Director Julian Hobbs‘ narrative feature film debut “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness” stars Jefferson Mays (“The Notorious Bettie Page,” “Kinsey“), and based on the 1903 journal written by Daniel Paul Schreber, a German judge who was incarcerated in an asylum under the watch of the obsessive Dr. Emil Flechsig. Schreber’s insanity was characterized by startling delusions, all chronicled in his journal, including a belief that he directly communicated with God through a secret “nerve language,” and a desire to transform himself into a woman. The film depicts the eccentric man’s increasing descent into his alternate universe of supernatural powers. Meanwhile, Flechsig struggles to maintain control of his patient, finding himself both attracted and repelled by Schreber’s femininity. The narrative culminates in a courtroom plea by Schreber for his freedom from the asylum. Hobbs’ previous work includes the doc “Collectors,” which screened at the SXSW Film Festival. He co-executive (alon with Michael Apted) Christopher Quinn‘s “21up America” and currently the executive producer of Werner Herzog‘s “End of the World.” “Memoirs” opens Friday at New York’s Cinema Village followed by other cities.
Please briefly describe your background…
I was born in Seattle, Washington to British parents. As a dual British /US citizen, I grew up between Seattle and Europe. I received a Bachelors Degree in English Literature from University of Washington in Seattle and then moved to New York in 1987, residing on the Lower East Side for the next 14 years. Throughout this time, I was involved in documentary and feature filmmaking as a director and producer. I received a Masters in Arts in Liberal Studies from New York University, with a focus in performance and cinema studies. In 1998, I formed an indie production company with Chris Trent, Abject Films, to make our own projects, the first of which was a feature documentary, “Collectors” (which premiered at SXSW in 2000; acquired by Sundance Channel and later IFC On-Demand; international distribution Films Transit). Current day job: Executive Producer for the Discovery Channel, working on a documentary with Werner Herzog entitled “End of the World.”
What lead you to filmmaking, and what other creative outlets are you drawn to?
I have always been interested in ‘outsider’ art and heresy—documents that offer an unofficial or counter version of the official story of the world. Along these lines, a couple of years ago, I made the documentary “Collectors” about people who collect the art work of mass murderers. I was also filming an untrained artist living in a flop house in Hell’s Kitchen who used the New York Times as a cipher for decoding intergalactic warfare. He pasted collage art produced from this process, graffiti style, throughout mid-town Manhattan as a kind of public broadsheet warning of the coming apocalypse. I was looking to do a “stranger than fiction” dramatic feature that built upon these previous projects. As an ultimate piece of literary outsider art, “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness” fit the bill. It all coalesced at [New York’s] Strand Bookshop (the best place to develop any film project)–there I came across the book on Schreber My Own Private Germany; Daniel Paul Schreber‘s Secret History of Modernity, it triggered the thought that “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness” had the perfect film blend of “science” and “fiction” (or if you like “Factual Fantasy”). Michel Foucault, called Schreber the Lancelot of our era, [and] “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness” presents a rich myth for our time, a paranoid Bible for the 20th Century and beyond. The story of how it came to be written is also quite a ripping yarn!
Please talk about how the idea for “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness” came about and your challenges in making it.
“Memoirs of My Nervous Illness” is a classic independent film: self-funded and hand crafted. Quite simply, I do not think any potential funding sources would green-light a period piece film about a German judge who believes God is communicating a messianic mission to him though the rays of the sun. So, with the decision to go it alone come all the predictable upsides–creative control, do the project that most interests you etc.–and all the downside–lack of resources, years of unpaid toil, begging for favors etc. That said, I think that only through an impassioned project would Jefferson Mays and Joe Coleman as well as many other highly talented individuals and fiercely (insanely?) dedicated individuals agree to get involved in making the film–because it was motivated by a higher calling than the bottom line. And while it sounds cliche these days, I believe that even the so called ‘independent films’ are not pushing the envelope in terms of content and style. This is not a film about 20-something romance in downtown Manhattan. A price is to be paid in taking risks, but, so be it.
What are your biggest creative influences?
The cinematic influences are Carl Theodor Dryer (“Joan of Arc,” “Ordet“) Bergman (Hour of the Wolf, Winter Light), Lynch‘s “The Elephant Man,” various German expressionist films (“Cabinet of Doctor Caligari“, “Faust“), Derek Jarman (“Caravaggio“), Herzog (“Everyman for Himself” and “God Against All,” “Heart of Glass“). I also have read a fair amount of Freud as, of course, Schreber’s Memoirs is the primary source that Freud uses to establish his theory of paranoia and homosexuality. [I] also read much of the cultural criticism that Schreber has spawned – Elias Canetti, W. G. Niederland, Zvi Lothane, Jacques Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari as well as the great insights of Allen S. Weiss, who is one of the script writers on the project. In researching the film, I had many of the lectures from Dr. Emil Fleschig translated into English (I believe many for the first time.) There was further reading into fin de siecle culture, science of sex, the emergence of the asylum, and the birth of film. William Burroughs‘ idea of ‘word virus’ impacted my thinking. Visually, The Burns Archive of medical photographs was of great importance, as well as early photography of pornography and hysteria. The stark industrial paintings of Wilhelm Hammmershoi were the single greatest influence on the set design, Edward Munch on the emotional intensities. Outsider artists were a great inspiration such as Henry Darger, Adolf Wolfli, Joseph Cornell and the art of Joe Coleman himself (who plays Schreber’s father in the film.)
How do you define “independent film?”
At the end of the day, for me, independent film needs to be the film you would like to go and see in a theater and has not yet been made–“Memoirs of My Nervous Illness” is, if nothing else, that film.