Exorcising personal demons and inspiring others

01:43, Jan 31 2009
CHANGING LIVES: Joseph Greco grew up in Florida with a severely schizophrenic mother. Writing and directing a Hollywood film based on his experiences has both helped others to understand their own situations and him to understand his relationship with his mother. He visited Wellington last week.

"Where are the crazy people?" asked Hollywood actor Joe Pantoliano when he made a research visit to Fountain House, an activity centre for the mentally ill.

"All around you" was the answer and that is true for all of us, says film director Joseph Greco. Mental illness is so widespread it affects everybody, whether or not they are aware of it. Greco visited Wellington this month to speak at the Schizophrenia Fellowship annual summit. He also introduced Canvas, the film he wrote and directed to give voice to his feelings about growing up in a schizophrenia-affected family.

"It's inspired by my childhood," he says. "When I was a young boy I watched my mother battle severe schizophrenia. It had a profound impact on me."

As a child he was horrified to have to watch his mother forcibly restrained and taken to hospital by police.

The film is not strictly autobiographical but it draws heavily on his personal experience and tries to portray living with mental illness as honestly as possible. It has been well-received by both critics and viewers, winning audience awards at several festivals and the directors' choice at Sedona, and he says children love it. Its title refers to his mother's love of painting, the pastime in which she finds some peace of mind.

The first ingredients were great actors, Greco says. Among them were Pantoliano, who audiences might recognise as Cypher in The Matrix or Ralph Cifaretto in The Sopranos, and Marcia Gay Harden, who played Celeste Boyle in Mystic River.


"I was very blessed to have actors who wanted to portray mental illness truthfully," Greco says.

All too often it is demonised in films. Even A Beautiful Mind, which depicted schizophrenia accurately, still took the approach that mental illness is something you can will away, he says. "I had all the actors spend time at Fountain House. They were supposed to spend an hour; they ended up there all day."

After half an hour Pantoliano asked where the mentally ill people were. "That was the beginning of him realising he didn't want to play the illness, just portray it as honestly as possible," says Greco. "And Marcia did a really brilliant job of [observing] the traits that people have and integrating them into her character." Pantoliano plays the character based on Greco's father and Harden the one based on his mother.

The making of the film struck a particular resonance for Pantoliano.

"While doing the film he discovered he was battling depression, and had been battling depression for many years," Greco says. He has since started a celebrity organisation called No Kidding, Me Too! which aims to combat the stigma associated with mental illness. Its members now include Jeff Bridges, Robert Downey Jr, Edie Falco, Robin Williams and Greco's old boss James Cameron.

"It's sort of a nice little thread [that] since the film started Joey has become a huge advocate for people with mental illness," Greco says. "We have no idea of the number of people who are affected by it. They might not have a diagnosis [but] one of their family, friends, teachers, community [has]. We really are all affected by it. Because it does affect all of us, it's in our best interests to address it head on, to deal with it.

"It's not an easy illness to talk about it, so it doesn't get a lot of attention like the other illnesses, [but] if it's not treated it can destroy a life."

Greco acknowledges that making the film has changed his own life for the better. "When I was in college before I even started writing the movie I couldn't even talk about my experiences. I would actually hyperventilate. It really had a grip on me," he says.

"Now I actually feel like I'm closer to my Mom. She'll do something I'm frustrated by, because we always have those ups and downs. But I feel like I'm able to step outside the family dynamic and analyse it," he says.

"I no longer have the anxiety I did. I also, in doing the film, discovered that I wasn't the only one. You go through life thinking you're the only one but you realise ... that you are not alone; there are others."
He is gratified to receive thank you letters from people who have seen it.

"People who are now getting treatment because they weren't aware they were ill. That's enormously satisfying."

What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a delusional psychiatric disorder or group of disorders which usually appear in the teenage years or early adulthood. Symptoms might be mixture of delusions, hallucinations, disorganised speech, disorganised or catatonic behaviour, flattened emotional response or lack of motivation. It is often confused with identity disorders.


It is primarily treated with anti-psychotic drugs. Patients and their families might receive counselling or psychotherapy.


There is no known cure, but treatment can reduce symptoms or the frequency of episodes allowing patients to lead productive and satisfying lives.