Don’t be fooled by the title, this new dark comedy feature film from filmmaker L Jean Schwartz will make you think about the serious issue of suicide in a whole new way. There are many horrible things happening around the world today, and sometimes a serious or hard-hitting news story just can’t motivate us enough to take action, in light of the depressing facts we were just presented with. This is why art and creativity are mediums that hold such power, because they can make us think and provoke discussions about certain topics in ways that more traditional industries cannot.
When L Jean reached out to us about her new indie feature ‘The Average Girls Guide To Suicide’, we were intrigued, not offended. The subject matter of the film was being presented in a unique way, and her own story of becoming a filmmaker also had some parallels to the topic.
The film centers on the main character Sarah, a college student who unsuccessfully tries to take her own life. She is admitted to a hospital Psychiatric Unit, where she meets a group of other suicide survivors. They have a secret group, The 5150 Club, in which they help each other successfully commit suicide. This film is about acceptance, community, and finding people who are weird just like you.
For L Jean, she found her community through the world of filmmaking, but it wasn’t always easy, given the uphill battle many women have faced in Hollywood. So we asked her some questions about why she decided to make a film about suicide, why she decided on the genre of comedy, and her career journey as a female filmmaker.
How did the idea for ‘The Average Girls Guide To Suicide’ come about?
The idea came about during film school when a friend was telling the story of a man in his hometown who had attempted suicide via shotgun and survived. The group listening was shocked, but he said, “What? Every town has one.” I grew up in a fairly small hometown (San Clemente, CA) and when his story made me think about the suicide attempts and completions in my hometown. And if my hometown has those stories, and so does his hometown, maybe this is happening in every town.
But if “Every town has one” (or more), why is suicide still such a taboo topic? I thought about this man that my friend described, and how difficult it would be if you attempted to take your own life, for that to go badly, for the whole town to know about it and have the scars to show for it. But other people would probably think (and tell you) that you should be grateful to be alive. The people who would understand best would be other people who had also attempted suicide unsuccessfully. So what if there was a group of suicide survivors that were all trying to help each other succeed in their attempts? And thus, The Average Girl’s Guide to Suicide was born.
Suicide and comedy aren’t usually two words that go together, how are you sparking conversations about this important topic with your choice of genre?
I think comedy can be a great way to deal with serious topics, I know personally I need comedy to lighten the mood and give me space to breathe. So I hope that by making a comedy about suicide we can reach the people who probably wouldn’t watch a drama about suicide. We also believe that laughter can be great medicine. Not as a substitute for medical treatment, but being able to laugh at the absurdities in life. As someone who has dealt with mental health struggles, I think it’s incredibly important to be able to laugh at yourself and the weird things our brains do. Comedy is tragedy plus time, as they say.
We hear a lot about suicides in the media yet there isn’t enough education about why young kids choose taking their own life as opposed to looking for support. What do you hope your film will change about this?
I think so often people of all ages struggling with mental health feel like they’re alone, or that there isn’t anyone that they can talk to. I think that Lifelines or Helplines are great, and I’m really glad they exist. But I think we also need to work on how to be there for our friends and family members, how to be supportive and non-judgmental.
I feel like when we talk about suicide in our society, it’s often basically, “You shouldn’t do that, you shouldn’t feel that way.” But if someone is having those thoughts or feelings, shaming or blaming them doesn’t do any good and they will just feel more alone. I’ve dealt with depression, anxiety, and disordered eating for many years, and I still struggle with reaching out for help. I worry about whether I’m inconveniencing someone by asking for support, if they’ll get mad at me for what I’m feeling, if they’ll just dismiss it or tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way, etc.
Often people jump to blame, shame, or try to “fix it,” when it’s far more helpful to listen and be supportive. I hope that this film can help foster understanding and empathy for people dealing with mental health issues, and our empathy for other people in general. I think the world would be a better place if more people would genuinely connect and listen to each other instead of judging and competing. So we’re trying to help start those discussions. I’m starting to talk about my personal struggles, some of which I’ve never talked about publicly and have only with my closest friends privately. Similar to the It Gets Better Project’s message to LGBT youth, more people can now stand up and say about mental health struggles, “I’ve been through this, and it gets better. I may still struggle with it at times, but that’s ok, I just try to make the best choices I can.”
You mentioned on your crowd-funding site that suicide happens everywhere, but it is still a taboo subject and people don’t want to talk about it. Why do you think that is?
I get that it’s an uncomfortable topic for a lot of people, but it seems like a Catch-22: we don’t talk about it because it’s uncomfortable but it stays uncomfortable because we don’t talk about it. Only because of this film do I know how many people I know who have attempted suicide, and it’s far more than I would have expected. But knowing that all these people who I love have been through dark times eases my mind about the dark times I’ve had. I’ve never attempted suicide, but have struggled with depression and disordered eating for many years, and cut as a teenager. For a long time I didn’t talk to anyone about these issues, but an amazing and unexpected gift of this film is how many people have opened up to me because of it. When I’m looking for support, it’s great to be able to reach out to people who I know can relate and empathize.
I’m also amazed at how many people who have attempted suicide, or have friends or family members who have attempted or completed suicide, really want to talk about this topic and tell their stories. One of the most rewarding parts of making this film so far has been that people can tell these stories, sometimes very shortly after meeting or hearing about the film, comfortably and in a clear voice. They don’t need to pull me aside or whisper their stories, I think often it’s a relief to be able to talk about it because there are so few spaces in which they can. It keeps me going, knowing that this film can give more people that space to share their experiences.
One of the cool things about TAGGTS is that it features a heavy presence of women both in front and behind the camera. Why was that important to you as a filmmaker?
One reason is that there are a lot of amazing women that I like to work with! I think it’s important to have a wide range of stories told and we all like to see people on screen that we can identify with. The film industry is very heavily male dominated, on average only 7% of the top 250 films each year are directed by women, and 12% are written by women. Only 10% of these movies featured a cast where half of the characters are female. When women write and direct films there are more female characters because we want to see our stories being told.
Also, in our society women are more used to working together communally, instead of competing, and to me that’s important on a film set. Filmmaking is a team effort, and I get very frustrated with people who think their department is the only one that matters. Camera is important, as are actors, lighting, editing, music, catering, wardrobe, etc. etc. It’s important to me that we’re a good team, and we are all working together toward the common goal of making a great film that will help people.
There is somewhat of a parallel between your lead character discovering herself and you as a filmmaker on a journey of doing what you love without waiting for someone to hand it to you. Was that on purpose?
It took several years for me to see many of the similarities between our protagonist, Sarah, and myself. I started writing the script at the end of my time at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 2009, and have been writing and revising it off-and-on ever since. I hope it will resonate with other people who are figuring out who they want to be and the mark they want to make on the world.
It took me many years to get past waiting for permission to make this film. It was easier for me to write about a character accepting herself than for me to actually accept myself, but eventually it motivated me to really apply the ideas in the film to my own life. It was pretty funny to finally really get what self-acceptance feels like, and thought, “Oh wow, this is what I wrote a whole movie about!” And it’s a process, every day trying to make the best and healthiest choices in your life. The film is largely about Sarah’s journey to figure out who she wants to be and create a life she wants to live, and I think it’s rather poetic that this film has helped me figure out who I want to be and create a life I want to live.
Your film passes the Bechdel test, which we wish was an actual regulation in the industry! Tell us why the Bechdel test is important and how it benefits women in the industry and as audience members?
I wish we could have higher expectations than just two women who talk to each other about something other than a man, but since so few films pass that test it’s a good starting place. I think the Bechdel Test is partially about wanting to see people on screen that I relate to and identify with. I talk with other women about things other than men, so I want to see characters on screen that do the same! It’s also about valuing women’s voices and stories. We want women that aren’t set pieces or merely a prize to be won, but are interesting, nuanced characters. I truly believe that entertainment can help make changes in our culture, and perhaps if people see more films and TV shows that feature women with agency, brave, bold women who sometimes even talk to other women about something other than men, then maybe we can accept more women like that in real life.
Finally, what makes you a powerful woman?
I’ve been trying to bring this film to life for several years, but this year I started using a metaphor: the film is a train, I’m the steam engine, and the train has to keep moving forward no matter who is on board, no matter which way the wind blows. And that made a big difference. I had been waiting for permission, waiting for enough other people to believe in the film and believe in me, in order for me to believe that I could do it. But I realized that was backwards, I needed to believe in myself first.
I used to get frustrated when people said, “You just need to believe in/love yourself!” because I felt like, if I knew how to do that I would be doing that! My advice to anyone who might be feeling like that: figure out your strengths and what you’re passionate about, and focus on those. I believe I can make this film because I have to make this film. It’s a story I need to share with the world because I think it can really help people. That’s the fire inside me that doesn’t go out, and it helps me get back up when I’ve been knocked down.
Know your strengths and your weaknesses, let go of what you think you “should” be like and embrace who you really are. Find people who love and support you, who you can learn from, who will hold your hand when you’re scared and celebrate with you at even the smallest victory. Love and accept yourself for who you are right now, not who you’ll be after you hit whatever goal, and find other people who do the same.