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TIFF Interview: Chloë Grace Moretz on “Brain on Fire”, “Misunderstanding” and “Labelling”


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Some subjects are worth talking about, such as how young people are being labelled by doctors without giving proper attention to the health issue they may have encountered at that moment. Another huge problem is how we all have been treated by doctors, regardless of the matter which took us to their office. Is it because of education, or interest, or the lack of knowledge? You are free to interpret Gerrard Barrett’s “BRAIN ON FIRE” in any way you wish, of which I am sure none will be wrong.

What happened with Susannah Cahalan should be a lesson many of us to learn from. This is why it’s so important a film like this to be seen by anyone who wants to more or less broaden their horizons.

But what surprised me most is Chloë Grace Moretz‘s dedication and the time she spent to study Susannah Cahalan’s case in order to deliver as convincing a performance as it was possible. Was she able to do that or not is something you will have to see yourself. However, this extremely young and talented actress had something crucial to say about the reasons she embarked herself into this journey she chose to go through. It may not be the same path, but a cinematic one that Susannah Cahalan had to go through as well.

MOVIEMOVESME: Did you ever think while playing the part that such a thing could happen to you?

Chloë Grace Moretz: It’s scary to think that when you jump into the healthcare system, you have an issue, whatever they say is wrong with you is the truth. In their eyes it’s really hard to rewrite their facts. I think it’s a terrifying realization; you have no control even though you know what they’re saying is incorrect.

MOVIEMOVESME: When did you realize that you wanted to be a part of the film?

Chloë Grace Moretz: I’d already heard about the book from my friends and the thing about this story is that it’s not a story about illness exactly; it’s a story about labelling, about misunderstanding, ego, about people just too afraid to learn something new when they’ve been in the same career for over 30 years. That really went home with a lot of young women. When all my friends told me about the book and I got the script it was a no-brainer. I only had about a month of prep time, which wasn’t much for the amount of depth this story has.

MOVIEMOVESME: How difficult was it to go from seizures to outbursts to catatonic states?

Chloë Grace Moretz: I think what’s different is that the person didn’t die 50 years ago; she’s a woman not much older than me. She is a real person who I really connected to at a personal level which made this story so much more impactful, harrowing and invigorating. There were days I felt I was losing myself. I’d then sit back and remember that I’m acting and Susannah did lose a piece of herself. She did lose an entire part of her life she’ll never get back and look at her, she’s a vision of strength. She’s someone who’s truly evolving and is a much more evolved human than I can imagine.

MOVIEMOVESME: All the highs & lows you had to exhibit, what was that like?

Chloë Grace Moretz: Terrifying. But acting isn’t throwing yourself into a state of complete hysteria. It does do something to you psychologically, it spins you around for sure. I keep my mother and brother with me just for support and there were times I literally couldn’t compute for a second and had to just sit there and be alone. That was the most I’ve found myself out of this world with Susannah.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you prepare for the role given that you just had a month?

Chloe Grace Moretz: All the preparation was more about educating myself on anti-NMDA and on pre-anti-NMDA Susannah. The thing I found with Susannah is that she hasn’t remembered what happened. Those months when she was hospitalised, thrown around left and right. Her memories are false memories in the sense that they’re memories collected from whatever she saw around her. In those moments we chose to just go with it and to just be. We had to shoot a lot of them chronologically, so I was truly falling into a deeper and deeper state of psychosis every single day we filmed. The scene with Thomas when he’s singing to me, Stephen wrote that song; it’s his lyrics and music from when he was in a band.

MOVIEMOVESME: Does this story make you question the medical profession?

Chloë Grace Moretz: I think what the problem is that so many cases are alike and they can diagnose pretty well. There’s a large number of people that go through their work pretty well and do their thing. What’s hard is that it makes them rely on these books. It’s easier to label someone because hundreds and thousands of people have had the same thing before them. It’s tiring, taxing and hurts your ego to admit that you’re wrong. So it definitely terrifies me but it is also human nature and it’s hard when a human is trying to diagnose another human.

MOVIEMOVESME: How come they let her go so long acting in such an erratic way?

Chloë Grace Moretz: Because Susannah wasn’t a girl with a history of mental illness. It was so new. What I found talking to the family and Stephen is that they woke up everyday thinking it’s going to change. She’s taking pills and she’ll get better. They were hoping one day all those pills would work and she’s gonna be okay. As a family person you’ll go as long as you can before admitting you truly don’t know who they are anymore.

MOVIEMOVESME: What is it like for you to be a part of this film knowing in the future you’ll probably have people come up to you and really thank you at a deeper level than for just the work itself?

Chloë Grace Moretz: I wanna make decisions that do something more than just make entertainment. Movies, content in general are going places we never even imagined possible and I wanna make more decisions that just fulfil me as an actor; I wanna do something that’s gonna reach a depth that might save a life even or just a least change someone’s point of view. It makes me feel really honored to be a part of something that could do more than just make someone smile, which in itself means a lot.

MOVIEMOVESME: Was there any scene that was just too emotionally challenging to portray?

Chloë Grace Moretz: I think it’s the moment when the doctor finally gets clear through to her. Because Susannah doesn’t remember most of that area and we were thinking what do we want to depict, so we asked everyone around her. What they said is that they could see her trapped within her own body and they could see when the doctor sat with her and it took about 7 hours when she finally connected from a comatose state where she was completely rigid. To portray that she was there behind her illness, fighting to be herself again was what we wanted to get across.

MOVIEMOVESME: Was there anything in particular your family did to help you shake off this role you were playing?

Chloë Grace Moretz: Honestly, I adopted a dog right before we started the movie. I would sit in bed for hours after set and we would stare at each other, me and my dog. It was silence, there was something jarring being alone because I was having these weird feelings. It was hard to go on set doing these scenes where no one sees you. It’s so actor to say that but it does something to you psychologically. My dog saw me and us staring truly did something to me.

MOVIEMOVESME: What was it like working with the director? Did you watch any of his previous stuff?

Chloë Grace Moretz: This film definitely had a feeling of Glasslands in the sense that there is so much silence in the movie which I loved and it doesn’t feel awkward. The beautiful thing about Gerard as a director is that he wants to feel kind of that warmth. It’s something beautiful that he can do and as an actor he makes you feel not awkward.

MOVIEMOVESME: Is it true there was just 18 days of shooting?

Chloë Grace Moretz: Shoot. No, it was down in the middle of last year so I forget, but I remember we finished two weeks early. It was crazy. Honestly, in terms of Gerard, just to give him a sort of pox, he is one of the most decided and confident directors I’ve ever worked with. He had half the film edited by the time we were almost done filming. He would bring 30 minutes of edited footage every three days; it was wild. He just knows what he wants.

MOVIEMOVESME: Which one did you choose, the book or Susannah, to get into her head and portray her?

Chloë Grace Moretz: I watched a lot of videos of her in the hospital that Doctor sent me. I read a lot of reports the nurses had and the reports were crazy. Susannah is literally the nicest person ever; I can never imagine her hitting someone and there were quotes from the nurses saying they would not work on her floor as she’d run out of her room and beat the hell out of everyone. She was so crazy and when I looked at her I was like, “What?” I had to piece her together as much as she had to piece together her life. It was really scary as this was her life and it was wild.

MOVIEMOVESME: Is she saved for life or…?

Chloë Grace Moretz: There’s a slight chance because she’s predisposed to it. It’s like chicken pox; it’s part of herpes virus. They’re triggered, her trigger was the flu, so it’s low chance but there is a possibility and it’s sad and scary. But she’s not afraid.

MOVIEMOVESME: What do you want the people who watch the film to take from it?

Chloë Grace Moretz: This movie just doesn’t deal with the illness, it’s a story about ego and misunderstanding and people being afraid to look at the unknown. It’s human nature, we like to fall into rhythm and we like to have our regimen and it takes a Doctor Najar to look deeper than the surface and I just hope it makes people look at this world differently especially right now when we’re very quick and harsh to judge.

MOVIEMOVESME: Susannah had a really supportive family. What does it mean for you as an actor to have had such a structure to work with instead of having to manufacture it?

Chloë Grace Moretz: It was amazing but it also highlights how terrifying it’s for those who don’t have that. The fear that if Susannah didn’t have that she could’ve died and it’s the same with my career. Without my family I wouldn’t have been the Chloe who I’m now.

MOVIEMOVESME: In history there probably were hundreds of misdiagnoses. Do you think this film would have a positive affect on this aspect?

Chloë Grace Moretz: A hundred percent. Look at what Susannah’s book did. This is now a close to worldwide known illness which is commercially treatable and that alone is a huge impact in healthcare. This movie is already at TIFF, which hopefully it means that even if it goes to the streaming service, it can make a difference. That’s the thing about content; movies go farther and I hope and pray that it educates someone, be it a doctor or a 12-year-old.

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