Kurt Cobain’s death 24 years ago was a perfect fit for the age-old “troubled artist” motif, glorifying the conclusion to what was undoubtedly a painful life inflamed by mental illness. Back then, masses of teenagers took Cobain as an inspiration to adopt the “creative talent, tormented mind” attitude.
It’s this thin line between mental collapse and musical genius that forms the basis of filmmaker William Dickerson’s upcoming movie, No Alternative. The story follows Thomas Harrison, whose obsession with starting a band in the wake of Cobain’s death blinds him to his sister’s mental instability; it’s a fictionalized narrative of Dickerson’s own teenage years growing up in Yonkers in the 1990s.
No Alternative is set to see a worldwide release on all major digital platforms and cable on demand this April 2, so your chance to see Yonkers on the small screen is near. Acquired by Gravitas Ventures, the film is also currently available for pre-order on iTunes and for every pre-order, $1 will be donated to Emotions Matter, a group that specializes in helping people with Borderline Personality Disorder (the illness that took the life of Dickerson’s sister).
“No Alternative is deeply personal for me, loosely based on my late sister’s struggle with mental illness, but it’s also a story that I have no doubt will resonate with teenagers of yesterday, today and tomorrow,” says Dickerson. “I’m thrilled with how the film has been received thus far. I’m really looking forward to seeing it be released more widely, especially on a screen in Yonkers, my hometown where the majority of this movie takes place and was filmed!”
We caught up with Dickerson to discuss his time filming around Westchester in order to instill his coming-of-age film with the proper amount of nostalgia. You can read the full interview below, and make sure to scroll to the bottom to check out the official trailer for No Alternative!
So you’re from Westchester?
I grew up in Yonkers. Both my family and my wife’s family still live there and they have large roots, so we go back there a lot. This last movie I shot all locally.
And how does No Alternative tie into your childhood?
The story is based on a novel I wrote a few years ago, inspired by my sister who was mentally ill. She suffered from borderline personality disorder, and one of the ways she was able to cope was to form this persona that was totally unlike her. She became this gangster rapper and actually performed around town, called Bri Da B. I always thought it was such an unusual thing to do, and thought it would make a great character.
I had a grunge band in the early ’90s, Latterday Saints. When Kurt Cobain killed himself, there was this weird zeitgeist where everyone I knew bought a guitar. And everyone was playing in garage bands and wanted to be the next Nirvana. We thought we were going to be one of those bands.
Did you use any particular locations from your childhood for filming?
We shot in Colonial Heights, which is where I grew up. And we shot in my house and my friend Jay’s house where he grew up and where I hung out a lot.
We had a gig at CBGB’s and wanted to shoot there, but it doesn’t exist anymore. So we shot in the Garcia’s little section of The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester. It was really great, it actually has a layout similar to CBGB’s.
We also shot at the Boy Scout Cabin in Bronxville. We used to hang out there when we were kids. It was kind of awesome, we had a scene that took place underneath the Metro North bridge where the Bronx River is, it was really just beautiful. We also shot a number of scenes by The Riverside School. There is an amazing bridge between the school and the Hudson River.
Shooting at Garcia’s at the Cap in Port Chester
Was it weird practically reliving your childhood?
Well, it was a bit strange [Laughs]. It’s nostalgic, but also kind of bittersweet. A lot of people that worked on the film are my close friends that I grew up with. That period of my life really affected me, both as a human being and an artist. I feel like there’s a part of me that never left.
What was it like casting characters that are based off of childhood friends?
We lucked out. With the band, the people we cast just look and act very similar to the actual people.
It was very difficult to find the Bridget Harrison, aka Bri Da B character, because there are so many different extremes that she had to play in the film. She was mentally ill, but you don’t want to play mentally ill. She really had to believe that what she’s doing is real and artistic and it has to be kind of a stroke of genius. You have to be able to rap, too. And rapping is very hard.
As an independent director, how was the film funded?
I raised the money myself through crowd funding and also private investors. Ted Hope, the head of Amazon Studios, found out about it and he donated money and tweeted about it. It was great validation.
The campaign kind of struck a nerve. Ultimately, the movie I’m making, while entertainment, does address the de-stigmatization of mental illness. Entertainment in general kind of skirts around the issue a lot. It doesn’t necessarily portray it in an authentic light, so I wanted to make this as authentic as possible.
What do you hope to accomplish with No Alternative?
There’s such a stigma [on mental illness] that people don’t want to open up, so people repress their feelings and that leads to a lot of suicide attempts, it leads to drug addictions, it leads to terrible depression.
In my film, one of the characters commits suicide. Part of what I was getting at is because of an inability to talk, the depression builds inside where the person can’t take it any longer. We shouldn’t have to live in a society where that occurs.
Bri Da B copes with mental illness through rapping
Music is a large part of this story. How does music help people cope with mental illness?
It’s scientific fact that some music raises the serotonin levels in your brain. We’re attracted to music, it soothes us. And I think playing music is a way to channel emotion when it’s hard to articulate what’s wrong with you verbally.
I love making movies, it’s been my dream, but I’m also a musician. I always get the band back together whenever we go back to New York. In fact our music from back in the ’90s is featured in the film. We re-recorded it for the film.
Where can we watch No Alternative?
The self-imposed deadline we have right now is to be done early April for the whole movie.
We will probably take it to film festivals first. We feel like it has that edge and is the kind of material that would get us attention. Then ideally we’d like to do a day-and-date release, a simultaneous theatrical release and on demand release, which is what we did with my first film Detour through Warner Brothers.
Why should we check out the film?
We were all teenagers at one point in time. At a time where hormones are raging, everything seems like life and death. High school is like an adolescent battlefield. There is a very universal sense of teenage alienation and expectation. And we can all relate to that.