Nikki Braendlin’s film As High as the Sky tells the story of Margaret, a woman struggling to control her OCD symptoms when her estranged sister and niece show up unexpectedly, causing her to finally acknowledge the root of her emotional problems. Starring Caroline Fogarty (from the series Big Love and Desperate Housewives) and Bonnie McNeil (Sympathy for Delicious), High won awards at the Palm Beach International Film Festival, Sonoma International Film Festival, and Big Bear Lake International Film Festival. Most striking about the film is the way in which the characters’ complex relationships emerge gradually as the story unfolds. With this slow reveal, Braendlin intricately examines the nature of Margaret’s mental health and the inherent ties to love and loss. Ultimately, it’s a story of healing and second chances, which she discussed in a recent phone interview.
This is Braendlin’s first film.
I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn that this is your first film. Did you make a short before this?
No. In fact, every couple days, I’d look at the crew, and I’d say, “Let me just make sure I have this right . . . for my first film ever I decided to shoot in an all-glass house with a kid, a dog, my own money, and dollies. Have I got that right?” But yeah, I tend to do that. It’s weird. I’m very much a planner in every other aspect of my life except for very large art projects, where it’ll be, “Let’s just do it. We’re going to make a film!”
So you funded it yourself?
My Aunt Trudy and my grandma both passed away right before we shot, so I was able to use some of the money they left me. But there’s good and bad about private funding. The good thing was that I didn’t have to put a lot of time and effort into crowd funding. But the great thing about crowd funding is that then you have an audience waiting to see it. And with us, because we had a really small cast and crew and I just wanted to get on with it, it was harder to do outreach afterward when we were promoting it.
You say you wanted to get on with it. What was the timeframe? When did you start working on the script, shooting, etc?
I started writing in December, and we were shooting in June . . . so yeah, I wanted to get it done. And I also didn’t want to look for outside money, because my main thing was that I didn’t want to lose creative control. I didn’t want to lose my cast, and I didn’t want anybody looking over my shoulder. I wanted all the mistakes to be mine and to learn from them and not have to answer to anybody, quite honestly.
Tell me about the casting on this. These were some pretty challenging, complex roles.
Caroline plays Margaret, and that’s her house in the film, actually. But she and I have been friends for years, and I was living in Florida, and I came back to LA as a screenwriter, and I knew I needed to direct something, so I said, “Why don’t I write something for you to be the lead in, and we can shoot in your house?” So it was kind of a quid pro quo thing. Plus, I wanted to write for my friend Bonnie, too.
So how did you find the story? What was the inspiration?
I wanted to explore somebody who thinks she knows herself, what her life is about, but actually she doesn’t. I’d worked in a group home off and on for about fifteen years with kids and teens, and we encouraged them to address every memory, every emotion, every traumatic event – just everything in their life –and I wanted to write about a woman who had never been encouraged to do that. And I struggle with OCD myself – not of the cleaning variety, but I do this kind of weird tapping-counting thing, and it’s always exacerbated when I’m going through stress, so it was something I wanted to explore.
Did you find it therapeutic, working on this film? Or was it more stressful?
Not therapeutic, no. And the shoot was definitely stressful. I’d tell the crew, “Look, you’re going to place something, and I’m going to walk on set and adjust it fifteen times, and when I leave it’s going to look exactly the way you had it. It’s not a reflection of your work, please don’t think that.” And I think they got to a point where they could kind of laugh about it. It was just me learning to be like, “Okay, is it really off an inch, or am I just . . . ?” You know, that’s just how my particular stress comes out.
That’s a riot.
Yeah, it was a very patient crew.
What was the most difficult thing about the directing process?
I’d say the most difficult thing was about halfway through, we got a little behind, so I started feeling like it was getting out of my control. But that was just a day or two, and then we got back on track. And that was just the first-time directing thing, not knowing what was normal or what we could edit out. I’d say, “There’s a cord in the shot!” And they’d be like, “God, Nikki, you’re going to edit around that.” I didn’t really understand what that meant until we got into the editing room.
Did you follow the script word-for-word, or was there any improv?
Oh yeah, I felt like every single word had to be there for a reason, so there were no ums or ahs. And the cast was really great about that. We stayed with every line, because I kind of thought of myself as writer first.
I’ve read some people refer to this as a woman’s film. Is that how you would describe it?
There was a male character for a while, but he just kind of took off on his own storyline, and I realized I didn’t need it, so I cut him out. But I would say yes, even when we were shooting, I was like, “I want every person on set to be a woman.” The statistics are so low, women working in Hollywood. And also, I definitely wanted to write flawed female characters that have arcs and that maybe have a little more depth than women characters are usually allowed to have.
How comfortable are you opening up about issues of mental health in your own life and bringing that to the screen?
The time I spent working in the group home reaffirmed my belief that there shouldn’t be any stigma involved with mental health issues. We used the term OCD with Margaret just because it’s easier in print, but I would always tell the kids in the group home that they can’t be defined by their diagnoses. I think in society, we kind of like to define people. The reality is, I’m forty-one years old, and I’ve met a lot of people, and I think our mental health issues are definitely on a spectrum. It’s a sliding scale, and I would be hard-pressed to find anybody who wasn’t struggling with something. I think women in general feel more comfortable discussing their issues, because I think we’ve been allowed to be more open with our emotions. There’s the ridicule sometimes, and the misogynistic jokes, but you can’t tell me there aren’t men who are crazy, compulsive neurotics, you know? They just address it differently.
Any plans to write a film with a neurotic male protagonist?
Oh, I have scripts with neurotic men in the leads. My next script I’d like to film is about an executioner turned Los Angeles meter maid and an aging cosmetologist and a guy with Tourette’s. In every single one of my scripts, somebody is in some sort of life crisis or overcoming some traumatic event. I’m just more interested in those kinds of stories than car crashes. I wouldn’t even know how to write car crashes. I just think people are really complex, and so it’s kind of fun to mine that and figure out how we tick.
Anna Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Film International.