THE REST OF US: Director Linda G. Mills and Producer Hediya Sizar Speak About the Concepts and Survivors in Their New Film
To delve into difficult subject matter with grace and tenacity is not the only way to approach the arts, however it often yields the most fortifying results. Such is the case with The Rest of Us, the quietly impactful new feature film directed by heretofore documentarian — and wearer of many other hats — Linda G. Mills (Auf Wiedersehen: ’Til We Meet Again; Of Many [exec produced by Chelsea Clinton — plus its Then and Now expansion]; Better to Live). While this time approaching fiction (screenplay by Laura Moss and Ricardo Pérez González), The Rest of Us, set on a Midwestern college campus in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, thoughtfully examines not specifically suicide, but rather, as its title suggests, the real-life struggles faced by its survivors. It’s available on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, VUDU, FandangoNOW, DISH Anywhere, and Comcast/Xfinity.
Before telling this particular story, Ms. Mills’ storied career precedes her: As Professor of Social Work, Public Policy, and Law at New York University, she’s NYU’s inaugural Lisa Ellen Goldberg Professor, and Vice Chancellor and Senior Vice Provost for Global Programs and University Life. You may also call her Dr. Mills (via Brandeis University), counted among her various degrees from across the country. Perhaps most notably in terms of The Rest of Us, she serves as Executive Director of NYU’s Center on Violence and Recovery, and as co-founder of NYU’s Of Many Institute for Multi-Faith Leadership and NYU’s Production Lab. Amid a plethora of actors and activists who helped inspire this film, plus producers Beth Davenport, David Komar, and Mary Stuart Masterson, we are joined by social change strategist Hediya Sizar, who also serves as a producer.
We begin by discussing whether Ms. Mills found the script for The Rest of Us, or if the script found her.
“I’ve been working in the mental health space in universities for a long time, and at NYU,” she clarifies, “so I really wanted to tell the story that I felt wasn’t being told. And I had for many years created a production called The Reality Show, first with Elizabeth Swados, and then with Preston Martin, who’s actually in the film, where every year for NYU, we put together a theatre production around mental health issues, and we present that to the students. It’s written by the students, and it’s presented to the students. And so, inspired by The Reality Show and many years of doing theatre, I wanted to tackle in a narrative feature form these complicated issues related to suicide prevention, and particularly resilience related to the rest of us: those who are left behind.”
And why pinpoint it at 9/11?
“I myself had gone through 9/11, at very close range,” Linda reflects. “I had just about then moved to New York, and I saw the profound dramatic impact that 9/11 had had on our students in so many different ways, and particularly on our Muslim students. And so I was very interested and felt it was a truly important and neglected area: that we address both the kind of impact of such a world event, a city event, and what that means to young people’s mental health.
“9/11 just became the kind of important backdrop for the fact that such a such an event affects different communities differently. And then when you add the layer of mental health and suicide prevention on top of that, you have a lot going on. I wanted to capture that relationship.”
Let’s just get this out of the way right here: the film contains a sci-fi group — or rather, the ruse of a sci-fi group — and, in my opinion, sci-fi saves lives. Good so far. Yet it’s tricky: an anachronistic reference to classic Doctor Who, smack in the middle of that show’s years-long hiatus — when practically nobody was into Doctor Who (itself notably a show often obsessed with death; but this isn’t that essay!), and when practically everybody was into that boy wizard — this very nearly brings forth the dormant critic in me. But fortunately for you, dear reader, I pull back, and instead ask about coalescing all of the elements of The Rest of Us, to give the fullest sense of the 9/11 experience, even apparently at a geographic remove. We now return you to the interview in progress.
“That was so tough, because there were so many elements to integrate,” explains Ms. Mills. “It was a great idea, in theory. And then it became really tough to elevate each of the issues that needed elevating and explication and dramatic elevation, at the same time that we really wanted to tell this heart-wrenching story about students who felt left behind, and were left picking up the pieces. It was really this huge question about: How do you foreground or put in the background 9/11? It was obviously impacting people — but also not have it be so overwhelming, that students’ reactions were only linked to 9/11. It was a creative choice we wanted to hold on to, but it wasn’t an easy one.”
As both Ms. Mills and Ms. Sizar are instrumental in global programs and university life at NYU, I inquire about how they met.
“I’ve always been passionate about media education,” elucidates Ms. Sizar, “and I had done my undergrad at NYU. Although I did not know Linda, I was involved, as a student, in many of the initiatives that I think she had spearheaded, from the NYU Global Spiritual Life Center, the Production Lab, to many other initiatives. So I was in a period of my life, post-undergrad transition, and I had the opportunity where someone had shared with me Linda’s work. And through that I got in touch with Linda in regard to an opportunity to work with her. I was really drawn to her academic work, her filmmaking work, and using the lens of storytelling to further the social issues that she has been tackling for so many years. That began the introduction of that relationship.
“At that time, actually, The Rest of Us was just shot, and it was just going through the initial phases of editing. So I came in really in the post-production phase. As Linda said, it was really difficult, because there’s so many themes to this story. You start to realize, you know, how we want to shift this and reframe this to tell the strongest story possible with all of these major themes. I would say I was really a part of that work, which was a great opportunity and privilege, and also being able to work with someone who has been so involved in many of these pieces for such a long time.”
Adds Ms. Mills: “Let me just say that Hediya was absolutely essential for getting it to the finish line. It’s been a great partnership.”
Indeed, hosannas are not often enough sung for those on the post side of film. Happy to support that. Yet back to the set, I ask about the challenges in directing these complex emotions.
“It was quite remarkable,” notes Ms. Mills of her first narrative feature, “and only affirms that The Rest of Us was as real for me as it was for the generation that was living it. Every cast member could summon within their own life some emotional experience that was related to it, whether it was the suicide dimensions, or the mental health dimensions.
“When you have that, in a production, everybody feels that sense of responsibility. But in terms of summoning the emotional dimension, the actors had, from one degree to another, lived something related to what they needed to summon. I’m not calling anybody out, but literally this extended to crew members coming up to me. Because I’m a trained therapist, I think that also evoked people interested in talking about it — all of that was so endemic to the production. But it was so interesting, because everybody came with a story. There was no question that in the scenes, we did the work we needed to do and to find that emotion, but everybody seemed to have a well of it. And that’s a really sad comment about the state of our world.
“I mean, they were also very funny and vibrant and all those things as well,” she hastens to add.
While The Rest of Us takes you into tough times indeed, you can also sense that a solid cast know what they’re building together. Veterans such as Laila Robins as the dean with more than her hands full, and Adam LeFevre as the guidance counselor who doesn’t quite reach out enough, do not merely lounge as faculty; and Raffi Barsoumian, teaching apparently cold technology, reveals a surprising amount of heart. Yet it’s the students themselves who impel us to care, and to consider: especially Devika Bhise as a Muslim student striving to navigate a torrent of volatile views and misapprehensions; and this film’s lightning rod, Amanda Debraux as our lead, losing peers and losing love before she’s had a chance to understand either, yet finding strength — and building a new bridge — despite considerable sorrow. (Ms. Debraux, herself also a producer and writer with a degree in forensic psychology, conveys incredible depth with her eyes: Ms. Mills states that among the auditions, she was obviously the right choice.)
One aspect of The Rest of Us which may prove revelatory to casual viewers — certainly it surprised me, and I carefully viewed it twice — is coming to comprehend that memorials for victims of suicide are not generally helpful, and may prove genuinely dangerous for some.
“It was the biggest challenge,” states Ms. Mills of communicating this understanding. “And it’s the reason the editing took a very long time. We were all really committed to making those distinctions, and particularly reinforcing that memorials have exactly the opposite effect on the most vulnerable. And so it was really important to elevate those often neglected areas of discussion, namely memorials: don’t honor the act. It’s okay to honor the person, but I want to remember her, not that act. Those elements were really intentional, and had to be done perfectly.
“These are some of the most difficult conversations one has, after somebody has died by suicide.”
Turning to the topic of unrequited love, also delicately but significantly included in this film, Ms. Mills hands it over to Ms. Sizar, who reminds us of the nuances and more fragile fabric of the psyche at that age, and especially in this film’s milieu:
“As Linda has mentioned so well, on the backdrop of this traumatic event, a lot of people in college are grappling with their identity. And that’s something that needs to be captured. They might not have in themselves the language to articulate that. And so it became: Well, how do we bring this subtly to the surface and understand this is also something that this individual is carrying with them in regards to everything else they’re experiencing in their lives?”
The filmmakers succeed. See it, you’ll get it.
Lastly, I ask the filmmakers how they would like The Rest of Us to resonate with viewers — especially given the altered circumstances of a lot of today’s viewing.
“It’s encouraging connectivity, raising awareness,” notes Ms. Sizar. “With The Rest of Us we’re able to see multiple identities and experiences reflected onscreen for people to be valued and affirmed for, but also to provide a window for others to create that connection, and empathy to start that conversation. Media narratives have the ability to begin that conversation, to drive that behavioral and cultural change. And to destigmatize mental health, and do it in a responsible way. I think there need to be more storylines like this.”
“Watching it with somebody is really important and useful,” expounds Ms. Mills. “Now that we have this new world we live in, you can watch without actually being in the same room, and then talk about it afterwards. It’s about being together. It’s about social support. It’s about recognizing when you need that support, how you seek that out.
“It really is in the social supports and one’s ability to be vulnerable, where you can feel as though you can get through something hard, something that may even feel really difficult or impossible. But with with the help of somebody else, you really can.”
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Photos courtesy of the filmmakers and Multicom Entertainment Group.