An artist battling against his perception of reality while trying to maintain a connection to his family

“The Exhibit,” directed by Landon Stephen Popadic and Caleb Zook, offers a poignant exploration of the intersection between mental health and artistic expression. The film follows Max Griggs, an artist who, after months of meticulous preparation, is ready to embark on his latest creation—a painting of lilies. However, as he begins, Max is quickly overcome by a wave of emotional distress, leading him to violently lash out at his canvas. This intense moment is witnessed by his wife, Connie, whose concern for Max’s well-being prompts her to urge him to seek professional help.

As Max grapples with his deteriorating perception of reality, he struggles to maintain a connection with his family. The narrative delves into Max’s battle against his inner demons while highlighting the supportive yet strained relationship with Connie. “The Exhibit” masterfully portrays the fragility of the human mind and the resilience of the human spirit, drawing the audience into Max’s tumultuous journey of self-discovery and healing. This dramatic short film is a compelling and thought-provoking exploration of the complexities of mental health and the power of love and support in the face of adversity.

The film explores the theme of battling against one’s perception of reality while maintaining connections to loved ones. What inspired you to delve into this subject matter?

Myself and my co-director (Caleb Zook) have been affected by mental illnesses and diseases in our families. We wanted to put the audience into the mind of a person struggling with these things to create a deeper empathy and understanding.

Mental illness is a central theme in the film. Can you discuss the research and preparation that went into accurately portraying the protagonist’s struggle with a deteriorating mental disease?

Our research was integral to understanding where we could emotionally take our protagonist. We studied many different types of mental illnesses and diseases to form an accurate portrayal. Our writer (Ty DeMartino) joined Caleb and myself talking with social workers, physiatrists, therapists, counselors, and doctors of neurology to piece together our story. We ended up with about 20 versions of the script through this process.

Collaboration often plays a significant role in filmmaking. How did you work with the cast and crew to bring this story to life, especially considering the sensitive subject matter?

Collaboration is everything. Let me say that again for the people in the back. Collaboration is everything! This project wouldn’t have come to fruition if it weren’t for our incredible cast and crew. It’s so important to surround yourself with an open minded and generous creative team. This was a heavy topic to dive into and it was important to me to make sure our cast and crew understood the importance of telling this story. Everyone who worked on this project knew our goals and shared our vision and heart. Kevin Sizemore and Kate Orsini (our leads) brought their whole hearts into this project doing deep character studies and sharing their findings with all of us. Keeping ideas and exploration in the open is a key component to a successful collaboration. It was very important to Caleb and I to be fully accessible to every cast and crew member to hear out ideas and to create a safe and enjoyable environment on set, especially dealing with sensitive issues. Creating art requires every person to be vulnerable. My goal on any of my sets is to create a space where vulnerability can be safely and enjoyably expressed.

The American Brain Foundation is involved in the project. Could you share more about the partnership and how it influenced the film’s development or message?

The American Brain Foundation came on board during our research period and was a huge resource to us. We had many zoom calls with their team to exchange ideas and work with their neurologists to create a medically accurate depiction for our protagonist. ABF is a fantastic organization that is doing some groundbreaking research in brain health. We greatly appreciate the time they took to support our project.

The protagonist is depicted as an artist. How did you use visual storytelling techniques to convey his internal struggles and creative process?

This is the focus of the first 2 minutes of the film. An artist’s creative process usually brings about internal struggles, so we chose to show this through the use of montage and heavily detailed art direction. Max is in his art studio surrounded by past projects working on his next. We start in on a series of extreme close-ups to draw the audience in and make them feel invited into his artistic process. The sequence continues, Max becomes frustrated, the pacing noticeably changes, and the framing becomes more distant as we witness his mental struggles seeping out in every direction.

Family dynamics appear to be an important aspect of the narrative. How did you approach depicting these relationships on screen, and what do you hope viewers will take away from them?

We wanted to create a film that puts an audience member in the mind of the person struggling, therefore the family dynamics had to follow that idea. We’re seeing a skewed picture of how these characters actually are. That being said, there had to be a certain level of truth in this skewed picture as well. Each actor was tasked with bringing the truth of the moment while falling in line with the perceived truth of our protagonist. I hope viewers can understand and take away the importance of family support in a mental health crisis.

The film likely tackles complex themes and emotions. How do you hope audiences will respond to and engage with the film’s exploration of mental health and familial relationships?

This film is meant to “put you through it” if you will. I’d encourage anyone watching to go with the characters and be open to anything you may experience. Let the complexity of this story sit with you, sit in the emotion of it all and explore that emotion for yourself. Mental health is something we all deal with and I hope this story and these characters can be a further way to understanding how to help people in these situations. And if you are in a mental health crisis I hope this film can help give a voice to the internal struggle you might be faced with. Our team would like to encourage anyone experiencing a mental health crisis or know someone who is to reach out for the help you may need.

As a filmmaker, what challenges did you face in bringing this story to the screen, and how did you overcome them?

Filmmaking, in short, is constant creative problem solving. We ran into every challenge you could think of while making this film. This film took us 5 years to make from conception to completion. We overcame these obstacles through collaboration and resistance. If you have a story in your soul trying to claw its way out of you, let it out. That’s what happened with The Exhibit, everytime I pushed the vision away it came back ten times stronger. This film was partially inspired by Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George and in the words of Sondheim “Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new. Give us more to see…”

Finally, what are your favorite short films?

Some of my favorite short films include A Trip to the Moon (1902), Lights Out (2013), and The Neighbors’ Window (2019) (Watch on FS).