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SFIFF58: Shira Piven on Mental Illness in ‘Welcome to Me’

Kristen Wiig continues to flex her dramatic chops in her latest starring vehicle Welcome to Me, in which she plays Alice, a woman with borderline personality disorder who wins the lottery and becomes a multi-millionaire overnight. With the means and opportunity to finally break from her carefully regimented lifestyle, consisting of medication, therapy and endless episodes of Oprah, Alice funnels her winnings into transforming into the next big talk show host.

Photo by Suzanne Hanover, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Photo by Suzanne Hanover, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

The film’s director, Shira Piven, was on hand at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival to discuss the dramedy’s themes and the process of making it. Originally conceived as a pilot by writer Eliot Laurence, the initial script piqued Piven’s interest so much that she implored him to re-work it as a screenplay. The result is a light-hearted film that balances a touchy subject with fine-tuned performances.

“There are two things that come to mind,” says Piven when asked about the challenges of portraying mental illness on screen.

“It’s important to separate the person and the diagnosis, and to be really respectful…I felt strongly – and Kristen [Wiig] did too – that we really want to laugh because the situation is absurd.”

It requires a fine balance to orchestrate a performance that gets the audience to laugh with a character and not at them, but together Piven and Wiig achieve just that, with the result being that Alice is more Forrest Gump than, say, Mad TV caricature.

“It was important for me to cast someone with a basic comic center,” continues Piven.

“But [Wiig] also has a very vulnerable side, a fragile side…She goes to places in this movie that she’s never gone before, and she did it so honestly and beautifully.”

The director is not the only one singing Wiig’s praise for her role in the film – already other critics are calling it her best work yet. (Although this writer would counter that with last year’s The Skeleton Twins). With that said, the supporting cast delivers just as much as the leading lady. Welcome to Me also features Tim Robbins as Alice’s doctor, Joan Cusack as a cantankerous TV producer, and Wes Bentley and James Marsden as the studio managing brothers. Despite the film’s 25-day shoot, Piven confirms that there was a lot of improvisation.

“We didn’t do whole new set-ups for improvisation but we used the set-ups we were in and had them riff within it,” she says.

“I would throw lines or ideas out for an alternate moment. Eliot would sometimes re-write speeches and hand them to Kristen.”

This level of creative freedom led to some of the film’s most memorable moments, including a therapy session where Dr. Moffat (Robbins) implores Alice to stop snacking until their time is up after she spills almonds all over the floor. She agrees, but then pulls out a banana.

“It’s a banana,” says Alice, mouth full, to her dumbfounded doctor.

“It has its own container.”

Other scenes were not as seamless, such as when Alice, who was trained as a veterinary assistant, decides to neuter dogs on the air despite the producer’s protestations.

“We had a lot of meetings about dog neutering,” laughs Piven, and in the end they opted not to rely on stock footage.

“We got these [amazing] props, and Kristen had these delicate hands – she really did the surgery! And we had some taxidermy dogs that look like they’re sleeping. The dog wrangler even got [Alice’s dog] to go play dead and it looked like he was anesthetized on the table.”

As ludicrous as some of Alice’s segments on the show seem, one only needs to look to the Internet to realize just how much appeal the absurd has to the public. During pre-production, Piven and her team did research by watching YouTube videos, which made it clear that anyone can achieve a certain level of fame and notoriety simply be recording themselves doing, well, pretty much anything.

Unsurprisingly, the on-air neutering does not go over well, and the fallout becomes a new challenge for Alice. But it’s telling that, in the film’s final scene, she receives a camcorder from boyfriend Gabe (Bentley), turns off the television for the first time and years, and starts recording herself. Piven was mum about what she believes happens to the protagonist after the final shot, preferring to leave it open to interpretation, but didn’t rule out the possibility of Alice taking her show online.

Photo by Suzanne Hanover, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Photo by Suzanne Hanover, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Yet beneath the quirks and the humor, Welcome to Me has a tangible fairytale aspect that makes it surprisingly relatable.

“I think of Alice as someone who fantasizes about what she’s going to do when her ship comes in,” says Piven.

“And then [she wins the lottery] and she just goes for it…She goes whole-hog for what she wants to do.”

It’s the type of freedom that many dream of, where they suddenly are in a position to leave a crappy office job or stop worrying about making the rent. Yet, in Alice’s case, the money is also a curse, for buying the things that she wants does not necessarily lead to happiness. The trajectory of her character is coming full circle; in other words rediscovering who she is once her fifteen minutes of fame are up, and that includes coming to terms with her illness.

“I think it’s important that we become more and more open about mental illness – that it’s not stigmatized,” says Piven.

“And that we can talk more openly about it and give people a chance to get treatment.”

Welcome to Me is out in limited release today.

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