Human Interest

Three hours after landing at Sky Harbor International Airport, writer and director Joseph Greco and actor and producer Joe Pantoliano prepared for another stop in a long series of screenings for their latest film, ?Canvas.?

By Nate Hansen
Larson Newspapers

Three hours after landing at Sky Harbor International Airport, writer and director Joseph Greco and actor and producer Joe Pantoliano prepared for another stop in a long series of screenings for their latest film, ?Canvas.?

The Sedona International Film Festival & Workshop was their next location for a show Tuesday evening, Feb. 27.

As dusk descended and the opportunity to view the first Preview Night screening of ?The Ultimate Gift? evaded them, Pantoliano took time to meet with a childhood friend who lives in Arizona.

Though Pantoliano divided his time between stories about ?the old neighborhood? in Hoboken, N.J., and the synopsis of ?Canvas,? the discussion evolved into one of advocacy and empathy.

Sitting under the amber hue of Reds restaurant, Greco and Pantoliano unwound and unrolled ?Canvas? as they experienced the process.

?Canvas? is a film about mental illness. The story revolves around a father and son who struggle trying to grasp the increasingly illogical life of their schizophrenic wife and mother.

The spirit of the film is a tug-of-war between anticipation and frustration, fulfillment and embarrassment. More importantly, the film is Greco?s ?emotional truth.?

Greco wrote and directed ?Canvas? based on his personal experiences.

When he was a child, his mother was institutionalized in a state hospital, he says. To deal with the illness and dysfunction, he says his father took him out sailing — his ?coping mechanism.?

Though his mother never went sailing with them, they always hoped she would. The sailboat became the metaphor for their hope.

??Canvas? is ultimately a work of fiction, but the heart of the story is true,? Greco says. ?My father coped by teaching me to sail. It presented some form of escapism for him.?

Greco suggests there was no plan to create a film with an agenda, yet doesn?t deny he is pleased by the advocacy it created.

?I never meant this to be a message film ? I wanted to make an entertaining film that was honest and real,? he admits.

Unbeknownst to the cast, several things in the film were happenstance as well.

Academy Award-winner Marcia Gay Harden plays Mary Marino, the wife and mother with schizophrenia.

Greco says that aside from Harden?s experience with her role as Jackson Pollock?s wife, Lee Krasner, in ?Pollock,? Greco doesn?t know how Harden created such a believable character.

?There were several similarities to the things my mother did,? he says.

He adds that Harden gave her character spontaneous laughter — a trait exactly like one his mother carried.

Pantoliano leans into the conversation. He also comes from a place of personal experience.

Although his role in the film as husband and father John Marino stood as a witness to mental illness, Pantoliano?s life is scarred with over a decade of depression.

?I was finally diagnosed with clinical depression a year-and-a-half ago,? he says.

Pantoliano says a casual survey taken during shooting of the film resulted in some interesting statistics.

?We found out that more than 50 percent of us knew someone in our lives with mental illness,? he says.

Pantoliano increases the tone of his thick East Coast accent. He raises another interesting argument.

?Why is it cool and hip to have erectile dysfunction, but a person can?t be depressed? There?re commercials on all the time for pills to remedy the erection, but pills advertising depression are on at 1 a.m. Why is that?? he says, emphatically.

Despite the struggles he suffered through, Pantoliano is able to see a bright side. He says he feels medicine and information can both alleviate and educate the public.

Pantoliano refers to ?The Matrix,? the blockbuster film he starred in. He says the decision to have a certain life isn?t based on taking ?the blue pill or the red pill.? Instead, there are a combination of factors.

?With antidepressants, and if you follow the doctor?s orders, you?re able to function ?. This film tells the world about stigma and discrimination and how it affects everyone. It affects not only the mentally ill, but the husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter. It affects everyone,? he says.

The added fortune of having Pantoliano on board as an actor and producer for ?Canvas? is the fact he?s strong-willed and empathetic.

At the same time, Pantoliano admits there are certain things medicine and education won?t change.

Work is his ?surrogate,? he says. Staying busy keeps him from dwelling in the dark.

Pantoliano jokingly admits he can be trouble for fellow actors. Regardless of a diagnosis, he?s still the son of hearse driver and bookie from New Jersey.

?I like to paint myself into a corner until I?m miserable and make everyone around me miserable. When

everyone around me is miserable it?s when I?m most comfortable,? he says, smiling.

In the end, ?Canvas? isn?t just an independent film. It?s a reputable piece of work for screen, study and the floor on Congress.

In April, U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy [D-R.I.] saw ?Canvas,? after which he said mental health reform was a focus of his work in Congress.

Kennedy wrote, ??Canvas? will combat stigma and improve public understanding not just of mental illness, but also the family dynamics of dealing with such intractable and sometimes heart-wrenching problems.?

In July, the National Alliance of Mental Illness praised Harden, Pantoliano and child actor Devon Gearhart for their performances.

NAMI wrote in a letter, ??Canvas? has the potential to touch the general public even more than the movie ?A Beautiful Mind? ? ?Canvas? is a story that people can identify with.?

Greco admits ?Canvas? isn?t romanticized or stylized, nor does it trivialize an important topic. Instead, he says it?s ?hopeful,? similar to his father?s sailboat.

And, as the beginning of film festival has shown, it?s time to set sail.


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