Sometimes a movie just cuts you so deep to the core that you occasionally need a minute or two to let it sit with you.
At this past edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival, I saw that movie and it’s called God Knows Where I Am.
It’s a deeply intimate and troubling tale of mental illness as told through journal entries of Linda Bishop whose starved body was found in a New Hampshire farmhouse.
A shockingly poignant and emotional film that will resonate with me for quite some time and even through year in review retrospective at the end of 2016, this film sucks you and never lets you go thanks to some incredibly strong and innovative filmmaking.
During the festival, I got the unique pleasure of sitting down with filmmakers Todd and Jedd Wilder along with actress Lori Singer who provides us with the haunting readings of this voice beyond the grave about how they made this movie and why is it something that not only sticks with audiences long after it has played, but with the filmmakers themselves.
Dave Voigt: In many ways this film really did feel a lot more poignant then I expected it to be. How did you ultimately come across this story in order to make your film?
Todd Wider: We wanted to do something on the several mentally ill and homeless based on an experience that I had with a homeless man who had broken into my home and I got to know him a little bit. That was the initial inspiration but we then found and article in the New Yorker that delved into a story about Linda Bishop in a fairly interesting manner. While that piece was ultimately a little more focused on the debate around civil liberties, the mentally ill and where you draw the line with medication, institutionalization the whole nine yards. As we did a deep dive into Linda’s story and talked to her sister and we ended up doing a lot of talking head interviews on the issue at hand but as we really got into it all we realized that we really wanted to do more of an intimate view of her and what happened to her, in her life and the arc of her mental illness and madness. We felt that if we gave it more intimate look that it would be more poignant and resonate with audiences on an emotional level.
DV: This film really is the kind of story that could go into a more of a “cold case/procedural” kind of documentary, is that what inspired the narration throughout in order to bring out the more emotional aspects of the story?
TW: It’s funny that you say that, the cold case concept of storytelling we did play with a little bit at the beginning of the film. Is it a mystery? What has truly happened here? And actually the inspiration for the opening of the film was Kurosawa’s Rashomon, giving the audience different perspectives of death, making the audience ask who is she, how did she die, how did she get there and so on and so forth. Then the film unfolds that gives us multiple perspectives on her, we gets facets of her, but never the whole person. Then finally we get the diary, her own words but it is the words of a woman who is quite delusional and ill so we are never quite sure what facet even her own words bring to the table. It was presented in a way so that we could unfold it for the audience and suck them in to this story and down the rabbit hole with us.
DV: Lori, could you talk a little about how you became involved with this project because it certainly isn’t your A-typical voice over job?
Lori Singer: (Laughs) No it certainly isn’t. Well I knew of this story and I was intrigued by it because ever since I was young I have been very fascinated by a book that I had read called The Rights of Mental Patients by Bruce J Ennis and the fine line between people’s perceptions, between reality and what’s accepted and acceptable and what is both personally life threatening and how people can step into help you. I have always been drawn to that juxtaposition of your own reality versus everyone else’s reality and the rules that we have to live by in a civilized world. Plus this is obviously a very emotional story and the idea of bringing Linda Bishop back to life with her own words…I mean this is her own words and her side of what had actually happened to her, isolated in this farmhouse with only apples to eat. She saw the fork in the clouds, she saw a deer looking for her mother…in her own mind and she imbued everything as a symbol and to me that’s how it all made sense I stepped into her world and her belief, and then with these guys (Todd & Jed) being the outside world bringing in all of these experts it was just up to me to focus on her reality and I really felt a kindred spirit in her quest for freedom and her quest to not but told she was wrong all the time. In her expression for freedom, love and her great yearning for it all, and I really felt it. I enjoyed this process, and I felt for Linda and her entire family throughout this process.
TW: It was actually really interesting working with Lori because we really did feel like she gave an amazing performance, very moving and gut wrenching as she brings you into the piece and it was fascinating while we were directing her, she really began to assume the role. She went through this thing where she actually began to re-write parts of Linda’s diary to really gain an understanding for how Linda actually spoke. She studied how the pen hit the ink on the page, because we had the actual diaries and you could tell in some passages how it hit the page with real force and other times it was very light only barely touching the paper, plus her use of punctuation and the amount of words she would use so we could tell really how she was talking to herself. It changes too, and her reading is so multi-layered because it runs the gamut of every emotion you could possibly imagine, and there is just a lot of stuff in Lori’s performance. It so fascinating because Joan, Linda’s sister who had never met Lori or been around our process working with her, when she got to see the final film her comment was how blown away she was on how Lori matched the intonation of how Linda actually spoke…and none of us had ever heard her voice because we didn’t want it to be any kind of mimicry and we wanted to go into it cold. To hear that Lori nailed it and how she spoke was really wild and the whole movie itself was a pretty transformative experience. We shot everything in that farmhouse and everything that we show the audience are things that she would have seen herself while she was stuck there. We interviewed the people who had the first hand experience with her body (the policemen, the coroner) in the room that she had died in. Those interviews all took place in that room and I have never seen anyone do that in documentary before. It blew their minds and any sort of denial really did vanish as we brought back them back to that cold, freezing room and it allowed for genuine reaction, they couldn’t be dispassionate about because they were there when it all happened.
DV: How much time did you allow for preparation for the voiceover because this obviously isn’t a project where you are just hiring an actor to go in a sound booth for 2 or 3 days and read from a script?
TW: No, absolutely and I mean Lori you can speak to this better than I can, but I think that she was working on this for the better part of a year.
LS: Yeah, that’s right, it was about a year. They had initially sent me some of their footage which was just so amazing and it had such feeling and perspective which was really magical and they sort of guided me through along with the journal which I read through out over the course of a few days, I mean a long time as I really wanted to get the beats of how she spoke. I felt like it all happened pretty organically much like any other time I would prepare to play a character, except this time I was playing a real person. I even found myself not eating for a few days and in prep for this I actually did something thinking back on it now which was really quite amazing and I went to the house where these guys were working and I went into the back and just hid in a closet with a microphone and recorded dialogue, and it was so cold but it just happened. It wasn’t something I ever planned to do, but I felt compelled to do it and went I sent some of the recordings to Jed…
Jedd Wilder: Yeah the first series of recordings were on a very rudimentary kind of device, which made it even more disturbing and gave it the quality of a found recording which just felt creepy and actually most of those recordings actually ended up in the film. The first time we heard these recordings, our editor flat out wept and both Todd and I became teary eyed because it felt so surreal. Clearly Lori brought something profound and meaningful to this experience that really holds it all together, as we have this woman in this place that just sucks in the viewer so immensely.
DV: I can tell just by talking to the three of you that makes this film was a very emotional experience.
TW: Oh yeah.
DV: I’m just very curious now that you are at the end of the experience, what is the ultimate culmination process of it all.
TW: It’s funny because we showed it the other night here at Hot Docs with a crowd and when we got up to speak I found myself getting teary eyed once again as I began to the Q&A and I think I routinely begin to cry in the middle of the movie, every single time that I watch it and I’ve seen really thousands of times at this stage. It’s really the same moment for me, after the Q&A and we all spilled out into the lobby I had one woman grab my hand and say “It really feels like this film hasn’t left you yet?” “You haven’t let go of this yet”. While this is the first time in the director’s chair for us we have worked on about 17-18 different docs with a wide variety of some pretty heavy subjects that can affect you without a doubt. I mean if you are engaged in the subject and making these documentaries you can’t help BUT be affected by some of these stories but with this particular film, it just hasn’t let go of me yet, kind of like the Medical Examiner we have in the film who really could be the subject of a great Errol Morris style documentary all by himself and he was saying that he has worked on over three thousand deaths but that this is the one case that he can’t help but think about every single day. The cop said the same thing, it might the circumstances around how she died, it might be the diary which is just so incredibly powerful which we have now brought back to life with Lori’s performance and all the visuals that we have surrounding it, it really feels like she is in the house with you, her voice is just so present. I mean when you are watching the film, it’s just there, in front of the image and it really feels like it is talking to you. Then we made the artistic choice at the end to make the voice ultimately disappear before the film ends and the last thing she says is “Jesus take me home” and the last thing we are left looking at are the diary inserts and they writing starts to disintegrate as the music swells up so the loss of her is in a way more profound because the voices are there, instead of reading it to the end. Like you said this is the one film that just hasn’t let go of me yet, it’s weird.
DV: And you Lori feel the same way?
LS: Oh yeah, I mean when I watch it now it’s amazing because I get choked and emotional, I’ve seen it twice with an audience now and people just choke up and swarm towards us after. I mean usually I see something that I’ve worked once and then I walk away from it but with this…
TW: Yeah I mean as we are talking about it now, I can’t help but reflect on the genuine humanity that is in that diary. Someone asked me the other day, “Why did I make the film so beautiful?” Well in my mind, artistry and poetry really are the windows into the human soul and we are all in the boat just heading in the same direction.
LS: It’s experiential as well because when I experience it I really feel like I am experiencing it with many different people…
DV: It’s totally an immersive experience where you are putting us in the middle of the story and not on the surface of it.
LS: Oh yeah, Jed do you still feel that way?
JW: We had set out to try and really make an experiential kind of documentary where you as the viewer would feel what she was feeling, see what she was seeing as best we could. For us it was so incredibly emotional because once you walk through that door and take the journey with her sister and her daughter who really opened up their hearts to us, it’s just amazing, along with her journal which we have lived with for the four years that we have been working on this movie for really does affect you in a profound way which makes it impossible to ever really let go of a story like this.
God Knows Where I Am is playing the festival circuit now and with any luck will be coming to a theatre near you very, very soon.