with bright colors, strong feelings and intense music. Where it came from, I don’t know, but I think it must have generated from what I think of the underside of depression – the unconscious part that feels all the feelings you don’t want to acknowledge on the surface.
'Depression is a completely illogical condition; it is our own mind acting in our own worst interest. The trick is how to reverse it..'
Next thing I knew, these feelings shaped themselves windingly into a story. They found their way first onto paper, then onto the screen. In between, I found actors, a camera crew, a musician, and the post-production technicians who would bring the film’s sound and color to life. And in the end, I was struck by two things: how proud I was of the film, and how it would never have come to life if not for depression, if not for the time I had spent in its stifling grey company. The very thing that so reliably snuffs out creativity had taken me by surprise – and stimulated it.
Creative Block (which I can’t currently link to here, as it’s in film competitions) tells the story of Claire, a young puppeteer in New York whose creative fire is extinguished one day for no particular reason. And to me, that’s the most peculiar thing about depression – it doesn’t need a reason. As depressive people – as people who are being constantly lied to by a neurochemical perversion – we confuse ourselves into believing we must feel this way for some logical reason. In fact, we don’t. Depression is a completely illogical condition; it is our own mind acting in our own worst interest. The trick is how to reverse it – not that I’ve ever found the answer. I’m still searching. But occasionally I experience a breakthrough, and my movie was a singular one.
In the movie, when Claire becomes depressed, the color fades from her world, turning to black and white. For me, that was the closest I could get to showing how depression feels – as if the color is sucked from your world. Every time I watch the film, even though obviously I know how it will end, I want to know when the color will come back to her world – and how.
When (spoiler?) the color does return to Claire’s world, it’s reignited by the art of someone else. In this case, it’s Thibaut, a figure skater she admires. When she watches him perform on TV, his creative energy reignites her, makes her recall who she still is beneath the “fog.” Claire is so compelled by him that she goes across the ocean, to France, to meet her hero. Only – guess what? – it turns out he’s suffering from creative block and depression, too.
Why do depression and creativity so often go together? No one can really say. Neurochemistry doesn’t provide a clear answer, though there’s an interesting argument that creativity leads to deep ruminating thoughts, which are themselves what bring on depression. In any case, the creativity-depression link was palpable in my own life – so overwhelmingly so, that I felt I had to crystallize it in a film, if I were to heal properly.
'There are times when your intelligence and creative aptitude will win out. Those are the moments you can catch depression off-guard..'
Was this a breakthrough for me? Well, honestly, it’s too early to say. I know that the film was enormously important to me, that it meant a great deal to me to put its component parts (feelings, words, sounds and colors) on paper and onscreen. Whether it marked a turning point in my weird little neuro-emotional journey is still unclear. But it may have. It was certainly a triumph for me, to take a set of feelings so battered and messed up by depression – and be able to tap into my creative energy to channel those feelings exactly the way I wanted. This ability is something I will never take for granted again.
So is it possible to sculpt something creative from depression? I absolutely say yes. Certainly, it won’t always behave the way you want it to, or else, you wouldn’t have it in the first place (whoever heard of anyone wanting depression?). But there are times when your intelligence and creative aptitude will win out. Those are the moments you can catch depression off-guard and do exactly what it doesn’t want you to do: make something that has meaning for you, using the very feelings caused by depression’s ugliness to generate beauty. Know it is possible – probable, even. In the meantime, know also that lighter feelings will come along, and above all know that you deserve them.
You can find out more about Creative Block and it's Release here