Interview with Susannah “Sooz” Nolan, Writer and Producer of How Do You Type a Broken Heart
Your film follows two women protagonists, each battling their own internal war against alcoholism. As a new mother, Becky maintains her position as a confidant for Justine. When providing support, vulnerability and honesty seem to become a double-edged sword. How do you feel about these qualities interacting (or interfering) with sobriety and healing?
Well, the “program” of which Becky is a veteran and Justine a struggling member has certain tenets that are the cornerstone of their recovery. One of the primary ones is “You are only as sick as your secrets” and another exhorts members to be “fearless and thorough from the very start.” So much of addiction is about secretive behavior (i.e hiding your bottle, covering the alcohol on your breath with mouthwash, lying about that “stomach virus” that made you late for work, etc.). So Becky challenging Justine right at the start of the film with ways she is not being honest with herself is the launching off point from which this life and death battle begins.
I think the other aspect I wanted to explore and make clear is that Becky makes a choice – a sacrificial act – to open up the sealed box of her own sad past and be fearless and thorough in order to save Justine. But that honesty comes with a hefty price tag. Becky has built a very hard-won good life for herself – a life she knows she would not have were she not sober. But, as she explains to her hyper-protective husband, she knows that her own sobriety is kept in place by being there for those still afflicted.
As a writer and producer for this film, how involved were you with the casting and direction of the film? Did you write the film with specific visuals and actors in mind?
Jeremiah Kipp, who both directed and mentored me through this process, took the lead in casting, while always keeping me in the loop. I come from the Independent theater community and so my actor connections for film were pretty meager. Neither of us came into the project with specific actors in mind, However, Jeremiah had been wanting to work with this stunning, Obie-award-winning actress named Emily Donahoe, who plays Becky, and felt she not only had the acting chops to pull off the demands of the role, but the emotional bravery to “go there” during that dark monologue. I have watched her performance countless times now, and it always amazes me how the tough-minded gun-slinger mentality that Emily, the actress, brings to the role mirrors the courage of Becky. They are both badass.
The story of casting Holly Curran in the role of Justine, however, was far less linear. The actress originally cast in the role pulled out 2 days before we were scheduled to shoot. Holly (whom people might recognize from her role as Penny Pann in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) flew in from L.A,, learned the role in 2 days and was pitch-perfect from the moment she stepped onto the set. She is heart-breaking, a pro’s pro. After seeing her performance, I could not have imagined anyone else being Justine. Makes one believe in providence, yes?
I think if you hold too much to a specific visual (i.e. she needs to be blond…she needs to be tall…brown-eyed, and especially she needs to be a specific body type or race), you eliminate the possibility for someone better than your poor imagination to inhabit the role. This experience taught me not to put such limiting descriptions in my scripts. It’s really pointless.
Phones seem to be a recurring theme throughout the piece: Justine’s character is introduced through a phone call with Becky. She also asks about “typing” a broken heart emoticon. Furthermore, Becky continuously leaves voicemails for Justine. Was this theme intentional, and if so, could you explain the significance of its presence in this story?
The phone is a lifeline that keeps Justine from taking a drink and succumbing to her darker impulses. That there are so many emergency hotlines out there is no coincidence. In all recovery programs, using a phone call instead of acting on a destructive compulsion is key. When a person is drowning, you can throw them all manner of life preservers, but until they grab on, the act is in vain. That Justine calls and uses the phone rather than the bottle “is huge” as Becky rightly says. And it is vitally important that when Becky initially loses the call and then keeps leaving increasingly more frantic messages into her answering machine that Justine picks up the phone again and listens to Becky. That click we hear as Becky pours out her soul is the turning point. It is Justine grabbing on to the life preserver. She even holds the phone like a talisman as she pours the wine down the drain. The phone, and Becky on the other side, give her the strength to start to fight for her sobriety.
Becky’s backstory is challenging, heartbreaking, and also deeply encouraging. She is also a new mother. Where did your inspiration for her character come from? How is her position as a mother impacting her character’s sobriety?
I tapped into my own memories of being a new mom, for sure — how stinking precious those few stolen hours of sleep between feedings were in the first three months of my daughter’s life. The sleep deprivation leaves you grumpy, raw and vulnerable. Having Becky be a new mom served several purposes. She is clearly a nurturer but being there for an infant is exhausting and can tap you dry. This is also why Rick, the husband/dad is so protective. We can see the intensity of their fatigue. They are staggering. This is why she “passed off” Justine to another sponsor. She and Rick knew that she wouldn’t have the emotional resources available. And yet, she also knows that the only way any of it is possible is because she stays sober. And after pouring herself out for Justine, in her most vulnerable late-night post-partum state of mind, it occurs to her how easy it might be to be drunk and numb again. The line “I need a drink” is intended to be both ironic and yet very real. Part of addiction is the inability to self-care — an issue also familiar to new mothers. Rick is very concerned that by giving out to Justine, Becky will be taking from herself, and he’s not wrong.
Writing scripts about mental illness can be a very difficult task, especially since many wars of the mind are invisible to the eye. Did you find yourself focusing on visuals in your writing in order to convey another/additional dimensions of internal battles with addiction?
Creating the physical realities of both women was tremendously important. For that I give credit to our scenic designer, Deb Moloney. Both of these women’s lives are in disarray, but for very different reasons. Becky’s apartment is a mess because she is a new mom who hasn’t had time to wash her hair, much less fold the laundry. But it is a warm cocoon compared to Justine’s home. The external in this case definitely reflects the internal. Justine’s kitchen, with its dirty dishes and sad drawer of knives and wine openers is a place where the madness has taken over. And, Holly conveys this so well with her physicality, it has become a cage where she paces. She can’t stay still. Her world has gotten smaller and smaller and is closing in until it is just her and the “frosty cold bottle” that calls to her like a lover who won’t let her down. In the script I wrote that “her hands shake as she tries to type into her phone.” She has been sober for 23 hours and the “jonesing” is physical as well as emotional.
Each woman carries an individual story arch, seeming to simultaneously coincide and conflict with one another. Do you find your story promoting a message of hope? Or a depiction of endless struggle?
Would it be a cop-out to say “both?” Though, I think ultimately, the film comes out on the side of “hope.” The hope is found in Justine’s ability to call rather than succumb. To pick up and listen. And ultimately to stare down her demons and – literally – pour them down the drain. In these moments it is indeed the life force winning. But to not acknowledge the challenge that the next 24 hours will present would be naïve. Sobriety is not one moment in time – a flag planted on the moon that says “I’m here. That’s it.” It’s rather an ongoing dynamic process requiring continual effort. That’s why she herself acknowledges “One day down. One thousand more to go.” The term “recovering addict” contains elements of both hope and endless struggle. Even Becky, with all the good things in her life and her long time clean is still vulnerable.
The monologues of each character are deeply emotional, and thus extensive in detail. How do you view the importance of dialogue and/or monologues in terms of character development? Do you find it challenging as a screenwriter to create lengths of text that both sound realistic and simultaneously engage the audience?
The first draft of this was actually a monologue just for Justine. It was intended to just be one addict – on the phone – white-knuckling it to her first 24 hours of sobriety. A solo tightrope walk. But when I brought it into my trusted writer’s group, the overarching comment was that the more interesting story is that of the sponsor on the other end of the line. So then I wrote a whole draft as a monologue from Becky’s perspective, and well, with both arias interspersed, it becomes a duet.
Monologues may come more easily to me, as my experience is primarily in theater. On a stage these kinds of “arias” are used as a way of providing the audience with a window into the soul of the character; to watch how they think and to start them in one place dramatically and bring them to another. The trick in translating this action into screenplay was much more the work of Jeremiah Kipp, who acted as dramaturge as well as director. Those original monologues were much longer before Jeremiah told me to trust the medium and that the pictures and the situation we had set up would carry the story as much – if not more so – than what was actually being said. Becky’s monologue, however, serves several purposes. Of course, it gives us a picture of the darkest moments of her life. But it also serves a practical purpose. She spins out her story like Scheherazade to keep Justine from picking up that glass of Pinot Grigio.
How have audiences reacted to your film? Did you have a specific audience in mind that you wished to target when writing the script?
Oh my goodness. The response has been intense! So many people have come up to me after a screening to share with me their own experiences with addiction or how the film gave them insight into the struggles of a loved one. One particularly moving interaction was with a father who nearly lost his son to an overdose. We locked eyes as he told me how important it was to have this aspect of the recovery story told. Powerful stuff. You can never predict when you write things like this how it is going to resonate. Perhaps the most profound experience for me is to sit in a movie theater, as I have for countless movies made by other people, and realize that for the next 14 minutes our little film will (hopefully) have people’s attention. That they are all in a dark room to watch our story unfold. It is a privilege to have this attention. It is overwhelming. And my one thought is: “Gee, I better make freaking sure I give these people something real and moving and thought-provoking in these 14 minutes.” As far as what kind of audience I wanted to “target?” People who appreciate a psychological thriller — or maybe a superhero movie, but instead of a cape our heroine wears a ratty tee shirt with baby spit on it.
Do you hope to write more on the struggles of mental illness, like you have with How Do You Type a Broken Heart?
Well, in my next project (currently in pre-production), the heroine is a kleptomaniac. So, yikes. I guess that sounds like a trend, yes? But more like, I am attracted to characters who are both emotionally fragile and yet heroically go about their lives, fighting an hour by hour battle against the dark forces — without and within. I live in New York City and I am surrounded by these spirits on a daily basis. On the subway. At a Starbucks. In the bodega at 1 am. Listen hard enough and look close enough and you’ll find a story worth telling. I was waiting for my husband at a pretty fancy restaurant one night and I watched a woman staring at the door for a date that hadn’t arrived. When I went to the bathroom an hour later, she was still there. The look on her face. The body language. I tried to imagine what had come before, and what she was going to do once she gave up waiting. That stuck with me and became part of Justine’s story — 3 years later. You have to always have your antennae out.
The representation of women in this film is inspiring and unique. The characters shown are strong yet vulnerable, and their voices carry the story completely. How do you view the importance of women writing for women on screen, in terms of ensuring an authentic voice for their characters and individual stories?
It’s not that I don’t think that there are empathetic male writers and directors out there. I am married to one and my director is another. But I do think there is a dearth of stories out there where a woman drives the action and is defined in ways unconnected to her relationship with a man. The depiction of women as seen through the prism of wife, lover, object of obsession are so expected, limited and limiting, It was very important to me that Broken Heart be about two women reaching out to each other in the storm. Rick is vital as a support, but Becky goes into battle alone. There are so many more stories I want to tell. I am working on a new script now for 4 women that does not focus on their relationships with men, but with each other. You will not find that men are the “enemy” per se here – or in any of my scripts. But life is far more dark and complex and multi-faceted for women in real life than what often shows up on a screen. It compels me as a female writer to bring those kinds of stories to light. The key is specificity. Each human has an exquisite set of unique circumstances that make them who they are. Even terms like “feminist writer” are, to me, limiting. I would prefer to be a “humanist writer” who tells stories from my perspective as a woman.