Fresh From The Field — Good Trouble by Alex Johnson and Ramon Telfer

4 months ago by

We’ve got a very pertinent piece for Mental Health Awareness week – we talk to Alex Johnson and Ramon Telfer behind Good Trouble. They chat about mental health challenges and how nearly one-third of Kiwis experience mental distress in their lifetime, with men being 3-4 times more likely to die by suicide. They created their short film/mental health campaign to resonate with this demographic and to sit at the intersection of creativity and mental health. 

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The brief:
After ten years of witnessing Ramon’s father’s heartbreaking grapple with bipolar, learning to cope with our personal mental health challenges and attempting to navigate our fragmented health system, Ramon and I have found ourselves drawn to the intersection of creativity and mental health. We believe storytelling and creativity play a vital role in the Aotearoa mental health conversation.

We were motivated by the statistics that state nearly one-third of Kiwis experience mental distress in their lifetime, and that men are 3-4 times more likely to die by suicide. We decided that we wanted to create a short film/mental health campaign with a simple call to action that would resonate with this demographic.

The key areas we wanted to explore were:
– What is the simplest call to action that could help someone who is feeling depressed?
– How might we create a narrative that normalises the idea of a breakdown?
– How might we educate our audience of the signs of depression?

Additionally, because the film is self funded we had to impose some logistical requirements, such as:
– The film had to be set in one location, in the Wellington region
– The film needed to be shot in 1/2 day

The Design Response:
We’ve always been driven to talk about mental health differently, more casually and in a way that associates our negative emotions with areas of life that don’t carry a sigma. Our ambition is to provide a new perspective that empowers people to take positive action.

We started our creative process with a call to action – call a mate. Improving your mental health is a lifelong journey that requires a holistic approach. However, taking the first step can be difficult and overwhelming. We considered a variety of different call to actions, but “call a mate” stood out as a simple, manageable and non-confronting task for our target audience.

We next considered the narrative vehicle (mind the pun!) to communicate our call to action. The idea of a car breakdown was one that stood out to us because it’s an accessible concept that doesn’t carry a negative sigma. This analogy linked perfectly to our call to action and allowed us to draw parallels to asking a mate for a jumpstart.

Our greatest challenge was to create a dialogue that was simultaneously dark and vulnerable to illustrate the world and signs of depression, colloquial and light-hearted to normalise the conversation, and also stern and supportive to assert that “it’s going to take some real mahi to turn this breakdown into a breakthrough”. After 17 script iterations, several walking-workshops and a trip to Mahia we managed to lock in a script that achieved this balance.

Our talented actors, Tim MacDonald and Manual Soloman, were huge contributors to the success of the project. We started auditions with an open-mind, but were looking for actors who could bring the characters to life and communicate the lines with delicacy and serenity. We were also interested in finding actors between 20-30, who were ethnically ambiguous but leaning towards Māori. This was important to us because Māori/Pacific people have higher suicide rates than Europeans and are less likely to reach out for help. We wanted our target audience to feel represented and empowered by our actors.

Landscape was another important element to the narrative. We needed the environment to be a character in itself, so it was important that the film location contributed to the protagonist’s feelings of emptiness, hopelessness and isolation. We initially had the desert road in mind but due to budget restraints we hunted for a similar landscape that was closer to home. Wainuiomata Coast road was the perfect fit, because it provided a large, barren, basin that felt vast and empty. We worked with our brilliant cinematographer, Luke Frater, to visualise this landscape and frame it in a way that accentuated these features. Additionally, the geography creates a natural wind tunnel that (despite being a challenge for our amazing sound recordist, Joel Anscombe-Smith) provides the drama and intensity that the scene requires.

We then worked with Mike Bloemendal, a fantastic composer, to create a dark, ruminating environment that simulated a depressive headspace. Vocal effects put emphasis on key dialogue and highlight the swirling notation of thoughts. This paired with our CGI, which was masterfully created by Kacper Cias, to reimagine depression as a landscape. This landscape was named ‘Rock Bottom’ – a place where no one wants to find themselves in. This vital layer is what made the invisible visible. We used CGI to decay our environment so that we could see both the protagonist and the world around him breakdown.

The Design Team

  • Ramon Telfer: Co-Writer and Co-Director
  • Alex Johnson: Co-Writer and Co-Director
  • Luke Frater – Cinematographer
  • Actor 1: Tim MacDonald (Driver)
  • Actor 2: Manual Soloman
  • Sound Recordist: Joel Anscombe-Smith
  • Soundscape: Mike Bloemendal
  • Animator: Kacper Cias


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