Writer-Director Gren Wells talks about her debut film The Road Within

”I want people to go and have a good time and celebrate these characters’ differences and their own.”

A coming of age road comedy in the vein of Little Miss Sunshine, first time director Gren Wells adapts an honest script based on the original German feature, Vincent Wants to Sea. The result, The Road Within, brings humor and poignancy to the story of three young adults searching for their own version of life. Robert Sheehan (Vincent), Dev Patel (Alex) and Zoë Kravitz (Marie) star alongside Kyra Sedgwick (Dr. Rose) and Robert Patrick (Robert) in the film which hits close to home for Wells.

Glen Wells and Robert Sheehan

Writer-director Glen Wells and Robert Sheehan

Gren Wells was born in Louisville, Kentucky and raised in Greenwich, Connecticut. After attending Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY, Gren moved to New York City where she starred in six indie films over a two year span, one of which, Man About Town, won Best Short Film at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. After moving to Los Angeles, Gren became a stand-up comic and wrote her first feature script called Earthbound (aka A Little Bit Of Heaven) that sold to 20th Century Fox. Earthbound later found a home at The Film Department, starring Kate Hudson, Gael Garcia Bernal, Kathy Bates, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosemarie DeWitt, Lucy Punch, Romany Malco and Peter Dinklage.

Tell us in your own words, what The Road Within is all about.

The Road Within is about a young man named Vincent who has Tourette’s. At the beginning of the film we see he has lost his mother who was his primary caregiver. His estranged father is forced to step in but he’s in the middle of running for political office and, to avoid embarrassment, puts his son in a clinic that is overseen by the unconventional Dr. Mia Rose. Once there, Vincent falls in love with an anorexic girl named Marie, and together they decide to steal Dr. Rose’s car – but end up having to kidnap his OCD roommate, Alex, when he threatens to turn them in. Soon, Vincent’s father and Dr. Rose are in hot pursuit as Vincent, Marie and Alex go on this life-changing road trip to deliver his mother’s ashes to the ocean.

What inspired you to tell this story?

I like characters that are outsiders and that are completely different. I grew up a giant nerd and was always the one on the outside looking in. I used to ride horses and when I was fifteen I had a bad fall where a horse stepped on my face. And trust me; no one wants to be friends with a girl who has a hoof print in her face. So I’m drawn to characters, who are just a little off, a little left of center. Though I actually think Vincent’s dad and doctor are ten times more messed up than Vincent, Marie or Alex – combined. It’s just one of those things that because the kids’ disorders are on the outside, it’s more apparent and something we can label. But with his dad and doctor, their issues are hidden deep on the inside, so they get a pass from society.

Other than the obvious language and scenery, how does this film differ from the original?

The original film is gorgeous and it won the German Golden Lola Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor. I remember seeing the trailer online and thinking, I know how to make that movie. And so my husband, who is a producer on the film, encouraged me to see if the rights were available in the U.S. and we got them. The main thing I wanted to do differently is to go darker and deeper with the characters. Florian David Fitz did an amazing job with the structure, though I moved a few things around to create a little bit more emotional impact. But the biggest thing I did was explore the depth of the characters more. In adapting the film, I did a lot of research into Tourette’s and OCD. I was anorexic myself, years ago, and therefore had a personal understanding and insight into Marie, which helped me round out the characters while applying my research.

You mentioned you did quite a bit of research, could you tell us more about that in terms of making the film?

I worked with the Tourette Syndrome Association in depth and specifically this one young man named Jaxon Kramer. He was our Tourette’s consultant on the film and was there every day. I actually moved Robbie Sheehan in with him when he came to town for about a month. Before that, he had been working with Robbie and me for six months prior to shooting just to make sure that his performance was spot on. Robbie lives in London, and while he was there worked with the Tourette’s Action Society.
In terms of understanding OCD, we went to the Westwood Institute for Anxiety Disorders and worked with Dr. Eda Gorbis, as well as interviewed several of her patients. There was one man, Chad Fess, who actually lives in Chicago and I tracked him down. Dev and I Skyped with him and he was so incredibly giving and lovely about telling his story.
I took Zoe out to the Monte Nido Eating Disorders and Exercise Addiction Treatment Center where we interviewed a bunch of young girls who are anorexic. I also shared my experiences with the disorder with Zoe. And when it came time for Zoe to lose weight for the role, we obviously got her a dietician because I didn’t want to send a young actress down that rabbit hole because I know it can get very serious, very quickly. We were very lucky in that we got so many amazing people who wanted to help out with the film because they all wanted to educate others about their disorder. And this is a great way to get the information out there. For instance with Tourette’s, most people, including myself, didn’t know that when they yell phrases and curse words, it’s actually Coprolalia – which only about 10% of people with Tourette’s suffer from. So there are just little things like that which we learned and as we’re out talking about the film that we can share and t try to bring these disorders to a conscious level for people.

It takes a certain kind of actor to take on these roles. Tell us about casting Vincent.
In casting Vincent, I met with almost every actor in Hollywood and I didn’t make anyone audition at first because no one should know how to tick—it shouldn’t be something in your back pocket as an actor like, “oh by the way, I do Tourette’s.” So I just sat down for coffee with them and was looking for more of an energy that would bring forth the authenticity. I met a lot of incredible actors, but I was looking for something so specific. I started worrying what if I don’t find the character that’s in my head—but then Robbie walked in the door in November of 2012 and I knew right then and there that he was the guy.

What was casting like for the rest of the characters?
It was really important to me to not have five white people running around in this film, just because I feel like it’s our job as filmmakers to represent real life. I joke that with my own family, when we get together, we look like a freaking United Colors of Benetton ad because my older sister adopted a biracial baby, my younger sister adopted from Ethiopia, my brother married a Korean and has two Korean kids and my husband and I are adopting two girls from Kenya.
With Dev, I had written the part with him in mind because I love his energy. I kept bugging his manager to sit down with him – and to just get me off her phone sheet, she finally set up a meeting. Alex is arguably my favorite character in the movie and Dev absolutely kills the part.
Then with Zoe, she just came in and had the attitude of Marie, because this character had to be tough – yet hiding an intense vulnerability. And it was very important for me to find an actress who, in losing the weight, had a good head on her shoulders because that is potentially risky ground. I told her I was going to check in with her every week after we wrapped to make sure she was putting the weight back on, and she was of course like, “Give me a break, I love to eat, I’ll be fine.”
With Kyra, I met with her pretty early on and she was always my number one choice. And actually, she’s the one who suggested Robert Patrick. I’ve nicknamed him RFP for Robert “Fing” Patrick because he’s just awesome, I love him.

Tell us about Vincent.

Vincent is an extremely lonely character, especially at the beginning of the film. He doesn’t have any friends, his mother was his only friend and all of the research I did on Tourette’s indicated that the biggest problem with the disorder is that you feel so isolated and alone because you don’t even have control of your own body. It’s incredibly alienating. There are so many places you can’t go because if you start ticking in what’s supposed to be a quiet place, you have to get up and leave, especially when you have Coprolalia (like Vincent) and you start swearing. We imagined Vincent was a kid who probably had friends and was outgoing until he developed Tourette’s when he was about eight years old. From there it got worse and worse to the point where he’d been kicked out of school for fighting because if you can’t fight with your words, what do you do? You fight with your hands. Now that he’s with Marie and Alex, he’s come a long way and learns that it’s okay to laugh at himself. That you don’t have to take yourself so seriously.

What is his relationship like with his parents?

Well, his mother was the one person in the world who loved him no matter what, even though she couldn’t really handle it and took to drinking. When she dies, Vincent is lost. His father left the family years before, because he wasn’t able to handle his son’s disability. His wife handled it a little better in that she stayed, but she also drank herself to death. Unfortunately, the divorce rate of parents with kids with disabilities is extremely high because it’s incredibly difficult on the relationship.

Upon arriving at the center, Vincent meets Marie who has her own issues. Tell us about Marie.
Anorexia is a disorder that I know about first-hand. You keep everything inside and you think that you’re fooling everyone (and yet you’re fooling no one). So Marie gives off a feeling of not caring, but she’s actually hiding an intense vulnerability. Her back-story is that she was a dancer and obviously the constant dieting to be thin got to be too much and she’s been in and out of facilities for the past five to six years. She’s been to this particular center once or twice before with Dr. Rose, and the last time she got so thin that her heart stopped. When we meet her, she’s been in for two months and she’s gained some weight back – but the scary thing is that when you put even five pounds back on, you look in the mirror and all you see is fat.
With Marie, everyone thinks that she’s the one that’s most put together, but it turns out she’s the one in need of the most help. She’s so secretive that if anyone starts to get close to her, she just shuts down. I love it at the end when Vincent says, “I can’t make you better,” because he knows he couldn’t save Marie in the same way that he couldn’t save his mom. She has to get better on her own.
Are we at a place where Marie is finally making that decision at the end of the movie?
It was interesting having people watch and be really curious about what happens to her at the end because she’s so used to hiding everything and not having anyone close to her for the fear that they’ll know her true secret. I hope it’s her lowest point and she gets better. But I believe that’s what’s great about movies, because you can actually talk about it and make your own decision as to whether or not she gets better. That’s the terrifying part of this disease – some people get better and some people don’t.
As Vincent’s roommate—Alex unintentionally brings a bit of levity to the film. Tell us about Alex.
I probably did the most work on this character, because I did feel like we needed some levity in this film and he just provided great commentary. I think Alex is wickedly smart, almost too smart for his own good, but part of his OCD is that he thinks he doesn’t have a problem—or at least that’s how he likes to portray it. I have some OCD tendencies myself and I think that, similarly, Alex just thinks that his rituals make sense and that even though they’re ridiculous, in his mind, they’re for the greater good. They are what get him through the day. Now, if you really pushed him, as Vincent and Marie do in the film, you see that he is really unhappy and he’s essentially locked himself away in this clinic because it’s easier than dealing with daily life on the outside. At least here, everyone, though they may not like him, leaves him alone. Well, everyone but Marie. They have a very brother-sister, love-hate relationship. The way they are together reminds me of my family: the more we make fun of you means the more we love you. I think that he is just somebody who has to acknowledge that he does also have.

Dr. Rose, Kyra Sedgwick, is really supposed to be helping these young adults out, but you see that she actually has the greatest impact on Vincent’s father.
Her whole principle is kind of mixing everyone together, which is a very European style in terms of putting anorexics with Tourette’s with OCD’s because the idea is that, the more you listen to other people’s problems, the more yours might not seem so bad. So she’s definitely not conventional because it’s not necessarily an American way to do things.
I think that she’s brilliant and has the greatest of intentions, but I just don’t know how effective she is because she’s not really acknowledging her own troubles. This is a woman who’s basically saying to Marie, “you can’t starve yourself to death but I can smoke myself to death.” But what makes her addiction any better than Marie’s?
But she does end up helping Vincent’s dad and helping him realize the error of his ways. By putting up a mirror to Robert, she helps him realize that Vincent is a whole lot more like him than Robert ever imagined.

Talk a bit about their road trip, and the significance of it. How it becomes more of a symbolic journey for them.
These are kids that have been told their whole lives that they can’t do anything, that they’re basically useless. It should have only taken 12 hours to get to the ocean (and it takes about three days), because the whole journey is the destination. While it starts out as being about spreading Vincent’s mother’s ashes, it’s not necessarily about that anymore. It becomes  about these people realizing that they can live on their own. That they don’t have to be behind the closed walls of a clinic.
Now, that isn’t to say everyone should just go out and be free. There are people that obviously need to be in centers, especially in certain low points in their lives. But I think that for these characters, they realize that they can stand on their own two feet. I like the message of them learning to live for themselves and realizing that they are a whole lot more powerful than anyone has ever given them credit for.

For those who know someone affected by these disorders, what is the message you want to get across in the film?
This is going to sound corny, but that you’re not alone. Everyone is different; everyone has things about themselves that they don’t like. In this movie, it’s obviously Tourette’s, anorexia, and OCD, but honestly it could be anything. Like I said, a horse stepped on my face. And you have to learn that everyone is different and it’s okay to embrace those differences because they are what make you unique.

How would you respond to any criticism about how you portray these disorders in the film?
I would want to know their perspective. This film is telling one story, about three specific individuals. But no two disorders are alike. With Tourette’s, everyone’s tics are different, what triggers them varies. Most of the time it’s anxiety of some sort that really sets them off – but it could be anything.
With OCD, anxiety is also a trigger but it’s also completely random. Some people believe if they tap their toothbrush against the sink four times, the president won’t die. It literally makes no sense.
We were very conscious about portraying these disorders in a way that was motivated and not just, “oh, let’s put a tic here.” We had a trigger in mind and usually we tried to do it whenever Vincent’s dad was mentioned because that was the cause of a lot of anxiety for him. With Alex, giving him certain triggers like when he’s driving is actually very real and called a harming ritual, where they actually believe they’ve run someone over. But with all of the research we did, there was great care to make sure we were respectful of the people who suffer from these disorders.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I think it’s a feel-good movie with amazing performances, not dissimilar to Little Miss Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, Juno – movies which make audiences laugh and cry. So I want people to go and have a good time and celebrate these characters’ differences and their own