The new indie film The Extraordinary Ordinary deals with mental health
Natalie Rodriguez is Los Angeles based filmmaker/writer, and a mental health and anti-violence/trauma advocate. Her writing work has been featured on HuffPost Blog, Opposing Views, and Now This, among others.
Recently, she finished production on her directorial debut feature film, “The Extraordinary Ordinary.” Natalie also wrote the screenplay and was the executive producer on the film project as well. The film stars John Posey (ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” and Netflix’s “Lucifer”); Maddison Bullock (Amazon’s “Ice the Movie”); Alex Montalban (HBO’s “My Dinner with Herve”); Ana Marte (YouTube’s “Amigos,” co-starring alongside, LeLe Pons). We were curious and so she agreed to answer some questions about the film. (Note: Natalie is also a contributor to Morpheus).
What was your inspiration for doing this film? Why does this topic resonate with you?
The Extraordinary Ordinary has been one of those stories that seem endless. I had this idea to write a story about teenagers and following the lives of multiple characters, rather than one. I suppose a lot of that hunger and drive to just sit down and write it came from my introduction into the independent movie world. The first “indie” film I saw was Thirteen and that one hit home a lot. The movie tackled on such important subjects and what terrified me most about that project were the two leads playing their actual age (13/14). I was thirteen at the time when I first saw the movie, so it was both a traumatizing and surreal experience to see such a powerful film.
Mental health, trauma, and recovery have been topics that I always find myself revisiting in-between other projects, both personal and work. A lot has to do with my passion for films such as Thirteen and additional, what are known as, “indie sleepers” where these amazing stories come out from festivals by up-and-coming filmmakers and cast. Growing up, I was also this sort of loner where I would go to school, finish homework, and immediately dive into writing. Each Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Spring break, I would literally ignore my texts and phone calls by friends and sort of hole myself up in my bedroom to write, blasting whatever song that my i-Pod would play. Throughout my teenage years, there was a lot of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, The Who, and Slipknot. For some reason, those were the three bands and musicians who would just spark ideas out of me per project. One of the projects was the earlier draft of The Extraordinary Ordinary, formly known as Teenage Wasteland (The Who’s “Baba O’Riely” was actually the song that served as this anthem for the film
How does this film address the issue of mental health differently than other films?
To be honest, I try to avoid the comparison with other films that seamlessly discuss about mental health awareness. I suppose a lot of it just makes me have anxiety over it (the irony). I do think we had a strong team where we each checked in with each other because there were MANY days of filming back-to-back scenes that dealt with different ranges of mental health. We see primarily our leading character ERICA, portrayed by Maddison Bullock, going through the smaller doses of anxiety to having triggers which heighten her anxiety, as well as depression. The purpose of the story itself was to show that someone such as ERICA who has gone to a few years of counseling (recovery) can still experience/revisit a panic attack at any given moment; however, one can always work through it and not let the anxiety and depression define them. Also, we see many moments where our characters are simply not okay, and that is perfectly fine. It is never too late or there should NEVER be any shame in asking for help. Those were always something that I held close to me and I know that our core cast and crew can say the same—that one who has a mental health disorder, or a history with it, can still “function” in the “every day world.” Stigmas are forever stigmas.
I can say that the people involved with this project have been some of the greatest individuals to collaborate with. This project was definitely one of the first sets where I felt in zone, so there is this saying where you do not “remember much.” I was just focused on the storytelling aspect–both cast and crew being on the same page.
What was the most challenging thing about getting this project made?
This project was one of the most personal ones for myself to make. So, a lot was a challenging moment, especially when it came to funding. I would either pitch the story and most producers or investors would flat out tell me and some team members how we were not a.) big enough names b.) “no ones” (yeah, had someone tell me that five meetings into potentially finding a financier). But that is also the reality of working behind the camera for many female writers/directors/producers: it is a harder rope to climb and climb and often, you feel like you just get knock down for not being to this or that.
The challenging part was blocking out those negative thoughts, comments, and flat out (yeah) haters while pushing onward with the project. Self-criticism is always an ongoing matter for me but I know that the only way to break out of it is just getting up and completing the project.
In your mind, why is there such a lack of public awareness about mental health?
I think people are afraid to talk about it and a lot seems to come within how children are being raised today. Growing up myself, mental health–let alone, therapy–was not discussed about. I suppose a lot goes to religion values or often, as controversial as this is to admit, most family members simply will say (have done so in the past) to “get over it/stop being depressed/stop being sad.”
Fear definitely seems to be the issue WHY mental health is still being beat around the bush, in general, by many people. From my own personal experience, I think a lot has to do with denial–people recognizing that they themselves have anxiety, depression, a mental health disorder or should try giving therapy a try. I used to angry growing up when one of my relatives first advised me to go to therapy–for some reason, I saw it as a sign of being “weak.” I tend to believe that is why people avoid discussing mental health and therapy as well is because it is often affiliated with weakness. It is sad to see or hear that. I guess that is where the ‘bothered by it” gets myself and I know many others the urge and motivation to talk about it.
How would you say your directorial style effects the making this particular story?
This one I am actually excited about because it was the first time that I tried something new as a director and storyteller! Something that my director of photographer, Trevor, and I settled on was putting the audience through the mind of ERICA, who has anxiety and moments where it heightens due to her triggers.
After a crowdfunding page had failed to meet its required amount last year, I remember being so bummed out and sent out an email to Trevor that the film was basically “impossible” to film. Thankfully, Trevor sent me an email back, telling me that it was not impossible. From there on, we met up and threw out our third or fourth shot list and redid it. Throughout the prep of the film, even months prior to our crowdfunding page had launched late last year, I remember telling Trevor how I was a big fan of the long takes (following the characters/cast VS having multiple cuts). We revisited that ‘original’ plan idea and built from there on, especially filming on a low budget…limiting cuts equals less camera setups.
I felt this project was also based on a lot of giving something a try and if all went to hell, get up and try something else. It was a great experience and I think working so closely with the cast, especially with Maddison (our Erica), made the film much more personal. After all, the camera is literally just inches from her in each shot. She was definitely a trooper.
Any other projects on the horizon?
Yes, there are a few, but I cannot say too much. Later this year, a buddy and I are filming a horror feature film so I am stoked to dabble further into that genre.
Recently, a TV pilot sitcom of mine has been making its rounds. It placed in the final rounds at Stage 32. It is a bit surreal since the story came from these two shorts films that I shot with some colleagues and friends back in 2016. Tomorrow, I am actually going to HollyShorts Film Festival for a script of mine, Inner Child, that is an official selection.
How did the cast resonate with the storyline? How did this effect their performances?
I have been fortunate with this script for EO. It really was both the support from colleagues and friends who just kept me hopeful to get the story made. I will say for sure that casting had its ups and downs with some cast members signing on and dropping out. We actually had this happened about two-months prior to principal photography; however, I tend to see it as a way of the universe bringing on someone who will do much more to the character. For sure, all the cast members went above and beyond, more than I can imagine with bringing their character to life. Especially with ERICA and the two friends she meets and befriends, BIANCA and ALEX (portrayed by Ana Marta and Alex Montalban).
Like most independent features, we actually did not have time to rehearse. So a lot of my prep notes came with individual meetings with Maddison, Ana, and Alex. This was also new to me since I have often held rehearsals with cast members weeks in advance of production. However, I felt that rehearsals was not necessary for this project as I picked up a lot of positive energy and good vibes, in general, from the minute I met with Maddison, Ana, Alex, and Della and John (who play Erica’s parents, Cathy and Rob). I cannot say that with this one, I was really fortunate with the core cast who were on board the minute they heard about the story. I understand that they just fell in love with the message of the film itself and you can truly see that in their performances. It truly is a proud moment for me to see that with them individually — ask Maddison when we were going through one of the latest cuts of the film where I literally kept saying, “I can’t choose! They’re all amazing takes.