Amy Koppelman: ‘A Mouthful of Air’

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Writer and director Amy Koppelman. Photo by Amanda Seyfried.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes writer and director Amy Koppelman, whose feature film directing debut is the adaption of her novel “A Mouthful of Air,” starring Amanda Seyfried as a new mother dealing with postpartum depression. Koppelman is the author of the novel “I Smile Back,” which was made into a film. Koppelman says her writing is always grappling with the question of how people move through life knowing they’ll eventually have to say goodbye to those they love. She says she tries through her work to bring attention to and de-stigmatize mental illness. And she talks about her encounter with writer Philip Roth that found its way into her film.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

*Note: This interview contains discussion of suicide and depression.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest today is Amy Koppelman, who has adapted her novel, "A Mouthful of Air" for the screen. In some ways, with this story, I felt I was kind of watching the real world version of "Rosemary's Baby," because your poor protagonist is surrounded by all these men who think they're giving her the right advice, but she's not really being heard, or paid attention to in the right way. Seeing that played out reminded me of that section early in the book where your protagonist Julie is on the elevator with Philip Roth, and she's aware of the way he's judging, and then she writes her own scenario. What you do having men throughout the book is kind of an echo of that.

Amy Koppelman: I watched "Rosemary's Baby" before doing this book, and I thought a lot about what he was saying in that and how she's viewed as a woman. And I do have a lot of male protagonists telling Julie what to do. When I was writing that book, I was thinking a lot about shame, and how much shame women carry, real shame and their perceived shame that they feel guilty about, that they're not even responsible for, what we allow for ourselves within the confines of that shame. And so much of that, at least so much of that in my life was defined by men and what you were supposed to be for them, and what your responsibility toward them was.

KCRW: Again, the way all those men are and the timbre of Edelman's voice is always sort of reassuring her and offering this advice; it really isn't about listening. And the presumption of him quoting "The Bell Jar" to her was kind of astonishing to me.

Koppelman: I didn't mean that romantically about Sylvia Plath. I did mean that just the way that you inferred: there's something very reductive about that. But I did realize the other day that her children were one and two when she killed herself. And I was thinking that it's really interesting that with her, it's always that her husband was horrible to her and cheated on her, versus this idea that maybe she had very bad postpartum depression or obviously, very bad depression. And maybe she killed herself, just from those feelings of self doubt, and fear of hurting her children. And I was just thinking about why it's easier with a woman, why we feel that we have to come up with an excuse for bad behavior, especially with mothers. 

You're taught from when you're a young girl that you're supposed to have this maternal instinct. And I think many of us define ourselves in our womanhood by this notion of a maternal instinct. I think a woman who has a child and doesn't naturally kick into having this maternal instinct, it's especially threatening to men.

KCRW: The difference between Laney [in "I Smile Back"] and Julie is that in her way Laney is kind of a fighter, and she is judged. And she does do things to correct herself. We're aware of her awareness, but she's gonna go down fighting. Whereas the way you shoot "A Mouthful of Air," we're kind of aware of Julie being on her back a lot, as if she's already down for the count.

Koppelman: It's taken me 20-something years to write three books, and I think I'm basically still trying to figure out the same thing, which is: how do you get through life knowing that you're going to have to say goodbye to everybody that you love. Lainey is a fighter; it's almost like she preemptively strikes against them hurting her. She can hurt them and hurt everybody that loves her before they have a chance to hurt her. That character- and I don't think it ever really came through in the film-was someone who was bipolar and had borderline personality disorder, which we didn't really talk about. Her behavior was really much more symptoms of that, but ultimately, if you take the words "mental illness" away, it's just a woman who's so scared and fearful of that moment of that pain. 

You're right, I think it's different for Julie because Julie sees all the beauty in the world, and she wants to be good enough to almost meet that beauty. And she just can't help but think that the best thing that she could do for her family is to live in the world without her. And I think a lot of that is just fear of how she is going to hurt them and what it's going to be like when you have to say goodbye? 

KCRW: I think about that title so often, because you can't help but think, if she could just get enough air and clear her head, because we're so aware of her being inside so often. When she leaves, then she's really at risk. It just seems to be the only place she can get a clear breath really is in the narration of the character. She's a children's author, who has given her character Pinky, a kind of power that she herself doesn't have.

Koppelman: No one in their right mind would ever think that this particular three act structure should be made into a film. And I had no intention of making it into a film until I was on the West Side Highway one day, and I was listening to the radio, and a woman called in. And she was standing by her ironing board and a baby. I guess her baby was asleep. And she was crying and crying. They explained to her, You know what, you have postpartum depression? You should call a doctor. And she said, No, I couldn't possibly. You should tell your partner. I couldn't possibly. You should speak to your priest. I couldn't possibly. 

I remember thinking, Oh, I thought everybody knew about this. And I realized still so many women are harboring this secret.  I remember thinking at that moment, maybe if I could work really hard, I could figure out how to write a movie because people don't really read as much. And maybe I'd be able to get to her or to somebody like her and say just take one more breath, like, just get to the next moment. So that was my mission with this film, and I guess in everything I write, and I guess even to myself.

KCRW: That becomes the tension in the movie actually, is for her to just find that moment of calm because if you read the book, we know what's going to happen. And Amanda Seyfried is so great, not just because she does this thing physically. You need somebody to inhabit that character in real time while she's responding to the world as is happening to her. 

Koppelman: One of the hard things about adapting a book that's as interior as this is that you can't use the exposition that you can use as a novel writer. You don't have the white space between paragraphs, which I understand much more than I understand in directing. And she was able to, through her eyes, inhabit the character, as you said, in real time, and show, through her reactions, big and small in her eyes, all the exposition, much more than I had even thought of writing. 

I think her performance is miraculous, to play the role of a woman who is unable to fulfill her duties as a woman. I do think that what's really interesting is that the beginning and the end, and the movie poster, the moment that she is at her most calm, and her most sure of herself is when she's ready to take her life at the end. 

I wish I was a bigger person than I am, and I hadn't read reviews or got hurt by reviews. But one of the things that I was surprised by was that people didn't understand what her pain meant, and why she felt this way. That's, I think, a big part of the problem, not only in being a writer and in art, but just being a human, we forget to ask the intention of it.

Julie Davis (Amanda Seyfried) and Ethan Davis (Finn Wittrock) in "A Mouthful of Air." Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

KCRW: In the movie, you give us this sort of ideal look at who she is at the very beginning, and then we slowly get a sense of the thread unraveling. You need somebody who can live in the moment that way. And I just thought, stripping the narrative down and putting that much faith in your actor was a real director's decision to make. 

Koppelman: When I sent the book to Amanda and I went and met with her, she said, I will do this, but you can't direct it. You're too close to it; you can't direct it. And I said, Okay, even though I thought that "I Smile Back" wasn't fully what I wanted it to be, it still existed, and the people who understood it, found it. And then we spent like a year looking for a real director to direct it. And finally, this one very good director said to her, nobody is going to direct this movie, because she, meaning me, is supposed to direct it. 

And so I knew, because I haven't put in the time, the Malcolm Gladwell hours of learning how to direct, I just thought, Okay, I'm not going to be able to understand how to manipulate the camera to help her. I just have to shoot everything very uninflected, almost like if it were just a play, and I need to not wear headphones. I hardly ever wore headphones. I just need to set up the shot and then get really close to her. And if I can feel her and feel the emotion and the psychological place that she's supposed to be in, if I can feel her just human to human, then the camera will capture that because she's miraculous on a screen. 

KCRW: You were talking about "I Smile Back," and I think the difference for me between these two movies is: that movie judges the characters and this one does not.

Koppelman: I think that is me being the director. I love all these characters. I think Laney is a good person. She just is a good person who does bad things. I'm not that judgmental of a person. So yes, I don't judge Julie's actions although, my husband would say she's the worst person in the world, look what she does, she leaves her family, and she traumatizes them. And that is true. And I do understand that, this is not an act of kindness on her part. She isn't sparing them the pain of being her mom, but in her mind, she thinks that she is, and so I forgive her for those reasons. 

But, you know, there's this big thing about a happy ending and redemption, and depression is so often portrayed that way. At the end of "Silver Linings Playbook," they're dancing. And, that's a movie that people love. And it's good, because people talked about bipolar illness. But for me, the happy ending is for the viewer to make different choices than my characters make. If you see yourself in this movie, or you see somebody you love in this movie, you take them or help them get the help that they need because, again, it sounds so silly and so cheesy, but you know, suicide is never the right answer. And it doesn't ever spare the people that you love. And that's basically my mission. 

KCRW: Touching on the Philip Roth sighting early in the novel: where we are now with Philip Roth, that is a really painful vignette to think about, but also the judgment of his characters. 

Koppelman: The Philip Roth thing actually happened. I lived in the same building when I was young as Philip Roth. And, after I had my son, it was when he was having an affair with Mia Farrow, and I remember, at five o'clock, when my son would be crying, I would go and sit in the lobby,  hoping to get a glimpse of Mia passing through the lobby. 

I remember, there was this one moment where I had makeup on and I was wearing a leather jacket, and he offered me a ride. And I remember being so excited and calling Brian and going, Brian, you won't believe it. Philip Roth offered me a ride! And I knew like, oh, this meant that I looked good because Philip Roth thought I was hot enough to  offer me a ride in his car. 

I remember when I was pregnant, getting into the elevator and thinking, Oh, f---, once he realizes that I'm pregnant, he's never going to offer me a ride again. Now, of course, you know, I'm having this whole conversation with Philip Roth that he's not even remotely part of. But then there was this moment I remember pushing the stroller into the elevator with Philip Roth and putting my eyes down and averting my eyes because like, oh my God, the shame of the fact that I had become a mother! There was nothing sexual left about me. But yes, Philip Roth judges his characters. Also, you know, it's interesting who he makes heroic and not heroic, but yes, I think he does judge women a lot, and he never did offer me a ride again.

KCRW: Making this movie you made, being really a reduction of what the book is in the best way, like how, when she's with her mom and her mom is putting the clips on her face, to show her what it would be like to get plastic surgery. That awful telling line that she remembers as a kid and her mother saying to her, well, your father doesn't love us anymore, subtextually because the mom's getting older.  It's also being reminded, as any parent will tell you that when you have a child, you're aware of your own mortality, but also for women, it becomes this awareness of the mortality of their perception of their beauty.

Koppelman: Yeah, and the perception of their value on earth. As women, what our value is, or what we're socialized to believe our value is, and at least in the way I was brought up, the value was always to serve a man. And, if he lost interest in you, and didn't want to be with you, it was on you. 

The best thing that happened to me in this whole thing was, my daughter called me--she's 21 now--and she said, I was speaking to my therapist today, and she gave you a real compliment. She said, You broke the cycle. And I said, What do you mean? And she said, Well, you know, I didn't grow up in a house that was brutal toward women in any way, basically, there was no abuse in my house, and she's allowed to be who she wants to be. And I didn't damage her. I mean, I'm sure I f---ed her up. But I didn't completely ruin her. 

Hearing that from her, after all these years later of writing this book, and, you know, this terrible fear I had, both of that goodbye, that I'll have to make to them, but also, this idea of how I would fail them, how I would hurt them, or how I wouldn't be able to protect them. And so when she called me and she said that to me, I thought, Okay, well, I got her to 21. And she's okay. That made me feel good, and it made me feel proud. Pride is not like a big thing for me, but to know that I raised two good human beings. And then I raised a daughter, who doesn't define herself by what the men in her life think of her, that felt like a giant accomplishment I didn't even know I was trying to accomplish.

KCRW: All these things you've done are really about making us understand that you're not going to sensationalize Julie's condition but ask us for empathy. And as you're saying the reviews that bothered you, I'm guessing they wanted a more glib treatment or more hysterical treatment, both of which are the kinds of things we're used to seeing, or even reading in this area, and you don't do that.

Koppelman: Well, I have spent my life trying to advocate for mental illness and trying to explain that depression is an illness, no different than asthma or diabetes. And so maybe you're right, maybe the reason I don't judge them is because you wouldn't judge somebody with cancer. And so I would really like people to know and to get help and to take medicine. You don't have to have any experience with trauma. With postpartum depression, this could be a one off.

I remember, it took a very long time for me to take antidepressant medication. I didn't start taking it till my son was like, almost two. And when I took it, all the cliches were true. Like everything did go from black and white to color and all the false information about it wasn't true. Like, I remember at the time, people saying, Oh, well, you'll never be able to write anything, and you won't be able to feel anything. And you know, you're never gonna want to have sex. And, I don't know anybody who's in a deep depression, who gets anything written. I surely never got anything written depressed. The other thing people would always say is that, to be an artist or a writer, you need to have some kind of depression, but I always think: imagine the paintings Van Gogh would have painted, or the melodies Cobain would have made.



Rebecca Mooney