Up close and personal

Inon Shampanier and Natalie Shampanier on Paper Spiders

by Jennie Kermode

Lili Taylor and Stefania LaVie Owen in Paper Spiders
Lili Taylor and Stefania LaVie Owen in Paper Spiders

A smart, sensitive and often funny story about supporting a loved one with a mental illness, Paper Spiders has won widespread acclaim from critics and will soon be available on a screen near you. It was written by husband and wife team Inon and Natalie Shampanier and directed by the former, with Lili Taylor playing Dawn, who suffers from delusional disorder, and Stefania LaVie Owen as her teenage daughter, Melanie. When Inon, Natalie and I met up to speak about it, I began by talking about the subgenre of films out there is which people – usually women – become convinced that somebody is out to get them. In most of those films, nobody will believe them, but their suspicions turn out to be justified. Was this film conceived as a more realistic take on that sort of premise?

They didn’t want to rely on a twist, says Natalie, “but we're just trying to make it more true to actual reality. And what you know, people go through, and I think just don't talk about, or at least, that form of paranoia and any kind of mental illness. It’s inspired by a true story which I went through with my mom and her delusions and how you can still try, as a kid and as an adult, to help them. And sometimes you can, sometimes you can't, but I think that also being secretive about it and ashamed is kind of a thing that we went through until we realised, like, you know, people were approaching us, and we can do something that we want to talk about and share, because it seems like, it's more common than we think”

Mother and daughter
Mother and daughter

Even though Dawn is ill, we ask ourselves if her concerns could be based on something real.

“It was important for us, as we see the story through the eyes of the daughter, to not be sure whether or not what the mother is going through is real or is just a matter of paranoia, persecutory delusions, and sometimes you don't really know,” adds Inon, and Natalie explains “In the beginning, it's a gradual process of deterioration. A lot of times you're not sure in what you see happening is real.”

I tell them that I found the film relatable on a personal level because I was a carer when I was 20 and often it feels as if young carers are invisible. Was that something they wanted to address?

Inon nods. “Beyond the narrative of trying to help a loved one with mental illness, specifically paranoia, the idea of trying to support a loved one with any kind of problem that is very often beyond your control, trying to help someone with a physical or mental condition, such as someone with an addiction, often, you know, it's a real struggle. It's a struggle for the person going through it but also struggle for the person trying to support them. So for us that narrative, what would you do when your loved one’s problems are just overwhelming, we hope will be relatable and compelling to audiences.”

That's something that gets touched on in the film as well in different ways as we hear about people with physical illness and meet another character with addiction. Were you wanting to explore that within a wider context, to show what's out there?

“Yeah,” says Inon. “We really wanted even the subplots to touch on the same themes, as you said about addiction. And wanting to help people who very often struggle with problems that, you know – no matter how much you try very, very hard to mobilise and motivate someone to change, you can't very often fix those problems for people. At best you're getting them so they're motivated to try to seek help themselves.”

There’s a pattern to it, says Natalie. “Like how Melanie finds somebody with an addiction because, you know, she's looking to save somebody who she can't. And there's how she lost her father and, and the trigger for the mom, you know, her daughter going away [to college]. All that stuff comes out and kind of exacerbates the situation.”

There are some powerful scenes in which Melanie is publicly embarrassed by her mother’s behaviour. They seem to be inviting us to recognise that we never know what other people might be dealing with.

School life
School life

“Yeah,” says Inon. “So very often we have no idea what someone else is going through. We don't really know what people are going through in their own private lives. I mean for us, when we were going through a similar story with Natalie's mom, who was such a sweet and wonderful person and people wouldn't even know about that aspect of her life. Often people with paranoia, unless you discuss that specific subject with them, in every other regard they’re perfectly normal. So we felt like, there was something that we wanted to address, but also bring some levity to it. Because when Melanie's story begins, it's interesting, going through a coming of age story, she never imagined the story would take the dramatic and tonal shifts that it does later on. So she lives in a sort of a drama at the high school, there’s romance and coming of age and then minor funny bickering with the mom. And not knowing what’s waiting in store.”

That sense of fun helps us to recognise the depth of love between the mother and daughter, I suggest.

Natalie agrees. “That is very true, too. It's not just like one sided. They're super close, My mom passed away - that's why I refer to her in the past tense – but we were very, very close. That's why you care so much and want to help them. And I think that a lot of daughters were, you know, close to their mom, and something happened and you're doing everything you can to save them. And we want to show that they're inseparable.”

“They have their own little language,” says Inon, “which is all the more heartbreaking because you really grow to care about the characters and you really kind of mourn the loss of their relationship.”

It’s also nice to see lots of other things happening in their lives. Often in films like this, characters are one dimensional, with only a single issue to deal with.

“I think that if she only had that to worry about, then we wouldn't get a sense of the sacrifices she has to make,” says Inon, referring to Melanie. “I don't want to give away too much, but the idea of moving away for college, for so many people that becomes impossible, and then to take care of a loved one. And if you don't see some of why it’s important for someone to do that, and what their dreams are and what their hopes are and what their life outside of that relationship is, you don't really understand the burden or the value of the decision that they make some sacrifices and choose to help someone else in the expense of their own.”

First love
First love

“In reality people have so much going on in their life,“ adds Natalie “I feel like it's going to show like there's so many other aspects to someone's life. First love and, and you know, going away and college...”

“Above all the idea of suddenly having to become a real adult, in the sense of like taking care of your own parents,” says Inon. “That is perhaps the most profound experience of coming of age in our opinion. And we wanted it to be complemented by all the other aspects of the narrative that would come into the story.”

So how did they go about finding that amazing cast?

They wanted to work with Lili for a long time, Inon explains. “With this one I can't think of another actress who’d be able to dial it up to 100 the way she did. She was perfect.”

Finding the right Melanie was more of a challenge, says Natalie.

“We got so many matches for auditions and they were good, they were all good. But we were looking for a certain innocence. And when her audition came in, it was like the last month, it was like one for that day - usually we were getting about 16. And that was the one. She was just amazing. We both saw it in different rooms, and then we emerged in the hallway and said, ‘Yes, she has...’”

“’A fun vulnerability,’ says Inon. But the one thing you can't predict, you know, when you work with with actors, the ones you get great performances from, especially when they care so much about the story – and they know what that was story’s about – you can't quite predict the chemistry. And they will be asked to develop such a beautiful relationship, on screen and off screen. And when you see that mother and daughter, anything you see on the screen, there's so much reality. There is a real closeness between them, and we feel like that’s part of why it feels so genuine.”

How did they work with them to get that closeness to come across? Was a time for much rehearsing?

“I think that they really understood the heart of the story so that we didn't need to do to guide them,” he says.”And they’re also professionals. But I think that sharing Natalie's personal story, and understanding the inspiration and where the characters come from, made it very, very easy for them to relate. And also by by using things from their own lives, in their own relationships, they could very easily transfer – or at least it seemed easily transfer – those experiences and relationships on screen. But beyond that, there's almost a mystery to how our actors develop something that is so real. You can direct them, you can talk to them about the character, you can analyse why people do what they do, you can suggest you know, what are the goals, obviously, et cetera. But at the end of the day, especially talking about an emotional connection, either they get it on the emotional level or they don't.“

They managed to complete filming just a few months before the pandemic hit, he continues. “But then when we started touring the film festivals, then it hit, so instead of screening at in festivals in person, we ended up just watching it online, virtually, which was a bit of a shame. So we're excited that now it’s coming out in theatres and on demand, the US will finally be able to watch it in theatres.”

They’ve recently been working on scripts, he tells me, and Natalie says that they like to switch genres so that they can explore different things and make room for their differing interests.

“This project specifically was just, I would say, a lot more close to our hearts than almost anything else,” Inon concludes. ” I feel very fortunate that we got to tell a story that is personal, that we cared about so much not just as filmmakers but also as people.”

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