Thero Worthy Interview with Brett Culp, Filmmaker

Thero Worthy articles are interviews with thought leaders in the mental health field. They feature people who are dedicated to reducing stigma, promoting mental diversity and making it easier to get help. To nominate someone you think is Thero Worthy click here.

I’m Joel Hebert from Thero, and I’m here with Brett Culp, director of Legends of the Knight and the upcoming film Look to the Sky. Brett, you are the founder of the Rising Heroes Project, so could we start with you telling us about this organization?

Brett Culp and camera

A lot of documentary makers are looking to tell stories about things that are wrong with the world so they can make those things better. I’m the kind of filmmaker who is looking for the things that are right in the world.

Brett: The Rising Heroes Project really began out of the work we did on the documentary film Legends of the Knight. Legends of the Knight tells the stories of people who were inspired to become real-life heroes because of their childhood love of Batman. But that’s just the surface level. Underneath it is the power that all of us have to be heroes. The film is now on Netflix and Amazon. What came out of that project that is really unique is how we chose to distribute the project theatrically. Rather than just trying to put it in as many theaters as we could and trying to make as much money as possible, we let charities host the event. You requested a screening, you invited your community, and you created a super-hero themed event with costumes. The charities would benefit from the publicity and the proceeds of the film screenings.

What we saw happen when we did this is that 70% of people who hosted these screenings were people who had never hosted a charity event, had never engaged with their community, but something about this particular opportunity brought something positive that really encouraged them to do this. By the time it was done, Legends of the Knight screened in over 100 cities around the world, all of them hosted by some local superhero that had wanted to do it and make a difference. That encouraged my wife Tricia and I to continue that effort. We saw how much heroic potential was in all these people, so we started the Rising Heroes Project not only to extend the work we were doing with Legends of the Knight, but also with forthcoming films like our next film Look to the Sky and another film we’re working on called A Voice That Carries. Our goal is to create these films that will not only provide inspiration but also tangible tools that equip people who want to make a difference in the world but aren’t sure how. We want to allow people to assert everyday leadership and positive values in their communities and give them opportunities and clear ways to do that.

Joel: Was there a precedent for this grassroots film-making, or was it something that you pioneered?

Brett: To my knowledge there isn’t another film that used this process. There are other documentary films that have given the okay to anyone who wanted to host a screening, but this kind of approach of using the screening to raise money for local charities…I don’t know of anybody who’s ever done it quite that way.

Joel: Now you said that you visited over 100 cities. Looking at your schedule online, you were all over the globe. Were there any particular moments that stuck out as you were doing this as being particularly memorable?

Brett: I personally got to attend about 20 of these screenings, and a couple stood out. There was one in Aurora, Colorado which benefited the victims and families of those that had been injured because of that shooting during the theatrical showing of The Dark Knight Rises. To see our little Batman film be used to benefit a moment that for Batman fans around the world was almost like our hearts stopped for a week…that was really, really special, and even kind of redemptive for me as a filmmaker. Wondering if a movie about the positive influence of Batman was even positive in a world where that kind of thing was going on. Some people had told me it wasn’t. So that was really powerful.

There was also a screening in Houston, Texas, where a family that had lost a child held a screening of Legends on what would have been that child’s third birthday, and they donated the proceeds to the Ronald McDonald House that had hosted them during that difficult time. To watch a community that had walked through the journey with that family together and to celebrate the heroic message of the movie and honor that child’s short life, and then as a community find a way to celebrate and get back together with other families who had been what they had been through, that was powerful to watch.

Joel: The Aurora story is amazing. I can imagine you must have felt a great sense of coming 180 degrees to see Batman used as a vehicle for healing in a community that was a scene for such an awful incident.

Brett: I was six months into production when that tragedy happened in Aurora.

A scene from "Legends of the Knight." (Brett Culp Films)

Our goal is to create these films that will not only provide inspiration but also tangible tools that equip people who want to make a difference in the world but aren’t sure how.

Of course, as just a human being, I was hurting for those people, but being six months into the positive influence of Batman and then to hear people on CNN saying this was the negative influence of superhero characters like Batman, and maybe superhero culture is causing this, and to have people sending me texts saying, “You can’t make this movie after what happened in Aurora,” made me wonder if what I was doing was really positive, or if I was being selfish. Was there light in this project, or was it really darkness in this? And then to see it turn around like that and be a blessing was really an encouragement to me on a kind-of universal level that sometimes the things we go through in life that feel so dark and so terrible…you find out 3, 4, 5 years later…the walking through of that was the healing to the very problem you were encountering, that it’s the incentive to keep going knowing that what you’ve been through only makes sense when you’re going backwards. You can’t see in the moment what it really means long term, so you just have to keep going.

Joel: I teach a high school film class, and Legends spurred a great deal of discussion. You were able to introduce so many interesting people in the move. One of them, Professor Jonathan Gottschall, said in your film that, “Stories fundamentally change people…they’re not just a temporary diversion.” As a filmmaker, can you speak to this idea?

Brett: That concept that Dr. Gottschall talks about in that segment was in some ways the genesis of this whole film. I’ve spent 20 years of my life making films, and so you can see the impact of it. I’ve worked with not for profits that had wonderful gala events but did not tell their story very well, and they only raise a minimum amount of money. Then the next year they included one of my films, and what they collect doubled. Why did that happen? It happened because you gave people the opportunity to connect with the story. Information helps, but when we share information with each other, we only are connecting on a certain level of consciousness. When we tell each other stories, we’re connecting to a deeper part of ourselves that in many ways cannot be captured by purely intellectual discussion. It allows the deeper part of you to talk to the deepest part of me. Our barriers go down, and we open ourselves up to things that we might not have been open to before.

I think heroic stories show that you can have a parent, or a teacher or a friend say all day long, “You’re wonderful, you can achieve, you can overcome,” but there’s something very different when you see a story. When you’re saturated with stories of superheroes who episode after episode, story after story, went through a difficulty, found the resources within themselves and their community to overcome that difficulty, and then work to not just save themselves but to save the world around them in a positive way, I think deep down in your gut there becomes this sensibility that this is the way the world works and this is the way I work at the deepest level. I can talk to you intellectually all day and you might never get it, but a story can give you that, particularly in the story-saturated world of today.

Joel: Your love of these superhero stories comes across in your work. In your opinion, what makes someone a hero beyond wearing a cape and having a nemesis? What makes someone a hero in real life?

Brett: One of the screenings of Legends of the Knight happened in Salt Lake City, Utah. These two great guys named Travis and Robert hosted that screening. About a week before that screening happened, they went together on a live morning show to talk about Legends and promote the screening. Robert was really nervous about it- he had never been on TV before, he was totally out of his comfort zone. He gets on the broadcast, the host asks him the first question, and he froze, just totally froze. He didn’t say a word the rest of the interview.  Later, he sent me a message on Facebook saying, “I blew this, I totally blew this.” I sent him a message back saying, “Robert, you did not blow it.  You made the choice to do something very difficult for you, and in your heart were trying to help other people and grow as a person. You ARE a hero. Good job.”

Obviously we can talk about superhero costumes and utility belts and villains and all that, but to me the truest definition of what it means to be a hero is to be able to walk through something that is difficult for you and to help other people and spur your own personal growth. If you do that and the outcome doesn’t look so heroic, even if the outcome isn’t amazing or what you wished for, that is the essence of being a hero. I think it’s that spirit that we need more of in the world today.

Joel: So do you think heroism is a mindset, or a conscious choice, that people make?

Brett: Yeah, I think it is a conscious choice. I don’t think heroic actions always come from a conscious choice in the moment. Sometimes it’s instinctive. But I think the reason those instincts come out is because people who do heroic things, even if they didn’t do it on purpose, they choose at some point in their life to take on that heroic mindset. There is a level at which all of us have the capacity to make a choice at any given moment that my life is going to be a heroic narrative. I’m going to see myself as a hero. Then I think what happens is we start acting accordingly. It doesn’t have to always be some spectacular thing you put in the newspaper or in a documentary. Sometimes it’s just being a hero for your cat, or that person at work having a bad day, but I think the heroic thing is when we are willing to step outside what is comfortable and easy for us. It’s when you’re willing to take that step to do the uncomfortable, difficult thing that it reaches into the realm of being hero. That’s my personal sense of it.

Joel: One our goals at Thero.org is to encourage people dealing with mental illness to seek treatment. In your work you’ve met a lot of people who have faced various physical, mental, and emotional challenges in their lifetime. What helps people share their experiences and talk to you as a filmmaker?

Brett: I think the most important thing, and I think it’s particularly true of anyone who’s struggling with emotional or mental health issues, is to find places they can be that are safe for sharing. We all want to be vulnerable, to be real and authentic, and to say openly, “Here’s who I am, here’s what I’m struggling with.” But not every place in the world is safe for that. Sometimes being vulnerable can create more damage than healing. But what I try to do as a filmmaker is to make people I interview feel as safe as I can, [let them know] that I’m on their side…that everything I am doing is to try and show the best of them…to show the light in them. To show their heroic heart.

I think that’s what makes me different than other documentary filmmakers. A lot of documentary makers are looking to tell stories about things that are wrong with the world so they can make those things better. I’m the kind of filmmaker who is looking for the things that are right in the world. My goal as a filmmaker and as a human being is to find light in every place I can find it and then share it. When I meet someone, I try to create a safe environment by seeing the light in them, in helping them to see it, and then sharing that light with other people if they are comfortable to do it. I think we all need to seek out safe places, for there are people in the world dedicated to creating safe places where we can share ourselves with each other. Then spend time living, breathing, and listening in those spaces. Be willing to be vulnerable so people can listen and help. We live in a society that has its roots in this rugged individualism that we’re supposed to figure things out by ourselves and do things by ourselves and if we can’t, that makes us weak. The truth is that nobody does anything great in their own life or in the world without help. People who act like they don’t have help are just lying; because we all have help, even if you can’t see it.

Joel: When people are opening up to you and being vulnerable, do you feel that sharing their stories with you and with the camera has a therapeutic effect for some of them?

Brett: I suspect that’s true, but let me take a step back here. When the new Batman Vs. Superman movie came out, I was seeing all this criticism for the film, from fans and critics alike. But I saw it the day it opened and I had a totally different reaction for some reason I can’t explain logically. This movie really touched me on an emotional level and I cried several times watching it. I decided on Monday afterward that I was going to record a review of myself talking about. It’s literally this 18 minute video of me just onscreen talking. Visually, it’s the most boring talking head video you can imagine: it’s not very exciting. But I pressed record and started talking, and 10 minutes into what I thought was going to be me analyzing this moment, I started crying and getting really emotional. Then I gathered it back together and started talking about something else, and then I started crying again. I got to the end of it and my wife who was on the other side of the camera pressed pause, and I was like, “Should I share that?” And she said absolutely I should share it. So I did, and within 4 days it had 100,000 views on YouTube and Facebook, with over 2,000 comments on Facebook with people saying thank you for sharing this. This is the best review of a movie I’ve ever seen. Some people even said, I saw this movie, I hated this movie, but I love your review. It went kind of berserk. But ultimately, it wasn’t about what I said, but about how I said it, and the emotional vulnerability I showed. (Link: Batman V. Superman: How I surprised myself and fell in love with this film)

When I watched that, I saw pieces of myself in that. When I watched it, I cried again, watching it by myself, and I’m the one who said it. I think there is something about being able to open up yourself in a real way and share it in a real way and then have people come along beside you and say, “That’s light in you. That’s good in you. I didn’t even like this movie, but this brought some light into my world seeing you respond that way to a story that touched you.” There’s something there that’s not only cathartic, but affirming, that my story matters. My feelings matter. This is important, the way I see the world, my perspective is valuable and I don’t have to feel like I’m weird or I’m separate. It normalizes the idea that I can be who I am and that’s okay. We all need that normalized. To answer your question, the process of creating these films that I’ve spent my life working on, I think there’s a validation to say that someone called you and said I’d like to make a film about you. I want to make a film about you because I see a light in you and I want to share it with other people.

Joel: One of the things we do at Thero is the Be Heard Campaign where we encourage people to talk about their experiences living with various disorders. One of our big goals is to get people to realize that lots of people are dealing with mental health disorders, and they are not alone.

Brett: You saying that speaks to another level of why stories matter. Stories show us that we are not alone. You’re talking, I’m listening, we’re together, and when you watch a story, whether it’s a movie, book, or a poem, or even a dance that you see, that touches you in some way. You love it in some way, even if you can’t explain why you love it, it means there is something in there that makes you feel not alone. There was somebody else in the world whose voice sounds like yours…whose heart is in on the same rhythm that yours is on. When you feel that in a story or a performance or wherever you see it in life, it makes you feel like there’s somebody else in the world who feels like I feel. That’s why we like to be around people who feel the same way about a story; people who like a movie you like, a song that you love. You feel here’s another person like me. We’re on the same wavelength. That kind of joining with another is not only healthy, but it’s healing.

Joel: Absolutely. Thinking back to Legends of the Knight, the film showed different people who read comic books by themselves, or watched the Batman show by themselves, but now in the 21st century we have so many more opportunities to meet up and share our love of comic book heroes.

Comic-con 2015

Even if we’re not sure who the heroes in the real world are, we still believe in that sense of what a hero is and what they can be.

Brett: I agree. 10-15 years ago, it wasn’t like it is today in terms of how many people show up and come in costume. That is a modern revolution. That’s even normalized or made it cool to be a nerd or geek and like these kind of things. What we see is a world where the news media and scandal take down many people in the past who were real-life heroes. Compare how people felt about JFK to how people feel about this election right now. It’s fair to say that people don’t idolize these candidates like we did a generation ago. Sports stars are shown to be cheaters and drug users. It creates a sense that maybe there aren’t any heroes left in the world. But that’s why for some people the comic book heroes celebrated at these Comic Cons are the opportunity for people to come together and say I believe in heroes, they’re real, and even if we don’t see them in the real world, we still see them in fiction and in these stories we love. The fact that even in the world we live in we are still so enthralled with the stories of heroes says a lot about hope and who we are at the deepest levels of ourselves and our believe that even if we’re not sure who the heroes in the real world are, we still believe in that sense of what a hero is and what they can be.

Joel: There are still heroes out there, but as you said, many people are more concerned with pointing out problems rather than looking at all the good things going on in the world today. As you’re talking about heroes, I wonder whether you have a hero who stands out as your particular favorite.

Brett: In general, I prefer the D.C. Comics. I like Marvel too, but the D.C. Comics have more of a mythological vibe to them. Marvel characters are more about being real and having flaws, and many of them are as much about their weaknesses as their strengths. But it seems to me that the D.C. characters in their purest form are very much archetypes of the mythological stories. I think there’s something about the strength, the character, the integrity of those characters in their purest forms that for me is very inspiring.

Those characters really resonate with me on a very unconscious, archetypal, Jungian type level, and so that’s why I’ve always loved them. I think I made that connection almost before I could talk articulately. If you look at pictures from my first birthday party, it was a Batman birthday party with me wearing a Batman cape, a Batman birthday hat, sitting in a Batman tricycle. Like it said in my movie, Batman is like the sky: it’s always been there; I can’t imagine it not being there. That’s why Legends of the Knight was a Batman-oriented film and an expression of what Batman is. The next movie we’re working on, Look to the Sky, is a different movie in terms of what the approach of it, but in the end it is an expression of what I personally feel the heart of Superman is. That is a natural movement for me because these characters are in my guts.

Joel: One of the people you interviewed in Legends of the Knight, therapist Randy Duncan, says, “Batman’s villains are a great vehicle for talking about mental disorders.” Thero focuses on reducing stigma toward mental disorders. Are there any examples of superheroes or stories that you think present accurate representations of people with disorders?

Brett: Let me think about that for a second, because I want to make sure on a clinical level I’m accurately portraying something.

Joel: Well, you’re a filmmaker, you’re not a psychologist.

Brett: With that said, I think Batman in particular is the character I’m most comfortable talking about in terms of psychology, because as you said, he and his villains wear those dysfunctions and challenges right on the surface. They’re painted on their face…you can look at a picture of those characters and guess what their challenges might be. Others like James Langley and Vasilis Pozios are better at diagnosing these characters, but what I feel comfortable saying is Batman is the greatest fictional character for understanding the nuances of processing and responding to grief and loss. That’s not necessarily a diagnosis. People like Travis Langley have argued about whether or not Batman has PTSD and things like that. Bruce Wayne as a character suffers, loss defines him from a very early age, and then he has to learn a way of processing that and dealing with that.

We can question whether taking on the Batman persona was the healthiest catharsis for that, but the reality is that there is no person in the world who can say the way I dealt with pain and suffering was the exact perfect way of dealing with that. We’re messy. We find our own path of feeling and coping and creating meaning and hope in those difficulties we go through. There’s no exact right way to do that. But I think the way Batman continues for his whole life coping and dealing with that…there’s always hurt, there’s always pain. You can never completely escape it. The idea that you can ultimately leads us to addictive behaviors and things that are even more destructive. You have to face the pain, you can’t avoid it, and that may be a lifetime journey.

At his core Batman says he is going to be a fighter, an advocate, a helper for people who have experienced pain, and that will give meaning to [his] pain by helping others. I think that speaks to a very community focused, unselfish way of the fact that yes I have to face myself, yes I have to face my own junk, yes I’m a little broken, and I’ll probably never escape that on some level, but I’m going to build a life for itself… I can still give value to the world. Even the pain I’ve been through will be the catalyst to helping others in a very real, substantial way. That to me is the joy of Batman, and it’s the part of Batman that I relate to when I look at the dark elements of my life and the difficulties I’ve been through. I say yeah, I’ve been through pain and hurt, I’m not always the bright Superman kind of character, I’m not that kind of character, but that’s okay. The darkness that I feel and experience and the hurt and pain I feel, there is still something in it that is good and that is positive and that is me and that’s okay. Within there is something that can be used as healing for me and a help for the world.

Joel: Brett, I want to thank you for taking time to do this interview. Before we go, is there anyone that you’d like to nominate as being particularly Thero Worthy?

Brett: There’s an organization called Southeast Psych. They’re based in Charlotte, North Carolina…they’re a psychology practice whose motto is “Psychology for All”. When you walk into their office, there’s a giant Darth Vader, and there are movie posters on the wall. They’re very much about making psychology very real and not making it like this is the place where we deal with bad stuff. One of their biggest voices is Dr. Frank Gaskill. If you can, try to talk to him or another of their counselors.

Joel: Great. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and ideas with us here at Thero, and I look forward to watching Look to the Sky when it comes out next year.

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