Midway through the new teen drama, Pink Skies Ahead, there's a pivotal scene where the film's anxiety-prone heroine, Winona (Jessica Barden), is overcome by a prolonged panic attack that leaves her barely able to function. When it came time to film that sequence, writer/director Kelly Oxford didn't have to do a lot of research into what a panic attack looked like: She lived through the one that's shown in the film. "I hear a lot that people think that they're dying," the author and filmmaker tells Yahoo Entertainment. "I didn't feel like I was dying — I felt more like I was like losing my mind." (Watch our video interview above.)
"It was very physical, too, which I wasn't expecting" Oxford continues. "[I had] heart palpitations, and disassociation from my own body. I was also throwing up a lot and, and there was nothing that could help it. It's a terrible thing, and it happens to a lot of people, and I wanted to make sure this was an accurate portrayal so that people who go through this, or people who know people who go through this, could really see it and see that they aren't alone in these things."
Like Winona, Oxford was a teenager when she experienced her first anxiety-caused breakdown in her family's home, a story she originally shared in an essay that first appeared in her 2017 collection, When You Find Out the World is Against You. For Pink Skies Ahead — which premieres on MTV on May 8 — the challenge was finding a visual language to communicate what she had previously described on the page.
"In pre-production, I planned the entire scene shot-for-shot," she explains now. "I really wanted to have a lot of light flare because, because your vision is strange [during a panic attack]. I wanted to have the effect on camera where it's blurry, and there's a lot of movement from her point of view, but for it to be as raw as possible, as if you were in the room with her."
Oxford also paid special attention to the soundscape she wanted viewers to experience. During her own panic attack, she remembers a high-pitched ringing that drowned out all other noise. "I still get ear ringing," she says. "It's a real thing. It was a long process to figure out what was going to sound right, because there are so many different versions of it, including things that would make the audience go, 'The sound is driving me crazy!' So we went through a lot of ear-ringing to figure out which one was going to fit."
When it came to directing Barden through that scene, Oxford says that while the actress had never experienced her own panic attack, she also struggles with anxiety. "I knew she would be able to bring the emotion to the scene, and she really cried for a lot of hours," she remembers. "I really felt like the mother of the scene, and just made sure she was okay throughout the whole thing. When it was done, the scene felt like the character's own experience — like Winona was a real person, and this was her story."
Just as Winona is a stand-in for Oxford, the character's on-screen parents — played by Marcia Gay Harden and Michael McKean — are versions of her real mom and dad. The director says that she recreated her father's reaction to her panic attack almost word for word. "My dad couldn't handle it. He's a very loving guy, but he was like, 'Oh my god, I can't be in this room with you right now.' And I think that's common for a lot of people: There's one parent that can't handle it. Maybe they see themselves in it and are upset that their child is now suffering from the same thing they suffer from. They don't want to believe that it's really happening."
Pink Skies Ahead is set in the 1990s, when Oxford was a teenager, and she remembers that information about anxiety disorders was difficult to come by at the time. With the rise of social media, though, it's easier for people with mental health challenges to share their personal experiences. "There are so many different groups where you meet people online," she marvels. "It's amazing! If you get diagnosed with anxiety disorder, you can just Google it, which is something I couldn't do back then. I thought I was the only one in the world. And I hope this film maybe helps people recognize things in themselves."
These days, Oxford says she takes different steps to keep her anxiety under control. "I've got therapy, I've got medication, I've got a glass of wine here and there," she says, laughing. "Also listening to music is something I try to do. That's a great device for people who have anxiety to use. It's probably the healthiest, for sure."
Pink Skies Ahead premieres May 8 on MTV
—Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by John Santo
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