sundance 2020

Alison Brie Based Horse Girl on Her Own Mental Health History

Brie co-wrote and stars in the darkly funny Netflix film based on her own family history of schizophrenia and depression. Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

“If there’s not a Reddit message board about this movie, I would be shocked and frankly appalled,” Alison Brie tells me on a sunny afternoon in Park City, a day before the Sundance Film Festival premiere of her feature screenwriting debut, Horse Girl. “I want Reddit fans to know we were keeping them in mind while making it.”

To say her twist-filled movie, co-written and directed by Jeff Baena, is difficult to unpack is a bit of an understatement. The surreal, genuinely strange, and often sad film follows Sarah (Brie), the titular horse girl, an awkward young woman whose primary activities are grooming her childhood pony, watching supernatural crime dramas, and selling fabrics at a local crafts store alongside her beloved co-worker (Molly Shannon). But the movie is a bit of a bait and switch: While its title and first half indicate it might be a classically quirky Sundance indie, roughly halfway through Sarah’s story it becomes clear that Horse Girl has a lot more on its mind than revisiting twee tropes. Due to a series of inexplicable events, Sarah begins to believe she’s actually a clone of her dead grandmother, and that she’s being regularly abducted by aliens. She starts to spiral, wondering if she can trust herself or if she’s falling down the same mental black hole that her mother and grandmother once did.

Brie tells me that while the more abstract sci-fi threads are inspired by her own love of the genre, the mental-health aspect of Horse Girl is based on her real-life family history with paranoid schizophrenia and depression, as well as her resulting fears about her own psychology. It’s something she’s never spoken about publicly, though you wouldn’t know that from the calm, easy demeanor she possesses during our conversation, flipping back and forth between deadpanning about aliens to considering her own mother’s eventual response to the movie, which hits Netflix February 7.

I loved this. It’s a real mindfuck!
[Laughs.] Thank you! I’m glad you thought so.

When did you first start thinking about making Horse Girl?
My whole life I’ve wanted to make something about my mother and my grandmother. My mother’s mother lived with paranoid schizophrenia, and my mother grew up in a really traumatic situation. And I grew up with the mythology of my grandmother’s mental illness, hearing a lot of stories about my mother’s childhood and how the mental illness affected her. How it trickled down, affected my aunt and uncle and their kids — also how it didn’t affect them. It had different effects on everybody. So when I was younger, my mom would even joke about it with me: “I know you’re gonna make a movie one day about me and my mom.”

Wow, she knew then?
Oh, yeah. It’s a big part of who my mother is. So even though I never really knew my grandmother — I met her a couple of times as a little girl before she died — I knew so much about her. In the making of this movie I did a lot more interviews with my mom, asking more questions for Sarah’s personal backstory more than anything. But as I got closer to really putting pen to paper and writing something, I realized I was leaning toward something much less literal and a little more abstract and surreal. I’ve been kind of wanting to be in a thriller, lean into sci-fi — more things I’m a big fan of. And I started to think about the more personal aspect of the story: Where does my fascination come from, having not known this woman? I started to realize this is much more about my fear of having mental illness in my bloodline. When will it come out? And will I have the awareness to know when it’s happening?

In my own personal struggles with depression, I know the feeling of being helpless, feeling powerless, feeling alone. Right before I wrote this, I went through my deepest bout of depression in my life.

When was this?
In 2018, right before we started writing it. I was in a really low place and I started talking to a therapist. But then I have this secondary anger at my genetics. Like, “This doesn’t have anything to do with me! How am I trapped in a making of my own mind?” And then I realized, okay, the [movie] I want to make is about this woman who has this history of mental illness, and what if something real started happening to her? What is something really wild, really scary, started happening and she didn’t have the ability to know whether it was real or not? If she didn’t have the ability to even trust herself or her own grip on reality?

So I went to Jeff [Baena] and talked to him about it. I didn’t want to write it alone. I’ve never written anything before, and I just didn’t have the discipline. He’d been talking to me about how we should make a movie where I played a horse girl, and kind of lean into that archetype. When I brought him this idea, he said, “I think it’s the same idea.” And that kind of broke everything open. We realized tying in the horse girl to this character helped us figure out her social isolation as an adult.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you haven’t spoken openly about your mother and grandmother like this before, have you?
No, this is the first time I’m talking about it publicly, and it’s been a real overload. I’ve been trying to prepare my mother: “You know, I’m gonna talk about it a lot.” But the movie is such an abstraction of it. We didn’t set out to make a mental-illness movie, and we don’t diagnose my character, certainly, because there’s so much more to what she’s going through. One of our goals was putting the audience in the shoes of the character, letting them go on the ride with her, finding empathy for her and what she’s going through. Rather than standing back, looking at it, judging it.

Has your mom seen the film yet?
She has not.

Are you nervous to show her?
I am nervous. I keep trying to prepare her and let her know that it’s a real departure, it’s very weird. These are the words I say to her to contextualize it, because so often she refers to it as “the movie you made about my mom.” And I’m sort of like, “It’s not a literal movie about your mom.” Obviously there’s so much other stuff going on. But I hope that she enjoys it. She certainly loves the trailer.

The trailer and the title are sort of a fake-out, though. Is that something you and Jeff planned?
A little bit. The title felt like a foregone conclusion. We never thought of another one. It’s such an integral part of who she is. And also I do think that everyone knows a horse girl. It’s an immediate read and makes you think of middle school or high school. But even when we were pitching the movie to the Duplasses and Netflix, we talked about a bit of a — not a bait and switch, but the movie starts out as one thing and changes into something else. It mirrors what happens in Sarah’s mind mentally. You start out the movie and you see me and Molly Shannon doing sweet scenes in a craft store, and it looks like a sweet indie comedy, and you feel very safe. We wanted everyone to feel safe and good and get comfortable, and then very immediately start to play with their grip on reality and on what the movie is.

Did things get blurry at all for you, writing and starring in a movie about your family’s mental illness when you’ve harbored this fear about your own?
A little bit, yeah. I actually think the experience was very cathartic for me. When Sarah talks about her family history, it’s a lot of real, personal stuff. Baena came into the room and was like, “Why don’t you just talk about your grandmother a little bit, the things you know about her?” It just tapped into something I didn’t even realize I was holding onto in such a major way.

But at the same time, while playing the character was a very intense process, I had this other co-writing and producing hat, which was really good. It would’ve been more intense staying in character all the time.

Did writing it help you get out of your depressive period?
Definitely. There were a number of factors. What I have, that Sarah our character doesn’t have, is an amazing support system. So many friends and family members of mine go to therapy and take medication. Everyone I know has destigmatized the idea of mental health. So it was easy to ask for help, to get out of my house, to get moving and go to yoga class and work out. I work out a lot and I think that really helps keep depression in check.

Writing this definitely helped in a career depression kind of way, too. When I’m not working, there can be slumps where I feel like, “I’ll never work again. That was it, I had a good run.” So for me it was very empowering to say, “If I’m feeling uninspired by the roles coming my way or the lack of things coming my way, I’ll write the thing I want to perform.”

Did you feel that way — unimpressed with the roles coming your way?
I wouldn’t say unimpressed. But in 2018 before I wrote this, I was having an existential career crisis, a reckoning with what kind of work I wanted to do. And what people’s perception was of me as an actor versus the types of work I wanted to do. Even though I feel like I’ve been able to play so many different types of characters — and I’ve loved the things I’ve worked on, especially Glow, which is my favorite job I’ve ever done, it’s fulfilling in every sense — I wanted to do something a little different on the film side. I guess I was feeling a little bored or uninspired, and I wanted to crack things open and do something a bit risky.

And it felt that way [with Horse Girl]. There were days on set where I was like, I don’t know about this… This is a big swing and I don’t know how it’ll work out. But it was very validating to sit there and go, This movie is not for everybody. No matter what the reaction, this movie will always be incredibly special to me.

You’ve never looked like this before, either. How did you conceive of her costumes and hair?
Beth Morgan, who does the costumes for Glow, was our costume designer. The thing about Sarah’s wardrobe is that we were trying to tap into a quintessential horse-girl look, but dated. That reflects how she used to have money and be able to ride horses and have familial support from her stepdad, but she doesn’t really have that anymore. It was about her place in society; she’s a bit of a time capsule, because her life hasn’t changed much since her adolescence, and since she experienced certain traumas. As far as the hair, the fantasy initially was that I’d have very long hair, because it’s a horse-girl trope. But we didn’t have money in the budget for a great wig.

I want to hear about your own fascination with aliens and sci-fi, and how these things made it into the movie.
It was really fun to play with the more supernatural elements of the movie. Jeff and I did really fun research on all sides. I interviewed my family about mental health, but we also researched alien abduction and the through lines to different people’s stories who say they’ve been abducted. I researched sleep deprivation, the effects of that, and started to make this Venn diagram of those things and how they can affect people. With Sarah, there’s another component: Are these things happening or not? And with her family history looming over her, it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more she’s thinking and scared and obsessing over something, does that make it happen more? What’s the cause, what’s the effect?

Did you want everyone to leave the film unsure of whether or not these things are really happening?
Definitely. Our hope is that people have myriad interpretations of the movie[’s ending]. We certainly have a theory about what we think is going on, but I’d venture to say that even Baena and I have slightly different takes about what the truth is; I’m a bit more open to interpretation than he is. It’s been really fun, even in these early screenings, to hear different reactions. A lot of people feel very strongly, “This is the truth of the movie.” And we’ve built a lot of things into it where you can rewatch and discover something new.

Ooh, there’s Easter eggs?
There are. Certainly.

Can you tell me one?
I guess I would say, the things involving possible time loops. I’m curious to see how much of that people are catching … In a flashback sequence in the movie, my character does have really long hair. That may or may not play into the time loop of it all. Sarah’s hair is a newer chop. Since her most recent trauma, she tried to make a change.

Do you want people to be on Reddit, picking this movie apart?
If there’s not a Reddit message board about this movie, I would be shocked and frankly appalled. I want the Reddit fans to know that we did a lot of Reddit-based research for this movie. We’re all about it.

If they don’t, you should start your own.
Will this be the year I finally do an AMA on Reddit? I don’t know. It terrifies me. That’s been a fear of mine for a long time.

What are some of your pet conspiracy theories that made their way into this?
I definitely believe in aliens! Though I don’t know if I’d call it a conspiracy theory.

It’s science.
It’s real science. [Laughs.] I’ve read enough stories now about people being abducted, and the through lines are amazing. I’m not a crazy conspiracy theorist, though. I’m a low-key conspiracy theorist, on the DL. I can get revved up but I’m not instigating. If someone gets me going, I’m like, Oh my God. I’ll watch videos about cults and 9/11 and I’ll be like, “My mind is blown.” But then I’m like, “Should we watch another hour of Friends?” I have a short attention span.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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Alison Brie Based Horse Girl on Her Mental Health History