Mental Health and the Film Industry: interview with Ella Greenwood

Ella Greenwood is a British actress and filmmaker. At the age of only 19, she is the director of her own production company, Broken Flames Productions, and has had her work selected for BAFTA accredited festivals. She works as a mental health activist and is an ambassador for teen mental health charity, stem4. We caught up with Ella to interview her about campaigning for better representation of mental health in the media and getting into the film industry as a woman.

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Afternoon Delight: We originally founded our zine as a space for honest discussion about our lives as we navigate through our twenties. Society puts a lot of pressure on young people to achieve particular milestones to a timeline, such as finishing school, graduating from university, getting a job and embarking on the path to ‘adulthood,’ whatever that might end up looking like, and we’ve definitely felt this pressure growing up. You progressed into your career straight after completing your A-Levels, and didn’t attend university. Did you ever feel a level of pressure or expectation to go to university? Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker or has the direction your career has taken changed from what you originally thought it might be? 

Ella: I never felt pressure to go to university, I’ve wanted to be an actor for most of my life, but drama school never appealed to me, so it wasn’t something that I had intended on doing, and then when I started filmmaking, I fell in love with it. The direction of my career has definitely changed, though I’m only where I am now because of what I originally wanted to do.

Afternoon Delight: Your first short film, Faulty Roots, was nominated for an award by Film The House as well as being selected for many festivals, including the BAFTA-qualifying Bolton International Film Festival. Could you describe the premise of the film for those who haven’t yet seen it, and explain why it was important for you to write it?

Ella: The film follows a teenage girl with depression whose mother tries to cheer her up by making her reconnect with an overly positive childhood friend. It was important for me to write it, as I wanted to share some of the experiences that I had when struggling with my mental health as a young teen, and to bring a more normal and accurate portrayal of teenage mental health to film.

Ella on the set of Smudged Smile. Photograph by Inès Hachou.

Afternoon Delight: You’re very passionate about creating projects that raise awareness of mental illness, a topic that you’re a vocal advocate for. stem4 is a London-based charity whose mission is to promote positive mental health in teenagers and those who support them, through education and awareness. Can you tell us about your work as an ambassador for this charity, and what it means to you?

Ella: stem4 are an amazing organisation and it means so much that I get to support and promote all of the good that they do. They have incredible ways to really help young people, and for example, one of my upcoming films Smudged Smile is supported by them so we will be able to give the audience a place where they can access help and resources. 

Afternoon Delight: We’ve read in one of your interviews about your passion for writing characters who experience mental illness, but whose lives don’t mean any less for having them. Your work is important in creating ground for moving portrayals of mental health into honest and accurate representation, away from stigma and harmful stereotypes. As the young generation of actors and filmmakers tell more honest stories about living with mental illnesses, do you hope the industry as a whole will be influenced by positive change to be more representative?

Ella: Definitely, I hope that so much! Change has definitely been made, but it’s still very slow and there’s also been the issue with recent work still doing more harm than good, and romanticising suicide. It’s important that the industry is more representative but in an accurate and positive way.

Mental health wasn’t something that I had an understanding of at all, and then when I started struggling, I just kept it to myself as much as possible. I would say to just always remember that you won’t feel that way forever, no feeling is permanent.

Afternoon Delight: Faulty Roots is now being developed into a feature film, which is an incredible achievement that you must be so proud of. As a 19-year-old, how have you coped with the growing attention of your work and attainment of success at a young age?

Ella: I’m just so grateful that I get to tell these stories that I’m so passionate about, and that I hope will have a positive impact on people, and that I get to work with so many incredible people. My work is what’s most important, really trying to make a difference with it, and so I just feel very lucky when it gets to reach people and gets that attention.

Afternoon Delight: You founded your production company, Broken Flames Productions, with the aim of telling important stories. As someone who has achieved success in a male-dominated industry, have you got any advice for other young women seeking careers in writing and filmmaking? What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career so far? 

Ella: My advice would just be to go for it, don’t wait until you feel like you’re ready or qualified, just start creating work! Also make sure to reach out to other people, those that inspire you or you feel you could learn from, women in the industry are so wonderfully supportive. The biggest challenge is probably powering through stressful situations and getting over rejection, those things will always be hard, but I’m learning the best ways to get through!

Afternoon Delight: For us, engaging in honest conversations about mental health has been really important in developing a greater understanding of ourselves, helping us to reach a level of self-acceptance that we didn’t have as teenagers, struggling with emotions we didn’t understand. Did you ever find it difficult to initiate conversations about mental health whilst growing up, and do you have any advice to give your younger self? Do you find it easier to speak through your work and the characters you write?

Ella: I definitely found it difficult, and honestly, I barely had those conversations whilst growing up. Mental health wasn’t something that I had an understanding of at all, and then when I started struggling, I just kept it to myself as much as possible. I would say to just always remember that you won’t feel that way forever, no feeling is permanent. I find it easy to talk about mental health in general now, whether that’s through my work, or whether it’s just me talking on a podcast or interview, it’s a lovely transition to now be able to and also to enjoy sharing my experiences.

Ella on the set of Smudged Smile. Photograph by Inès Hachou.

Afternoon Delight: The charity Mind recently revealed that more people have reported experiencing a crisis in their mental health during the pandemic than ever before. There seems to be more of a sense of urgency to the conversation now as more people seek support. Do you think the pandemic has changed the way society as a whole is engaging with the mental health discussion? 

Ella: There’s more awareness of the fact that so many people are struggling, but I worry that articles and statistics are about as far as it goes. Saying that a lot of people are struggling is one thing, but then implementing ways that those people can get help and support is another. There’s also always going to be those steps forwards and backwards; you see those positive stories about slight changes being made, but then you also see someone on a primetime TV show refuse to accept that someone was having suicidal thoughts.

Afternoon Delight: The pandemic as a whole has seen the closure of many cinemas, with films premiered on streaming platforms instead. Has the pandemic changed your production company’s approach to making films? Do you hope the future of film returns to the big screen again, or will you look to showcase your work on online platforms?

Ella: It’s been interesting for us, some of our projects had been made and in the festival circuit just before the pandemic started so we had no choice over what happened to those, in terms of being shown at virtual festivals etc, and then all of the work we have made since then is almost finished or in pre-production & development so now things are starting to open up again, we have those options. I love the cinema so much, but I also love streaming platforms, it will probably depend on the project as both have pros and cons, and I really do like both.

Afternoon Delight: Looking to the future, Mental Health Awareness Week is taking place in the UK in May and this year’s theme is ‘Nature.’ Over the course of the pandemic we’ve found solace in taking walks and looking after our houseplants. Do you think you will get involved in some green-fingered activities? Are there any self-care rituals you engage in during your downtime when you’re not working?

Ella: I most likely will not be getting involved in green-fingered activities, gardening just isn’t for me and honestly, I hate walks. So many people have said how much they love going on walks and how much it helps their mental health, but it’s not something that works for me, I just really don’t like them. I’ve been binge-watching The Office and New Girl for the first time and they definitely help, I love them!

Afternoon Delight: Finally, can you tell us about your upcoming short film, Self-Charm, and what you’re looking forward to doing the most once the UK’s lockdown restrictions end?

Ella: Self-Charm focuses on a teenage girl who is struggling with self-harm and it stars the amazing BAFTA nominated actress Bukky Bakray. I’m looking forward to literally everything!! Seeing family and friends, going to the cinema, going to restaurants and pubs, travelling, going to events again, I just cannot wait to leave my house!!!

Ella on the set of Smudged Smile. Photograph by Inès Hachou.

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Interview by Afternoon Delight Zine

To find out more about Ella Greenwood and her filmmaking projects:
visit her website and follow her on Instagram

To read about stem4’s work supporting teenage mental health
visit their website

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