Isn’t it hard to justify the complexities of mental health in film? Soundtrack, editing and the will for beauty just don’t the reality. Going mad is numb, ugly, unrealistic and unwatchable. So, I largely boycotted films on mental health for that reason.
Then I was invited to BAFTA, for the premier of a short film called Fragments of May. And I felt something other than the dull sense of dissatisfaction. As someone who is blessed enough to have shades of insanity within me, I saw in Fragments of May the essence of disruption and disassociation I’d come to know. Both captured so accurately that the film lived on as twists in my stomach
The leading role was played by Kelby Keenan,whose performance astounded me. Here I speak to her about how she managed to execute the phenomenal task of expressing the inexpressible.
Who is the character and how did you get to know her?
I Play May, she is based on a character who is mentioned in David Foster Wallace’s first ever short story The Planet Trillaphon as it Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing. The protagonist in his short story is David himself, but towards the end of the story he mentions a young girl called May, whom he met in a psychiatric centre.
The writer and director of Fragments of May, Maria Pia Fanigliulo, wanted to tell his same story but through the eyes of a woman, so in the film, May is an amalgamation of Foster Wallace and his friend May from the original text.
I knew I was working with a very delicate subject so I wanted to go as deep as I could to do the film justice and get as close as I could to someone dealing with these types of mental health issues. Myself and the director spent weeks improvising and exploring the mental state of May. We would rehearse in May’s home, the home we used to shoot in, going to places of complete isolation and sometimes delirium. I would be left alone for hours in one room, getting to know May’s space and the way she moves, thinks and feels.
With James Rallison, who plays May’s boyfriend, Davis, in the film, we had moments of complete bliss and all encompassing wild abandon love, to moments when I could not even look at him. The rehearsal process is what makes the characters and the film so raw and believable.
As an actor I found listening to certain songs would help take me to May’s world, like Medicine by Daughter and even classical music. Before shooting a scene I would put my headphones on and let myself go completely to an altered state of reality and then go with it.
What did the planets represent to you?
In May’s mind, the planet represents earth. She is so far removed from reality that she sees earth as something so far away, and beautiful, like a memory from a dream. The planet she is living on, is one that she is kind of floating through, sometimes feeling complete numbness and at other times so much unexplained pain and loneliness.
How would you explain her mental state, and describe her psyche?
May’s mental state is very isolated. She appears fairly calm on the outside, we were careful not to do the whole ‘let’s look really sad and cry all the time’ thing, as most people who have suffered with some kind of mental illness will know it’s not about what you see on the outside. There is a line in the film that goes: “lots of people think being sad means sighing and looking out of the window a lot”.
I totally understood May, I found my own loneliness and the place where you can just shut out all the noise, move through life, occasionally feeling connected to people and places, but generally going through life almost as a bystander to your own life.
May is intelligent, works as an architect, she moved to London to use what her parents would tell her was “an amazing brain, meant for buildings and drawings”. After moving to London, she realises that there are thousands of brains just like hers anyway, and one by one her dreams all recede, not that she misses them. She becomes attached to the planet she now lives on, viewing earth in the distance.
“You can get deep enough to unlock the darkness and let it live within you. It’s valuable to see all the edges of your psyche.”
What does it feel like to enter that headspace and how does it feel after you’ve come back out?
It felt very real! At times too real. I really didn’t want to just ‘act’ like I was struggling with living on earth. There were times throughout filming when I couldn’t talk to anyone, the camera would just be left rolling and I would do whatever it was in that particular scene I felt like doing. Throughout the whole week of filming I stayed very close with May she was a part of me and I didn’t want to let her go. I can still find that place I went to now.
I am very grateful I had the chance to work with a script that taught me so much about mental health and the very real day-to-day struggles that come with it. Coming back out of it, I strangely feel more in tune with my own mental state and able to recognise what my own struggles are living on this planet we call Earth.
The film raises issues about the responsibility of mental health with the repeated line “who’s to blame?”. What’s your take on the events of May’s breakdown in relation to how it affected others?
I think, ultimately, no-one is to blame. We all have this place inside of us, just some never unlock it. You can get deep enough to unlock the darkness and let it live within you. A lot of people don’t get that deep but it’s valuable to see all the edges of your psyche. You have to go to the dark places to see the light.
May’s relationship with her boyfriend is the only real thing she has, she loves him and doesn’t want to hurt him, but he ends up being the victim of May’s pain. We all have a responsibility, but it is for ourselves, whether or not we are suffering.
What I like about Fragments of May is that it’s not black and white, it doesn’t have a neat and tidy ending where everyone runs off into the sunset ‘fixed’ and this is true to life. I hope that this film simply raises awareness of how hard it is to deal with depression, that it isn’t a calculated and selfish illness, but that it is something that is actually very real and normal and we should talk about it openly and allow ourselves to talk about it.
Fragments of May will be available in full soon. In the meantime, follow Kelby on Twitter and Instagram.