Thursday, August 15, 2013

Ryder's Personal Motivations for Making "Girl, Interrupted"

When Winona Ryder was 20, she checked herself into a psychiatric ward for a few days. The insomnia and anxiety attacks she had been suffering on and off for years had become paralyzing. At the tail end of a long, difficult parting with Johnny Depp, her first serious boyfriend, she said she “hit bottom.” A week after entering the hospital, she signed herself out, feeling she had not been helped.

Ryder recalled, “The worst part of it was not being able to describe the overwhelming horror of the anxiety attacks – even to my own family, to the people closest to me… My breathing would get labored, everything would start speeding up, and I'd get very scared. The closest I ever came to describing it was that feeling when you almost get in a car wreck and you swerve, and for a second there are needles in your head and needles in your body. It's that moment, but stretched out.”

Ryder said that when she checked herself into the hospital, “I was so tired, I just wanted to sleep. They didn't help me at all… What I learned was that, no matter how rich you are and how much you pay some hospital or doctor, they can't fix you. They can't give you a pill or a secret answer to anything that's going to make you all better.”

“Successful actors aren't really allowed to complain, which I understand,” confessed Ryder. “And I understand that when actors complain, it sounds a little nauseating. We're very lucky. We're sickeningly well-paid and we have these very charmed lives. But along with that, there is a lot of kind of ugly stuff that goes with it that the public doesn't see… There's a lot of soul-selling stuff that goes with it. And that's the kind of stuff that breaks us down.”

Ryder came to the conclusion that “you have to figure it out for yourself. Suddenly everything became very real, and I realized it was okay to not have the answers. I just had to get through it on my own. And that life was confusing, the world was a weird place full of a lot of things that I'll never understand, but that I'm not supposed to understand… Life is just weird, and messy. And I just have to get through it, and do my best. Either choose to move on, or stay miserable. And I chose to move on.”

When Winona Ryder was 21, she was given Susanna Kaysen's memoir Girl, Interrupted in galley form by her father Michael Horowitz, a rare-book dealer. Ryder immediately identified with the author's experience. “I was just coming out of my very serious depression, and I didn't know what to label it, just as Susanna doesn't know what to label hers,” Ryder revealed.

"I was blown away by it, but also saddened a bit that it hadn't been published when I was in my late teens,” said Ryder. “I could have used Susanna's insights back then to get through my own struggles at 17 and 18 years old. To me the book is a timeless story about timeless characters and timeless feelings. It is an incredibly honest, courageous, sensitive and, most amazingly, wickedly funny account of what was a terribly painful time in her life."

Winona Ryder decided to make Girl, Interrupted into a movie because she believed the author’s insights could really help certain young people. "I hope the teenagers who feel alone out there will see this movie and say, 'Thank God.’ Because movies like this aren't really offered, and I would like to offer it. If I had seen this movie at 19, I would have taken a lot of comfort in it… Life is just weird. Life is a mess. This world is a mess, and anyone who understands this world I would worry about... We're normal to feel crazy, in a way."

Jennet Conant, “Holiday Films: Mining Her Memories To Play a Troubled Soul,” New York Times, 11/14/99
Jessica Holt, “Ryder Discusses Personal Meaning of Girl, Interrupted,” UCLA Daily Bruin, 1/10/00
“Real-Life Experience Helped Ryder,” United Press International, 12/27/99
Girl, Interrupted Production Information, Columbia Pictures Press Release

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Behind the Title of Girl, Interrupted

Girl, Interrupted author Susanna Kaysen took her memoir’s title from the painting “Girl, Interrupted At Her Music” by the Dutch Golden Age painter Jan Vermeer.

Kaysen explained, “The ‘interruption’ was of the predictable life that all of us think we're going to live. You know, ‘First I'll do this, and then I'll graduate from high school, and then I'll go to college, or then I'll get a job, and then maybe I'll get married and have some children.’ And my life just blew up. It took a very different turn. You certainly don't say when you're nine years old, ‘Gee, I think I'd like to be in a mental hospital when I'm 18.' That's not anybody's ambition. And it's a real interruption. Especially when you're in for quite a long time, which I was.”

Not long before she committed herself to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, Susanna Kaysen visited the Frick Museum in New York with her high school English teacher, who “hadn’t yet kissed” her.

“I was thinking of that future kiss, which I knew was coming,” Kaysen wrote, “and I left the Fragonards behind and walked into the hall leading to the courtyard – that dim corridor where the Vermeers gleam against the wall. It’s the painting from whose frame a girl looks out, ignoring her beefy music teacher, whose proprietary hand rests on her chair… I looked into her brown eyes and I recoiled. She was warning me of something – she looked up to warn me. Her mouth was slightly open, as if she had just drawn a breath in order to say to me, ‘Don’t!’ I didn’t listen to her. I went out to dinner with my English teacher, and he kissed me, and I went back to Cambridge and failed biology… and eventually I went crazy.”

Sixteen years later, Susanna Kaysen visited the Frick again, and saw the painting differently. “The girl had changed a lot in 16 years,” wrote Kaysen. “She was no longer urgent. In fact, she was sad. She was young and distracted, and her teacher was bearing down on her, trying to get her to pay attention. But she was looking out, looking for someone who would see her. This time I read the title of the painting: ‘Girl, Interrupted at Her Music.’ Interrupted at her music – as my life had been, interrupted in the music of being 17, as her life had been, snatched and fixed on canvas – one moment made to stand still and to stand for all other moments, whatever they would be or might have been. What life can recover from that?”

Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted, Turtle Bay Books, 1993 
“Author Discusses Memoirs of Life in a Mental Hospital,” NPR’s All Things Considered, 7/10/93 
Girl, Interrupted Production Information, Columbia Pictures Press Release