How Stella Hopkins Made Her Directorial Debut with ‘Elyse,’ a Movie With a Message About Mental Illness

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Ramin Setoodeh
·5 min read
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Elyse Bridges lives in a glamorous house in Los Angeles, with her husband and son, where she spends most of her days lost in thought. But despite an idyllic opening shot set in a postcard suburban setting, something isn’t right in Stella Hopkins’ directorial debut, “Elyse.”

The black-and-white independent movie stars Lisa Pepper in the role of the film’s title character. Anthony Hopkins, the director’s husband, plays a psychiatrist. The rest of the cast of mostly unknowns are newcomers, who Stella cast because she believes one of the purposes of independent film is to shine a spotlight on emerging talent.

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Stella has acted in (“The Human Stain”) and produced movies before, but this is her first time behind the camera. She shot “Elyse” in only 13 days last year, financing it through Margam Films, a division of the art company that she runs with with Anthony. “Elyse” is available to stream now on Amazon.

Stella spoke to Variety about her movie, its message about mental illness and why she’s producing a documentary about Anthony’s life.

Congratulations on making your directorial debut with “Elyse.” Tell me about how you developed the movie.

About three years ago, I really came to the question of, “If not now, when?” I attempted to sit down and write the script, and I engaged with a screenwriter who worked with me. But really, the script of “Elyse” was developed on my story that I outlined: a woman that disintegrates into mental illness — borderline personality disorder, to be specific.

I was raised by a diagnosed schizophrenic mother. And I watched very carefully when the onset of her mental illness really started — how slowly and insidiously it started to take over. I know the duality of a woman who is beautiful who is breaking down. [John] Cassavetes does it with “A Woman Under the Influence.” And also, [Ingmar] Bergman with “Persona.” I lived in Sweden and I was very influenced by European film.

Was there a moment when you realized you wanted to direct?

I grew up in New York and left when I was 19. I wanted to be a lawyer. Then, I came out to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. I took a lot of course at UCLA, writing, directing, filming. I did some music videos. When I married Tony, I produced the [2007] film “Slipstream.” I always wanted to produce, direct, write. It was something I nurtured, studied.

Tell me about your decision to shoot “Elyse” in black and white?

I think it was the best palette I could use to reveal this is a very troubled woman — the darkness, the opaqueness, the blandness. And the contrast of this seemingly successful woman with the faces she’s looking at.

What was your process like for casting the film?

Lisa Pepper, who plays Elyse, has worked with Tony before. I knew she could carry the part because she understands being trapped by physical pain. She suffers from chronic pain condition. When she read the script, she said: “I know this woman. I know the feelings.” I knew I wanted to cast mostly unknowns — because there are so many thousands of people out there that would never get an opportunity to be seen.

What was it like directing your husband, Anthony Hopkins?

He’s a consummate professional. He treated the set and me and the actors as he treated any other film production. He knew his lines and asked me what I thought and we had a few good exchanges and ideas.

How did you finance “Elyse?”

We have a very successful art company called Margam Fine Art. I knew I couldn’t go crazy. I shot the film in 13 days, which most people said is impossible. It’s completely a union film. I stuck to my budget.

I’m going to say something. It’s a very European film. It doesn’t reach the American audiences, I don’t think. And, quite honestly, it hasn’t really affected me, because I’m still very proud of the film. I’m very proud of the actors of the film.

What message about mental illness were you trying to convey with “Elyse?”

Mental illness, especially in this time, doesn’t have to be a taboo. We don’t have to be ashamed of it. I believe almost every circle of society is afflicted. And to not feel compelled to talk about it is why I think we’re having so many suicides. We can talk about it, get help. And most of all, we are short changed, because mental illness affected us on a deep level. But it can be used to write a memoir, to share your story one way or another, so other people can be liberated and they too can talk about it.

Will you direct again?

Absolutely. I’ve been developing my husband’s documentary of his life. We started shooting some of it in his hometown in Wales, interviewing several people — Oliver Stone and Jodie Foster and Ian McKellen.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about Anthony while making the film?

I spoke to his grammar school teacher. He said something that was very revealing. He said that of all the students in the school, he wouldn’t have guessed that Anthony would achieve this level of success because Anthony was a loner. The only thing he saw was that he was interested in drawing and piano. It confirmed to that Tony is a private man who enjoys being alone. But he’s a genius. His focus is his passion — art, music, film and theater. He’s living his life fully, being himself to the full extent of his passion. I think you get it.

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