Interview: Viv Fongenie

Viv Fongenie started as a journalist on the NME where he ran a page reviewing fiction, film and theatre.  Viv’s first micro-budget feature Let’s Stick Together (1999) won several accolades including Best Film, at international film festivals. He has developed original feature scripts with Film 4, the BBC and the UK Film Council. Outside of film, Viv continues practicing as a mental health consultant. His extensive work in the world of mental health includes the publication of papers for the Home Office as well as several other articles and booklets. In 2005 he made Troubled Minds, a documentary focusing on psychiatric services and the Black community. He continues to develop projects and provide training to mental health professionals on innovative, alternative approaches to traditional psychiatric interventions.

His new film Ollie Kepler’s Expanding Purple World tackles the taboo issue of mental health in society today. We caught up with Viv to chat about his daring new film:

Why did you choose mental health as something to focus on for your new film?

We wanted to make a film which gave a realistic and authentic portrayal of mental illness. Too often in film, people with mental health issues are portrayed as axe wielding murderers or artistic geniuses (Shine, A Beautiful Mind). Having worked alongside people with a mental health diagnosis so many of them said that they faced two distinct problems – dealing with the symptoms of their diagnosis, and dealing with the stigma the public attached to the mentally ill. I wanted to make a film that helped reduce the stigma and prejudice attached to mental illness by trying to show, and thereby raise an understanding of, what people actually go through.

You’ve previously made a documentary on mental health services; why the switch now to a fictional piece?

I’ve always written fiction and have worked on several screenplays with major broadcasters and other funding bodies. When working on Troubled Minds (2005) the switch was actually away from fiction and over to documentaries. I made the switch as I felt it was incredibly important to give mental health service users the chance to tell their own stories with their own voices.

You’ve assembled quite a cast here! How did you get them on board?

The strong, distinctive script and meaningful subject matter were strong starting points in order to attract great acting talent. It also took a lot of determination alongside a little skill and creativity.

Ollie Kepler (Edward Hogg)

Shooting in four weeks is a pretty breakneck pace! What kind of sacrifices did you have to make to accommodate your schedule?

When filming we had to make sacrifices in terms of camera set ups; we would preferably have liked more coverage. Mostly, the key was being super tight and on the ball all the time, which just meant a bit of extra pressure. One is already under a lot of pressure with a modestly budgeted film like this, so the added challenge of the timeframe did not make such a huge difference in the end!

Without doubt, it would have been nice to have a little extra time – there’s so much to attend to that there’s always something useful you can do with that added time on set.

Since the money lake in Hollywood has dried up it’s become a lot more common for movies with big stars to be shot in four weeks; do you feel the gap is closing between ‘indie’ and mainstream films for these reasons?

For me, the difference is more about financial back-up and industry muscle, not shooting schedules. If you’ve got big names and heavyweight back-up, you know the marketing people will be there to make sure your film gets out there in a big way, even if it’s been shot in four weeks. If you’re on your own, it’s a whole different story.

We’re all about promoting emerging talent here at Spindle. Would you be able to tell us a bit about how you managed to put together funding for the film?

I decided to set the film up myself through a government scheme called Enterprise Investment Scheme (E.I.S). This meant raising private investment and was a hard slog – especially in the recent economic climate. However, I felt the script was original and distinctive and therefore felt sure we could attract strong acting talent. Though, considering how much effort it took we raised the money fairly quickly, by ‘film time’ standards.

What do you hope your audience will take away from this film? 

I’d like people to come away from the film having been moved and engaged by Ollie’s (Edward Hogg) journey and Tom’s (Andrew Knott) struggle with him. It would also be great for the audience to walk away with a bit more empathy for people with mental health issues.

And what’s up next for you?

I am currently working on a project, which is at the casting stage, with Sean McKittrick, L.A. based producer of Donnie Darko. It’s a dark, cyber-punk, paranoid thriller. I’m also finishing a UK-based comedy drama with a fantastic central premise, its very topical, but with a highly distinctive approach. I have a hunch it may ‘go’ first!

Screenings of Ollie Kepler’s Expanding Purple World, are taking place at the Genesis, Mile End Monday 25th Feb – Thursday 28th Feb. For further information please visit www.olliekepler.com or contact the venue

Ollie Kepler's Expanding Purple World, sleeve 2