When asked what’s on her mind in “The Year Between” by her therapist, Clemence (Alex Heller) says she’s thinking of writing a novel set in rural Illinois exploring feminism, something in the vein of being “a bit like ‘Jurassic Park.’” It’s surely a joke on Clemence‘s part to get out of an uncomfortable situation as they talk about her recent bipolar prognosis, but it’s not as far off as one might think from the scale of what writer/director and star Heller is going for in her loosely autobiographical debut, based on her experience of moving back home after leaving college and working through treatment.
There may be no dinosaurs to speak of, but the beast to be conquered in “The Year Between” may be just as great, introducing Clemence as she tears through the common space of the University of Western Illinois where she disrupts a heated game of quidditch and eventually upends her dorm room where her roomie sits in stunned silence. Deciding she doesn’t belong there, she doesn’t exactly find herself welcome at home either after her mother (J. Cameron Smith) has turned her room into a home office for her father (Steve Buscemi), sending her to live in the basement while they all figure things out. It’ll take Clemence a while, having the dual burdens of learning how to be kinder to herself as she looks for a new job to feel like she’s contributing would appear to be at odds with each other and diagnosed with mania and depression, adjusting to high highs and low lows not only is personally exhausting but requires patience on the part of her family, including sister Carly (Emily Robinson) and brother Neil (Wyatt Oleff), that none of them would seem to have.
Still, what puts everyone on edge in “The Year Between” is what makes Heller’s narrative debut so engaging as she’s able to channel what’s offbeat about Clemence into a distinctive perspective on the world, filled with jagged humor and fresh insights into both the condition of being bipolar and family dynamics. Although Clemence can be gripped by fear, Heller is completely fearless in the role and any distance there may be between the character and the family at the start of “The Year Between” is quickly erased by the genuine chemistry of the talented ensemble she assembled around her. On the eve of the film’s premiere at Tribeca, a festival she first pitched for the Untold Stories grant when it was in its infancy, Heller spoke about growing as a filmmaker during the development process, finding the right visual articulation for her experience and the surreality of filming in some of her old haunts.
This has been in the works for a while, so had this evolved much over the years?
Oh my God, yes. I wrote the first draft of the script when I was a senior in college for a class project, and I didn’t think anybody would ever read it. That was what seven years ago and it wasn’t until a couple years later when I dusted it off and started working on it again, but I’ve been working on it for many years. It’s always been the same story, but it’s been through several different drafts and iterations, especially as I have now been medicated and in treatment for over a decade. It’s definitely evolved as I’ve delved deeper into how that all goes, so it’s been a long journey.
Were you always planning to star in the film?
No, I was not. [laughs] I was on the improv team in college and did some standup, but I was never an actor and I’ll say to act in this wasn’t my initial idea, but I’m so glad I did, even though it was very new in all ways and extremely hard for me because it’s so personal, so the added challenge of reliving some really personal challenging things was quite overwhelming, but also very rewarding. I think the reason I agreed to do it, even though I was very nervous, was I did think this character is a past version of myself and for the sake of efficiency, it might just be best if I just do it.
You had your mom star in a few of your shorts. Do you actually like having that blend of a world you know with fiction in your stories?
Yeah, I definitely do. Through my twenties, I was basically unemployed while trying to make this movie, just doing odd part-time work here and there, but always making short films to creatively sustain myself, even if no one saw them, so it just kept me going and also helped me get better at how I wanted to tell stories, so creatively it was super-sustaining, but also it got me in touch with maybe what you’re describing with how I do draw heavily from my emotions and personal life when telling stories. Part of having my parents act in things was — I’m not going to lie — a little bit of a necessity because I lived with them until I was 27 and they were there and it was their house that we shot in every time. But also there is a level of reality and truthfulness to doing it that way that allowed me to tap into something very, very genuine and special.
“The Year Between” has some great basements – were some of these houses places you knew?
The featured basement in “The Year Between” is in a town nearby my hometown in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, so that’s not my house or someone I know, but I know people that live down the street. The hero house of the Miller family is actually two different houses that we cheated as one, but interestingly, the exterior of that house is the same exact build of the house that I grew up in, so the locations are wild. We shot at my high school. It was definitely an intense walk down memory lane, but I loved the authenticity of watching this back and feeling like I really feel like I’m being transported to this very specific Chicago town.
What was it like bringing this cast to the Midwest to play your family?
It was crazy, [which] I don’t know if I’m supposed to say anymore, I feel like that goes against my brand now. [laughs] But it was fucking crazy. Just to reiterate, I never had a short film at Sundance or something like that, and I had this script that I knew was good and I polished for many years, but I didn’t feel like I had climbed the rung that people expect you to climb before they agree to act in your feature. So I was shocked by it. I had a great casting director who encouraged me to just take swings because these people who act in the movie, they didn’t do it for the money. They made nothing off it. They just connected with the material and connected with me, so I took some swings and I got everybody I wanted to work with.
I was so excited and nervous to be around them at first, but everybody was so chill and down to earth — way more than I was. I was running around the set, freaking out and all the family member cast were like playing “Duck, Duck, Goose” in the other room. But we all gelled extremely well as a family and it just says a lot about all these actors who will take the time out of their really demanding schedules to do a movie like this. Everyone has a connection to this movie in some emotional way and on top of it, all of these people were so patient with me and really helped me be an actor. I feel it’s so cliche when people say, “They taught me more than I taught them,” but it is true. They really were drew something out of me that I didn’t know I quite had in myself.
Once the cast is on set and this starts taking on a life of its own, were there any directions this took that you might not have expected but could get excited about?
Yeah, I think this movie ended up having much more gravity than I thought it would. The dramatic parts dig a lot deeper than I think they did on the page and the funny parts are funnier than I thought they would be. The movie spans a much wider spectrum of emotion than I was expecting. I went into it thinking this might be more of specifically a comedy and that’s a coping mechanism for avoiding some past trauma, and my mentality for a while was to undercut anything that could be melodramatic or too traumatic and let’s have a good time.
I realized while being shoulder to shoulder with these incredible actors — and just my entire team was amazing — that there is something very powerful and important about embracing the dramatic side of this and the vulnerability of it. Even adding the words “I love you,” which occur one time and not from the main character, that was a change that was made days before shooting. That wasn’t something I had in there. It took me a while to make this emotional jump and be able to be like, “I’m going to bravely embrace that there are parts of this that are a little bit not funny and serious. I’m going to go for it and it’s okay.” And it’s not melodramatic, it just is honest.
The camerawork is really in tune with what you’re describing, able to accommodate an entire range of emotions. What was it like figuring out a shooting style for this?
Our [director of photography] is Jason Chiu and he’s shot my past three or four short films and we’ve developed this really fine-tuned way of working together that he knows me as an actor/director so well that he’s super adaptive to the patterns and nuances of my storytelling. He is already such a creative, visionary DP and being so familiar with somebody and having worked together a lot, I think helps him be on my emotional wavelength so closely that what we’re all seeing as the movie really mirrors what’s going on inside my own head. And one of the broader concepts I was interested in was always measuring where we are in the story based on how closely we feel aligned with Clemence, the main character, versus how much we may feel alienated from her, so a lot of the camerawork was determined by are we aligned with this very unhinged main character and seeing her perspective of things or are we on the societal side of things, viewing her [as] why isn’t this person functional? Where are we living right now in relation to how this person is adapting to becoming an adult was definitely a big storytelling compass for when it came to the visual style.
Having the film premiere at Tribeca seems like it must be especially sweet given the history the film has with the festival. What’s it like to come back with a finished product?
It’s so wild. It began with Tribeca in 2018 when we were part of the Untold Stories [competition], which is [where] five projects pitch for a million dollar grant to make an indie movie over the course of the year, and we were one of five. We didn’t win, but I connected with one of the judges from the competition and he helped us get our wheels going. Years passed and people came on and things evolved, but that was one of the biggest milestones of getting some attention for this story. And yesterday, I went to pick up my badge and walked past the same building that I walked into for that pitch and it made me feel really proud because for a long time, I was like I don’t want to spend so many years doing this. If I can’t get it made, then that means maybe I need to do something else or maybe it’s not meant to be. But I’ve now grown so proud of how long it took me.
If it hadn’t taken me this long to make — let’s say I’d gotten financing or figured it out years ago, it would be a worse movie because the script wouldn’t be as good, I wouldn’t be as practiced of a director. I’ve gained skills and stamina over the years that have allowed me to do this, so I think it happened as exactly the right time and I wear it as a badge of honor because it’s a testament to just how hard my team and I worked and how it’s not easy. That’s representative of what it’s like for most people trying to get any movies made. Sometimes it takes years and I would encourage people to not give up and find things that creatively sustain yourself while you’re on this long journey. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, but [don’t] give up because that feeling of being at Tribeca now and to come full circle and just being so excited to share the movie, I’m so proud and I’m just so excited for the premiere. I’ve been dreaming of this since I graduated college and I’m so excited and I feel really lucky and I’m ready to show it to people.
“The Year Between” will screen at Tribeca at the Village East on June 12th at 5:30 pm and June 14th at 8:45 pm and at the Cinepolis Chelsea at June 17th at 9 pm. It will also be available to stream from June 14th at 6 pm through the end of the festival on June 19th.