Pink Skies Ahead creator on showing reality of living with anxiety: 'Everyone can relate'

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Dealing with anxiety can feel like the most isolating and loneliest experience in the world, but writer and filmmaker Kelly Oxford hopes her movie Pink Skies Ahead can change that — even just for one person.

Based on her essay "No Real Danger" from her book When You Find Out the World Is Against You, the coming-of-age film is a fictionalized autobiographical account of her own struggles with mental health when she was a teenager. Set in Los Angeles in 1998, Pink Skies Ahead follows Winona (Jessica Barden, The End of the F***ing World) who, after dropping out of college and moving back home to live with her parents, is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Skeptical of her doctor's opinion — she hasn't had a panic attack, after all —Winona carries on with her wild lifestyle, and it's only when things begin to truly unravel around her does she reluctantly decide to see a therapist and face her truths.

Oxford, who wrote and directed the movie in her feature debut, says that everyone can relate to Winona's — and her own personal — story. "That's exactly what I set out to do with writing a film about somebody on their mental health journey, and especially with anxiety," she tells EW. "Everybody has anxiety, and everyone can relate, even if you don't have a mental condition."

Below, EW got Oxford to discuss showing the reality of living with anxiety, what she hopes people learn from Winona (and herself), and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Pink Skies Ahead is quite a personal project for you. Why did you want to bring this story to life onscreen?

KELLY OXFORD: It first started as an essay for my second book, and that was the first time that I publicly spoke about my anxiety disorder. And when the book came out, I hadn't thought about it at all really, it was more like writing it was the part that I thought was the big deal. I hadn't really thought about how it was going to affect people but so many people were coming up to me and just talking about that specific essay and what it meant to them. Fast forward to 2019, I'm trying to think about what I should write about, I was desperate to write a script and I emailed [previous collaborator] Seth Rogen and I was like, "What should I do, I don't know what to write about!" [Laughs] I really look up to him a lot. And he did the classic, you've got to write what you know! It was like a light bulb going off, that essay about my anxiety disorder was the one that people would come up to me and whisper to me, this really meant a lot to me. I just knew right then that that was going to be my next script.

What does Winona go through throughout the film?

Winona's main arc of feeling like something was always wrong with her but not knowing what it is, turning into physical ailments all the time, leading into a diagnosis, and then kind of rejecting that diagnosis, into getting the therapy and having some hope, that's all completely autobiographical. Winona is a very, very dynamic character and I really wanted to show the world that even with a mental disorder, you can come off pretty normal and you can be a leader or an instigator, whatever you choose. A lot of mental conditions in films portray people that aren't like that and I wanted to show somebody who could seem like a "normal" 20-year-old doing "normal" 20-year-old things, when it's really all just a bunch of masks that she's putting on to cover her anxiety. This journey with her is really exploring what you go through once you get diagnosed, and the escapism and the self-medicating, and the self-harm through sex where you use it as an escape mechanism but it isn't great for you at the same time. There were a lot of things that I wanted to put into Winona's character that I hadn't seen in the film before, but was really real for me and a lot of the people that I've met and a lot of my friends and some family, that was really important to me.

Since you were portraying such a personal and at times painful story, did you face any challenges throughout filming?

There were a lot of scenes that were really emotional for me to see when they were being filmed because it's what I went through but it felt like such a success to see this movie get made. When I wrote it, it was more cathartic than actually shooting it, going through her story and making sure that I was revealing all that was true, but shooting it definitely was satisfying in a different way.

The conversations around mental health have changed so much since the late '90s, so what did you want to accomplish with showing how the topic was treated and thought about back then?

Most people are diagnosed with a mental condition between the ages of 18 and 25, and I wanted to set the movie, not only because it was the time that I went through it, but in a time where these kids today can be like, this was happening the year I was born or around the time I was born. For some reason, I kept thinking about Stand By Me when it came out and how it was set in the past and it felt like there was a rich history to their story even though it wasn't filmed in the '50s or the '60s. And I thought that would really lend itself to this movie for young people today who are being diagnosed to see that this has been an issue for a long time even though now it's becoming a little less de-stigmatized and we do talk about mental health so much more than we used to. For them to see that this has been going on for a long time had value. And also, she couldn't just go online and Google it, she couldn't just go home after she found out she had an anxiety disorder and go home and Google whatever that is, and kids today do have that opportunity.

What do you hope people take away from seeing Winona's journey in this movie, especially considering how Gen Z treats mental health so differently than Gen X and millennials?

I really want them to feel okay with talking about their feelings, whether they're feelings of shame or anxiety or sometimes dissociativeness comes along with a diagnosis and to not keep that inside of you and to really share it with people you trust to not feel like you're going to be a burden. Everybody wants to help each other out. That's why we love and support and befriend each other. I hope people learn to talk about it and to seek help rather than to self-medicate with sex or pot or alcohol to get through it. All of those things, they work for a little while but they all end up being a problem if those are your only coping skills. I really wanted to put out the message that therapy is great, talking to your family is great, it alleviates a lot of the anxiety you're feeling when you do talk about these things. I really hope that the takeaway is that adults and kids and anybody that's feeling this way, feel a little less shame about their feelings and feel like others are actually there to support them through this as they would support them through anything else.

This was supposed to premiere at the canceled 2020 SXSW festival, so how does it feel to finally have it come out now?

It wasn't planned for now, it just ended up being now which is interesting. It's a wonderful thing that it's coming out right now when everybody has been stressed for over a year and maybe gone through a lot of the things that Winona is going through whether it's self-medicating through cannabis throughout this year or even when she spirals and is yelling at her parents, I feel like a lot of that has happened this year to a lot of people. Showing that she has hope and that she's okay is going to be good for other people to see that they aren't the only ones going through this, because it can be so isolating to go through emotional upheaval that I think a lot of people went through this year. It's a small story but I think and hope it is a bigger inspiration for people to take a second look at what they're going through as maybe something they can make positive rather than resting in the space where they don't feel so good. I hope people can gain some compassion for others if they don't experience this themselves, and compassion for themselves if they do experience this themselves.

Pink Skies Ahead premieres commercial-free Saturday, May 8 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on MTV with a simulcast on Pop TV.

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