Having grown up with a manic-depressive father, “Infinitely Polar Bear” director Maya Forbes knows a thing or two about dealing with family mental illness.
“I had started writing about my father when I was young,” said Ms. Forbes, a veteran screenwriter making her directorial debut with the film. “Stories or essays or just sort of grappling with the issues when you have a parent with mental illness. And really reflecting [on] this difficult period of my life and these complicated feelings that I had for my father, because I felt like he had some wonderful qualities and some difficult qualities.”
Ms. Forbes, who has two daughters of her own, said she wished to impart tales of her late father, Donald Cameron Forbes, to them in a way that was both candid about his illness as well as his positive qualities. The present culture, she feels, is too protective of children, which was not true of her own adolescence.
“I felt like I really benefited from not being protected,” she said. “[That’s not] to say it was always hard, but that’s what gives you strength and makes you self-reliant.”
“Infinitely Polar Bear” stars Mark Ruffalo as Cameron, a Bostonian trying to contain his bipolarity and hold on to his family amid severe mood fluctuations and extreme flights of fancy. His wife, Maggie (Zoe Saldana), reaches her breaking point in the relationship, and the separation imposes difficulties on the couple’s two daughters, Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide).
Based on Ms. Forbes’ own parents, Cam and Maggie, in addition to being an interracial couple when such was not exactly the norm, must deal with one party having mental illness at time when it was considered somewhat taboo. Ms. Forbes said the culture has changed since the late 1970s, the period portrayed in the film.
“I really wanted to humanize somebody with mental illness, and I wanted to make clear that it’s a family issue,” she said. “It’s not a person suffering alone. When someone in a family is mentally ill, it affects everybody. So the more it can be talked about, the more it can be treated.”
Mr. Ruffalo watched videos of his character’s namesake to get a better sense of the man upon whom his portrayal was loosely based. The writer/director also provided her leading man with letters written by her father and told him of his unique habits. Mr. Ruffalo even learned to tie his own bow tie without looking in a mirror, a trick at which her father was adept.
At the same time, Ms. Forbes allowed Mr. Ruffalo to find his own way with Cameron, not so much channeling her father as crafting a new persona along the way.
“I felt that Mark brought a lot of himself to the character,” she said. “There’s the scene where Cam’s picking up Maggie at the train station, and I wanted Cam to stay in the car, and [Mr. Ruffalo] said, ‘Cam would not stay in the car; he would help her with her bags.’”
It was strange watching scenes from her young life realized before her very eyes, Ms. Forbes said. To add to the surreality of the filmmaking process, Amelia, who was loosely based on Ms. Forbes herself, was portrayed by the director’s own daughter, Imogene.
“You don’t have time to analyze [the strangeness] because when you’re directing a movie you have to move so fast that you don’t have to think how weird it is,” Ms. Forbes said of her daughter’s portrayal of her younger self.
“Infinitely Polar Bear” was an even bigger family affair as Ms. Forbes’ husband, Wallace Wolodarsky, served as producer.
Miss Saldana’s character, Maggie, is based on Ms. Forbes’ own mother, Peggy, who left her daughters in the care of real-life Cameron in Boston to pursue an MBA at Columbia in New York — which also happens in the film. Much of what occurs in “Infinitely Polar Bear” centers around the times the two daughters are alone in Cam’s care.
Ms. Forbes said her mother was near 40 when she decided to return to college, and faced discrimination upon graduating not so much for her skin color but rather for the fact that she was a mother.
“You’re often encouraged to act like you only care about your work and nothing else matters,” she said of the late 1970s, the time of her mother’s graduation, as well as now. “I would say [even] today it’s very hard to find a lot of women of color in the finance industry. It’s really not a very diverse arena. Certainly it was like that then.”
Upon returning to Boston, Ms. Forbes said her mother found Beantown’s financial industry to be a bit of “closed shop” based largely on old-school networking — to say nothing of being prejudiced against working mothers. She wound up staying in New York, where opportunities were more prevalent.
Ms. Forbes said that, in spite of some advances in sex equality in the business world since her mother’s day, more work needs to be done to be accommodating to women — and men — who have family lives outside of the office.
This is also true of the film industry. Despite Kathryn Bigelow’s history-making moment in 2010 when she became the first woman to win the best director Oscar for helming “The Hurt Locker,” Hollywood remains largely an old boys’ club.
“If you’re directing a movie and you have a family, it’s hard whether you’re a man or a woman,” Ms. Forbes said. “I don’t like to only put myself in the box of, “I’m a woman and a mother,” but then I have to because I think that it’s very important because there are so few women directors. I also want to see what we can do to make it more viable for women and people with families. Because people with families have good stories to tell.”
While her first feature is now in the can, Ms. Forbes said, a curse that often befalls female directors is getting the chance to make a second film. She remains hopeful that the studios continue to allow women to make small personal films, such as hers, and to hand off large projects like the Marvel superhero films to directors of her sex.
However, with that advance in prestige comes a necessary loss of creative control.
“When you’re making a big movie like that, you’re not always in control of that, so it doesn’t feel like your baby,” she said. This one felt like my baby. “But when you’re making a movie for Disney or Marvel, it’s their baby.”
Ms. Forbes said she hopes that “Infinitely Polar Bear” will keep open the conversation about mental illness, how it affects the family and friends of one so afflicted as well as the sheer variety of treatment programs and regimens now available. She said she was always grateful to her father for telling her and her sister that they didn’t need to “hide” his malady from their friends.
“Most of the shame was gone. Everything shifted for me and my sister,” she said.
Her film not only deals with an individual’s psychological problems, but also “so many things that so many people are dealing with all the time: class, their finances, their opportunities, their gender, their race. It’s all stuff we deal with.”
“I also wanted to tell that struggle of when you love somebody and you want them to pull together, and you don’t want to give up on them,” she said. “That’s a difficult place to be when you know someone has that potential, but you don’t know if they’re ever going to be able to live up to their potential. So I think that when you have somebody you love who is an addict or mentally ill, you just want so desperately for them to figure it out. And I felt that Zoe plays this superhero, but I think it’s a real superhero.”