When Troian Bellisario decided to write and produce a feature length film, she didn’t go for your typical, slightly sardonic, trendy “boy meets girl with a side of hipster soundtrack” route.
No, as she wrote about in our summer issue of Darling, Troian reached down deep into the origins and wars of her own past fighting an eating disorder and decided to put it all out on the table. After watching the gripping, moving and, in many ways, hopeful film FEED, we sat down with Troian to ask her a few questions and mostly, just to listen.
Teresa Miller Archer: So tell us about creating, writing and then producing the film. What was the impetus for you telling this story, and what did you hope to accomplish?
Troian Bellisario: I wanted to communicate something that I didn’t feel like was being spoken about. I felt that there were a lot of people in my life, in my immediate family, and my friends and in my relationships that they still didn’t understand what it was like [having an eating disorder]. Like my brothers that I adore just being like, “I don’t know, just like eat the sandwich. Yay, you did it!” And I was like, “Stop cheering me!” So I thought, “How can I get them to understand what it’s like and what I’m struggling with?”
I suddenly was struck one day by the thought that I had a way that I might be able to convey this, through the personification of my disease in film. There is a voice that is speaking to you that is incredibly powerful and that you also have a very complicated relationship with. You can be in love with it, it can save your life, it can make things way easier for you, it can protect you from so much … the only problem is that it’s inevitably also going to destroy you. And that is [the] complicated relationship that I wanted to convey through the film.
I also knew that I wasn’t going to be able to convey it accurately if I only relied on the details of my own story, because so many people develop eating disorders from so many different races, genders, experiences and so I thought if I just really regurgitate the details of my struggle, what is that going do?
Really, I wanted to create an entirely different narrative and that’s why there’s the whole relationship between Olivia and Matt [the title characters of FEED] and the grief that she goes through of losing him, that I didn’t experience at all in my life, but that could trigger somebody into an eating disorder.
TMA: What prompted you to get into this side of film-making?
TB: There were so many reasons. I was so grateful for seven years on “Pretty Little Liars,” but I also know that it’s a very real possibility that I could walk off that show and then people could be like, “Okay cool, so she’s Spencer Hastings.”
I felt it was really important for me to also put out a totally different side of my own experience and my intentions as an artist. Also, honestly, I felt an obligation to my fans [from the show] because there’s a lot of striving to be perfect that I think is wrapped up in television shows for youth. You know, it’s like you watch it and you’re like, “Oh my god, she’s so perfect,” and it’s like, “No, I’ve had two hours of hair and makeup and my clothes are all tacked to fit my body just right, and I can’t say a line without someone being like “wait wait wait! – okay.”
[It’s easy to] get this false representation [from that] and so many young men and women are like, “Ugh, why can’t I look like that, move like that, be like that.” It’s just not accurate, and so I really wanted to create a different narrative about what, I think, perfection can drive people to do in certain situations and also just about accepting people for their struggles and being honest and open.
… honestly, I felt an obligation to my fans [from the show] because there’s a lot of striving to be perfect that I think is wrapped up in television shows for youth.
TMA: I noted at the beginning you chose to write a scene where a priest speaks to high school students and says this line, “Without death there is no context.” Was that a very deliberate kind of pre-theme that you were putting out there?
TB: Yeah, when you’re in high school you feel invincible, so you experiment with drugs, drinking, you know, dangerous activities, and you don’t fear death because a lot of people don’t have that context.
Setting up Olivia’s story I really wanted to put it out to the young viewership watching that dealing with an eating disorder is actually a life and death battle. It’s the mental illness with the highest mortality rates. Without treatment, 20% of people die, and I wanted young men and women to take it seriously. To say, “It’s not just about you always wanting to lose those five pounds, like you’re trying a new diet. It’s about so much more and I think that that’s sometimes a time in our life when we really don’t consider death and I wanted to set that up from the very beginning as this is a fight for her life.
TMA: Right. And what you did in relating eating disorders with mental illness; in this film, it was almost like you linked it with schizophrenia.
TB: It’s really interesting. Schizophrenia is something that I think we are beginning to understand, but had just started to be diagnosed in the 70s. We are newly defining ways to explore these themes.
I think that there will be a lot of people who see FEED and will just think it’s a story about grief. There will be a lot of people who see it and think it’s a story about a supernatural haunting, and that’s fine with me. But for those people who it resonates with that are like, “I feel that way.” Or suddenly they can have a conversation with their parents or their friends and it helps them get to that next level of understanding about themselves and about the illness, that’s all I want.
TMA: In your Darling article you opened by discussing how you are a Cantadora: a story teller. Now that you’ve told this one, what stories do you want to tell next?
TB: Oh my gosh, a lot of different stories. I think I’m waiting for my next film idea. I’ve got a couple of ones that I’ve been sort of toying with. My dear friend who also does my makeup, Rebecca, turned me on to this incredible book called “The Women in the Polar Night” that’s about one of the first women to spend a year in the Arctic Circle. It’s this gorgeous tone poem about solitude and the relationship between her and her husband and it’s woman and nature.
I think that would be wonderful, you know, to tell that story. I think I’m just really excited to see what’s next.
FEED premieres today, July 18th, on VOD and digital platforms.
Images via FEED Film