Last month, Film Independent announced their annual Sloan grant winners, awarding the $20,000 Sloan Fast Track Grant to writer/director Elena Greenlee for her project Dark Forest, which had previously been a finalist for the NYU Sloan Feature Grant. Sloan Science and Film talked with Elena about developing Dark Forest, preparing for production,and the challenges of putting psychedelic science on screen.
Sloan Science and Film: Can you tell our readers a little about yourself?
Elena Greenlee: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York in the 80s and 90s, and though I studied at a math and science specialized high school in Manhattan, I've always been drawn to expressing myself through creative writing and photography. Attempting to marry those two modes in order to find a more satisfying medium is what brought me to film. I started by studying documentary film at UC Santa Cruz and through NYU Tisch School of the Arts' semester-long program in Cuba, which is where I made my first short film. I also studied abroad for a year in Brazil.
Both of those trips were also ways for me to research and connect with parts of my family history and identity. My mother was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to Brazil at the height of its military dictatorship. Living in Cuba was a way for me to visit a world that in some senses was still connected to the Cold War era that my mother came from. Living in Brazil was a way to connect with a kind of mythic "home," a place where maybe my family could have fit in and been happy if they had not been pushed out by the terrible political troubles of that time.
People often ask me why I speak fluent Spanish and Portuguese and it’s difficult to explain my whole complicated family history to them. I think that is part of why I'm drawn to making films about characters that have more complex and global identities—to combat the American obsession with over-simplifying folks in terms of their nationality. My first feature film production, Manos Sucias, which is out in theaters now, is a story about the plight of Afro-Colombians who work on the lowest rung of the international drug trafficking ladder. Though it's a film (beautifully directed by my friend Josef Wladyka) that transports audiences to a very specific and remote world on the Pacific coast of South America, it also is about an economy that connects the Northern and Southern hemispheres in a way that people in the US and Europe are often reluctant to acknowledge. I would like to continue to make films that reflect how interconnected we are across all kinds of borders.
SSF: What’s Dark Forest about?
EG: Dark Forest is about many different kinds of border crossings. Louise is a bright young research fellow in psychiatry at a major university. She's extremely idealistic and excited to be working in the very promising realm of psychedelic drug research that has just recently become possible again after decades of being banned by the FDA and NIDA.
Louise's youthful enthusiasm causes her to cross some lines and a controversial media appearance that she makes has her supervisors worried that she's a liability to their already tenuous position in a controversial field. Her position is suspended, and she is devastated. At the same time, Louise is offered another media gig, traveling to the Amazon as a science correspondent and visiting an "ayahuasca healing center" where shamanism is supposedly being used to cure addictions.
Louise takes up the offer, hoping that she will come back with breakthrough insights that will redeem her and regain her status on the research team. However, what Louise discovers proves much darker and more perplexing than anything she could have imagined. Not only is she forced to reconsider her approach to healing, but also she's faced with a deep moral quandary about how to move forward in light of the corruptions that she has been exposed to.
SSF: What kind of science are we going to see in the film? Are you working with science advisors?
EG: A lot of what you see in the film is about a crisis moment in a scientist's career. The tension between risk and responsibility, between progress and politics, are dramas that play out very vividly in Louise's story. How does a scientist grapple with that frontier between knowledge and mystery? I've been very fortunate through the support of the Sloan Foundation to work with two great science advisors. The first was Dr. Kenneth Alper, a researcher in neurology and psychiatry at NYU who studies Ibogaine, a psychoactive alkaloid derived from the West African Iboga which has been found to rapidly expedite opiate withdrawal and help many former addicts stay clean. The most recent is Dr. Charles Grob who is director of child and adolescent psychiatry at UCLA Harbor Medical Center and has done extensive research with psychedelic drugs for a variety of therapeutic purposes. Both of these doctors helped me mine the biographies of prominent researchers in the field for insights into the lives and work of my characters. They gave me tremendous support and encouragement as well, affirming that this is a film they are excited to see! The authenticity that their input brings is invaluable to the film.
I am really thrilled that Sloan is supporting this project right now as the issue of incorporating psychedelic substances into therapeutic treatment has been re-entering the mainstream consciousness in the past several years. The public is growing quite intrigued, and at the same time this is an area of research with a very troubled past that makes many people feel wary of going near it. One of the main sentiments that I hear echoed both in the public opinion and from these researchers is that we just don't have good enough treatments for conditions like depression, anxiety and addiction, and that we as a society are vastly over medicated but under cured. With that being the case it becomes harder for anyone to argue against a responsible scientific inquiry into these substances which have demonstrated tremendous promise in helping veterans overcome PTSD and terminal cancer patients cope with end of life anxiety. We will certainly see interesting developments in these areas of research in the coming years, and it's exciting to have the opportunity to enter into this cultural dialogue by making a film. I hope to do justice by my science advisors' expectations!
SSF: Tell me a little about some of the challenges you’re anticipating in bringing the film to the screen.
EG: Some subjective psychedelic experiences are portrayed in the film. I recognize that it is extremely challenging to portray such a particular altered state of consciousness in a way that feels meaningful to the audience and not just like a gag or a visual ploy. However, I think that most of what we aspire to convey in film through character behavior and mis-en-scene is ultimately invisible (like love for example). Cinema is a medium of invocation more than simple show and tell. So I think it is an interesting challenge to take on.
SSF: What are your next steps to get there? How have the funds from Sloan helped?
EG: The next steps are really exciting! My producer, Márcia Nunes, and I are beginning the packaging phase of seeking cast and financing now, and I will return to the Amazon in October for location scouting and more research. We've also been really lucky to bring Eda Zavala Lopez, who works as an indigenous rights activist across the Peruvian Amazon and is a master of traditional Amazonian shamanism herself, as an expert advisor on the ground. The funds from Sloan are helping move all of those processes forward so that we can move into production in the first half of 2016 with a really solid team and an exciting and authentic story to tell.