What do you get if you take someone with Tourette’s, an OCD sufferer and an anorexic and put them on a road trip together? You get new film, ‘The Road Within’, written and directed by Gren Wells. Taking on the complex roles of Vincent, Alex and Marie are Robert Sheehan, Dev Patel and Zoë Kravitz, and Gren Wells has kindly agreed to discuss the project, exclusively with Cinema Perspective. This is what she had to say…
‘The Road Within’ is a remake of German movie ‘Vincent Wants To Sea’. What was it about the original that compelled you into writing and directing an American version?
I saw the trailer for the original film on some random German trailer website – and I thought if they could put that much heart and humor into 2 minutes, then the movie had to be amazing. Shortly after I optioned it, the movie won the German Oscar for Best Film and Best Actor – so luckily I was right! At that point, the movie hadn’t been seen by many people outside of Germany but what struck me is how universal the message is. The movie is about young adults dealing with specific mental disorders (Tourette Syndrome, OCD and Anorexia) – but at its core, it’s about feeling different. And everyone can relate to that because we’re all different in some way. We’re all weirdos. That’s why Breakfast Club is such a classic – because everyone feels like an outsider at some point in their lives.
Did you face any cultural challenges in your reimagining of the project?
Not really because it’s a coming of age story about real people. Not real in the sense that it’s based on a true story – but real because people are dealing with these issues all over the world. Mental health awareness is a huge mandate of mine. It makes no sense to me that physical pain doesn’t have a stigma – but mental does. And that’s what people are relating to. We’ve now shown this film all over the world and audiences are all laughing, clapping and crying at the same moments because, though our exteriors might look different, the human spirit remains the same.
You’ve brought out three superb performances in Sheehan, Kravitz and Patel. What were they like to work with and can you tell us about the preparation for their roles, both mentally and physically?
Thank you! We had such a great time making this film. We felt an incredible responsibility to portray the disorders with authenticity and dignity. These issues are usually portrayed as the butt of a joke and I don’t think anyone has to right to laugh at someone else’s pain. But there’s a big difference between laughing at someone – and laughing with them. Laughter, by its very nature, is a release. It’s taking a breath. And it’s incredibly important to allow an audience to breath during a tense scene. My favorite films are ones in which you laugh and cry (James L. Brooks, Mike Nichols and John Hughes were masters of this) – so we all went into this knowing that it was going to be a delicate balance of pain and humor.
With Robert Sheehan, I knew the moment I met him that he was Vincent. He has such an amazing heightened energy – and Tourette’s is nothing if not high energy. [Tourette Syndrome is a neurological disorder in which the sufferer has involuntary physical and guttural tics. Only about 10% of TS sufferers also have Coprolalia, which is where they curse and say inappropriate things.]
I knew Robert’s previous work so I knew he was extraordinarily talented – but the work he does in this film proves that he is one of the top young actors working today. He was fully committed to the role (we rehearsed for 6 months prior to shooting) and he never wavered. I moved him in with Jaxon Kramer, a young man with Tourette Syndrome so he could get the physical mannerisms right. And after a week or so, Jaxon and I said, ‘Great! Now forget everything you just learned.’ Because tics are specific to each person. So he had to find movements that worked for his body. And even though Robert’s tics were too big at that point, I never once told him to tone it down because I didn’t want him to feel self-conscious – and I knew he’d eventually find the right balance. And boy did he! Seriously, he’s just tremendous.
With Dev Patel, I needed someone who could portray the arrogance and intense loneliness of Alex. Again, I was looking for a specific energy – more frantic than Vincent’s – because the OCD sufferers I interviewed all had it. Dev was initially scared of the role and turned it down but I hounded his manager until she finally sat us down together. And I convinced him that I would be there every step of the way – that I would not let him fail. It’s an incredibly brave performance because, on the page, Alex is unlikeable. He yells, he screams, he connives – but Dev has such a beautiful vulnerability behind his eyes that you can’t help but love Alex. We rehearsed for 3 months, figuring out the right obsessions, rituals and triggers for Alex. I think Dev absolutely nailed it and gives his best performance to date.
With Zoë Kravitz, I knew she was perfect for the role of Marie because she’s dangerous, sexy and unpredictable. The thing about Anorexia is that it makes you incredibly secretive and manipulative. I was Anorexic / Bulimic from age 15 – 21 and I remember putting on this really brave face – but inside I was terrified. So I needed someone who could pull off both sides of the coin. Plus, because an intense physical transformation would be necessary (Zoe eventually lost 20 pounds for the role), I needed someone who was strong enough emotionally to not fall victim to the disorder. Zoe had dealt with her own eating disorder issues in high school – but she spoke about it with such strength that I knew she could handle it. [Plus, I was watching her like a hawk.]
We hired her a dietician and a trainer and we went and spoke with numerous young women who were currently in the throes of the disorder. It was heartbreaking to see these women suffering – and just like in the film, you want to say, ‘Eat something!’ But it’s not that easy. Anorexia is a disease of the mind. So we were very careful to not glamorize this disorder – but we did need to show the reality of it. And the reality is that Anorexia has the highest death rate of all of the psychological disorders. Zoe knew this and felt it was imperative to bring this topic into the limelight.
And then with Kyra Sedgwick and Robert Patrick, I was just lucky that they said yes! Seriously, they’re both such pro’s and I feel honored to have worked with them.
Q. What has your experience been like in bringing the film across the pond to the UK, and to the Edinburgh International Film Festival?
Well, we haven’t shown the film yet but it’s incredibly flattering to have our UK premiere here! The Edinburgh Film Festival has such a renowned history for programming interesting, thought-provoking and challenging films, so I can’t wait to see how audiences respond!
Q. What’s next for you as a writer or director? Do you have any new films in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
I actually just signed on to direct my next film! It’s about a female Marine who gets both legs shot off in Afghanistan and ends up having to go back to the place she was running from to begin with… her home town and her family. So it’s a beautiful father / daughter reconciliation story, set against the backdrop veteran’s affairs. I can’t wait!!!!