Creative Block’ tackles depression with puppets and heart

A young woman sits in front of a block of ice, a frown dragging down the corners of her mouth. As she wonders aloud what she should do with the ice, a bunch of balloons appear at her window. As she lets them in and ties them to the back of her chair, she’s overcome with a eureka moment. She eagerly grabs her sculpting tools, a smile spreads on her face—she has an idea.

This is how “Creative Block,” a short bilingual film written, produced and directed by filmmaker Nicola McEldowney, opens. “Creative Block,” with a tentative release date of September 1, follows Claire (played by McEldowney), a puppeteer who has fallen into a depression after losing her creativity. Her journey to regain her creativity takes her to Paris to find the one person she believes can undo her creative block: professional French figure skater Thibaut Baudet.

“It’s a film about having creativity, losing creativity, trying really helplessly to get that creativity back—and eventually, having to come to the realization that you’re the only one who can do that for yourself, as harrowing as it is,” McEldowney says.

After the opening scene, where we see Claire’s ah-ha moment, the film jumps back a few months. Claire sits at her table, surrounded by half-finished puppets. She’s forlorn and helpless; her balloons, which symbolize her creativity, deflate and dangle from the table.

“We don’t know why—we just know she loses her ability to continue working creatively,” McEldowney told ivoh. In one scene, Claire lays on the floor, surrounded by bags of half-eaten chips, staring blankly at her computer screen—an all too familiar scenario that many people who have grappled with depression can relate to.

“I wanted to tell a story about a creative person who suffers from depression because it is incredibly common in artistic and creative people,” McEldowney said. And common it is: a study led by researcher Simon Kyaga at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute found that people working in creative fields are more likely to suffer from mental disabilities like depression, ADHD and anxiety, and they are nearly 50 percent more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

“There have been artists who have been so depressed that they’ve killed themselves, absolutely convinced that they were nothing,” McEldowney says. “There’s a very sort of lite feeling of that in this movie.”

McEldowney sits at Claire’s work bench as cinematographer Tine DiLucia films. Photo by Elizabeth R. Mealey.

While “Creative Block” is a film about depression, McEldowney says that it’s an idea hidden within the main theme of searching for lost creativity. “I don’t know that it reads to the average viewer as a film about depression,” she says, adding that although she herself conceived of the film as something that tackles depression, the final cut focuses more on regaining creativity.

“I think it comes across as a portrait of somebody who’s highly creative and lost it, which, to me, is the most massively depressing thing that there is,” she says.  

The magical realism film, which runs at 15 minutes, was inspired by McEldowney’s own experiences with depression. “As a person in the arts who has suffered from depression for many the years,” she says, “I’ve always wished I could see a film about someone in the same situation, facing her demons but in a lighthearted way.”

Surreal and whimsical, “Creative Block” is definitely a lighthearted portrayal of the monotony of depression. Feelings are exaggerated almost comically as Claire drags her deflated balloons through New York City, and whenever her depression flares up, the scene fades to black and white, and dramatic classical music hammers home the feeling of helplessness.

Nicola McEldowney on set of Creative Block, holding the balloons that represent her creativity. Image courtesy of McEldowney. 

A freelance puppeteer based in New York City herself, McEldowney has been struggling with depression since she was 17. She spent years training for drama school, so when she didn’t get in, her depression took over, leaving her feeling hopeless and unexcited for the future.

“At that point, I felt like there was nothing left for me,” McEldowney, now 29, says. “Depression is evil, depression is not your friend, depression will take away what is at your center and make you question the most basic. That’s what really inspired the film.”

The film is also partly inspired by McEldowney’s own interest in a French figure skater, a man whom she had watched for years while dealing with her own depression and whose skating left her mesmerized and hopeful. While studying abroad in France during college, she eventually met and befriended this figure skater, and the two still remain friendly today.

Although the idea of “Creative Block” was first conceived in 2012, it wasn’t until early 2016 that McEldowney put the project in motion. After years of workshopping the script and becoming more comfortable in her own abilities to direct and produce short film, McEldowney and her production team began filming in November 2016. The film, which takes place in both Paris and New York City, was shot on location in each city.   

McEldowney financed the film through crowdfunding on Indiegogo, where, with 240 donations, she raised about $6,000. “We were very lucky,” she says, adding, “We got gifted most of our locations.”

Once the film is released, McEldowney plans to send it off to francophone film festivals in places like France, Montreal, Quebec City and New Orleans. She also plans to target women-oriented festivals as well—the film’s entire production team, save for one set photographer, was female. The film itself has subtle feminist themes as well—it portrays a woman with mental illness who helps herself rather than waiting to be saved.  

McEldowney hopes to reach as many people with “Creative Block” as possible. “Even children can identify with losing creativity,” she says. “But I think the people who are going to respond to it most are people who have suffered any kind of loss.”

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