An oral history of Girl, Interrupted

Susanna Kaysen’s mental ward memoir was adapted into one of the most harrowing female-led films of the last 30 years. Director James Mangold and key members of the film’s crew look back on its making.

Razors pain you, rivers are damp, acid stains you, drugs cause cramps, guns aren’t lawful, nooses give, gas smells awful, you might as well live” – Lisa Rowe, Girl, Interrupted

Like a razor blade pulled across unspoiled carpal flesh, James Mangold’s 1999 film Girl, Interrupted represents a duality of twisted comfort and mortal threat: a violence within that protects us from a violence without. It emerged in the backwash of late 90s cosmetic pharmaculture, when Elizabeth Wurtzel’s 1994 happy pill memoir Prozac Nation became a bestseller. Susanna Kaysen’s episodic novel Girl, Interrupted, released a year prior, was called triumphantly funny” by The New York Times. Doug Wick, a producer who had found success making female-led movies like Working Girl and The Craft, optioned the book. James Mangold, hot off the back of a neo-noir cop drama, Cop Land, was chosen to direct. The female faction of Hollywood, including Alanis Morissette and Courtney Love, lined up to star.

Girl, Interrupted is a tale of Susanna Kaysen’s misdiagnosis (“You need a rest,” she’s told, before being shuttled to a mental hospital) and the cast of freaks she meets in her ward. The story passed through the hands of two screenwriters – Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan – before director James Mangold rewrote it. He ballooned the hostile insanity of Lisa Rowe (Angelina Jolie) and anchored the story in a parallel narrative: The Wizard of Oz, where a normal girl, thrown headlong into an unfamiliar world, befriends several misfits. When Girl came out in theatres, critics dubbed it Cuckoo’s Nest with chicks” and gave it middling reviews.

Yet its malignant glamour still holds a wicked allure. Girl gave Angelina Jolie her only Oscar. It launched the careers of nearly every other actress who appeared in the film, as well as its director. What is perhaps most interesting, now, 20 years after its release, is how the film eerily foretold what would happen to its stars. Days after Jolie won her Oscar for her portrayal of Lisa, she admitted herself to UCLA’s Medical Center for 48 hours for, as one article put it, a paralyzing grief that she and [then-boyfriend Billy Bob] Thornton would not be able to be together.” In the first few lines of the film, Winona Ryder’s Susanna asks, Have you ever confused a dream with life? Or stolen something when you have the cash?” Ryder was subsequently charged and booked for shoplifting in 2001. Most tragic of all is the death of actress Brittany Murphy, who played Daisy in the film, who, despite her naive optimism, takes her own life. Murphy died of pneumonia almost 10 years to the day of the film’s release.

Girl, Interrupted – a memoir about a protracted stay at a mental hospital – captured that sense of crazy all young people feel as they teeter on the precipice of adulthood. Their pains, our pains, were shackled, transcribed and refracted back to us in Mangold’s era-defining film of female camaraderie. This is how it got made.

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Doug Wick, producer: I read a review [of Susanna Kaysen’s novel] in The New York Times. As soon as I read the review, I was incredibly interested. The second I read the book, I tried to option it. I had a discretionary fund at [Sony]. For some things they might not want to do, they would give you money, and then you could see if you were right or not. So I bought [the rights to Girl, Interrupted] with my discretionary money and I hired a playwright named Lisa Loomer to come in and adapt it.

Lisa Loomer, screenwriter: [Girl, Interrupted] was my first Hollywood project. I read the book and I came up with what’s known as a take’ – how I would turn it into a movie. And that’s how I became involved. [Kaysen’s] book is not the whole story, it’s a collection of vignettes. My job was to create a story with a beginning, middle and end, and a protagonist and antagonist. None of that exists in the book.

Doug Wick: After I bought the book, I heard from Winona [Ryder’s] agent that she loved the book and would be very interested in being in the movie. She was a good ally to have.

Winona Ryder, as told to Rosie O’Donnell in 1999: I read [Girl, Interrupted] seven years ago and fell in love with [it…] I teamed up with Doug Wick who got the rights literally weeks before I tried to, and we set off on this seven-year journey.

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Doug Wick: We had a good draft from Lisa [Loomer] and I was looking for the right filmmaker. My concern about the filmmaker was that the book is so edgy and evocative. There was a version of the movie that I feared, which was a kind of Hallmark, well-intentioned drama.

James Mangold, director: I thought that’s all it would be: a cast of women all doing that illness-of-the-week show that was more popular in those days than it is now. 

Before the film began production, Mangold was hesitant to board the project. I was unsure about getting involved,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 1998. I thought everyone wanted a Lifetime movie – weepy girls in smocks, all retching and twitching. I said, I want to make a monster movie,’ a movie about what it’s like to lose your boundaries in your world.”

I was in the middle of making an all-guy cop movie [Cop Land] with a cast of almost 100 percent macho men. The idea of making a more feminine film was appealing. Also at that moment in New York, there was the awareness of mental illness, and the newness of medication for it. This was a topic a lot of people were talking about. Prozac Nation was a bestseller. I asked for a script [for Girl, Interrupted], which I think was Lisa [Loomer’s] script. And I read that while I was still shooting [Cop Land].

While I was working on another script, [a second] writer, Anna Hamilton Phalen, took a crack at it. And then finally I jumped in and did a pretty massive rewrite before we made the movie.

Lisa is a sensitive writer, and it was an earnest script. There was an essential question, which was: the movie has to take a position. You’d have to make real on-screen [the internal struggles] happening to the protagonist. You can’t just watch the characters try to kill themselves and moan that they don’t feel right. That was what I felt was was at risk in Lisa’s script. I didn’t know how what Susanna was going through would be made visual.

I had no idea that I would write something and what I would see on screen would be very, very different. So that was like losing my virginity.”

Lisa Loomer, screenwriter

Lisa Loomer: When I say [the script] became more dramatic, I think you could also characterize that as more of a male take. It became a more aggressive film. It would be a very different film, for instance, if Greta Gerwig were handling that same material today. I’m not saying better or worse, I’m just saying different.

James Mangold: There were two big breakthroughs in [rewriting] the script. One was profoundly expanding the role of Lisa Rowe, ultimately played by Angelina Jolie. The other breakthrough: it occurred to me that the only story I had known all my life about a young, depressed woman catapulted into a circumscribed world from which you couldn’t escape, where she meets these dear friends missing a significant part of their personality [was The Wizard of Oz]. That seemed incredibly helpful in the draft that I then wrote. I used Lisa as a Wicked Witch of the West, but also an incredibly appealing one, in which you’re almost drawn to her instead of repelled from her.

Lisa Loomer: I certainly felt that what I wrote was very much faithful to the themes and questions of the book. I had no idea that I would write something and what I would see on screen would be very, very different. So that was like losing my virginity. It was very, very surprising.

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James Mangold: Winona’s role was filled, and there were many people after the role of Lisa. And bigger stars than Angie at the time, who I wouldn’t want to name, but pretty much it was all the young women stars of the moment, and they all wanted it.

Christina Myers, actress who played Nurse Margie: Everyone wanted in on that film. Actresses in L.A. were just stumbling over themselves to be seen for it. 

According to IMDb, a who’s who of female actors lined up to audition for the role of Lisa, including Reese Witherspoon, Rose McGowan, Kate Hudson, Christina Ricci, Katie Holmes, Gretchen Mol, Alicia Witt and Alanis Morissette.

Alicia Witt, actress, as told to Entertainment Weekly in 1999: It’s unusual to find a script where all the supporting characters are dream roles. And they’re all young women.

Rose McGowan, actress, as told to EW in 1999: [Girl, Interrupted is] the only decent thing out there that doesn’t involve taking your clothes off.

James Mangold: I met with [Alanis Morissette]. First of all, I can’t remember her age [at the time], but it felt like she was out of the world of being in high school at a mental institution, whether it was her vibe or physical age. My feeling was that Alanis was interested in being part of it, but didn’t necessarily have a role in mind. I couldn’t plug her in. And I was very nervous about her jumping out of the movie and just being a singer-songwriter/rock star who was suddenly walking around the institution.

Courtney Love was someone who was interested in playing Lisa. [Milos Forman, who directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and was Mangold’s former teacher at Columbia University] had read the script and he talked to me about it. I’m not sure if we talked after I finished the movie, but we flew on a plane together [before production] and talked about Courtney for the movie, who was another person who I considered. And he had just worked with her in [The People vs.] Larry Flynt.

I’m not sure if [Milos Forman and I] talked after I finished the movie, but we flew on a plane together and talked about Courtney [Love] for the movie, who was another person who I considered. And he had just worked with her in Larry Flynt.”

James Mangold

Lisa Loomer: I do remember talking about Angelina Jolie with the producers very early on. It was probably clear to all of us that she was the right actress for it.

Doug Wick: When I [first] talked to Angelina, I had an interesting point of view. Having grown up in Los Angeles, I actually knew the orthodontist she went to, so we had a conversation about that. She was both a very exotic creature, but I also really understood her roots. So basically, how crazy can anyone who goes to an orthodontist be? 

Jolie was 22 and had only a few notable roles to her name when she was considering ending it all. She had emancipated at 17 so she could appear nude in her first major film, Cyborg 2, smashed the patriarchy in Foxfire and broke the internet in Hackers. But she was yet to win a Golden Globe for her shocking performance as supermodel Gia Carangi, the titular antihero in Gia.

Jolie had wrapped filming, was exhausted, and had a strained relationship with her father. She was emotionally bankrupt and her dad disapproved of her drug use. She became depressed and wanted to commit suicide. As insane as it sounds, I think a lot of people consider suicide when they’re young,” she admitted to The Face in 2003.

She hired a contract killer and was all set for her final exit. Then the unthinkable happened. The hitman talked her out of it. He was a decent enough person and asked if I could think about it and call him again in two months. Something changed in my life and I figured I’d stick it out.”

Jolie took home a Golden Globe in 1998 for George Wallace, then another for Gia, giving her the confidence she needed to give life another try. She got the role of Lisa Rowe when she was 24.

Angelina Jolie, director James Mangold, and Christina Myers (Nurse Margie) on set.

James Mangold: It was clear [Angelina] was coming from a tumultuous emotional landscape inside. That is not unusual for actors to have, and to draw upon. Meaning that it was clear that she had a really rich emotional tapestry inside her and was in the process of learning how to harness it.

Winona Ryder, as told to Total Film in 2010: I remember in the press junket for Girl, Interrupted [Angelina] would just be so open about her problems and then I would come in and everyone would think I was so boring.

Angelina Jolie, as told to Rolling Stone in 2001: [Lisa] lived too big, was too honest, was too hungry, was too full of life. At the end of the film there’s a certain sense of them saying to Lisa, Nobody wants you to live, nobody likes the way you are – you’d be better off if you were sedated and tied down and shut up.” If you feel that you’re the kind of person she is, then it’s really hard, because you’re struggling with, Fuck, am I just damaging to people everywhere? Am I just too loud and too wild and do I just need to let everybody live their lives and shut up and calm down?”

James Mangold: I was fascinated by Angie’s work in Gia and had her come in and read with me. She ended up reading the entire role, every scene, from first to the very last [page] in my script. When I sent the tape to the studio and the producers, saying, This is who I want”, I was very nervous because of the stature of other people who wanted the role with more box office clout. But everyone who saw this tape was so blown away that there was no resistance to casting her whatsoever.

Doug Wick: [Angelina] was completely compelling. I would always think of her a little bit like Jack Nicholson, just in that I was very aware of the actors who, when they’re extreme, draw you in as opposed to repel you.

Angelina Jolie, as told to Seventeen in 2000: I spent a week in solitary [confinement to prepare for the role]. Learning how these institutions treated people in the 60s was horrifying. 

Whoopi Goldberg, as told to E! News: All of the girls in this movie, there’s not a [weak link] in the bunch. They all are conceivably the next real crop of actors. Not to say anything disparaging about the crop that’s here now but there is a difference in these girls than you’ll find in almost any of the other group […] You look at them, you think, Oh, you have it.”

Christina Myers, actress: I did an audition right before Thanksgiving weekend. The casting director called me up and asked me to overnight my headshot to her. And I did. I didn’t know what it was for, but I got to audition for two roles for James Mangold and [producer] Kathy Conrad, which was fantastic. I got a speeding ticket on my way there, which was really upsetting. [laughs] It was forever, like three weeks before I heard something. I came to find out I got the role of Nurse Margie.

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Christina Myers: I mainly filmed at the state hospital in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which was still semi-functioning at the time. Some of [the cast] were talking about how it must be strange for the people who were there to see a film crew coming in. We could see [other patients] across the way, as they came outside to smoke or something.

Richard Hoover, production designer: We ended up at Harrisburg State Hospital, which at that point had shrunk into one building, as a mental facility. And then they had empty buildings that the state owned. The main building, which had the wing in it, was vacant. We did work in there, which involved removing lead and painting all the rooms.

James Mangold: They had to net off the whole building and do a lead abatement. It was just a big expense.

Elisabeth Moss, as told to Seventeen in 2000: They put cages over the windows. It was spooky to be in those wards.

Richard Hoover: There is this great book called Ward 80 or something, which has these black and white photos of mental institutions, which is horrifying and ugly. We used that a lot [as reference for the look of the film], but we didn’t really overdo it. The idea was not to go so oppressive with it, to lighten the color and to keep it, in its own institutional way, happy’.

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Doug Wick: There were definitely two camps on the set. There was a Winona camp and an Angelina camp, and they were really, really, really serious about their work and they were hunkered down into their characters.

James Mangold: Angie kept a lot of people – particularly Winona, but a lot of people – at arm’s length. Part of her own process in the role was building a power and mystique. 

Winona Ryder, as told to Total Film in 2010: I remember thinking, Oh, we’re going to turn out to be great friends.” But I think [Angelina] needed to be able to look at me just as the character Susanna, not as Winona, so in a very respectful way she just kind of kept her distance.

Christina Myers: I remember talking to Angelina a little bit in between [takes], but not a whole lot. She was very sweet. She was also in character. We had work to do, so we weren’t chit-chatting too much.

There were definitely two camps on set. There was a Winona camp and an Angelina camp, and they were really, really, really serious about their work and they were hunkered down into their characters.”

Doug Wick, producer

Winona Ryder, as told to Blackbook in 2009: I never had any bad feelings about Angelina. And I was hurt that people thought that. Everyone assumed I was really jealous because I thought this would be my vehicle. We said from the very beginning that the actress who played Lisa would probably win an Oscar, because it was the big, great, showy part. But I always related to Susanna. I fought very hard for [Angelina] to have that part, and I never really felt like I got the chance to know her.

Brittany Murphy, at the premiere in 1999: I liked working with everybody. Forget the fact that it was all actresses and all women – which is inspiring just in the fact that there was a script that had so many amazing roles for young women. They were extraordinary artists and extraordinary humans, and so I learned a lot about them in a humane manner and I learned a lot about them on camera in an artistic manner. And on all accounts that can’t possibly be wrong, it was fantastic.

Christina Myers: Whoopi was interesting because she would sit and hang out a lot with the background actors. On the first day of filming we were out in the snow, because we nurses were supposed to be escorting the patients to the ice cream parlor for their special field trip. I remember Whoopi handing out those little foot warmer, hand warmer things you put in your pocket or in your boots. That was sweet.

James Mangold: Whoopi Goldberg lived in a bus in the parking lot next door [to the hospital set]. She doesn’t like staying in hotels. She has this amazingly decorated bus that she lived in, and had lived literally on campus.”

Matt Damon came by [the set], actually. It was the first time I had spent time with him. He was going out with Winona at the time. I remember watching a football game with Matt over one weekend and making dinner for him and Winona. And Tim Hutton visited, he was going out with Angie at the time and he was on set sometimes.

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James Mangold: The one thing that I remember very distinctly was George Harrison’s acoustic version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, which I could obviously never afford. At that time, I wanted the band, The Jayhawks, to score the movie, which was a moderately successful Midwestern band that played a beautiful folkified, 60s-inflected rock at the time and were incredibly talented guitar players. The studio wouldn’t go for it. Mychael was my fallback, who did a beautiful job.

Mychael Danna, composer: We definitely had two main facets to the score: one was this music that could have been written in the 60s, folk guitar, idiomatic things to the 60s vibe – no modern instruments.

The other aspect of the score was more conceptual, which was the use of the glass instruments that were played by this Toronto-based group that I use called The Glass Orchestra. They had this orchestra of instruments all made of glass, whether they were struck or bowed or blown. Every sound that came from that orchestra was using glass. There was something that just resonated beautifully with the themes of the film and especially with Susanna’s character being in a position to choose, and the challenge of choosing whether to descend into madness, or fight her way out of it. Glass has the opposing characteristics of being something beautiful and something utilitarian, but also obviously something deadly and painful.

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Christina Myers: [Brittany] always had cool shoes. They weren’t just like Nikes or anything. There’s one scene where she wants the Colace [laxatives] and Whoopi tells her she can have prune juice or something like that. There was something Brittany orchestrated so that she and I would have some interaction during that [scene], too. She made me more part of it than I was already. I thought that was so generous of her. She didn’t have to do that.

James Mangold: She was only with us [on set] a few weeks. We scheduled her whole role in the first four weeks we were shooting because she had to do another movie. My funniest memory is when I was doing that scene with the chicken under the bed with Angie and Winona and Brittany. I remember getting so frustrated because they all kept breaking out laughing all the time as we were doing the scene and couldn’t just hold it together. It was like a Carol Burnett Show skit. I was pretty young, probably 32, 33. I remember going in the little room in the ward and just saying, Tell me when you three are ready to make a movie, because I’m tired of this bullshit!” And I slammed the door on the three of them and went and sat in my director’s chair. And I remember they all looked up at me like, Holy shit, he’s pissed.” I realized I suddenly couldn’t be their friend. That day I had to be the boss. It was a personal lesson for me of taking the wheel, as it were. And they all became ashen and immediately went to work.

Mychael Danna: I know that Denzel [Washington] ended up calling me to do a film that he directed, Antwone Fisher, specifically because of the Girl, Interrupted score, which he really loved. So this film was really wonderful for my career as well. A lot of these young actors went on to do incredible work; it was kind of a major film for them.

James Mangold: I have had times when I tried to convince the studio to let me go back and recut it because it was a tremendous amount of pressure on the movie to be commercial.” I was trying to make an independent movie through a studio system and I felt as though my hands were tied trying to deliver what I envisioned with the pressures that were on it from Sony and Columbia to make a commercial Oscar‑y movie.

Mychael Danna: It’s a lot of fun to see the late, great Brittany Murphy, Jared Leto and Jeffrey Tambor, Clea Duvall [all in it]. It’s this extremely star-studded and very real and affecting movie. I find the choice and struggle that Susanna has to make between living her life or losing her life something that we all have to struggle with – whether to give in to the demons or whether to fight for the life that we know we can have. It certainly speaks to me and, I think, to everybody.

Lisa Loomer: The female friendship aspect of the movie is very appealing to women. It was one of the early films that really had just a bunch of women together on film. That was something new.

Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted author, as told to HBO: They felt like a group and that made me happy, because that was an important part of why I liked being in the loony bin to the extent that I did.

Christina Myers: People relate to the connections, especially Winona and Angelina’s characters, how they had an adversarial relationship, but really they cared and were there for one another. And so that’s what’s so heartbreaking watching Angelina’s character, as Winona’s about to leave [the hospital]. The connections that can be made even through the darkest of times is something that shines some hope.

James Mangold: There’s something deeply hypnotic about a movie where you see young people and it’s not a comedy like Heathers or something. It’s not exaggerated in a sardonic or satirical way. It feels like these larger-than-life characters are representing the deep, adult, cosmically complicated feelings we have as young people growing up. Sometimes you can’t put a finger on that. We can’t explain to our parents or our shrinks or our authority figures why we’re feeling the way we’re feeling. What we were trying to do was capture that ennui, that ambiguous cloud of sadness that is part of transcending into adulthood. In that sense, mostly due to the remarkable cast, we succeeded.


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