Why I Stopped Seeing Filmmaking Through Rose-Colored Glasses

Kyra Elise Gardner opens up about the mental health struggles she experienced on her new documentary, Living with Chucky.

[Trigger warning: the following article contains a frank discussion of mental health issues.]

We’re at a progressive historical moment where mental health is finally being addressed in the workplace. Although advocates in the film industry have made strides for those with mental illnesses or disabilities, there is still a considerable gap between talk and action. As daunting as it is working in Hollywood, taking the independent film route can lead you to an even darker mental state if you’re already struggling due to the lack of a support structure, however meager.

Kyra Elise Gardner on set during her time at film school.

I was diagnosed with ADHD at age 13, and shortly after was diagnosed with depression. My sophomore year of high school was a fog of tests and pills where the uphill battles seemed like mountains. And at the top, the only thing waiting for me was a cliff’s edge above a deep ocean void. Throughout high school, I faced a constant struggle as I tried to understand and work with a brain that didn’t want to cooperate during class or when I was doing homework. As I began my senior year, I got the cherry on top: a diagnosis of Irlen Syndrome, a form of dyslexia.

When I started film school, though, I knew I was finally on a path that made sense. College was less debilitating than high school, as it depended on creativity rather than memorizing textbook information my brain would delete a month later. However, my ADHD made me slower than my classmates at taking on certain tasks, and sometimes multitasking was so overwhelming that it brought me back to that cliff edge I faced in high school. My film school program was intense and strict, since it was designed to prepare us for the “real world” of the film industry. This mindset was the downfall of several students’ mental and physical health, including my own, and eventually culminated in the loss of a younger classmate and friend to suicide in 2021.

Kyra Elise Gardner in 2019, at her graduation from Florida State University.

When I graduated, I expected to be immediately met with the harsh mentality of the real world. Instead, it was like the slow building of a riptide waiting to drag you out to sea. Out of college, I pursued turning a short documentary I’d made in school, The Dollhouse, into a feature film, Living with Chucky. Both films focus on the Child’s Play franchise, a subject that I am very close to, as my dad, Tony Gardner, makes the dolls for the movies. I had no thought-out plan and no money except a small amount of savings. All I knew was that I was determined to finish every indie filmmaker’s first “task” in the industry – their debut feature.

Making films, especially if you’re taking the independent route, can be terrifying. There’s no playbook or specific path to follow. Everyone has a unique “story” they eventually get to share with the world if they make it big enough in the business. We tend to over-romanticize or glorify these stories in a way that can negatively affect people’s mental health, which is what we’re supposedly advocating for. I’ve heard so many stories of actors or directors who “made it” by living in their car for a year, only eating noodles and developing nutritional deficiencies (or actors developing eating disorders), or maxing out credit cards and ending up even deeper in debt later. I feel young artists, including myself, tend to view these stories as inspirational – when it’s just downright unhealthy. Don’t get me wrong, there is beauty in scraping by and coming together to make an independent film, but it still puts incredible and unnecessary stress on your physical and mental health.

Kyra Elise Gardner masked up while making Living with Chucky.

The rose-colored glasses were ripped off as I began to live in the origin story of my first film, which I’m currently sharing now that I have finished, sold and distributed Living with Chucky. When I dove into making this film during the early part of Covid, it was seemingly impossible to find funding. Although I have a parent in the industry, my dad works in special effects makeup and couldn’t tell you the first thing about selling a movie. He could connect me over email with colleagues to ask advice or questions, but nothing more. The strength of the riptide started growing as reality began to creep in: I was a young, petite, pretty woman fighting for my footing in both a male-dominated industry and a heavily male-dominated genre.

I was constantly told I looked like someone who should be in front of the camera, not behind it. Unions would lie to me and tell me I had hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, or producers would come onto my project to “help” me find distribution and then end up dicking the project around for a year. Or better yet, male “friends” who I asked for advice would sexually harass me, asking for nudes in my Instagram DMs. I felt like I had nowhere to turn for help or advice.

“Through this ordeal, I have found a new resilience I never thought I could have.”

People have told me that I was incredibly ambitious to produce, direct, write and edit this feature film, but what motivated me to wear so many hats was simply that I had no money. I edited the film in my bedroom on Adobe Premiere throughout the pandemic. With several learning disabilities, it was at times a grueling, seemingly endless nightmare.

My depression had gotten so bad by this time, I had to come clean to my parents and tell them, “I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to jump off the roof, but if I jumped off my apartment balcony and broke my ankle, I would be OK with that.” Reflecting on this brings me to tears, that I let my desire for a career take me to such a dark place mentally. If you’re reading this and thinking, “If she can’t handle it, she shouldn’t be in this business,” my response is simple: Why does it have to be so emotionally grueling to make and sell a movie? The truth is, it doesn’t have to and shouldn’t be.

Kyra Elise Gardner and friend in Living with Chucky. (Image courtesy Cinedigm.)

They say that everything passes, and that is true. As the world began to open back up from Covid, I finally found a support network. I clawed out of the depression cycle with help from family, old friends, and new friends I met during this journey. I connected with a producer, an honorary alumnus from film school, who truly wanted to help me succeed, rather than try to get something from me. A friend invested in my film and helped me finance its post-production. My cinematographer, colorist, composers and sound mixer all truly believed in me, so they banded together and heavily reduced their rates so I could finish my first film. I am forever grateful to them for having faith in me when I wasn’t so sure of myself.

Through this ordeal, I have found a new resilience I never thought I could have. And now, after experiencing such lows, the highs are more appreciated and meaningful to me than ever. I still have a great deal to learn, and there is still so much I want to do in this industry. Although my challenges on Living with Chucky made me the strong person I am today, it makes my heart sad that it feels like it has to be this way. While strides have been made in mental health advocacy, the independent filmmaking process needs a lot of work for artists to be able to create healthily. There must be a way to avoid the dark riptide of loneliness and hopelessness the film industry creates that snuffs out the creative light of would-be filmmakers. People like my classmate, who will never get to make their first feature because their mental illness was so debilitating that they are no longer with us.

Featured image shows Kyra Elise Gardner on set during film school; all images courtesy Kyra Elise Gardner unless otherwise stated.

Kyra Elise Gardner’s debut feature, the documentary Living with Chucky, is out now on the horror streaming service Screambox and all major digital platforms in the US and Canada. With a dad in special effects makeup, blood and guts became a normality for Kyra at a young age. Combat nursing was her first goal, but she soon discovered that real blood is way grosser than the fake stuff. She’s been pursuing a career in directing since attending Florida State’s film program and plans on creating quirky fantastical films from the lore of her unconventional childhood.