Proud2Bme | The Road Within: An Interview with Gren Wells

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The Road Within: An Interview with Gren Wells

By Emma Shakarshy--At Proud2Bme, we're tired of narratives that portray young people with mental illness as helpless victims. We're tired of one-dimensional characters and after-school specials.

So when we heard about Gren Wells's directorial debut film, The Road Within, which comes out this Friday, we were immediately excited by this refreshing take on an issue we've seen mishandled time and time again.

We were so honored to interview Gren Wells about her personal experiences with her eating disorder, as well as the film that came out of it. 

Proud2Bme: How did you approach the balance between storytelling and triggering content?

Gren Wells: The Road Within is a film about young people dealing with their mental illnesses - and I wanted the portrayals to be real. So many times in films, characters with mental issues are portrayed as the butt of the joke, as opposed to real people who are in real pain. So it was a very delicate balance, especially with a character that has Anorexia. I didn't want to glamorize the issue, but rather present it as a disorder that is extremely complex. 

Because I suffered from Anorexia and Bulimia from ages 15-21, I know firsthand how ravaging on the body it can be. So Zoe and I decided to show the harsh realities of this horrible disorder by shooting a scene in which you can see that she's wasting away. While I realize this scene will be triggering to some, I felt compelled to stay true to the reality that anorexia and bulimia have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. 

So, yes, Zoe Kravitz lost weight to play the role. But she did so in order to shed light on the millions of people suffering from eating disorders. 

Proud2Bme: Why is it important to tell stories of youth and mental health?

Gren Wells: I don't wish high school on even my worst enemy. I had an incredibly hard time making friends because I was different. I was younger than everyone because I had skipped a grade. So, therefore, I was automatically a nerd. I was also painfully shy - and this combination made me feel invisible. 

So my anorexia originated from this feeling of not fitting in. It obviously grew into something much more powerful that took over my life for many years - but feeling different, feeling like I didn't fit in anywhere, was absolutely what caused me to seek something that I felt I could control. 

Looking back, I wish someone had spoken to me about mental health. I wish it had been a mandatory class in school because I now know that I wasn't the only one who felt this way. EVERYONE feels different. EVERYONE feels alone. EVERYONE feels like they don't fit in. Obviously, some people experience this feeling more so than others, but it is a universal feeling and if more stories tackled it, more kids would realize that they're not alone.

Proud2Bme: Zoe Kravitz mentioned that this film brought up past struggles with disordered eating. As someone who also struggled with these issues, what was it like being behind the camera?

Gren Wells: Being behind the camera, watching Zoe portray this highly damaged character, made me incredibly protective of her well-being. Zoe and I spoke at length about 'the rabbit hole' of anorexia and how she wouldn't be able to see herself clearly once she began to lose weight - so I would become her eyes. I'm one of the lucky ones in that, after many years of battling the demons, I feel like I won. Food no longer rules my life. I know that I am more powerful than my disorder.

But I still know the triggers. I warned Zoe that people would start to compliment her on her weight loss (which is a whole other issue that needs to be addressed) but that she didn't look good. She looked sick. And I kept reminding her of this because ED's are so incredibly powerful. But Zoe has an amazing inner strength and she came to me whenever her mind started wandering. 

I checked in with Zoe every week after we stopped shooting to make sure she was gaining the weight back. And she did - but she recently admitted that her demons did rear their ugly heads during this time and she bravely fought them back. And she now says she came out the other side even stronger. That she, too, is more powerful than her disorder. I'm so proud of her!

Proud2Bme: For people who may not have experienced mental illness, what do you hope they’ll understand or feel after seeing this film?

Gren Wells: I hope people leave the film having more compassion towards anyone suffering from a mental illness. There is a huge stigma about admitting you have a problem - and it's ridiculous! Physical pain has no stigma, so why should mental? 

So many times, mental illnesses are disregarded - casually dismissed as someone wanting attention. But they're real. And people who are suffering from them need real help. So I would love nothing more than for this film to start a dialogue about mental illness. Because discussion inspires ideas which inspire understanding. 

Proud2Bme: What do you see as the role of humor in stories of mental illness?

Gren Wells: I grew up on Jim Brooks', Mike Nichols' and John Hughes' movies. And humor is such an intrinsic part of them because these masters of cinema were also masters of character. People are ridiculous. They say and do ridiculous things - especially during highly emotional moments. So by combining serious subject matter with these unique, opinionated, absurd characters (ie, you, me, all of us!), humor is born. 

And I think humor is essential to tell these stories because it allows the audience to breathe. Watching stories about human struggles isn't always easy - so entertaining while educating is a perfect balance. 

For more great interviews, check out: 

Paper Cuts: EDs On Screen

Meet the Artist: Vanessa Papastavros

People of Color and Mental Illness: An In-Depth Interview with Dior Vargas

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Proud2Bme is an online community created by and for teens. We cover everything from fashion and beauty to news, culture, and entertainment—all with the goal of promoting positive body image and encouraging healthy attitudes about food and weight.

This site was developed in partnership with Riverduinen and made possible by generous contributions from JPMorgan Chase, Globant, the University of Delaware, and The Hilda & Preston Davis Foundation.

Proud2Bme was first launched in the Netherlands by Riverduinen, a mental health organization that has licensed the concept to the National Eating Disorders Association. Unless otherwise noted, all original content on this site is copyright The National Eating Disorders Association. The Proud2Bme brand, logos, and trademarks are property of Rivierduinen.