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Kelly Oxford discusses writing and directing her first film, 'Pink Skies Ahead'

May 7, 2021
2 min read time

Sometimes having a project go from text to film is a matter of having the right script at the right time.

For Kelly Oxford, planting the seed for Pink Skies Ahead started with a collection of essays and a book tour. She found that a lot of people connected with No Real Danger, an essay about her own journey with anxiety that was published in 2017. She set it aside and continued to work as a successful screenwriter and actress. Some advice that really stuck with her was from Seth Rogen, who told her to "write about something I know really well" and Cameron Crowe, who said to "always direct your own stuff." Both were suggestions that Oxford thought of as she continued to write scripts, and when she thought about directing her first film.

Oxford hadn’t thought about When You Find Out the World is Against You (the collection of essays in which No Real Danger was published) for years, but when she decided to write a new script she came back to that one essay. People still feel the stigma of being open about mental illness and anxiety in our society. Oxford was concerned about taking the essay and writing a script but that didn’t stop her; instead, she decided to write a coming-of-age story that takes place in 1998 about a young woman who drops out of college while dealing with major life changes at home.

As Oxford wrote the deeply personal script that she dreamed of directing, she brought her life experience to tell a story that an audience might recognize themselves in if they were to feel connected to the script and eventual film.

Her agent knew that Oxford had sold scripts to Greg Silverman at Warner Bros., which had not been made since the production company was focused on films with budgets between $30 million and $60 million and that wasn’t what Oxford had written. But Silverman had left Warner Bros. and started Stampede Ventures, where he could finance smaller independent films and Pink Skies Ahead was exactly what he had in mind after reading the script. Oxford imagined a cast that included Marcia Gay Harden (Pamela), Michael McKean (Richard), Henry Winkler (Dr. Cotton), Jessica Barden (Winona), and Rosa Salazar (Addie), but the surprise get was Mary J. Blige, who plays Dr. Monroe. The cast is a mix of established and new actors, all who were attracted to the script because of their connection to mental health challenges either themselves or through a family member or friend.

"Something I learned as a first-time director was the value of hiring the right people for your film," Oxford shared with me as we discussed her experience as a first-time director.

She had been on sets before as an actor, but it’s very different to be there as the person in charge.

Oxford compared making the film to creating an art project; it takes many people with different skill sets. As a director, she said it’s important to trust that everyone brings something to the table that nobody else can, from the cinematographer to the lighting crew to the actors, when building your team.

Pink Skies Ahead was supposed to premiere at SXSW, but then COVID-19 happened. The film ended up premiering at the 2020 AFI Fest, where it was picked up as part of the festival's summit panel on centering characters with mental health conditions in film and television, an initiative to address the nation’s growing mental health crisis using the power of storytelling. Pink Skies Ahead is also part of the 2020 Annenberg Inclusion Initiative's recommendations to destigmatize mental health challenges.

When I told Oxford that I was surprised that some of the behavior Winona exhibited was similar to my own quirks and made me think, she replied, "That's what I hope happens in this film; that people see themselves and go, 'Huh. Well that might be a part of me and maybe I should explore it or maybe I'm okay.' This is happening and having people see themselves in the film is the goal for me for sure."

‘Pink Skies Ahead’ will premiere as a commercial-free event on MTV, Saturday, May 8, as part of MTV’s newly-launched Mental Health is Health initiative. 

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