When Mike Stutz was a kid, his mother tried to kill herself with an overdose of pills; she slipped into a coma and didn't die until six days later. The day after Stutz found her lying unconscious, he went to baseball practice.
It was weird, that day at practice. At the time, he didn't know how many people knew. Looking back, Stutz remembers how one kid — who usually loved to needle and bug others — acted unusually nice toward him all day. A minor but telling incongruity that suggested an alternate, slightly alien version of himself had been created the moment his mother attempted suicide.
“People around you really start to walk on eggshells,” Stutz says. “You become the kid whose mom killed herself. In a way I just wanted to move on and be a normal kid.”
In many ways, he did. He and his siblings had grown up with a love of dramatic performance (his mother was a talented actress and singer, among other things) and of the arts in general. Acting and directing — these became Stutz's outlets for expression and connection. He grew up to be some approximation of a “normal kid,” went to college, studied at UCLA's School of Television, Film and Theater, went to New York to work on film and theater projects and then came back to Los Angeles.
On Saturday, Oct. 13, his film Don't Change the Subject will be screened at the Downtown Independent theater for its world premiere.
(In addition, last weekend he organized a Day of the Living festival at the Electric Lodge in Venice, featuring performances of dance, comedy and theater that addressed suicide.)
In the film, Stutz turns the camera on himself and his family and friends, but also other artists trying to find creative ways of investigating the human relationship with suicide and mental illness. He talks to people who literally held guns to their heads or stood ready to jump and chose to live instead. He talks to people who, like him, lost loved ones to suicide. Heavy stuff, but there's a surprising amount of laughter. And, of course, tears.
The idea for Don't Change the Subject emerged after Stutz learned that his stepmother Judith's father had also killed himself. What's more, Stutz's mother and Judith's father had killed themselves three days before their children's birthdays. Stutz and Judith had lived in the same house for years when Stutz was a teenager, but never talked about it until he was an adult. He was floored and was drawn powerfully to the possibility of making a film about suicide.
He hesitated about making himself and his family a major part of the film and initially wanted to interview other creative people about the idea of making art about suicide: How can it be done? What ways can suicide be approached? How do you dance or paint about suicide? Need the results always be dark? Most of the famous artists Stutz approached turned him down, foiling his early blueprints for the film.
“It ended up being a very different movie than I thought it was going to be,” he says. “It turned out to be more creatively approached than if I had had a big budget or more time or more producers.
“If I had done [the film] the way I originally wanted, it would have been more of what the Germans call 'a nodding play,'” he adds, referring to a work that encourages complacency.
The film hazily draws the comfort boundaries around suicide, then brazenly crosses them. In one scene, Stutz reenacts the moment he finds his mother's body.
Stutz says the “theater of suicide” — the dramatic tendency of those attempting to fixate on the “scene” they will leave behind — is unavoidable, and he worked hard to make a film that didn't feed into the “suicide contagion” or fetishize the act. “There's nothing pretty or glamorous about a suicide scene,” he says. Of finding his mother and trying to revive her, he says, “It is a body.” Stripped of sentimentality and aesthetic value.
Ultimately, the film is — and this should come as no surprise — hopeful, firmly on the side of the living (hence, the name of the festival). Stutz's candor is surprising, at least at first. With an issue like suicide, which tends to leave a bleak mess of empathy and pathos in its wake, Stutz's approach is welcome and refreshing. At one point, he reflects on his youth, honestly psychoanalyzing and digging out twisted motivations.
“This will sound terrible probably in any context, but [when] you're a teenager in some ways you can use a situation like [a suicide in the family] to make yourself seem falsely deep,” Stutz says. “I probably think I took advantage of that when I was a kid and went around the freshman dorm telling stories. Using your mom's death to get laid isn't something you think about, but it's something people do.”