Contending with a devastating illness that negatively impacts both your physical and emotional functions can be a isolating process for anyone, particularly for young adults who have not yet become comfortable building relationships or found their place in society. But first-time feature film director Gren Wells humanely crafted an endearing story in the script for her new comedy-drama, ‘The Road Within,’ which powerfully emphasizes that people who are coping with illnesses that affect their minds and bodies aren’t any different from people who are healthy. Actor Robert Sheehan also grippingly showcased that people living with psychological disorders that also affect their bodies are worthy of being appreciated for their personalities in the independent movie, which is now playing on Digital HD, including iTunes, and in theaters.
‘The Road Within’ follows Vincent (Sheehan), a young man who feels isolated in his efforts to hide the symptoms of his Tourette’s syndrome, particularly after the death of his mother, who was his primary caregiver. His estranged father, Robert (Robert Patrick), is primarily concerned with achieving his political ambitions, so he decides to check Vincent into a center for patients dealing with psychological disorders. After arriving at the clinic, he meets his new roommate, Alex (Dev Patel), who is unhappy about sharing his space, which is kept in perfect order because of his OCD.
Feeling more secluded from the people around him than ever, Vincent’s attitude soon changes when he unexpectedly connects with Marie (Zoë Kravitz), who has returned to the center because of her anorexia. The two instantly decide that they don’t want Dr. Rose (Kyra Sedgwick), who’s in charge of the clinic, or their parents to choose what kind of treatment they should be receiving. So they decide to escape the center and venture to the sea, which Vincent had always wished to visit with his mother.
As the two set out to steal Dr. Rose’s car in the process, Alex threatens to end the trip before it begins. So Vincent and Marie decide to kidnap his roommate instead, so that Vincent can still spread his mother’s ashes in the water. The trio embarks on a three day journey that becomes a life changing experience none of them ever anticipated. With Dr. Rose and Robert determinedly in pursuit, the three young adults find they’re perfectly capable of living their lives according to their own rules, while breaking some others along the way.
Sheehan and Wells generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘The Road Within’ over the phone. Among other things, the actor and writer-director discussed how he met with families who have members living with Tourette’s syndrome, as well as the spokesperson for the Tourette’s Association, to help him physically and emotionally prepare for his role of Vincent; how Wells encouraged the cast to film each scene in three takes, as they were filming the comedy-drama independently on a short shooting schedule, which Sheehan embraced, as he enjoyed the immediacy of the process; and how they feel it’s important to incorporate comedy into such an emotionally important story, as humor is a part of the human condition and daily life, and there’s a difference between laughing at someone, and laughing with them.
ShockYa (SY): Robert, you play Vincent in the new comedy-drama, ‘The Road Within.’ What was it about the character of Vincent, as well as the script and project overall, that convinced you to take on the role?
Robert Sheehan (RS): Well, I love a challenge. When I first read the script, it seemed like Vincent would be a challenging character to play.
SY: Vincent is a young man with Tourette’s syndrome, who has contended with physical and vocal tics since his childhood. How did you prepare for the physicality, as well as the emotional aspects, of the role, and showcase the side effects of his illness?
RS: Well, the preparation to show Vincent’s Tourette’s came from two sources. There was a man in Los Angeles who Gren introduced me to, Jaxon Kramer, who’s the spokesperson for the Tourette’s Association. We spent a lot of time together, and he gave me important information on what it’s like to live with Tourette’s, particularly as an adolescent.
Then I did a lot of research on my own when I went back to London. I met with families who had a member who had Tourette’s, who gave me insight into how they act, especially in public.
SY: What was the process of filming the comedy-drama independently for the both of you, particularly since it focuses on such important physical and emotional obstacles Vincent is forced to contend with, and overcome, because of his illness? Did filming independently allow you to shoot on location?
Gren Wells (GW): Well, we filmed the majority of the movie in Los Angeles, so that we could afford to go on location the final few days. It was so important to film some of the scenes on location; for instance, you can’t fake Yosemite. As you see in the film, it’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I knew we had to shoot there, because it shows the triumph of these three characters, who have been told their whole lives that they couldn’t accomplish anything, and that they weren’t good at anything. So for them to climb to the top of Yosemite is quite an achievement. So we had to save up our money to actually go there, as well as Santa Cruz. That final week was just amazing, because we were all working together. We were also shooting the finale, so it was a special time.
RS: I love the process of filming with a small, intimate crew. You become like a family quicker when you don’t have a big crew, which helps you get to know everyone better. Then by the time we went on the road together, I was really excited, and was really comfortable with everyone to film those scenes.
When you film independently, you only have a limited time to shoot-we really learned to work with Gren’s idea to only have a three-take set-up for each scene. I liked the immediacy of that process. I really prefer the faster speed of how independent films are made.
SY: Soon after he checks into the center, Vincent embarks on an unauthorized trip outside of the facility, with a young woman he meets there, Marie, a young woman who’s receiving treatment for her anorexia, and Alex, his OCD-stricken roommate. How did you both build your working relationships with Zoë Kravitz and Dev Patel, who play Marie and Alex?
RS: Well, what was fun was that Zoe, Dev and I had a nice meet-up time to rehearse and find the dynamic between us. Dev brought a unique energy, and there was always a lot of screaming with him. Zoe helped equal out his bombastic nature, so I think it worked out well between us. We had a trial and error process together, to find the right dynamic between us.
GW: Working with the three of them was a joy, because they were all willing to try anything. Since they were so well-prepared, they made it so much easier when we began filming. No one was learning their lines on set, and they came in knowing their characters. So at that point, it was just trying to get the best take that conveyed the right emotions and general feeling from our three choices. So it was a pleasure to work with Robert, Zoe and Dev.
SY: Speaking of building the bonds with the rest of the cast and crew on the set, Gren, did you encourage the actors to improvise? Were you able to have rehearsal time together to help build the characters’ relationships and their backstories?
GW: We luckily were able to have a lot of rehearsal time. Since these characters were so physically demanding, the actors put in the extra time to prepare. So any and all issues with the script, like if there was a certain line or word they wanted to change, was dealt with beforehand.
The thing about improvising is that it takes a potentially long time to figure out what the scene is about. We didn’t have the luxury of time-we only had time for three takes per set-up. So there was very little improvising, other than me giving Robbie free rein to try different things if he nailed the scripted scene in take one, which he did 99.9 percent of the time. So then on the other two takes, I let gave him free rein to do whatever he wanted with the tic. So some of the tics you see in the film are all courtesy of Mr. Robert Sheehan. But overall, there really wasn’t much improvising, just because of the time aspect.
SY: While the film focuses on the struggles of the illnesses Vincent, Marie and Alex are living with, the three are continuously relying on humor, that’s often targeted at each other, to make themselves feel better. Why do you both think it was so important to include that humor in a film that focuses on serious health issues?
GW: Well, I think humor is a part of the human condition and daily life. I can’t imagine not laughing everyday. There is a big difference between laughing at someone, and laughing with them. Alex and Marie teach Vincent that it is okay to laugh at yourself, because we’re all ridiculous and have things we don’t like about ourselves. Just because these three characters are different on the outside, and we can see their differences, those differences really don’t make them different from the rest of us.
The dad and the doctor in the film are actually far more screwed up than the three kids combined. But they can hide their differences and weirdness a little bit better. That raises the question of who should really be in the clinic. The kids are having a tough time, but once they get out on the road on their own, they all, with Vincent and Alex in particular, realize they’re capable of so much more than they’ve been told their whole lives.
RS: They realize that by getting out of the clinic, that life can be full. They can reach their full potential by getting out of that environment.
GW: That’s exactly right. They also realize that life is messy, and you can’t control everything. They also realize that life is painful at times, but life is worth it. So I do think that humor is essential in that aspect.
Also, when you’re dealing with sensitive subject matters like Tourette’s, anorexia and OCD, if you try to beat audiences over the head with just hard-core drama for two hours, they never get a release. That’s what laughter is-being able to breathe. So if you never let them do that, they’re going to feel so drowsy after they finish watching the film. So I took my cues from the masters, including John Hughes, who showed that you can infuse humor into very delicate subject matter, and come out even stronger on the other side.
SY: Speaking of Vincent’s estranged father Robert, who’s played by Robert Patrick, he checks his son into a center for patients dealing with similar psychological disorders, after Vincent’s mother, who was his primary caregiver, dies. Why do you both feel it was so important for Vincent to spend time on his own, in order to help strengthen his relationship with his father?
GW: Well, the father-son story is a classic. It’s about the mentality of passing your father on the highway, whether emotionally, financially or physically. There are always struggles with any father and son. In this film, it’s easily exasperated because of Vincent’s illness. I don’t think his father is a bad person, but he’s not emotionally equipped to deal with a son who has a severe illness. So what he did was divorce his wife and left, because it was easier for him not to see his son, and be reminded of the fact that he has a disability.
But his journey throughout the film is realizing that his son is a capable person. He also realizes that Vincent’s deserving of receiving more of his love, because he’s battling something that’s extremely difficult.
SY: What was your experience of both writing and directing ‘The Road Within,’ particularly since this is the first film you helmed?
GW: I loved every second of it. (laughs) I’m a bit of a control freak, so being the person in charge definitely felt good. But I think I’m also really good at collaborating, and hearing other people’s ideas. Robbie has spoken about the fact that I allowed them the freedom to run with their characters. I did that because they’re so enormously talented, and really got to know and understand their characters better than I did. So it felt really good to get my point across with the help of the entire cast and crew. We all made a beautiful movie that really opens up the discussion of mental health awareness.
SY: ‘The Road Within’ is currently playing on VOD and in theaters. Are you both personally fans of watching films On Demand, and why do you think the platform is so beneficial to smaller, independent films like this on?
RS: Well, I actually prefer watching films in the cinema, but I know not all films are available to everyone in theaters. So I think On Demand can be a nice contingency plan, but I prefer to always watch a movie in the cinema.
GW: I agree, but VOD can be helpful in certain instances. We received this beautiful letter from a father who’s child has Tourette’s. Since her outbursts are so severe, he can’t take her to the theater. So he rented and watched the movie at home, and she actually stopped ticking for the entire movie. That’s so extraordinary to hear, because obviously without the movie being available on VOD, she wouldn’t have been able to see it.
But I agree with Robbie that movies like this deserve to be seen in the theater, because there’s a communal experience that develops. That’s the way I shot it and want people to see it.
Written by: Karen Benardello