“I Sort of Became the Festival Therapist”: Writer-Director Jamie Sisley on Addiction Drama Stay Awake
The delicate coming-of-age process is curbed by one family’s struggle with a so-called “crisis” in Stay Awake, writer-director Jamie Sisley’s feature debut. Of course, the crisis at hand is the opioid epidemic, and the afflicted party is a tight-knit family living in a small Virginia town. Michelle (Chrissy Metz, best known for her role on NBC’s This Is Us) is a single mother who undeniably loves her two sons Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) and Derek (Fin Argus). But unfaltering devotion on its own cannot keep Michelle sober, particularly when her doctor keeps refilling her highly-addictive prescription. Most nights, the brothers find themselves desperately trying to keep their mom conscious as they drive to the ER. Even when Ethan receives a full ride to Brown and aspiring actor Derek is offered to audition for exciting local gigs, both boys struggle to justify taking the next steps in their own lives while their mother is constantly on the brink of overdose. Their only hope lies in penny-pinching to send her to various addiction treatment centers while keeping in mind that the average relapse rate after rehab is approximately 50 percent.
Stay Awake is based off Sisley’s own family dynamic while growing up in Virginia. His mother was similarly addicted to opioids; she eventually recovered, and his now-stable relationship with her meant that it was important to portray Michelle as a flawed but sympathetic character to combat the media’s frequent demonization of addicts. Sisley spoke to me via Zoom a week ahead of the film’s release. Stay Awake received the Generation Special Mention for Best Film at last year’s Berlinale, opens at Film Forum in New York City this weekend and will then screen at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on May 25 before expanding to select cities. The film is being released by MarVista Entertainment.
Filmmaker: Stay Awake originated as a short film, which you made in 2015. I’d like to know more about the process of developing this story into a feature-length project, from pre-production to completion. What felt important for you to expand upon, and what kernels from the short did you work to preserve?
Sisley: The origin of both of those stories comes from my life. My brother, my mom and I grew up in Virginia, and my mom had a really bad opioid addiction growing up. When that first started to happen, I would watch movies to feel less alone, to try and understand what she was going through more.
One of the first things that I realized was that all films about addiction—a genre in its own right—are mostly from the addict’s point of view, and it always dramatizes their experience in a negative way. It demonizes them. So, when I got to a place where I could make films, I wanted to approach it from a different direction, because my experience wasn’t really like that. I love my mom to death, and I’m really proud of her. I have a lot of empathy for anyone who’s an addict who keeps coming to the table every day to try to manage their disease.
So, that was sort of the genesis. I wanted to tell a story from the caretaker’s point of view, because I’d never seen that before—the rollercoaster ride caretakers have to go on with their loved ones to help manage their disease. I made a short on it when I was in film school. It was very shoestring [laughs]. I had a wonderful producer, Sarah Dorman Sveen, who ended up also coming onto the feature. She’s a very close producing partner of mine to this day. We did a Kickstarter campaign back in 2014 and came up with whatever money we could and just scrounged, you know? We asked for a thousand favors and got that done. That film was really just from the caretaker’s point of view, because it was a 13-minute short. I didn’t feel like there was enough time to really expand on other pieces of that story.
When we went to the feature, one of the big differences is probably the fact that the role of Michelle is a lot more expansive. I wanted to show her humanity instead of demonizing the addict. Part of that’s because I felt like I harbored a lot of anger with my mom for a long time. Throughout a lot of my twenties, I just didn’t understand addiction. I didn’t understand the disease component, and I really wish I could have seen or read something that would’ve helped me better understand it. Because I think I could have gotten that time back with her, and that’s valuable time. So, that’s something I really wanted to make an effort for. I wanted to show humanity with the hope that if someone watches this, they can empathize with the addict instead of demonizing them.
Filmmaker: From what I gleaned from the film, it seems like making it may have been a sort of therapy for yourself. As a child, you didn’t have the capacity to look at the situation from a totally reasonable point of view. You’re a teenager, your emotions are going to be heightened and you’re going to feel betrayed and hurt. You know what I mean?
Sisley: I definitely know what you mean. I had no idea what the hell I was doing.
Filmmaker: You’re not supposed to be a caretaker when you’re 17.
Sisley: Yeah, it’s funny. Maybe the last thing I’ll say about that transition—you helped to jog my memory a little—is that I really just made the short because I needed to get this off my chest. This whole subject was one of the big catalysts of why I wanted to get into film in the first place. I was trying to tell a story on this subject, and I thought I’d be done after the short. But the short had some success. It played Berlin, a bunch of wonderful festivals and won the grand jury prize at Slamdance, which was a really supportive festival. And something that happened when I was traveling is I sort of became the festival therapist, where everybody would come up to me and want to talk about their mom, their dad, their uncle or their aunt and the issues that they were having. To me, that signified how taboo this subject still is. I knew this in the back of my head, but it really reminded me that it’s a very guarded subject, especially with caretakers. So, I saw this as an opportunity to maybe help open the door, which was a big reason why I decided to go ahead and take the step to do the feature.
Filmmaker: There’s a real chemistry between all three central characters. What was the casting process like, and what made you settle on Wyatt, Fin and Chrissy?
Sisley: The casting and pre-production process was tough, because it was during COVID. I actually met with Chrissy the very last day before the whole world closed up. We had a meeting, then literally the next day anything that I was going to do or participate in was canceled. For Wyatt and Finn, I was looking for actors who were maybe wiser beyond their years. I feel like both Wyatt and Finn are incredible at taking material and really digging into it and making it their own—you know, putting flesh onto those characters. I was kind of looking for that with both, so I really think I lucked out.
But it was tough, because I didn’t have a chance to do much of a casting [process]. But both Wyatt and Finn have done a lot of work already, and they’re both wonderful actors. I’m a major fan of them both [laughs]. I watched a lot of their films, then I watched their YouTube videos. A major thing that really struck me about both Wyatt and Finn is how kind they were. Regardless of what interview they were giving—or how tired they might have been—they were always so kind. That was exactly the experience I had with them on set, too.
Chrissy was a very targeted choice. I wanted to work with somebody that could bring humanity and warmth to Michelle, because I think most people would come into a story like this having a lot of assumptions about the addict. I think one of Chrissy’s major talents is her warmth and kindness, how she brought that into her characters in previous work. She’s just such a lovely actor and collaborator. We would have certain days where Chipotle would just show up on set from an anonymous source. Obviously it was all Chrissy, so she’s just a good partner in addition to being an incredibly talented actor.
I also had a great group of casting directors that I worked with. I can’t take all the credit for it myself. I had a casting director, Amy Lippens, who was really on this project from day one back in 2017. She never stopped, she just really believed in the project. We have a really close relationship. She’s a good friend of mine and I’m really lucky to count her as a collaborator. We had Chrystie Street Casting, Heidi [Eklund] in upstate New York, Rebecca Birstock and Rebecca Dealy, who are also incredible for New York castings.
Filmmaker: The opioid “crisis,” as we dub it in this country, has affected countless individuals and their families. I know my family has certainly been touched by it, and this story felt real because it was told both tenderly and with recognizable frustration, an emotion that I think that a lot of us feel guilty to express when we’re supporting somebody through a healing process. Was there a line you had to straddle in telling this story authentically without placing too much of the blame on Michelle as an individual?
Sisley: I think that was a learned discovery for me. In some ways, I credit the process of writing the film with helping me understand and become more empathetic with the addict. Growing up and getting to know more friends or family members who suffer from the same disease also made me realize just how powerful my mom is and how much she tries. The “authenticity” part was hard, though. You want to be able to express the cyclical exhaustion that caretakers have. You have to demonstrate a lot of patience; it’s a real process. Even if you can get your loved one into a treatment facility, a lot of the time they’ll relapse, then you have to be patient all over again. That’s something I really wanted to show, because that was a very real experience I had with my mom.
But sometimes leaning into the truth can create moments that you didn’t really think would happen. Something I realized when I was writing it is that [while I was growing up,] I would lean on comedy sometimes, or at least humorous moments. I wouldn’t call Stay Awake a comedy, necessarily, but there are moments that come from me thinking about my brother and I when things were just so tough, and how we would just resort to laughing. Laughing’s very cathartic, and when I made that connection, I really leaned into it, because it felt like a really truthful way to explore the subject.
Filmmaker: Yes, something that I appreciate about your film is the humor and levity that it brings to this otherwise morose subject matter. I mean, maybe this is awful to admit, but my family has stories where we can almost laugh about this otherwise awful period of time in our lives. And we’re lucky to be able to laugh, because the situation didn’t end in loss of life like it has for so many others. But for that reason, I was happy to find a healthy dose of humor in your film, because so many addiction dramas are so one-note and weepy. Can you talk a bit more about the process of suffusing comedy into the film?
Sisley: I think that whenever you want to write about a real experience, you run the risk of it just becoming very expensive therapy [laughs]. I obviously didn’t want that to happen, and my hope was that this could be used as a tool, especially in the recovery and treatment communities. For all people, and especially for young people, to not feel so alone as caretakers.
I think trying to get [the film] out of that melodramatic terrain was making the connection of how it felt really truthful whenever I would lean into the comedy. And it’s a collaborative process: I wrote the script, but if you’re lucky you have actors and an incredible crew. All these people come together to bring it on its feet. I really trusted my actors, and all three of them did a ton of character work. So when we got to rehearsal, some of the comedy or levity that was in the script was gone just by how they approached the character, and some of it was amplified. It was really interesting to see their take on it. I leaned into most of what they were leaning into, because they did a lot of great work and it added a lot to the film.
Filmmaker: Speaking of the collaborative process, your cinematographer, Alejandro Mejía, did a fabulous job at capturing color and texture while suffusing certain interiors with a flatness, I imagine to convey the despair of dealing with this situation for all parties. I was especially struck by the would-be “homecoming” scene and the bowling alley sequences. What conversations did you have with him when it came to finalizing the film’s overall look?
Sisley: He’s DP’d most of the short film work that I did previously, including the Stay Awake short. He’s one of my closest collaborators. So, when we got to the place to do a feature, we had a built-in language where he knows what I like, I know what he likes and the strengths that he can bring. I’m just counting the minutes until Jano blows up internationally—he’s already won some pretty major awards around the world. He has such a lovely eye and is really creative about lenses. He taught me a lot about lens choices over the years. On every project, we go to the camera houses and test a series of lenses that he and I discussed. Before the fact, I really wanted to use the same old Cooke lenses we used in the short, but we realized we had a lot of nighttime exteriors and the amount of time it would take the light off of those old lenses would likely put us behind. So, we had a lot of those conversations: “How can we incorporate the aesthetic to help ground the movie?”
We also had to keep in mind that we’re an indie film on a shoestring budget, and we need to set ourselves up for success as best as we can in advance, so we spent a lot of time in pre-pro looking at photography books. That’s something we always do. He and I, for some reason, lean toward photographers way more than filmmakers as our influences. William Eggleston’s a big one. I’m a Southern filmmaker, and Eggleston’s a huge influence on me. I know he is an influence on a ton of other photographers, directors and DPs. But he was a big one for this film, specifically.
Filmmaker: A very notable undercurrent of the film has to do with Ethan’s sexuality, which he’s beginning to embrace but never verbalizes or outwardly expresses. Was there a reason for this subdued characterization?
Sisley: Yeah, that was very intentional. I feel like filmmakers have a real opportunity if they want to take issues they care about and help normalize them: to look at that issue or that subject, see where we are in society, then see how our films or stories can help push that in a positive direction even more. Normalizing queerness is something that’s near and dear to me. Also showing that there’s a spectrum. It’s funny how many people would ask me a question about Ethan’s storyline and just assume he’s gay. Then you have to sort of reel them back a little and say, “Well, actually, there’s bisexuality and a lot of other places on the spectrum that Ethan might be exploring.” But more than anything, normalizing queerness and that storyline [means] not having to put a giant spotlight on it, and instead just making it a normal part of someone’s upbringing, which it is.
Filmmaker: Your film also touches upon the stark lack of adequate care for addicts in this country. There are the luxury rehab resorts, state-funded facilities and not much else outside of that. The core of the issue, though, is the corruption of the pharmaceutical industry and the doctors in their pocket. In the film, the boys literally give the middle finger whenever they pass the office of the doctor who’s unethically supplying their mother with opioids. Did you do any of your own research into these various institutions, or were the observations in your film solely based on lived experiences?
Sisley: It’s a little bit of both. But a lot of it, I have to say, is really leaning towards my own experiences. A lot of the anger and resentment I had growing up, especially in my teenage years, were for institutions that I thought were there to protect. Then you look back and you realize that they really didn’t do what you assumed they would do. I think that that whole process made me grow up fast. It took some of the naïveté away. I think a lot of it is just class-based, too. I grew up in a class in the South where we couldn’t afford really expensive treatment facilities. We certainly couldn’t afford them two or three times. Generally speaking, you don’t just go through rehab once. It’s a long process. I remember so many stories I could tell you of times I felt like the system failed us. But especially if you don’t come from a class where you can continuously pay for these services, you’re out to sea and left on your own. I wanted to show that frustration.
Filmmaker: I’m curious about the self-distribution tactic of the film. It’s going to be playing at Film Forum in New York and open in LA later this month. Are there further plans for release? How can people outside of these areas see and support the film?
Sisley: Again, I have a great group of collaborators on the producing side, really an all-star team. We are stacked [laughs]. Shrihari Sathe, Eric Schultz, Sarah Dorman Sveen—who I mentioned earlier, and has done even more in the distribution process—Rob Cristiano, Alvaro Valente. So many people have been so helpful, and I think they’ve made it possible. Shrihari and Sarah are doing so much right now, especially within the treatment and recovery community. We all had a conversation and decided to invest some of our marketing budget into bringing on a small but mighty team of people in the treatment and recovery community to help distribute this film before, during and after its theatrical run.
We’re excited about the theatrical, but also about all of the grassroots building that’s happening at the moment. And these kinds of campaigns, to my knowledge, happen a lot in documentaries. I had a documentary a couple years ago and learned a lot from that, but for some reason narratives don’t do [impact campaigns] as much. But this film really was engineered as a love letter to the caretaker and to this community, so it helps to get it into the hands of the people that we were intending to as quickly as possible.