Love behind the lens

Islander Danielle Mulcahy uses film to capture authenticity.

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Last week, Rolling Stone recognized a Nashville-based duo on a list of the 10 best country and Americana songs of the week.

Freddy & Francine released their track “Half a Mind” early last month. The song is personal. It’s about Freddy (Lee Ferris) and his lifelong battle with mental illness, and how his partner Francine (Bianca Caruso) fights beside him. The duo uses poetic lyrics and seamless harmonies to create a stimulating track for listeners. But perhaps just as captivating are the visuals. The music video was directed, shot, and edited by Island artist and filmmaker Danielle Mulcahy.

Slow, steady, and intimate pannings follow Lee through his home in Nashville, doing various everyday tasks.

“I thought, Let’s make it comfy,” Mulcahy said. “This is already hard enough for Lee, so I wanted to make it as comfortable for him as possible.”

In media’s tainted state, Mulcahy’s constantly looking for ways to make her art believable, intimate, and real.

“I wanted to hone in on the authenticity of these two souls,” Mulcahy said. “But the simplicity also happened because we have no budget. I can talk all I want about concept, but we have no money.”

Mulcahy is a one-woman show and a jack-of-all-trades, but filmmaking oftentimes takes an army.

“Most of the time the army is not available, and neither is the equipment,” she said. “I have to trust my eye, and I have to trust that the content will carry itself beyond its quality.”

The content in this case is Lee’s story, which many might relate to. Lee is open about his struggle with bipolar disorder.“It took me a very long time to treat this diagnosis with any seriousness,” Lee posted on his Facebook page during the release of the music video. “Given the stigmatization of the disorder in popular culture, I felt it was something I needed to get over on my own. To me I was simply weak-minded and emotionally over sensitive.

“By not taking my medication regularly and abandoning relationships with therapists, I began to use romance, drugs, and alcohol to balance the extreme highs and lows of my life …

“I was hospitalized in my twenties following a suicide attempt, where I was fortunate enough to be educated about my illness. I danced through the dysfunction for another 10 years until my drinking became abysmal.

“I say all of this as a preface to the video I am posting of my band’s new song, ‘Half a Mind.’ I am grateful that throughout my life I have continued my creativity. My music has been an outlet for my desperation, depression, anger, fear, and especially joy. In my experience there is a fine line between joy and agony. Music expresses this better than any other medium I have found.“

“This video is a joyful reflection on my past and many of the day-to-day challenges I face. Humor has saved my life many times over. We felt humor could be a portal into a discussion about what it means to attempt an intimate relationship while living with a serious mental illness.
“Us humans want love. Bipolar disorder and addiction gather all they can muster to sabotage this desire.

“I am now 5 years sober, consistently medicated with the help of a doctor, and married to my beautiful longtime partner Bianca Caruso. I am lucky. I am so fortunate. I am imperfect.

“I want to talk now about these issues more than ever because I feel I have a message of hope. If you have experienced similar struggles or you are experiencing them now, please let someone know …

“Save your life. Save someone else’s. Sing and be heard.”

Everyone has ghosts, or “skeletons in the closet,” be they mental illness, anxiety, trauma, etc. This is where Mulcahy, Ferris, and Caruso were able to intertwine a bit of humor into their project.

“At one point when we were brainstorming, Bianca said, What if we had skeletons falling out of the closets, or ghosts running around? I thought it was such an out-there idea, but an exercise I practice as an artist is to not dismiss anything immediately. Ghosts … ghosts … If we were gonna do it, we’re gonna go all in.”

In sequences of Ferris lounging in his bathrobe, making food, taking a shower, or mowing the lawn, ghosts in their most basic form (white sheet, two cut holes) wreak friendly havoc on his everyday life. Caruso, bearing witness to the strange paranormal activity, is able to shrug her shoulders and make light of it, eventually laughing it off. Ferris and Caruso and the eight or so ghosts learn to make it work under the same roof.

“I channeled a little bit of Wes Anderson,” Mulcahy said. “At first I was thinking, This may be the stupidest thing I’ve ever made. But at the same time, I was having so much fun.”

After hours of improv and a week of shooting, Mulcahy knew she had what she needed.

“I couldn’t wait to edit,” she said. “When I’m excited about the footage before it’s even on my computer, that’s when I know I’ve got something good.”

When Mulcahy’s behind the lens, she looks for a natural performance: “The camera picks up the most subtle emotions. You can see comfort versus acting. I tell [my subjects], look at the camera and think the thought. Don’t do it. Think it. And it’ll come out on your face and the camera will pick it up.”

Her favorite part of the process is shooting. “I walk into the space and I’m like a kid playing make-believe,” she said. “I get 10 different finished products in my head, and then I start picking back … But you have to be able to accept that in your head it’s going to look one way, and the result is going to look another way. The weather might change, and we don’t have the money to change the weather. Hollywood has the money to change the weather.”

Mulcahy made a conscious decision not to work in L.A. “I wanted creative control, and I wanted the ability to make things that are on a human level,” she said. “I don’t want to be too corporate.”

Music videos are one of her favorite forms of filmmaking.

“It allows me to be weird,” she said. “I like making weird narratives that are visually stimulating and not script-heavy.”

Mulcahy is also an experienced documentary filmmaker. She works with the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival on a number of topics pertinent to the Island community. She’s currently working on one about the M.V. Museum and one on SailMV. She recently finished a film about the Island housing crisis. Mulcahy is also an illustrator and a mixed-media artist. She and fiancé Walker Roman of Barnyard Saints completed their yearlong road trip across the country in early spring, and she’s working on webisodes using the hours of footage compiled during the trip.

As she settles back into Island life, it’s projects like Ferris and Caruso’s that make her tick.

“I’m so happy to help someone bring to fruition their art form,” Mulcahy said. “Using humor as a bridge to get through something really hard. We all have our stuff, and being able to export that through an artistic current is a healthy thing. I admire Lee and Bianca so much for that. They emulate authenticity, inspire it in others, and I’m honored to be a part of it.”