Sorry You Have To See This

When in the throes of a mental health crisis, whether anxiety or depression, it can be very easy to want to simply push the world away, to shut down the walls and to never let anyone in again. Josh Leong has candidly reached deep into his own struggles with anxiety to create a touching exploration of how it can impact those you love the most. Overlaying purposefully disparate audio and visual cues, keeping the camerawork fluid and even integrating touching dance movements, this tightly choreographed yet emotionally generous piece looks at both the caregiver and the victim in such a situation, resulting in a deeply touching exploration of the ties that bind us despite inner chaos. We had a chance to talk to Leong about working in conjunction with Trust, being inspired by the blog of a friend and how creating the unique dance movements in the film represented a form of therapy.

You wrote in the submission that this film was inspired by personal experiences. I’d love it if you could expand on that.

For sure. In a way, this film started as an exercise I did in therapy, but it’s largely inspired by a time in my life that I used to hate thinking about. Right before the pandemic, I experienced a scary period of anxiety attacks and depression. It felt like a monster was living inside my head – pushing people away and abusing relationships. I fought a war every day just to wake up and act like I was okay. All I wanted was to feel like myself again. Even with the support of people who refused to let me go, there were countless moments I wanted to give up on everything; to fall asleep and never wake up. I was exhausted more than I was in pain, and I couldn’t understand why any of this was happening to me. To this day, I’m still unsure why it happened or how I got better. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that making a film about it would be part of my journey to healing.

Sorry You Have To See This is ultimately an imperfect attempt to put my raw emotions, memories, and nightmares on screen – told through broken, messy people – with the intent of affirming someone else who might be enduring something similar. I was once told by a professor of mine, Alrick Brown, that filmmakers have a responsibility to “put our demons on screen.” Our stories fight our battles for us. And from the moment I started writing this film, I felt God beginning to transform an incredibly broken time in my life into something irrationally beautiful – something that wouldn’t just be a blessing to me, but to others as well.

Dance felt like a strangely articulate medium that could convey so much more with just faces, hands and bodies.

How did you go about writing these feelings down into a coherent screenplay? Was there any additional research involved?

My impulse was to script this as a narrative film but it quickly became clear that this topic couldn’t be adequately expressed through a conversation or traditional dialogue. I instead became intrigued by the idea of expressing emotion through movement. It felt really fitting that our film could represent the physical manifestation of our thoughts, given mental health is often something we can’t put words to. Dance felt like a strangely articulate medium that could convey so much more with just faces, hands and bodies.

Emotionally, I actually drew the most inspiration from the online blog of a friend, Lauren Franco. I found myself strongly attached to lines she shared in the aftermath of a “hellish week”: “The thing is, people will do or try to convince themselves to believe whatever they can to cope, usually to try to get around the pain. We try to convince ourselves that things didn’t happen, delete them, believe that we didn’t actually care or love, that it all wasn’t as important as it was. But I am finding that the best way to move on is straight through the wilderness, headfirst into the feelings. Trying to find a way around it just makes the journey longer.”

Words have a habit of speaking to our hearts in funny ways and Lauren’s hit on a level that felt immeasurably convicting for myself. Beyond anything else, it was those four sentences that convinced me to persevere with any of this.

I loved the contrast in the beginning between the call and what is being represented. Was this always intentional? Why did you decide to shoot it this way?

Super intentional. Thematically, I wanted to represent the clash of voices in our heads. I think we’re often faced with physical circumstances that don’t align with our emotions and mental state. As a result, the film essentially runs on two parallel storylines: the visual world and the audio world. Sometimes, what you hear directly juxtaposes the emotion of what you see. Dialogue is presented through phone calls, and the caller’s perspective constantly changes. Additionally, sounds transition from being non-diegetic to diegetic, effects pan in 360° space and the audience doesn’t always hear exactly what they’re watching. I have to give major props to our incredible Sound Designer Vinny Alfano, who was fully down for the ride. We decided to swing for the fences – always erring on the side of trying something new and experimental. The goal was to create something so unique and immersive that you could close your eyes and simply listen to the film.

I think we’re often faced with physical circumstances that don’t align with our emotions and mental state.

I think what the film manages to depict really well is the difficulty of supporting someone with these negative feelings, looking at both sides of the equation. Was it important to you to get the balance right?

Absolutely. One of the biggest challenges during development was deciding whose perspective to take – did the story ‘belong’ to Ellie or Nathan? It had a significant effect on the meaning of the film and how it should end. Initially, I felt like the film should be Ellie’s story: a deeper, more sympathetic look at the caregiver’s burden. But it didn’t align with how I wanted the film to close. I felt it was most realistic to have Nathan revert “back to type” in the end. It was important for the audience to understand that it was Nathan’s decision to wash the dishes again.

I began to see the film more from his perspective. It wasn’t a romanticised look at how caregivers magically heal all our wounds, but it’s certainly a tribute to those who get us through those tough moments. Ultimately, Nathan gets to thank Ellie via voicemail at the end of the film, but tragically, he’s still left with his own demons. To me, mental health often looks like an ongoing battle. It would be insincere of me to frame issues like this into a quick-fix narrative about our relationships and thought-life. That simple perspective shift helped unlock new moments in the screenwriting process and the film ended up opening with Ellie but closing with Nathan.

I found the way the film moves into dance very effective, especially as the movements feel totally connected to the conflict at the heart of the film. I’d love to know how you collaborated with your choreographer here.

I workshopped this extensively with our Choreographer and Movement Director Katherine Maxwell. From the beginning, we decided it was important to retain a level of ‘pedestrian’ movement in our narrative sequences. The film needed to stay grounded, despite its more experimental, dance-like sections. Our process started with me sharing my personal journey and the mess of emotions associated with it. Katherine did an incredible job of picking through my word vomit, identifying themes and through lines that could be anchor points for the dancing. In my head, the movement sequences had very little form – but together, we were able to distil a narrative structure in all three dances by identifying each character’s objectives and doubts. I often joke that our initial calls felt like therapy sessions for me! Not only was Katherine a patient listener, but she also guided our discussion and ideation to places that ended up being really healing.

We decided to swing for the fences – always erring on the side of trying something new and experimental.

On set, filming each dance sequence required a gauntlet of painstakingly-choreographed movement combined with a dynamic one-take. It essentially required three dancers operating at their best – our two Leads Joshua Lee and Julia D’Angelo and our DP Cece Chan. If a mistake was made, we had checkpoints for anyone involved to call the take off and restart. We ultimately ran the bedroom dance three times, and our actors nailed every single beat. It was a heart-in-my-mouth moment just watching from the monitor – and I wasn’t even the one performing! But the end result is ultimately a testament to the rigorous preparation and talent required of our actors to nail it when it mattered most.

The music also really helps to make these transitions work smoothly. Tell me about your collaboration with the composer.

I went through around eight iterations of the score with our Composer Caroline Ho. Given the film didn’t lend itself to traditional cues, we had to structure significantly longer stretches of unbroken music that could transition between sequences. We ended up experimenting with new textures, themes, and motifs – playing with everything from rising VHS static whenever Nathan’s thoughts start to swirl to heartbeat-like bass drum pulses and heavy breathing during the dances. Identifying a cohesive ‘sound’ and sonic language was the hardest part, especially as we tried to find the sweet spot between contemporary and classical arrangements. We eventually settled on the idea of strong cello solos, acting as anchor ‘choruses’ during the dance sequences. Ultimately, Caroline did an incredible job transforming what started as an unformed, ethereal sound into something grounded, consistent and emotionally stirring.

Widescreen works really well here, especially as it is a two-hander. You also manage to get us up and close with the actors, feeling as they feel. What kind of camera setup did you have, and did you know you always wanted to shoot on widescreen?

Our DP Cece Chan favoured a setup that was going to be flexible with movement. Every handheld sequence was shot with a shoulder rig that allowed Cece to be significantly more mobile than an Easyrig. We opted to push and pull during the extended dance sequences, toggling between close-ups of intimate moments and wide shots that better captured sweeping movements. The 2:1 aspect ratio also felt like a very natural compromise between the intimacy of 4:3 and the flexibility of having a wider frame for choreography. Lensed with Zeiss Super Speeds, we also enjoyed significant flexibility when it came to light. Our killer 1st AC Andrew Lin consistently nailed challenging marks at a fast pace, despite often shooting close to wide-open. It was truly a mammoth effort by the camera team that enabled us to move with such speed and variation on the day.

The lateral tracking shot as she’s running down the street is also particularly effective. Was it a difficult shot to set up?

It was actually a super DIY rig! The camera sat on a high hat, sandbagged in a minivan with the side door open. The hardest part was matching the car’s speed with Julia’s running pace. You can actually see the camera rig in the reflection of passing cars if you look closely enough!

It’s an imperfect, heart-on-my-sleeve attempt to show people that they’re not alone, even in their worst moments.

Was it a difficult shoot emotionally, considering the subject matter? What was the vibe like on set?

Definitely. Prior to shooting anything, we made an effort to gather the team to speak candidly about the subject matter and potential triggers. We also tried to make an effort to ensure our more intimate sequences didn’t involve unnecessary crew members in the room. But despite its relatively heavy subject matter, I think we really enjoyed the process, too.

There’s a moment towards the end of the film after Ellie gives Nathan her necklace and traces his face. They lean in, forehead to forehead – and I still cry every time. That moment, to me, represents unconditional love. The kind that would refuse to leave, even in the midst of chaos. It’s a tribute to the people who are the only ones who stay, and it’s a special moment to me because it reminds me that the only reason I’m here today is because there were loved ones who did that for me, too. Experiencing those moments on set made me realise that I didn’t care what anyone thought about the movie. I didn’t care if it was going to get into any festivals or if it was too experimental. The only thing that really mattered was how this film was transforming and healing my heart – even while making it.

Is there anything else you would like to share about the experience?

Candidly, this film forced me to confront a part of my life that I usually try to hide from others. Years ago, thoughts in my head were hell-bent on convincing me that I would only ever hurt and burden the people I love. Memories from that time have felt overwhelming and heartbreaking – often tainted by broken relationships and lost hope – but this film has become an act of resistance and healing for me. I wanted to reflect my journey through messy, complicated people, and the result is a piece that is part-worst nightmare and part-saving grace. It’s an imperfect, heart-on-my-sleeve attempt to show people that they’re not alone, even in their worst moments.

Simply put – when someone watches this film, I hope they can feel seen. During my own season of depression, I seemed to do everything to convince myself that I was alone. I was addicted to piling pity on myself, and it felt like I could never feel normal, again. In a way, this film stands to prove that it’s possible to smile again. It’s possible to look back and mourn what was lost while being grateful for what happened. It’s possible to transform something that was broken into something new.

I didn’t care if it was going to get into any festivals or if it was too experimental.

For years, this part of my life was filled with shame and fear. Yet through this film, I’ve consistently received a vision of overflow – of people emerging from the woodwork, being touched and feeling seen by work that came from a painful place of vulnerability. To those hurting and to those sharing their burden – please don’t give up. I’m not promising a fairy-tale ending or a five-step solution, but if this film teaches you anything, know that you’re not alone. Know that you’re not defined by rock bottom. In the words of my friend Lauren, “It is the will of a good God to make us better than we once were.” And even if it took years – making this film was proof for me.

Can you describe the specific ways you engaged with Trust in the making of this film?

Without Trust, Sorry You Have To See This would have very likely remained an unfunded and unfulfilled idea. I’m deeply grateful for the encouragement and wholehearted support from Trust to pursue something I firmly believed wasn’t possible to create. From development to distribution, our team has benefited from constructive feedback, licensing support, and even the wide online reach of their family of brands. But above all, it was their initial affirmation of my story that pushed me to write anything, in the first place. I’m greatly indebted to Sarah Brannan and the rest of the team for their confidence in the impact a crazy film like this could have – and it’s only because of champions like Trust that our stories can ever get told.

What are you working on next?

I’ve got a feature film set in Ethiopia that’s in development, and I’m currently writing a TV show with Universal. I’d also love to venture more into commercials, but I’m choosing to walk forward with an open mind. I don’t need to know the ‘five-year plan’ – unexpected projects like this have proved that all I really need is enough faith to step into tomorrow.

If you or someone you know is feeling depressed or suicidal, don’t remain silent. There is help available and you’re not alone. Talk to someone you can trust by calling your local suicide hotline.

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