Joe Wright, the director of the new film The Soloist, says mental illness is something that has scared him his whole life.
"I've always been terrified by the places our minds can go," Wright tells Robert Siegel. "When I was about 21, a friend of mine had a fairly severe psychotic breakdown, and it was both illuminating and terrifying."
Later, when Wright was working on his film Atonement, he experienced panic attacks and mild hallucinations that left him frightened that he was becoming schizophrenic: "I was very, very glad to hear that I was actually too old" to develop schizophrenia, he says.
But Wright faced his fears head-on when filming The Soloist. Based on a true story, the film chronicles the unlikely friendship between Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic homeless man who was once a student at Juilliard, and Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times reporter.
The Soloist stars Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., but also features a cast of people who are homeless and mentally ill in real life.
Wright says he decided to use homeless people rather than professional actors after the real-life Lopez took him on a tour of Los Angeles' Skid Row. During the tour, they visited a homeless shelter for people who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, and Wright says he decided "that perhaps I could make the film with their participation."
So the director went back to the studio and told executives that they had to figure out how to include about 500 Skid Row residents in the film.
Wright says working with the homeless challenged any preconceptions he might have had: "They look after each other and they care for each other in a way that I don't see people looking after each other in Beverly Hills," he says.
Although the extras helped Wright learn the basics of life on the streets, representing Ayers' hallucinations was a challenge — albeit one the director says he enjoyed.
"Isn't that what film is about — showing someone's point of view that you might not have experienced before?" he says.
Still, Wright was wary of attempting to identify any logic in Ayers' hallucinations — and he was especially careful not to make Ayers into a stereotypical "mad" genius.
"Although Nathaniel is incredibly talented, he's not a genius," Wright says. "He's someone who has a passion for music, and that's the point."