Whistler Film Festival
When: Dec. 4-8
Tickets and info:whistlerfilmfestival.com
“It was a perfect storm of reasons,” said Pegg over the phone from London recently.
“I get scripts from my agents that say ‘you may or may not like this.’ But this one said ‘read this’.”
Then, something else caught the English actor/writer’s eye.
“I noticed it was directed by Katharine (Katharine O’Brien who also wrote the screenplay). I hadn’t, until that point, been directed in a feature film by a woman, which felt remiss to me and indicative of the way the film industry is. So I was very happy when I read it and really responded to it,” said Pegg. “I thought it was a really moving and interesting story.”
The moviemaking experience worked out well, and Pegg felt right at home working on O’Brien’s production.
“I live in a matriarchy. Everyone in my house is female, even the animals,” said Pegg, whose long list of film credits includes comedy Shaun of the Dead and a handful of titles in the Mission Impossible and Star Wars franchises.
The Lost Transmissions story revolves around Theo (Pegg) and Hannah (Juno Temple) as Hannah tries to help the schizophrenic Theo during a psychotic break.
Off his meds, the manic Theo races through an uneasy and sepia-toned Los Angeles with Hannah and other friends hot on his heels trying to get him to help.
Theo’s story is based on a friend of O’Brien’s who she and other close pals helped to get back to his home in England where he could get health care and treatment.
“It was a success story. I finally learned something this go around and I thought it was worth turning into a film,” said O’Brien, who has had others close to her with mental health issues.
The film will be opening this year’s Whistler Film Festival on Dec. 4 in its Canadian debut.
The festival, now in its 19th year, has 43 features and 43 shorts from 15 countries on 2019 program. The festival will also host various special events and industry conferences and meetups.
O’Brien and Pegg will both be at the festival and will be on hand for a Q&A after the screening.
“One of the most rewarding things about festivals is to connect to the audience after a screening,” said O’Brien over the phone from Los Angeles.
“So much gets built up around the red carpets and all the things that go around with it, and you know at the end of the day all that stuff is so fleeting and not really real ,and it is way more rewarding to talk to people that come up and say they have a brother, a wife with schizophrenia and talk about how much the film meant to them. That’s been great.”
O’Brien is one of 13 female feature film directors at the festival. She is also in the class of 11 first-time feature directors showing work at Whistler.
“I think I had built up enough experience that it just felt like it was time,” said O’Brien, who has made many award-winning short films.
“It is one of those things that, I think, as a woman you have to do so much more in order to prove to people that you are ready, so I felt when my time had come I definitely gained the experience and I felt prepared to do it.”
Pegg, who has what the internet calls the holy trinity of sci-fi under his belt with his roles in the Dr. Who TV series and the Star Trek and Star Wars films, said O’Brien had the 19-day shoot totally under control and looking back at the experience he is grateful the role gave him a chance to flex a creative muscles he doesn’t often get to use.
“I was flattered and surprised that Katharine sent me the script because people don’t tend to associate me with dramatic roles,” said Pegg.
“I was touched because I really love doing dramatic roles. I wanted to be an actor I didn’t want to be a comedian.”
O’Brien, though, did not want Pegg to play Theo completely straight. The character is a charming bon vivant music producer until his illness takes over.
“He was written to be a certain way — extremely likable. He does so much pushing people away from him in the film that I knew I really knew I needed someone you were really rooting for the whole time,” said O’Brien.
“That’s why Simon came to mind. It made sense to look for a comedic actor that could walk the line between something very serious that had these comedic accents, and Simon is so adept at doing that.”
While there is humour lurking in the corners of this movie, the heft of the narrative is the dire situation of this illness and the lack of help within the stalled American medical system.
“There is not universal health care, and if you’re mentally ill you are not going to be able to pay for your own health care,” said O’Brien reflecting on the experience of helping her friend.
“There is just no safety net. Also the laws that are in place are outdated. The periods of observation are minimal, and it’s just allowing a lot of people to just fall out onto the streets.”
O’Brien said the people at the L.A. Mission in downtown Los Angeles told her they estimate 70-80 per cent of the people they see are mentally ill.
Pegg, as well, sees the direct relationship between mental illness and homelessness.
“I have been in L.A. over the years, and Vancouver as well, and noted it there. The homeless problem and the mental health problem together form a really critical part of each city’s social well-being,” said Pegg, who was well versed in the issue of the historical closing of mental health facilities in Vancouver as a component to the homeless crisis.
Over a handful of hectic days you see in this film how precarious life is for someone who is mentally ill. Theo at first has it all going on, but soon the cracks appear as the medications wear off. In turn regular daily activities go out the window as psychosis creeps in.
“Three bad days,” said Pegg with a sigh.
“It’s very tempting when you are walking down the street and you see someone on the corner just yelling at the sky as being insane. (But) insanity as it is, which is a sort of broad slightly reductive term, is the easiest way to marginalize anybody.
“We do it all the time. You hear it all the time in politics and in art. People are branded as crazy then they’re disqualified as human beings. But that person who is shouting might three days ago have been a perfectly functioning, well put together functioning member of society who just so happened could not afford their medication, or have been evicted from their apartment then just suddenly they’re there and yet we just drive past them and think ‘ahhh they’re just mad.’”
Pegg, who has suffered from depression, did his research to prepare for the role of Theo. He talked with patients, their caregivers and even the man the story is based on, who Pegg reports is on his medication and doing well.
His work has paid off as his Theo is a complex character that one minute is charming and lovely then the next manipulative and scary. Your heart breaks when you see him descending, and it is stomped on even further when you see what awaits the mentally ill in America. This is not an easy film, and that’s good because no one needs that old brilliant but mad artist trope.
For this film and his impressive and varied career Pegg will be honoured at this year’s WFF with a Maverick Award.
“They know how to tempt actors,” said Pegg with a laugh.
“They didn’t need to do that; I would have happily packed my snowboard and gone. I’m a bit of an avid winter sportsperson so to get to go to Whistler is always a treat.”