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'Infinitely Polar Bear': Mark Ruffalo plays a dad struggling with being bipolar

Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo star in Maya Forbes' 'Infinitely Polar Bear'
Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo star in Maya Forbes' 'Infinitely Polar Bear'
Seacia Pavao
Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo star in Maya Forbes' 'Infinitely Polar Bear'
Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana star in "Infinitely Polar Bear"
Claire Folger
Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo star in Maya Forbes' 'Infinitely Polar Bear'
The family in Maya Forbes' new film "Infinitely Polar Bear."
Claire Folger
Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo star in Maya Forbes' 'Infinitely Polar Bear'
The family in Maya Forbes' new film "Infinitely Polar Bear"
Claire Folger
Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo star in Maya Forbes' 'Infinitely Polar Bear'
Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana in "Infinitely Polar Bear"
Sony Pictures Classics
Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo star in Maya Forbes' 'Infinitely Polar Bear'
Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Ashley Aufderheide, and Imogene Wolodarsky star in Maya Forbes' film "Infinitely Polar Bear."
Claire Folger

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The new movie "Infinitely Polar Bear" is based on the true story of writer/director Maya Forbes's family. It brings to life a particular period in Forbes's childhood when her bipolar father (Mark Ruffalo) finds himself raising Maya and her sister in Boston, while their mother (Zoe Saldana) goes to graduate school in New York in the hopes of improving the family's perilous finances. 

It wasn't an easy movie to get made, and Forbes repeatedly lost her financing. But her two lead actors never abandoned the project over five years of false starts.

In addition to Ruffalo and Saldana, the movie stars Ashley Aufderheide (as Maya's sister China) and Forbes's own daughter, Imogene Wolodarsky. She portrays a younger version of Forbes in the film.

Maya Forbes met with the Frame's John Horn to discuss the film, her inspiration and her own experience growing up with her father.

Interview highlights

Where did you get the idea for the title, "Infinitely Polar Bear"?

In the film it's a younger daughter's misunderstanding of the term "bipolar," which is what her father is. In truth, the term was given to me by my father. My father was having a manic episode and we had to take him to the hospital. He was in an agreeable manic state and he was filling out his intake form. It asked, "What is your diagnosis? Have you been diagnosed manic depressive or schizophrenic?" He wrote "other." He wrote "infinitely polar bear."

Tell us about your relationship with your father. You obviously grew up under his care. He obviously was suffering from bipolar disorder. You live that life. It obviously affects who you are as person. How does it affect you as a storyteller, and at what point did you want to revisit this episode in the history of your life?

Well it was really when my daughters turned 7 and 5. When they turned the age that I had been when my father had his big manic breakdown, I was sort of catapulted back into memories of the past. My father had died in 1998, and I started telling my daughters bedtime stories. My father was a great storyteller. I started telling my daughters bedtime stories about my father, and then also stories that he had told me when I was a little girl.

I started to reflect on how much I had really learned from those times — really the lessons and some of the gifts I'd gotten. He was a great storyteller, he was a great singer, and he took us to the movies all the time. I wanted to tell the stories of the memories that are painful, but also the memories that make you who you are. 

When you're writing this movie and thinking about how you are going to tell the story — even if you're fictionalizing in certain parts of it, does it change the way that you yourself remember this story? Do you see your father in a new light having written this film?

The really funny thing I saw as I was directing Mark Ruffalo in this role, who plays my father, is how theatrical my father was. I would say, "Mark, do it like this," and I would realize — dad was doing that because that is what [Jean-Paul] Belmondo did, or dad was doing that because that is what [Jack] Nicholson did. I mean, he loved films and he had a real theatrical quality to him. I didn't really see that as a kid. I thought he was just fun and funny. As I watched the film I realized just how much he was taking from his movie star heroes.

A father suffering from bipolar disorder raises his children in the absence of their mother in Maya Forbes' new film. (Claire Folger/Sony Pictures Classics)

Can you talk about how you cast the parts of your mother and your father? What sort of reference did you give them in terms of home movies or memories? How did you have to leave them so that they could create their own performances and not do an imitation?

Well with both Mark and Zoe — Zoe Saldana plays my mother, or I should say the mother — it gets confusing. I gave them a lot of materials. In terms of with Zoe, my mother is still alive. So Zoe got to meet my mother and talk to my mother. I told her a lot of stories and I showed her a lot of photographs.

Then with Mark, I gave him a Super 8 film my father had shot when he was manic of himself, which is what a manic person does because they are so self-focused. I mean, when you are really in the height of mania, you're like God. So my father made this incredible Super 8 film of himself. That was helpful. Then when we got to the set and we were actually about to shoot, I sort of said, "Let all that go."

Were there any scenes when shooting this movie and revisiting his illness that were particularly difficult for you to shoot?

There is a scene in the mental hospital where he is very sedated. That was always the hardest thing for me to see. I mean, it was really painful for me when my father was sedated like that.

How old were you at the time?

The first time I saw that, I was probably 6. That was a hard scene. It was really visceral — the room we were in and the way Mark played it — it just made my heart break. It's very hard when people have to be deadened like that. 

As you're thinking about telling this story, are there certain things you have to fictionalize because if you presented them as they actually happened audiences wouldn't believe them?

One of the interesting things for me and the writing of this film, was that it seemed so crazy to say, "My mother went away to business school and left us in the care of my manic-depressive father." That seemed crazy. I went around in my Hollywood brain — because I've written for Hollywood studio movies for so long — "How do I make this make sense to an audience?"

I mean, are the parents divorced? Did the mother run off with somebody? Did the mother die? I mean, no problem. That is why they're with their dad, the mother is dead. I just thought, "I'm going to tell the really messy true story." I embraced all of that.

Also, my mother is African-American. I don't look African-American. I look white. My mother says I am "unidentifiably black." That is the new term for me. But just all the crazy things I couldn't explain in my life — my father is from this wealthy family and we were quite poor, we weren't getting any money from them. I just decided to take things that were hard to explain and put them in this movie.

It's really also hard to tell a story about a marriage, the struggles that any married couple experiences, the struggles that any married couple experiences when the mother wants to have a career and the struggles that any married couple experiences when one of the partners in the marriage is not well.

Yes. I always thought of it as a love story, I mean, with love being a painful and hard thing — half the time. My parents really loved each other, but it's very hard to love someone when they can't get it together. It's hard to keep coming back and hoping hoping hoping that they're going to figure out how to stay stable. How to maintain any sort of order in their life.

That was the thing with my father. He could create some order, but he could never sustain it. It's very hard to say, "I have to walk away from this. I can't keep expecting that you're going to be able to be the kind of husband that I want you to be, but I still love you."

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014. It's just now coming out. What has that wait been like for you? 

It's been strange, because everything at Sundance felt like, "It's all about to start. My life is about to begin!" Now I've been waiting and waiting and waiting. But I'm happy. Really, we were waiting for Mark, because he is so busy and he wants to promote the film, and I want him to promote the film — he is wonderful in the film. So it was nice knowing that it was going to come out sometime in the distance. That was very comforting. But it was a little strange. Everyone kept saying, "Did your movie come out?"

Mark Ruffalo stars in Maya Forbes' new film "Infinitely Polar Bear."

In the interim, Mark Ruffalo was going on to amazing things. I mean, he has "Foxcatcher," he has the whole "Avengers." Do you think that helps your film in some way?

I think it does. I think Mark is recognized as one of our greatest actors. He is also, with "The Avengers" and everything, just a big star. Everyone knows who he is. So, I don't think it hurts.

The movies have been enamored with depicting people who are suffering from some sort of mental illness. I mean, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "A Beautiful Mind," but there are certain kinds of depictions that Hollywood tends to favor.

They're not depictions that we see in this film, which is that people — generally, not always — with mental illness, are dangerous, or they're to be shunned. This is a very loving portrait of a man who is suffering from an illness. Is part of your movie made even subconsciously in reaction to how people with mental illness have been shown in Hollywood?

Yes, I really wanted to humanize someone with a mental illness. Mental illness is not about this one person — it is about families. Mental illness affects families. We all, I think most people, have somebody that they love — whether it's a parent, child or a sibling — who is struggling either with mental illness or an addiction, and it really affects everybody.

So I wanted to show that it's not all of who they are. They're loved, and they're a part of our lives. So yes, I really wanted to tell the story of a family and what it is to have somebody who you love that is suffering from this.

"Infinitely Polar Bear" opens in select cities Friday, June 19. 

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