‘Life Boat‘ premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and is based around the experiences actress/producer Elizabeth Gilpin had with the controversial practices undertaken at ‘therapeutic boarding schools’. Directed by Elizabeth’s producing partner Lorraine Nicholson, the 18 minute short tracks a group of troubled teens, all dealing with mental health issues from depression to addiction and a game their guidance counsellor (Stephen Dorff) makes them play. ‘Life Boat’ asks each student to choose three people from the group that they would save in a lifeboat from drowning. Nicholson expertly mounts tension throughout the film as the students become more frustrated and the guidance counsellor digs deeper, eventually building to a violent ending.
I caught up with Elizabeth and Lorraine to ask just how the story came about, the mental health narrative and the process of bringing to life an intensely negative experience your leading actress has lived through.
ELIZABETH GILPIN (ACTRESS & PRODUCER)
SQ: So Elizabeth, you’re credited as producer and actress in Lifeboat and the film is based off some of your own experiences with ‘therapeutic boarding schools’. As Lorraine’s producing partner, how did this film come about? Is tackling this topic something you’ve always wanted to explore within your productions?
EG: I have always wanted to do something on my time at school, it took a while though for me to be in a place where I felt I could. A few years back, my best friend from the school took her own life. It was really hard on me, but ultimately was also the catalyst that I finally do something on my time there. I knew I had friends who would help finance and classmates a writer could speak with. I wanted to work with a female writer/director, I had worked with Lorraine twice before and knew she was the right person for this. Everything just kind of came together in a really beautiful way.
SQ: How much inspiration did you draw from your own experiences in your performance and also in regards to the groups conversations and actions?
EG: The game Life Boat was a game I played at school, and the teachers really spoke to us in that way. When we played back then a student broke their arm, another had a bloody nose. While I was preparing for the short, I tried not to really draw from my time there at all. I tried to take my experience out of it and think from a fresh point of view. However, when I got to set and we started shooting, a lot of memories came pouring back. It was hard few days, Lorraine was great about taking me outside for some fresh air when it was necessary. Ultimately I think Lorraine and I really found the balance and allowed for a beautiful short.
SQ: Lorraine says she wanted the film to do justice to both narratives- the positive or negative outcomes of these practices. What effect did undergoing this controversial form of therapy have on you in the long run?
EG: I am someone who has always struggled with my experiences and time spent in therapeutic boarding school. As I have gotten older I do understand both points of view, but have far more classmates who had negative experiences than positive. I’ve had about 10 friends from there take their own lives, that alone makes it a really tough pill to swallow. Each year that passes I learn and grow from the experience, It has made me the strongest possible version of myself. With that being said its also caused me a tremendous amount of pain as well, I suffered a lot trying to adjust back to real life after school.
SQ: What was it like to work with Stephen Dorff during your climactic scene regarding suicide?
EG: It was intense, he really went there and didn’t hold back at all. At a point you almost forget your even acting, your so immersed in whats happening! I couldn’t have asked for a better person to go through that with, he’s a professional and knows exactly what he’s doing.
SQ: How do you think that Lifeboat can help other teens with mental health problems?
EG: No matter how bad and how hard life gets, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. I think anyone who survives their time at therapeutic boarding school at such a young age is an example of strength and courage. We have an obligation to tell our stories and help kids who are still in these institutions today.
SQ: Was it important to you to have a woman in the director’s position for a project that was so close to home? If so, why?
EG: It was the most important thing to me! I knew Lorraine could tell the story truthfully, but also from a very compassionate place. Its important that woman stick together and allow each other opportunities to grow and learn together.
SQ: And finally, what’s next for you in terms of projects?
EG: I’ve started writing a lot. I’ll always act and produce, but writing is a whole new world I am discovering now.
LORRAINE NICHOLSON (DIRECTOR & WRITER)
SQ: Hi Lorraine! When talking about this project, you say that you became ‘riveted’ with the practices of therapeutic boarding schools after being introduced by Elizabeth, I’m interested to learn more about your research process before you actually made the film…
LN: Research is always a key component in my writing process. Even with autobiographical work, I try to read as many books as possible about the time or subject, if only to add a little color. In the case of this project, Elizabeth approached me with a clear vision for what she felt the story should be. But when I started researching I found that while most students agreed with her negative feelings towards these schools, a small subset of students claimed that they owed their lives to these programs. That without these “tough love” practices they’d be on the streets. Or worse. I felt this was not a perspective that I could ignore. And so the challenge of this short films became telling both these stories at the same time.
SQ: Although the circumstances in Lifeboat may be rather intense and extraordinary, the feelings of doubt, rejection, anger and sadness the characters feel is universal. Were the issues you presented something you also struggled with as a young person?
LN: I struggle with these feelings even as an adult! Which is why I am hopeful that the short will resonate not just with teens, but with a broader audience as well.
SQ: The handheld camera work in Lifeboat almost feels documentary like and deeply personal, sometimes even intrusive. Was this a conscious decision?
LN: During prep for this project, I watched the documentaries High School (1968), and All American High (1987). The rawness of this footage made me feel, as an audience member, like I was really there. Because our film is a short, I knew that creating a sense of empathy from the start was vital if I wanted people to connect emotionally with the characters by the end.
SQ: What was the casting process like? I noticed that a good few of the cast have had backgrounds in teen-orientated film and TV such as Moises Arias (I completely adore him in The Kings of Summer). Was there any pre-conceptions of the type of people you wanted to play each character?
LN: So funny you mention The Kings of Summer! I saw that movie on a plane years ago. Moises performance really stuck out to me, so when I started thinking about casting, I cold-contacted his agents. In my most recent short I wrote a part especially for him. He will be a life-long collaborator, I hope.
When thinking about casting, I actually was trying to channel The Breakfast Club. Again, the goal was to create an emotional connection to the characters. In that sense, they had to be immediately recognizable, but never cliché.
SQ: I couldn’t help but notice the use of The Rolling Stones in the musical chairs scene was there any thought behind its use for such a pivotal and eventually violent scene?
LN: From a writing perspective, I actually structured Life Boat like a feature film. And this point is most definitely our false ending. I wanted to use a song that felt very conclusive, upbeat and warm to resemble an ending in more conventional coming-of-age films. In this send, Tops perfectly contrasts the violence of what is to come.
SQ: What has the response been like after premiering Lifeboat at Tribeca?
LN: Traveling with the film has been a really interesting experience. When I met with Stephen for the first time about playing the role, I said “If we can make ONE person leave the theater thinking you did the right thing, we will have succeeded.” On the page his character is obviously a villain, but Stephen was able to bring a humanity to the character that, once this film found its audience, some people really empathized with.
SQ: And finally, what’s next for you? Any plans on moving into feature films?
LN: Yes! This past year I participated in AFI’s Directing Lab for Women, and made a new short film. Since finishing that program, I have been working on a feature script I hope to complete over the summer.