Interview with 'Altered Minds' film director Michael Wechsler: 'The fascination of manipulating the psyche'

Cinema / News - 12 March 2023

Altered Minds è on streaming e on-demand

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Altered Minds is the 2013 film released now for streaming and on-demand.

How did the idea for Altered Minds come about? 

I wanted to write a story about a family that was going through major upheaval and a family in which there were secrets that had been buried and hidden. In the story, I wanted to examine the consequences of that dynamic. One of my favorite films is The Celebration and I wanted to start out my story with one family member making direct accusations against the patriarch, much to the disbelief of the rest of the unit. So, like The Celebration, I wanted to make the story about the discovery that would take place over the course of the film by members of the family that would either support or refute the premise from that one family member. In the case of Altered Minds, I didn’t have a specific accusation in mind, so I just started writing interactions between characters to see what kind of dynamic and conflict would arise simply from my imagination. After about 50 pages in, I had some interesting back-and-forth between various family members. I had some unique character attributes that were rising to the surface but I still didn’t know exactly what the story was going to be about.

And then how did you go on?

So, I was stuck for a bit, because I didn’t want to make this about an accusation that would be on the surface believable. I wanted to make a psychological drama that had strong elements of mystery. I thought that that would only be possible if I had an accusation that was almost impossible to believe when it’s first made but then becomes over the course of the film a possibility and that opens up so many Pandora’s boxes. So, I kind of put the script on pause went back to another one that I’ve been working on.  A few weeks later I was surfing the Internet, specifically YouTube, and I randomly came across a video of what was testimony of a supposed victim of mind control experimentation that was conducted by the American government, the CIA, during The Cold War. This immediately struck me as ‘holy smoke that’s crazy, that such a thing ever happened in the United States.’ I then did a deeper dive and started to learn about this program which was called MK Ultra.  The more I learned about it, the more I realized this actually would be the perfect potential red herring/smoking gun for the accusations that were being made, and then the story just really came out very quickly once I made that decision.

The story is about a father's possible manipulation of his children. Why did you choose this theme? 

Firstly, I have always gravitated towards movies that are about family, specifically dramas where there’s tremendous familial dysfunction. So as a starting point, the family featured in my story would have a dysfunctionality because of supposed horrific things conducted by the patriarch which in this case was the mind control.  I thought it would be very intriguing and compelling.

I think we can all agree that in families, like in individuals, we all harbor secrets. Those secrets are not nearly as awful and inhumane as the ones from the family in Altered Minds.  There’s something about the idea of a father, especially one who is held in such high regard by society and his family, possibly having crossed such ethical lines . I thought that was intriguing and it made for incredibly compelling story. You know, if this was just a friend or colleague accused, I think it wouldn’t have had as much bite as it being the father.

Is there an indictment toward the parenting system?

We rely on our parents to protect us from the minute were born until the day we leave our homes, because the rest of the world is difficult. We don’t expect our parents to be victimizers so that to me it’s just as crazy as it is horrifying. This family dynamic would keep the viewer really interested because the viewer takes it in the vicariously, and wonder, how could the father do this? how could my parent do something like this to me? 

How was the relationship with Judd Hirsch? 

Working with Judd was like being in a car that is self driving. Judd is a first and foremost a professional who comes to the table with decades of experience as an actor and fortunately, for my sake, I wrote the script and the character of Dr. Nathaniel thinking of his voice the entire time and not expecting that I would ever be able to get Judd.  Because I wrote this with his voice in mind it was like an outfit that fit impeccably.  He’s played a psychologist a number of times but what he hadn’t played up until my film was a doctor who may have done some very unethical things and so this was I think why it appealed to him -- because it was sort of taking that perfect father persona that we all come to know and love that Judd played so well and kind of turned it on its head a little bit. Judd was full of ideas and suggestions many which I took and which affected the actual continue development of Nathaniel‘s character even before we started shooting. He actually came up with some fantastic ideas how to give a little more dimension a little more layering to Nathaniel’s backstory which I  incorporated into the script before we started shooting.  While we were actually in production he had many ideas which I thought were great and that’s kind of what I was hoping from an experienced showman and thespian - that I wasn't just getting someone who’s gonna read the lines but I’m getting someone who was going to make things even better than where they started so Judd was just a gift that kept giving.

Judd Hirsch is an Oscar nominee for The Fabelmans, in which he plays Uncle Boris. Have you heard from him recently?

I haven’t spoken to Judd in a while, but I have corresponded via email sending my congratulations. At this point he is overwhelmed by the publicity and being in the spotlight of a potential Oscar. I look forward to hopefully congratulating him on his win, but if not, of course congratulating him for another phenomenal performance.

The film Altered Minds was well received by audiences and critics. In your opinion, what is the reason? 

The film was well received by audiences and critics because it’s sort of a hybrid that walks the line  of being boith a family drama and also a thriller. That’s not always an easy balancing act.  For those who expected one or the other, I think it was a surprise and a ride they went along on.  I also think the strong reception had to do with the mystery element of the movie.  I know people who have told me personally that they respond to the twists and turns of the of the thriller aspect Then there are some people who are really liked the dynamic conflict between the son and his entire family and how that radiates and becomes a conflict within various family members. So, this isn’t just a straightforward psychological thriller or a straightforward drama. It’s a mix and that’s something I really I love when it’s done well. I love mixing genres. I love this especially when there’s a drama that’s being mixed with another genre. I love horror and drama hybrids, maybe because it’s just giving you something different from what you’re used to seeing.

What is your favorite movie? 

I have so many favorite movies, so I don’t know if I have one favorite movie, but I almost anything Steven Spielberg has made is in my Top 20. I think my favorite movie of all time, if I have to give that definitive answer, is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I have loved that movie since I saw it at the age of nine and I have lived that movie to some degree without having any UFO sightings. It has been my muse. It’s magical and I don’t think any movie has influenced me as much as that film, nor has any filmmaker as much as Steven Spielberg.

What about your favorite Italian movie?

As far as Italian filmmakers are concerned to me, there is no greater master of the cinema than Federico Fellini. I discovered him in film school and I don’t think anyone has come close to touching his magical realism, his sense of humor, and his sense of the lunacy of life. Amarcord and 8 ½. are two of my favorite movies. If there’s one filmmaker I wish I was still alive  whom I could have a conversation, it would be Federico Fellini, and of course, I also love Sergio Leone, but Fellini is king of Italian cinema as far as I’m concerned.

What is your next project?

My next project is going to be going into production in spring/early summer 2024. It is a fable dramedy (see I told you I like hybrids) that takes place one day and it’s set in an American state park, titled A Wood’s Tale.  On deck after that film is another feature that I wrote, Modern Primitives, which is a romantic drama/fable set against climate change. So yes, it’s going to be a busy couple years and I look forward to working with creatives in-person, especially after this pandemic!

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