Jason Bee created (wrote, directed, starred in and produced) the movie Donovan. It’s about a recently divorced advertising director tries to be a good father to his young son while being torn apart by his own bipolar disorder.
Jason Bee: Before we get started, I want to thank you, Andy, for taking the time to chat with me. This is a very special interview to me, I’ve been a fan of yours for years. When I first started working on the screenplay, I was looking for advocates of bipolar disorder that might be interested in this story. I came across you and the work you’ve done with “Electroboy,” and I remember getting into the material and thinking, “Wow, this guy would get it. In fact, he’s lived it.” Now years later, getting to do a sit-down with you is really cool and I’m very appreciative of you not only watching the film, but in fact, getting it like I hoped you would. Thank you.
Andy Behrman: First, and I think a question all viewers will have after they see the film: “Are you Donovan?”
Jason: Yes and no…haha. The experiences Donovan goes through, the turmoil, the isolation, the story itself, the desire to be a better man for his son, it all comes from what I’ve lived through. However, I changed some of the names, combined the ideas of some characters, and altered some of the scenarios. For me it was necessary to make Donovan himself more relatable to others. People don’t know, nor do they care who I am—but with a character they can relate to and see themselves in, there’s a better power for the message of hope I’m trying to convey. So the character of Donovan is based on my own experiences, but he has also become something much more than I in terms of the positivity in the message that he can put out there.
Andy: How much of your real life story is portrayed in “Donovan?”
Jason: Haha…second one in and you go for “the scary.” This is where it gets a little uncomfortable for me because while I’m pretty open around the whole bipolar diagnosis one-on-one, it gets a harder knowing there’s a wider audience just beyond our conversation together. It’s the fear of the unknown, the stigma itself at work, and it’s scary—but it’s also what we signed up for, right? I’m still getting used to it. It’s still new and weird for me. Do you remember the first time, beyond “Electroboy,” that you stood in a public audience and said, “Hey…I’m mentally ill!”?
When my oldest son was three, his mother and I got a divorce. Our relationship broke up partially from my mental illness and party from other factors—no one was innocent, but neither was vindictive either. I was in the advertising industry, and while I never “denied” my diagnosis, I didn’t take it seriously until shortly after she and I divorced and I nearly destroyed everything about myself, including me. In those moments, I realized that in order to be a better dad for my son, I needed to take my condition seriously. So when you read the synopsis, “a recently divorced advertising director tries to be a good father to his young son while being torn apart by his own bipolar disorder,” that statement was absolutely me in that time. As far as the other characters go, they’re mostly made up, or compilations of people I know/knew built into one or more of the characters in a way that’s relatable. Everyone has been with a “Jessica.” Everyone knows a “Steve.” Not everyone gets to know a “Dr. Cray,” who IS based on my real-life psychiatrist. The man is amazing and has helped me in ways beyond his pay-scale, but, as many of us know, finding a good doctor is half the battle. I didn’t start with him, but once I found him, I knew I’d be sticking with him until that dude retires—which I hope isn’t anytime soon.
Andy: Do you think the character of Donovan is a typical patient with bipolar disorder?
Jason: There’s the key, right? Are any of us the “typical” patient with bipolar disorder? That’s the thing with this disease, as it is with the medication we take for it—there is no “one size fits all.” I think globally, yes, Donovan fits within the parameters of what “we” call a patient of bipolar disorder. The highs and lows, the sudden changes, the compulsivity within it all. Once you get into the details, we’re all very different. We can share global attributes, yet very different details—and still labeled the same.
I think the medical treatment speaks to that as well. The medication that works for me, may very well not work for you. In fact, it could have a very opposing reaction. Yet when the treatment geared towards bipolar works for you, and the treatment that is very different for me also works, here we are in the same boat. I think that speaks loudly to the dichotomy of understanding about this disease, as well as the stigma. It’s very mysterious and misunderstood. Here we work on it, yet don’t quite fully understand it. And that’s something that is incredibly hard to convey in a film, or have others without the condition, understand within the context of a story.
Andy: Does it surprise you that Donovan is almost fully functional at his job?
Jason: There’s a phrase that Brian Cuban put out to the “Twitter-verse” that sums it up perfectly, “‘high functioning’ is NOT the same as ‘high performing.’” While he was talking about this from the perspective of drug addiction within the legal industry, I think the quote holds true where we speak of being functional and mentally ill. I don’t know if this has been your experience, but in every job I’ve held where my mania was in control, I could outperform most others on the team. And even if I wasn’t the most creative (I was a designer throughout my career), I was the most driven. I would show up to work at 5 in the morning because I couldn’t sleep and get more accomplished than my counterparts. Or, my brain would be on overdrive and I would, in fact, come up with some brilliant creative solutions.
I remember being the “go to” guy for client pitches because my enthusiasm was so infectious that clients felt as if I was reading their minds, delivering exactly what they wanted, and allow them to put their trust in our work just because of my exciting and extroverted presentations. I would have brought in sock puppets if I thought it would land an account. The mania side of what I had to offer my employers would momentarily overcompensate my lack of performance when I would slide into a depression. In those times, I would surf social media all day and get nothing done. Those days, I put a different mask on. I knew how to “go through the motions” just to make others think I was okay until I could grasp another round of mania and become “Superman” again. Usually it would work, sometimes I couldn’t quite keep up. I was always “functional,” but was I really adding value to the companies I worked for if my depression would kill any momentum made by the mania? That’s high functioning, but not really high performing. It all catches up, right? As we see in the film, employers get sick of our shit and that inconsistency, and at some point cut their losses.
Andy: Do you think that people with the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, or for that matter, any other mental illness, can be good parents and role models? (yes, yes, yes!) and at what point do you think mental illness can get in the way of parenting?
Jason: If I want to paint myself a victim to my own label, that is what interferes most with my ability to be a good parent. However, if I take accountability for my condition, and hold it in front of me on a daily basis—acknowledge it and know where I am with it—it can’t sneak up behind me and wreak havoc. That’s when I feel I can not only be a good parent, but I can be a more insightful and thoughtful parent to these kids that think the world of me…for now.
I say “for now,” because I always, every day, have to wake up and make that conscientious thought. Look, we’re “sick”, and that’s not going to go away. So the best thing we can do with that is to wake up every morning, check our feelings and where we are and adjust to our temperament for our kids. It’s not Gavin’s fault that I’m sick. It’s not Grayson’s fault that my moods change with the wind. So why would I blindly put that expectation on them to understand? Their response to my condition isn’t my control. However, my own response to my condition—as a parent, as a human being—is. I can communicate with them and try to help them find ways to adapt to whatever bullshit dad randomly comes out with. That way, they can not only NOT be victims to it, but allow them to grow into a better understanding of it. Hopefully neither of them have to deal with the hardships of finding a sense of balance from something like this, but if they do, I also hope the lessons I’m trying to teach them around it help them get to that balance quicker than I did.
Andy: Why did you put your life savings into making “Donovan?”
Jason: Because it’s worth it. I know DONOVAN is a gamble, people could have come away from this story with the feeling of “meh” and not thought much about it afterward. Or they might come away with the idea of hope and inspiration—as was the intent—and talk about it to family and friends afterwards. Never could I have imagined the reception we got at the premiere screening to be so strong and the stories of lives it has already touched been as personal as they are.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to do this on my own financially. I got really lucky to meet the two executive producers that came on board to take the quality of the film to the next level. Raymund C. King and David Visser saw what I was trying to do with this script and the idea of bringing some awareness and understanding around mental health without being clinical. When they saw I was already working toward it, making some progress on my own, and read the script, they were in.
So, while yes, my money has gone into this film, it could be much worse. haha…
Andy: How many years was the film “in the making?” how long did it take to shoot?
Did you see Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD? That took him like 20 years to shoot…but he did that on purpose. I joke around that DONOVAN is my own BOYHOOD because of how long it took to complete. The short answer is seven….seven years from inception to completion.
DONOVAN is a different kind of film. The good of that is, as far as I know, it’s the first of its kind. There are plenty other movies around mental illness, but none that I know with this kind of message behind it. The flip side is that it’s also an incredibly hard sell to people when you don’t have the film already done. It was very hard to convince investors early on about what I was doing with a film around mental health awareness and hope without it immediately sounding like a sterile infomercial. Once people read the script, they got it, but I don’t know if you know how hard it is to get people to sit down and read a script, especially investor-type people who barely have three minutes to themselves in a day, let alone time to read a script. So there was a huge challenge in the elevator pitch itself.
DONOVAN is also the first screenplay I’ve ever written. So early on, it was also a lot of “learning as I go” around how to write a screenplay. I bought books and devoured them as I wrote. I started writing this story in 2010 and it took a solid year to get it to a place that I was comfortable in sharing and doing table reads with others to further the rewrites and tweaking necessary to get it where it was ready to shoot. In 2012, I ran a Kickstarter campaign that failed miserably. After that, I ran an independent fundraiser through friends and family and raised enough money that I could put together a spec-trailer to give potential investors a better idea of what this film was about quickly, and more visually. That didn’t work out, so I ran another IndieGogo campaign with the spec-trailer and was able to raise enough to shoot the flashback and dream sequences (that didn’t rely heavily on age continuity, particularly with the younger characters). I cast my oldest son as a young Donovan in the flashback sequences. He had done some acting recently and I knew he could handle it. Actually, he impressed the hell out of me at how natural he is to acting. My youngest son I cast as Evan, Donovan’s son, having no clue what I was getting into, but it turned out, he did an amazing job as well. Both my boys blew me away with their abilities to bring these characters to life. And there’s just something super-special about getting to act in a film with your kids, I can’t even describe it. I hired a few acting friends to play Donovan’s mother and father in the flashbacks and shot those out, creating a short film “prequel.” I then shopped that to more potential investors. While I was shopping the prequel out, I still had some money left from the crowdfunding campaign, cast the rest of the roles and just started shooting with my friend Michael Crabtree as a sequence director to help get us started. The idea was “action begets action,” and that someone would see I’m going to make this film no matter what and want to come on board. That’s when I found Raymund and David who came on as Executive Producers and helped get us through the finish line. I think part of it was they saw I was a going to make this film somehow and they wanted to be a part of it. That was all through 2014 and 2015. I spent 2016 editing, coloring, creating the effects of the film and then brought Alin Bijan on, a very established filmmaker in the area, to finalize editing with me. He made me cut a lot of the fat in the timeline that I wasn’t able to see…the whole forest for the trees aspect had sunk in by then. By mid-2017, we finally had a film.
Andy: Do you think “Donovan” is accessible to a mainstream audience that may know nothing about bipolar disorder? and have you seen audience members who were not familiar with bipolar disorder walk out shocked by donovan and his actions?
I think DONOVAN is unique in that it holds a space for the mainstream movie goer on a “thriller” level that almost anyone into that type of genre can get into, but it can also be used as a tool or even resource as to what it’s truly like to live through bipolar disorder without getting into that “infomercial-land” I spoke of earlier.
So far, the coolest visual reaction from those, as far as I know, not afflicted with the condition has been through this video…
When I saw the reaction from those audience members, I seriously got teary-eyed. Mainly because I have no idea how close, if at all, they are to the condition and I knew that at the moment they gave those responses, I was still in the theater working my way out.
Outside of immediate reactions from the theater, I’m constantly getting messages from people that have seen the movie sharing a part of their own story with me. Either in how the movie impacted them, or related to them and their own journeys with mental illness, or just in being a person in general without necessarily having a label associated.
Andy: Has anyone ever compared “Donovan” to any other film that they’ve seen? Do you see any comparisons to any other film, but in content and/or tone?
Jason: In one of my previous lives, I was a musician, and no matter what kind of music or what song I would play, I was invariably compared to Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, Filter, and Marilyn Manson. The same is true in filmmaking. Nowadays, there really is no true original thought and execution, you can always find a similarity or an influence from the previous. In the case of DONOVAN, I’ve heard comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock, David Fincher, and Darren Aronofsky as directors—great company to be lumped into, right? God I wish I were that good.
From the film itself, I’ve heard comparisons to GOOD WILL HUNTING, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, BLACK SWAN, and FIGHT CLUB.
Andy: Do you see any similarity in tone to “American Beauty?”
Jason: I have not heard that one yet, but it’s a good one. AMERICAN BEAUTY was a great movie from its first-person perspective in telling the narrative. Unfortunately, now that film and several others seem to be tainted by the actions of their lead actor. The story itself is a great example of the tragedy of the “every man,” and what has led to his undoing—a bit of a parallelism there in real life, I suppose. The biggest difference between AMERICAN BEAUTY, the films I listed earlier, and DONOVAN, is that I wanted to take a character well on his way into that chaos and see what would happen if he were given the strength to pull himself out of a downward spiral. To me, it’s much easier to lay down and allow your demons to devour you than it is to stand up and change the essence of who you’ve allowed yourself to become.
Andy: What are your hopes for the film? (i.e. festivals, mainstream release, etc.)
My hope is that every single person on the planet rents the film at least once. haha… Seriously, I think this film is already working its way toward its own success. I see it in the messages I receive from those that have watched it. I got a message from a guy that told me, “the first ten minutes of your movie galvanized me to reach out for help.” Embarrassingly, I had to look up “galvanized” to make sure I was on the same page. All I could think about was Leonard Nimoy as Galvatron in the old-school TRANSFORMERS movie. I know, moment of a moron for me. ha! A psychiatrist who was in the initial Q&A at the premiere told me, “What you’ve done for professionals like myself is to take us beyond the walls of the patient. We only see patients when they want help. This helps me see them when they don’t.” Even you, a highly regarded advocate around this space of bipolar disorder, said the film explained much of the pain and shame you were hiding to this day around your own condition. The validation behind that statement from you alone blew me away.
Obviously, I’d like to pay back my investors and become something more to my family than the mooch I often feel I’ve become, but these messages I get, prove to me that DONOVAN holds its own success. That success is found in the stories beyond mine. This project became something so much more than “me,” it has become a story about so many others.
The night of the premiere had a sold out crowd of nearly 300 people. I had to come to terms, for myself, that the audience’s reaction was not in my control. They very well could think it’s not that good. I was a nervous wreck going in.
The movie played, the end credits started to roll, I noticed some people walking out during the credits, but I also noticed that no one had walked out previous to the credits, so I took that as a decent sign. I got up to participate in the Q&A session as the lights came up and walked to the front of the room. When I turned around to the audience, I was shocked to see the majority of people had stayed. I heard later that when people in the foyer found out we were doing a Q&A, most of those that had left CAME BACK IN! In our infinite wisdom, we (the executive producers and myself) completely forgot to tell anyone we were doing a Q&A after the film during our opening speeches.
For these types of Q&As, if you get around 30-40% of your audience to stick around, that’s a pretty good number to have. A staggering 90% of our audience eagerly remained for ours.
Usually, for a film Q&A, the typical questions revolve around the technicalities of the film—what was your budget, how long did you spend in principal photography, what was the hardest scene to shoot, etc. The first question I was asked was along those lines, I don’t even remember what it was, because the second question completely overshadowed it for me—“why did you choose this topic to write about?”
One-on-one, I’m pretty open about my diagnosis in talking about it with others. This was the first time I was asked in a room-full of people about it—my “coming out” if you will. I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “here we go…we’re apparently doing this,” and shared my story in how the topic chose me, not the other way around and a little of my journey to get there.
In that moment, the most beautiful thing happened—the Q&A was no longer about me or the film we had watched. This crowd of people, mostly strangers to each other, took turns standing up in this room and shared a bit of their own stories in how mental illness has affected their own lives. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in an independent film Q&A. That’s when I realized, film festival opinions aside, this movie was something special. It was beyond me, I just got to be the lucky one to tell it.
I didn’t have luck with the film festivals, but I think the experience from the film festival perspective and the reception by the audience mirrors my career in advertising. I was a good designer, never great, but I knew my clients and what they were looking for. I never won many awards within the industry, but I won a lot of clients, they were happy with my work.
DONOVAN isn’t the “perfect” movie, but the way in which it is touching the hearts of audiences, it is doing so perfectly. To me, that’s worth so much more than any laurel I could put on the poster from any film festival. Would distribution be easier if I had those laurels? Eh, maybe.
Andy: Do you think that “Donovan,” as a character, may freak people out and they may even go so far as to say, “people with bipolar disorder don’t do crazy shit like that?”
Jason: A few years before I took my condition seriously, I lost my childhood best friend. Not from death, or any kind of situational “break up,” other than I just became too much for he and his wife to deal with. I was off the rails. Looking back, he’s not the only one I lost through this. A therapist I once had told me, “Your disease destroys relationships,” and she was right. I have lost so many friends and family members because of what bipolar disorder has caused me to do in those times. My mother and I have a strained relationship, partially because of my bipolar disorder, partially from other factors. People are going to interpret Donovan and his actions according to what they know—what they’ve been exposed to. I reached out to a blogger who has a huge following and she openly talks about her own bouts with depression and anxiety. I thought this would be something good for her to see and maybe share if she found it worthy for her readers. She wrote me back and said, “Just wanted to tell you that I got your movie and started watching it and it was great except that I’m easily susceptible to stuff like that so I can’t finish it. It’s a bit of a trigger for me. But the part I saw looked fantastic. I’m so sorry. I suck.” So the other side of it is that they get freaked out because he’s TOO real. haha…
I have no control over the interpretation of this film for others. All I can do is write and play the role as authentic as I know how and hope others will find some understanding within themselves and their own journey, or someone they know that may have the condition that seemingly does “that crazy shit,” and maybe allow the start of forgiveness to set in.
Fortunately for me, I was given a chance to redeem myself to that friend I mentioned and today, he and his family are a great part of my, and my own family’s, life. I believe a big part of that redemption is in how I have taken accountability of my condition and how forgiving they can allow themselves to be. At the end of the day, neither he nor me are the “victim” type. So we work to have a healthy and productive relationship for ourselves and our families.
Andy: I felt “Donovan” was an extremely accurate portrayal of a bipolar person with mania, creativity and addictions. do you see any similarities to the character in “Electroboy?”
Jason: Oh absolutely. Especially in the “racing-thoughts” tone of your book when you start talking about seemingly random, yet overly integrated stuff. How you’ll go from the thought of how an art deal is going to go down, to what you want to eat in that moment, to how you’re going to screw over the buyer because he didn’t deserve a deal like the one you’re thinking about making. It’s all very familiar, yet as mentioned, the details being very different.
One of the scenes in DONOVAN that ultimately got cut was in showing how that laptop computer got destroyed. Donovan is sitting up late at night, drink in hand (as usual), and trying to work on this Evolve campaign. He starts dozing off and we hear his thoughts all over the place. Finally, the frustration sets in, he tries to hit the “undo” key on something he messes up, and completely loses it, smashing the computer with the butt-end of a floor-lamp sitting nearby. I felt that scene with its illustrations of those racing thoughts was very parallel to much of how you wrote within “Electroboy.”
That scene, by the way, actually happened. However, it was keyboard on my music workstation as I was working on a song, and I used a mic stand instead of a lamp. Completely destroyed the keyboard AND the entire desk. Not one of my finer moments.
I’m sure on the outside, it merely looks as if we’re throwing temper tantrums, but there’s something about that uncontrollable rage that extends well beyond a tantrum. The shit is scary as hell, ya know? In the end, the scene was cut because it slowed the pacing down too much. In the script, there was a lot more in terms of these voices running through Donovan’s head, but they didn’t quite work as well within the context of the movie. I found that using the voiceovers that had absolutely nothing to do with exposition sung a beautiful tone in the movie (about the superheroes), but the voiceovers that explained what was going on got tedious and boring—slowing down the film’s pace. I didn’t want to do that, I wanted this puppy to ride like a smooth roller coaster, so I had to make some really difficult cuts. Thankfully, Alin Bijan came in on the tail end of editing to do that with me. I thought I had the movie trimmed to a great 2 hours…he yanked another 20 minutes out of it, and as far as I’m concerned, while the cuts were really hard for me to make, I can’t thank him enough for convincing me to make them.
We talk a lot about what I’ve done with the film, and yes, it’s my project, my baby, I wrote, directed, produced, worked as a janitor—you name it, I had a hand in it. But I also had the most amazing crew of people behind me working their asses off to help get the quality out of this film that you see. I don’t know of any other project that was made like this one that looks and sounds as amazing as we were able to do with this one. The people that worked with me on this film were absolutely brilliant, patient, and kind to me, the newbie with the mental illness. 😉
I also want to mention my wife in this, primarily because she’s the half of me that kept me going even when I wanted to throw in the towel. There’s a story I like to tell about her involvement in this film. Throughout this process, I learned that making a movie is a lot like being bipolar itself. There are magical moments that happen when things connect and work that bring about a euphoria—the reason we beat ourselves to MAKE a film. There’s also the other side of it—there’s disappointment, there’s depression, there is heartbreak. There were moments of sheer exhilaration and highs that I felt when something worked or the good news of investors signing on came about. There were also nights that I was so beat down, I would be curled up in a sobbing mess of desperation on the floor in a corner of a room in our house, ready to quit. But every time I fell, got knocked down, or was that sobbing mess of uncontrollable sadness around the film, my wife Melynnie was right there by my side. She would say, “Don’t quit, you’ve come this far, what’s a little more?” And more importantly to me, every time I got back up, wiped away my tears, and stepped back into this obsessive mission—every time—Melynnie was still right there. She was my secret weapon in this undeniable force of getting this movie made. I think her ability to weather this ride with me speaks so loudly not only to who she is as a person, but who she is as my wife, and who we are as individuals within our relationship together.
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Photo credit: Donovan movie clip