Filmmaker Alex Heller on The Year Between and Creating a Movie for Everybody

Filmmaker Alex Heller on The Year Between and Creating a Movie for Everybody

Big dreams, mental illness, and creating art that makes a difference all weave together in Alex Heller’s directorial debut, The Year Between, which recently hit Tribeca and is about to wow Chicago International Film Festival audiences.

Inspired by events plucked from Heller’s own life and mental health challenges, the story chronicles Clemence Miller (played by Heller, who also penned the script), a college sophomore who moves back home after a mental breakdown. An unexpected diagnosis of bipolar disorder, coupled with a return to the Illinois suburbs, forces Clemence to learn how to live with her well-meaning but frustrated family — J. Smith-Cameron of Succession, and the ever-talented Steve Buscemi among them. The film also stars Waltrudis Buck, Wyatt Oleff, and Emily Robinson.


Heller, who is 29, was officially diagnosed and began treatment for bipolar disorder 10 years ago. She said she wanted to create a compelling story of an individual and a family managing the stellar highs and “low lows” of adjusting to a new normal.

“It was very important for me to make a comedic film, and obviously, it’s dramatic as well,” Heller said, “but I wanted to shed light on the parts of life that are run-of-the-mill, normal, funny, or lighthearted because most of the depictions of mental illness I see are very dark and depressing. They lack hope. Personally, they make me feel alienated from the rest of the world. I wanted to show that people can live with mental illness; that it can be treated alongside living a ‘normal’ life.”

The Journey Through Mental Illness

Produced by Level Forward, The Year Between was one of five projects selected for AT&T Presents: Untold Stories, the million-dollar pitch at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was a creative boost for Heller, whose previous comedic short films (Grizzlies, 24 and Pregnant, Never the Bride, Dose, and Forever House) celebrated — sometimes damned — the coming-of-age process.

A 2020 Sundance Institute Feature Film Program Fellow, Heller has been dubbed a “Rising Filmmakers Every Cinephile Should Have on Their Radar.”

She’s candid about her journey.

“My mental illness exploration journey started when I was 15. I had issues in high school, but it all came to a head during that first year in college away from home. My mom came to get me, and I didn’t think I would go back. Ultimately, I was housebound for a few months — did not leave the house at all. I experimented with different medications and dosages.”

Interestingly, shortly after that, Heller’s best friend, who’d attended another college, dropped out of school because of depression. During her year at home, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Seeing them both navigate different chronic illnesses in different ways, next to each other, impacted me. I went on to write the first draft of the script in a screenwriting class during my senior year of college when I did go back. I didn’t think anyone would ever read it. As a film student, I always knew there were certain stories I wanted to tell, but I was never one who is always like, ‘I know I’ll be a director.’ I didn’t have that sort of drive, but I knew that I wanted to like talk about the issue of depression. I was just unsure how to do so. I was very embarrassed and insecure,” Heller said.

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As her twenties progressed, Heller shared her script with more people.

“I became obsessed with it, and I built my life around that,” she said. “Now, I’ve been treated for 10 years. I take four medications every day, and I have a very rigorous routine of what I do. Mental illness has been a huge part of my life, and it’s come with a lot of very hard things to navigate, but at the same time, I’ve just tried my best to integrate it as a part of life.”

She said she made the movie for “everybody.”

“I think everybody is on their own mental health journey and finding what works for them. But this is what it looked like for me. Everything that has to do with mental illness in the movie is directly taken from my life. I believe you can make yourself a better person just in terms of your character, outside of the mental illness. And by sharing comedic stories, we begin to normalize this topic and, hopefully, lessen the stigma. If audiences watch something in a more casual way, it makes it easier to talk about. And maybe people seeking help feel a little more comfortable doing so or feel more comfortable talking about it.”

Nabbing Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron

It took seven years to make The Year Between, and it was a labor of love for Heller, particularly discovering “a million different things” developing and financing it.

One key thing that created a significant shift was being assigned a mentor when she participated in a Sundance lab — Susanna Fogel who cowrote Booksmart. Fogel became an EP on Heller’s film, eventually introducing her to a casting director she’d known. In due time, actor Smith-Cameron came on board to costar.

“She’s awesome, incredible, and perfect,” Heller said of Smith-Cameron. “I wanted to consult with her about the film. J. suggested Steve Buscemi. And I was like, ‘What? Why would he ever do a movie of this size? It didn’t make sense.’”

When Smith-Cameron sent Heller’s script to Buscemi, the actor quickly joined the production.

“We hit it off,” Heller said of Buscemi. “He connected with the script in really personal ways. So, that’s how building this cast came to be. But working alongside of Steve was intimidating. I was so nervous because I’m not a trained actor. The only things I ever acted in before were short films that I directed and made for nobody in my backyard with two friends. I felt it would serve the story stepping into this role, especially with my specific sense of humor. Overall, it was very humbling.”

When asked what she hopes audiences take away from the film, Heller noted that a diagnosis of mental illness — and even a chronic illness for that matter — isn’t just about the person experiencing the personal challenge.

“It’s often something taken on by the other people in their lives,” she explained. “I really wanted to shed light on that because when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it felt as if my entire family was, too. It changes everyone’s lives. I wanted to show the importance of having empathy and compassion for the families and forgiving your younger self. For me, filming the movie was very hard—traumatic in some ways to revisit certain things—but it was also helpful so that I could, in fact, move on.”

The Year Between, currently on the film fest circuit, screens at the Chicago International Film Festival.