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Filmmaker Michael DiBiasio-Ornelas on humanizing mental health in ‘The Sleepless’

April 30, 2021
5 min read time

Once in a while a film comes along that invites the viewer to meander along with it, enjoying the view and the conversation for what it is. No crazy plot twists, no breathtaking set-pieces. Simply humanity for what it is — and can be — in one of its most beautiful forms: connection. This is the basis for filmmaker Michael DiBiasio-Ornelas’ new romantic comedy The Sleepless.

It came to DiBiasio-Ornelas in the wee hours one night when he was out trying to get a coffee.

“The city was so quiet and beautiful and poetic, and there were still people out. Suddenly, it occurred to me that what if two people met like this, under romantic conditions,” he said.

“As a filmmaker, a lot of what I end up making is always connected to a 'what if' that leads to other places. I wanted to tell a story about two people who are maybe feeling isolated; a little confused about their long-term inability to sleep, who randomly stumble into each other and for whatever reason decide to take a chance and go on a date right then and there.”

And that is precisely how strangers Zach (Nyambi Nyambi of The Good Fight and Mike & Molly) and Sophia (Rebecca De Ornelas, The Videoblogs) meet. Struggling with insomnia, the pair meet randomly at the only spot open for coffee in their neighborhood at 3 a.m., and after a gentle nudge from the bodega owner, the pair amble through a predawn New York City, exploring such resonant topics as mental health, addiction, gender dynamics, and the oh-so-important question of what one brings to a deserted island.

Citing Jim Jarmusch films and the Richard Linklater Before Sunrise trilogy as inspiration, DiBiasio-Ornelas says The Sleepless is meant to examine what it is to be an ordinary person now: “A millennial, with working-class roots. These characters are literally walking around their neighborhood. That’s where they exist in their work-don’t-sleep-go-do-it-again cycle," he said.

“There was so much opportunity for intimacy. The challenge was to keep it authentic and interesting. We’ve all had those long, deep conversations that are so memorable. As the filmmaker, how do I make it universal and keep it deeply personal as the person compelled to tell the story?”

From the very first draft, DiBiasio-Ornelas put in a lot of background work as to how the conversation could organically flow and propel the story forward. That he spent most of his adult life in New York — and his partner in life and on The Sleepless, De Ornelas, is Brooklyn-born and raised — made NYC the natural setting for the intimate film.

“How can the city help? Who’s up [at 3 a.m.]? What do they look and sound like? How would they change the trajectory of the characters’ journey?” were some of the questions he asked himself while writing.

DiBiasio-Ornelas' goal in every project leading up to and including The Sleepless is to “normalize conversations about mental health and wellness, leading up to the reasons why people can’t sleep, addiction — in this case, specifically in American society — and humanizing these things and trying to destigmatize them. The more we share our experiences in these areas, more directly our pain, then the more we can collectively help each other process, cope with, and grow from that place.” In terms of the film, that concept manifests in isolating darkness and toward the end becomes much more about “hope, if not optimism.”

In the characters of Zach and Sophia, DiBiasio-Ornelas crafted “intelligent and thoughtful people, coming at [these topics] in their own ways.” On De Ornelas as Sophia as well as the film’s co-executive producer, DiBiasio-Ornelas says, “We work together, we’re married, we know each other’s strengths and complement those. Her theatre training is an asset to a film like this. We had watched Nyambi’s work, and he has a great presence and feel that matched what we wanted for Zach.”

As the film’s director, DiBiasio-Ornelas says, “I knew that I could stay out of their way and let them do their thing. The leads are both so talented and experienced, creative and thoughtful… Knowing there were so many words, we did our prep, but these are their characters.” Most of the time, he let them act within the general realm of what was written to see where it naturally led.

“The hard work that they put in is what makes it seem easy,” he said.

Such collaboration appears to be a hallmark of DiBiasio-Ornelas’ work, and he refers to his peers as a “good roster of trusty collaborators” several times; this includes The Sleepless cinematographer Tine DiLucia. While DiBiasio-Ornelas wore multiple hats on this production, he says that when he’s writing he tries to “stay out of the writer’s way as a filmmaker. Then I reach a certain point where Michael the writer has to step aside and I go into production, where I do change things. I do try to keep it separate, though. I don’t edit my own films anymore, but as a filmmaker, to have had your hands in a finished product, it makes your subsequent scripts so much stronger. As a self-taught independent filmmaker, I try to grow in all areas,” he said, acknowledging that wearing all the hats on a production isn’t everyone’s path.

“For me, it’s been hugely beneficial to produce my own work. In a way, I started directing as a way to protect my vision for the script. But directing and filmmaking kind of unlocked some stuff in me as a person and became part of who I am. I wouldn’t tell everyone to do it, not everyone is the same. With the caveat that not waiting around — at whatever level, at whatever budget — to produce your work can only make you a better writer and move you forward.”

He encourages writers to be honest with themselves.

“Not everyone is a writer-director, you don’t have to be. And if you’re an introvert, it can be harder for you and I understand that, and I have compassion for that. But keep bumping up against the ceiling of your anxiety about that and connect with people. Find your collaborators who will help you make your movie in whatever way it’s going to be your path. Whether it’s selling something or collaborating with producers or directors on something you make yourself.”

As for The Sleepless, DiBiasio-Ornelas set a very specific intention.

“I knew it was going to be hard work, but that it was going to be a joyful experience. I make movies to foster dialogue among other people. With any of the features I have and will direct, I try to focus on how this can be a joyful enterprise that contributes in a positive way to society.”

Stream The Sleepless on Prime Video now to join the dialogue.

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