In the midst of Mental Health Awareness Week, we are choosing to spotlight Lorien Haynes' feat of independent film-making: Everything I Ever Wanted to Tell My Daughter About Men. Getting a film made in today’s cinematic landscape is no small accomplishment, and assembling something like this--a collection of standalone stories helmed by 21 different directors detailing one woman’s varied experience of abuse, dating and sex--is especially impressive. For those who have survived an abusive relationship and had to weather bouts of mental illness, Everything I Ever Wanted to Tell My Daughter About Men offers a path to closure.
'Everything I Ever Wanted to Tell My Daughter About Men' poster
When we sat down to discuss the project, the film’s creator, Lorien Haynes, speaks in a careful, considered voice, conscious of making herself heard for my recording (“I used to do this for a living too”) but comfortable with long pauses, unhurried in her search for the right answer, wandering towards an idea rather than stumbling towards it.
Haynes’ film originates from a play of the same name, expanding on a succession of scenes charting her varied relationship with men. But really the film has an even longer more storied history, stretching back to the early 2010s when Amy J. Berg reached out to Haynes to write a film about child abuse in Hollywood. “It became really clear to me that it’s almost impossible to write a film or play or anything about child abuse because its not palatable and no one wants to see it,” Haynes’ explained.
Soon her writing for An Open Secret took on a personal shape, “in that time I was kind of making that film and I became much more aware of what had happened to me…you tend to be able to reconcile experiences like this in your late 30s, early 40s, because it’s not until then that your mind is capable of dealing with the memories that come back.” All these revelations coalesced with the Bush Theatre encouraging her to write a play on child abuse - “I came up with this idea that I would write these vignettes of relationships I had had from now to the very first interaction I had had with a man, do it all backwards and write these kind of crisis scenes for each relationship.” From there the play “spilled out” of her. The deeply personal source material clearly made an impact on many creative and quickly 5 different people approached her to adapt certain scenes into short films.
Everything was never intended to be a feature film but as the shorts rolled in the shape of the film began to reveal itself, or as Haynes surmised “and then I kind of went mad and went “OK, let’s do all of them!” The film’s unique origin bled into the attitude she wanted to craft on her sets, everyone was there on a voluntary basis, and anything made would be donated. “It was really nice watching female directors working with female DPs and how low-key, on the whole, that was.”
Dealing with a topic such as mental illness and depicting intensive therapy as an actress she had to readjust her expectations of herself, "I felt when I was making this film the weight of "Oh my God I've got to look to skinny, I've got to look gorgeous...there was all of this going on in my head and I was like, "This has to stop! This has to stop! You are supposed to be an everywoman, you're supposed to be in this film and ordinary, normal women in the street are supposed to look at this film and go "That could be me!" Instead of focusing on appearance (as she noted "something that has dogged women and still dogs women on every, single film set") she invested in her character, a woman determined to be present and in doing so forced to relive her past.
Haynes’ made the choice to craft a throughline of the women explaining her story to a faceless therapist, (voiced by Alan Cumming.) This bulk of the film was churned out in a short 17 days with a flurry of different camera setups and requiring a decisive from Haynes’ as a director and a deep well of emotion from Haynes’ as an actress. While it was important that there “was a healthy male figure at the centre of the film” she chose to keep the therapist as a faceless figment; “I didn’t want the therapist to be a kind of God-like figure.”
The result is something thrilling and careful, righteous and honest in its disjointed capturing of memory. Gradually the film traces her relationships back to the family friend who abused her as a child. It uses the format of therapy to dip into these moments as they unfold, prodding her with each unexpected question. It briefly touches on all shape of relationship, marvelling at the ways in which they can level and remodel us, laying out the silent ways we silently alter and change over time. As Haynes’ said “the film isn’t just about domestic abuse, it’s about lots of things, it’s about rape, it’s about child abuse, it’s about coercing a child, it’s about joy, it’s about parenting…”
Refuge, the domestic abuse charity, have partnered with Haynes to organise a few screenings of Everything. The various Q&As have featured cast and also advocates from domestic abuse charities (such as Make It Mandatory.) This format uses the film as a platform, a first step in considering patriarchy, abuse and inherited trauma. For Haynes’, who admits that film has always been “a bit of a safe space for me”, storytelling falls short in the face of these real-world problems: “I just got to a point in my life where I’m like I cannot sit back and not write about the things that matter, that I care about. I don’t have very much power, none of us do, but I can writer. I can express things honestly. I’ll try to be as honest as I can.”
Haynes' story, and her willingness to stage her experience with therapy proves that even the most personal experience can be creatively reformed, offered up to inform other people's lives. Everything I Ever Wanted to Tell My Daughter About Men is a reminder for creatives to be honest about your experience and to be careful with the story you must tell.