Set amidst the COVID-19 pandemic during a Zoom conversation between a mother and daughter, Jessie (Sheila Houlahan) tells her mother Thelma (Ellen McLain) that she will commit suicide within the hour. Exploring the concentric circles of isolation, grief, and suicide, this hybrid film based on Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play portrays a poignant and haunting picture of the current state of mental health care in America. The film is directed by John Patrick Lowrie, an actor, authour and musician who has a PHD in music composition. It was our pleasure to speak to the producer of the film, Sheila Houlahan. Sheila Houlahan is an Indian-American actor, singer, producer and writer. Houlahan can be seen in supporting role Paige Callahan in Warner Bros. feature film “The Little Things”, written and directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto. The film premiered on HBO Max January 29th, 2021.
Sheila Houlahan is also the executive producer and showrunner for a new hybrid feature film adaptation of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer prize-winning play Night, Mother, a show that details concentric circles of grief, isolation and suicide. The film screened exclusively on Twitch, and utilized Twitch’s innovative platform for live performance interwoven throughout the film. Houlahan played the role of Jesse in the production, with award-winning actress Ellen McLain as Thelma/Mother. John Patrick Lowrie directed the project, with rising-star cinematographer Trevor Roach at the helm of creating a truly innovative visual storytelling methodology. Legendary photographer Eli Reed handled the still photography for the production. The adaptation is set on Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic and highlights the isolation and mental health crisis generated by a world forced to remain in lockdown for over a year. Houlahan’s goal with the project is to use it as a platform to discuss the impending mental health crisis that has already began to plague people around the world from living in chronic isolation. She hopes that this film can be a gentle reminder that nobody is truly alone, despite how we may feel, and that it will take a collective spirit of grace to get through the trauma of COVID-19 together.
As a singer, she has collaborated with Slumdog Millionaire’s composer A.R. Rahman with performances including “"Jai Ho at The Venetian in Las Vegas,” a feature in his 20th anniversary music video of his hit classic “Maa Tujhe Salaam,” and “The Rahman Song Cycle” and “Lord of the Rings The Musical” with the Seattle Symphony as the primary soloist. She can also be heard on the Cirque du Soleil soundtrack for “Volta” as well as the soundtrack for the hit video game “Destiny 2." She is a Celebrity Champion for Project HEAL, a nonprofit organization that helps people suffering with eating disorders pay for treatment. She is also an ambassador for Ability Magazine and their new platform AbilityE, which seeks to increase inclusion and representation of differently abled talent in Hollywood. Houlahan uses her strong following on Instagram as a platform to spread awareness and to help end the stigma surrounding mental health.
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?
Night, Mother is actually my first work as a producer; prior to Night, Mother, I worked exclusively as an actor in Hollywood. I really resisted filmmaking for quite a while because I didn't want to make yet another vanity project; I wanted my first project to be a story I felt I was called to tell. Night, Mother actually started as an acting exercise between myself and my co-star, Ellen McLain, but soon after we began our work I realized this was a story that folks needed to see. With the unprecedented rise in mental health crisis' worldwide, I knew this story would have the potential to help folks find real healing. From there, everything sort of fell into place. My biggest advice for new filmmakers is to tell stories that matter deeply to you; that'll be what inspires you to keep pushing when the going gets tough.
What genre of filmmaking are you looking to work on and why?
Genre isn't as important to me as subject matter. In working on a piece centered around suicide and the stigmitization of mental illness, I realized I was called to tell stories about marginalized identities that often don't get recognized by mainstream Hollywood. I think we as artists have a duty to positively educate and influence our audience to be more inclusive in how they see and treat others. Art is powerful. Art can change the world. It is an opportunity I would never want to squander away.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker?
Honestly, the entire shebang is pretty challenging. Indie filmmaking is thankless work. It's a grind. That's why I think it is so important to stick to subject matter that really means something to you. At the end of the day, you are in charge of seeing through the project; there is nobody holding you accountable to finishing what you've started. It can feel incredibly isolating. Don't even get me started on the mountain of work that begins after your film is done with post-production! Indie filmmaking is a labor of love, but it also is such an opportunity to tell your story exactly the way you envision it knowing that your idea will be left wholly intact by the time it reaches your audience.
How challenging is it to fund indie films?
It is incredibly challenging! There's a reason so many indie films are self-funded. I am a big fan of low-budget/high-concept indie filmmaking because it empowers the creator to tell their story without budget being too much of a constraint. Far too often I see aspiring writers/producers show me work that requires a budget of at least $5 million for their project to work, and that always shocks me; you don't need tons of state-of-the-art CGI to tell a compelling story. I think some indie filmmakers believe that their story would never stand up on its own, and my first piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers is to continue to hone their story so that they don't have to break the bank bringing their concept to life.
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
At the moment, marketing and screening Night, Mother has become a full-time job. I wanted Night, Mother to be a proof of concept for how to take emotional care of your audience when exhibiting triggering content. Night, Mother is about suicide, and it doesn't pull any punches, so I knew our audience could potentially be re-traumatized by watching the film. As such, we partnered with several nonprofits dedicated to providing affordable, accessible mental health care for our audience members to keep them safe during and after the film. As we continue to screen Night, Mother at festivals worldwide, my team and I always ensure that said resources are available for our audience. I'm excited at the kind of dialogue that has been generated around our film, and I look forward to seeing how this methodology can inspire other filmmakers to connect on a deeper level with their audience.
What was the inspiration behind your latest film project?
I am a suicide-attempt survivor. I have experienced first-hand just how callous and ignorant folks can be in regards to mental illness, and I am passionate about ending the stigma around mental health care. As such, I wanted to create a film that would help other folks who have struggled with depression and anxiety like me to know that they aren't alone. The mental health crisis in our world continues to get worse each and every day, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent effects of chronic lockdown on our collective mental health. I knew there would be hundreds of thousands of people for whom poor mental health would be a new experience, and I wanted to create something that would help them navigate safely towards accessible, affordable resources. I know this film is just a drop in the bucket, but if it helps even one person then it was all worth it.
Why do you make films and what kind of impact would your work have on the world?
I make films to champion unheard, marginalized voices. I am not one to pretend that my work is more important than the work of any other filmmaker, but I do believe that by creating compelling narrative work that allows our audience to walk in someone else’s shoes, we can help build more empathy in the world. Looking out at the world today, I think we need empathy more than ever. We as artists have an opportunity to be the bridge-builders of tomorrow, and I feel honored to be walking this path.