ANIMAL INSTINCTS Is A Funny Movie With A Serious Message: It Helps To Get Help For Your Problems

ANIMAL INSTINCTS co-stars A.J. Leitell (seated left) as therapist Dr. Theodore Crumpkin, here administering his counsel to a patient who’s normally associated with doom and gloom: Death (seated right), played by Kimberly Judson.

When troubled by depression, anxiety or any mental health disorder, it truly helps to get help for those problems by going to therapy. Unfortunately, many people who suffer from mental illnesses are reluctant to talk to professional therapists about their issues.

Why? They may fear being looked at as “weak” or “crazy” by anyone who’s not dealing with emotional agony. They may be discouraged by seeing negative media depictions of therapy, when in fact it’s a normal and necessary action that millions of people take to improve their well-being.

Laughter is another important action that can help people cope with life’s peaks and valleys, and Baton Rouge filmmaker Kimberly Coburn’s upcoming feature comedy Animal Instincts uses the power of laughter to crush the stigma associated with one-on-one psychiatric treatment.

Written, produced and directed by Coburn, Animal Instincts is presently running a fundraising campaign via Seed & Spark. Details on that campaign follow, and a link to the film’s campaign page is listed at the end of this interview. The trailer for Animal Instincts is also embedded towards the conclusion of this piece.

Animal Instincts stars A.J. Leitell as psychiatrist Theodore Crumpkin, who provides caring counsel to his most frequent clients: fairy tale characters. The film is comprised of three episodes from Coburn’s web series, Therapy Sessions: “Animal Instincts”, “Grief Counseling” and “Merking”.

In the vignette “Animal Instincts”, Crumpkin’s advice is sought by a slovenly werewolf, Winston (John Dardenne) and his spouse, the Indian Moon Goddess (Aliena Remborn). They turn to Crumpkin to help them to save their marriage, and to help them figure out how to spend their time when the next Full Moon shines.

Another notable patient is Death (Kimberly Judson), who appears in the segment “Grief Counseling”. Death is also the first person Dr. Crumpkin has ever treated. With Crumpkin’s guidance, Death has started to find the happiness and satisfaction that she’s longed for after dealing with continued depression. Can she stay upbeat despite her perpetually gloomy vibe?

Coburn co-stars as Wood Nymph Lady Morningwood in one of ANIMAL INSTINCTS’ three therapy vignettes, “Merking”.

“Merking”, which also co-stars Coburn as Lady Morningwood (the Wood Nymph), sees Dr. Crumpkin attempt to conduct a group therapy session with several funny storybook personalities, until the session is disrupted by three beautiful mermaids who work their wicked magic to make some of the good doctor’s patients vanish! (This section of Animal Instincts was originally made for last year’s New Orleans 48 Hour Film Project.)

Off hours, Crumpkin vents about the frustrating parts of his job to his drinking pals (played by Chuck Bush and Jeff D) and their bartender (Johnny Rock). Each of them are willing to listen to Crumpkin’s complaints, but they don’t necessarily take those gripes — or Crumpkin — seriously.

Though Crumpkin’s patients aren’t the type of people you’d see in a therapist’s office, their personal problems are the same as those faced by average individuals in real life. Like real people, the fantasy characters of Animal Instincts seek psychiatric help when they need a friendly ear to listen to their concerns. So has Coburn, who found therapy to be a vital element of her recovery from depression.

Structuring the therapy scenes in an authentic way was critical for Coburn during the production of the movie. In sharing Animal Instincts with audiences, Coburn hopes that this comedic yet genuine presentation of psychiatric therapy can convince those dogged by mental health problems to find a Dr. Crumpkin of their own.

If the film’s Seed and Spark campaign is successful, when and where will people be able to see the film?

Kimberly Coburn (writer/director/producer, Animal Instincts): All of my videos are available on Vimeo. I will have the movie up on Vimeo on Demand, and I’m also trying to work out a deal to get it put on Amazon Prime.

L-R: ANIMAL INSTINCTS co-stars John Dardenne (as the slovenly yet loving werewolf Winston in the film’s eponymously titled vignette) and Leonard Augustus as one of Winston’s loyal wolf pack friends. Photo courtesy Michelle deMontluzin.

How can donors to the campaign benefit from contributing to it, and how do you plan on using the funds to pay for everything you need to make the film?

Coburn: The message of my movie is that I’m trying to change the conversation about mental health in America, specifically. I feel like we’ve gotten to a crisis. Our donors can participate in forwarding that message to everyone. I’m trying to show the public, and the average person who has never been to therapy, what it might look like to go to therapy. The people who have been contributing to my campaign have been supporting that message.

What I’m trying to do is offer them different opportunities to contribute. I have a wish list. You can buy food, or you can help me pay for the actors, or you can loan us equipment. You can help us pay for the costumes or the props. You can pay for editing. Then, I also have incentives for smaller donors, or for somebody who’s not quite sure what they want to contribute. They can just contribute to the general fund.

Those incentives allow them to have a shout-out. I can make pretend affirmations for them. I can put their picture in to (make it look) like they’re having a session of therapy with our lead actor, A.J. Leitell, who plays Theodore Crumpkin.

They get to participate in a lot of different ways. (They’re) not just helping the project move forward, but (they’re) also (helping) to talk about changing the conversation about mental health and also getting the word out.

All of these people are coming together to make this really fun, high-energy movie that features a werewolf and his wife fighting over what to do on the night of the full moon. They love each other very much, but they’ve gone to see Theodore Crumpkin to get counseling. They’re trying to figure out how to make their marriage better, how to rekindle their love for one another, and how to solve this problem of what to do on the night of the full moon.

(Co-stars Chuck Bush, Johnny Rock and Jeff D) are going to help us do the frame story that puts all three of our therapy sessions movies together to create the big feature film, which is going to be Animal Instincts.

Aliena Remborn plays the Indian Moon Goddess wife of werewolf Winston (John Dardenne) in ANIMAL INSTINCTS. Photo courtesy Michelle deMontluzin.

What (and/or who) inspired you to make this film?

Coburn: I was diagnosed with manic depression (they call it bipolar disorder now) when I was in my early ’20s. I attempted suicide eight times, and I was in and out of mental hospitals for most of my ’20s and some of my ’30s. I was very sick, sad and confused.

I would not have lived through any of this if it weren’t for (me) reaching out and getting help. Back then, there was no real medicine that dealt with depression and suicide. What they were offering was Prozac, and one of its side effects was suicide ideation.

My personal experiences caused me to want to make movies about therapy. My personal experiences wanted me to show the world that it’s not as frightening or as horrible as the world makes it out to be.

If you’re born with some problems with mental health, if you’re born with depression, if you’re anxious, or if you have a problem with eating or anything like that, there’s this stigma (that’s) like “Oh! There’s something horribly, horribly wrong with you!”

Whereas if you have diabetes, that stigma isn’t attached to it. Well, I can’t help the way I was born. These were things that I had running through me in my blood and in my system, and I didn’t know how to deal with them. Personally, I had to get help.

I had to go through years and years and years of therapy to get to the place where I could function as a normal human being in society and not act out or try to hurt myself. I’m not even having to be hospitalized anymore.

I think that people are afraid to go out and get therapy, and this is me using humor to make it less scary. I put imaginary characters in a therapy session and show them what a therapy session might look like for them. If you’re depressed, you might go to see a therapist and he might ask you the same questions that Theodore asks Death when Death was depressed (in “Grief Counseling”).

She might find that she’s got a support group of very, very anxious people, and this is how the therapist will treat that support group. Like we had in “Merking”, we had a support group of anxious imaginary characters trying to work through their anxiety.

Then in this next one, “Animal Instincts”, we have a couple who love each other very much but they don’t know how to communicate with each other anymore. That doesn’t mean, “throw the marriage away.” It means, “how can we learn to talk to each other, and how can we learn to deal with compromises?”

I’m trying to show America, and the world in general, what it looks like if they’ve never been in therapy before. What are the questions that might be asked? What would you be asked to do? For example, things like affirmations or journaling or talking out your problems or learning about feelings.

ANIMAL INSTINCTS writer/producer/director/actor Kimberly Coburn.

The reason I am making this into a feature film is because I started with “Grief Counseling,” and then I did “Merking”, and now I’m doing “Animal Instincts”, and I am not getting a lot of traffic for my Vimeo site. I thought, well, if I make it into a feature film and I put it out there on Amazon and celebrate it to the world at large, it will bring the message to more people and get more people involved.

Through my crowd funders, I’m getting more people involved. More people are asking questions. “What’s all of this about? What’s going on?” This is what led me to you here today. I think that I’m already seeing some benefit from making it into a feature film.

In what ways have your real life experiences with therapy influenced and inspired the story and characters found in Animal Instincts? Did any of the cast and crew’s experience inspire those parts of the film?

Coburn: My personal experience is huge in this, because I wrote the scripts for “Grief Counseling” and “Animal Instincts”. My friend, Bryan Blasingame, wrote the script for “Merking”. What this was inspired by is mostly my experiences in counseling, but also my co-writer Laci Talley. When I met her 17 years ago, her brother had killed himself. She was volunteering on the Suicide Crisis Hotline in Baton Rouge.

She helped me many times to learn how to change the tapes in my head that said “I was a failure”. She helped me learn how to find that there are other options than suicide. She helped me change the voice of my conscience. She was a huge influence in my life in learning how to deal with the suicide while the medicine caught up with me.

Now, I take this great medicine that really helps. My motto is “better living through medication”. I have a really great medicine and I can lead a normal life, but at that time the medicine wasn’t as helpful, so I had to change the messages in my head.

We also met a friend of mine that was a huge influence for me. His name is David Earle. He’s a practicing therapist in Baton Rouge. I knew him back in my ’20s when I first started to be diagnosed and I was first acting out. He helped me so much at that time in my life, and later he became a huge influence in Lacy’s life. She was editing some therapy books that he was writing. He has a series of books that he writes.

One of the things that we did with A.J.’s character of Theodore was that we sort of used David Earle as a loose figure to base Theodore upon. A lot of the messages that he writes in his therapy books are messages that we put in our film, and David and I have been really good friends for years.

I think that some of the things that I learned from David when he was a huge influence on me are the same messages that I put in my movie. Even though he’s not part of my cast and crew, he’s a huge part of my life. When we talk about feelings, that’s something I learned from David Earle. When we talk about journaling, that’s something I learned from David Earle.

When Lacy helped me write the script, we sort of took what David Earle was saying in his therapy books and we put it in a position of humor. We created a story for these characters. Theodore Crumpkin is based so much on David Earle and what I learned from him when I was so much younger. It was so vital to me, and what Lacy learned from working as a volunteer on the Suicide Crisis Hotline.

What was the production process like for the film?

Coburn: It’s a learning experience. The production process for this film is so different from others, because all of my eleven films that I’ve made prior to this were done on zero budget. It’s just a group of friends. We’d throw together a script, we’d get together on the weekend, and we’d make a movie. This is my first attempt at making a feature film with a budget. It’s a completely different process.

I have to raise the money, I have to hire real actors, I have to think about who are these people and what can I give them? What can they give to me? Now, I’m suddenly a boss of 24 people. I have to make sure I can communicate with them and offer them compassion and patience as I learn what they need and what I need.

It’s a growing experience for me, and it’s a learning process. Then there’s this huge celebration that goes with that. I’ve claimed this next step in my life. I’m not just this zero budget team leader. I’m a movie producer with a budget. I have responsibilities to my cast and crew, my contributors, my supporters, and the community at large, to make a quality film that will deliver the message that I’m trying to deliver.

Discuss the ways that you’ve provided opportunities for Louisiana-based actors and filmmakers, plus talent from diverse backgrounds, to succeed in the film industry through working on Animal Instincts.

Coburn: Diversity is a huge thing for me. I’m a non-traditional filmmaker. I’m a 53-year-old woman with a very serious mental condition. I’m not your traditional movie producer. I’m not the kind of person where people would go, “that’s the person I really want to do business with”, but I have found that I bring a lot to the table with my unique set of circumstances and my unique set of “bad-assery”! I have really overcome so much, I have really learned to deal with so much, and I have learned to be the most resilient person in the world.

In that, I celebrate diversity in my cast and crew. LGBTQ (filmmakers) are a huge part of my crew. I celebrate different races and ages. My very first editor was on the autism spectrum, and since then I always try to work with at least one person on the spectrum in every one of my films.

(Animal Instincts co-star) Susie Labry, who I think of as sort of a lobbyist for the film industry in Louisiana, is also my very good friend. She makes no secret about (her) being on the autism spectrum. She always talks about how hard it is for actors and crew on the spectrum to get jobs in the movie industry. I find that I am drawn to their genius and to their unique set of skills.

So, I will always have someone on my crew that I can help get a job. They also help me learn about compassion and kindness and patience. That’s my job as a boss, and it’s also my job as a friend. It’s, “how can I help you understand this world that you’re living in?” That’s the message, isn’t it? We all need to just be able to communicate with one another, and if we can’t, we need to figure out how to get help so that we can.

My compassion for people who are not the traditional filmmaker is huge, (as is) my understanding of the fact that there are so many under-served people out there in this time that the world is saying, “enough with just the old white men running the film industry. We want people from all areas of the world, with so much diversity, to come in and make films and tell their stories.” That’s what I am trying to do here.

I also employ local actors and crew as much as possible. All of my eleven movies that I’ve made so far were locally made, with local cast and crew. Going forward, I am going to try to do that as much as possible. There are going to be times that I’ll have to reach out and find other actors who can bring more to this story, but I’m a local girl in Baton Rouge and I’m trying to keep the movie industry thriving in Louisiana.

In that respect, I want to fill as many positions as possible with local actors and crew. (All actors for Animal Instincts were cast locally, except for Dardenne, who is based in Los Angeles).

I try to look for local talent. I started out as a background actor. I’ve been in too many films in which there are all these great jobs that we’ve created in Louisiana in the film industry, and yet they’re bringing everyone from California to fill those jobs. That’s not fair.

There’s a lot of great people here in Louisiana that know so much about the industry, and we need to give that back to Louisiana. We’ve invested in ourselves, and we need to continue to believe in ourselves.

L-R: Co-stars of the ANIMAL INSTINCTS vignette “Merking” Rebecca Collins, Melody Beech and Caitlyn Moniz. Photo courtesy Gene Franques.

What impact has making Animal Instincts had on you — both professionally and personally?

Coburn: Professionally, it’s stretching me. It’s causing me to grow. It’s putting me in unique challenges and circumstances in which I have to reach out to people and get out of my comfort zone. I’m just in this huge growth position right now where I’m reaching out and accepting the next huge thing in my life.

Personally, I’ve learned so much about how I can help and teach the people who are coming up behind me. I tell a lot of my crew members when they come on, “if you want to learn how to operate a camera, ask. We’ll put you on a camera and teach you what we know. If you want to have a position where you’re a makeup artist, but you want to try speaking on film, I’ll give you a shot.”

I’ll try to help my team members in as many ways possible to grow themselves. I think it will only benefit me in the long run if I help them. I’m not about pushing down the little guys or stepping on their heads as I move up the ladder. I’m about bringing them up with me. If you’ve never worked on a professional production, and if you want to try this particular position in the crew or even in the cast, I’m willing to give you a shot at that because someone had done that for me.

Shannon Kitchens-Stonicher, who is a filmmaker in Louisiana, took a chance on me and gave me my first speaking role. That was huge for me. I got to watch what a homegrown production looked like. She is this amazing filmmaker that just knew what she was doing, and she knew what she wanted. She was capturing what she wanted on film. She was getting us all to do all of the things. She gave me a shot, and that was huge. That’s what I try to do in my role as a producer and director. I try to help other people grow.

The official trailer for ANIMAL INSTINCTS.

What do you hope people take away from seeing Animal Instincts?

Coburn: This is the most important message that I want to say over and over again: it shouldn’t be scary to go to therapy. It shouldn’t be frightening to say that you have mental health issues, or that you were born with depression or anxiety or eating disorders or whatever. There should be no stigma with that because it’s not something that you can control. You should be able to reach out and ask for help. You should know what it looks like to go to therapy.

As I continue to make this series, I’ve got like eight more ideas in the works. I want to show people what it’s going to look like. You’re going to be asked to write in a journal about your feelings. You’re going to be asked to talk about your feelings. You’re going to be asked to talk about your experiences. (I want to show) what it’s like to have a breakthrough, to realize, “I can live with this.” I can celebrate who I am, and how resilient, strong and amazing I am.

I want to show people through my experiences, through humor, and through the roles I’ve given my actors, that it doesn’t have to be a horrible thing. Ask Johnny Rock (co-star in Animal Instincts). I’ve known him since I came into the movie industry (in Louisiana). He’s always hosting parties for the movie industry. He came out around the same time of the #MeToo movement, and he was talking about (how) he was abused as a child. He came forward and shared his experience with the world.

As a part of that, I reached out to him because I felt like he has a lot to say about the mental health industry, about seeking therapy and getting help. He’s a rock star! It’s amazing! He’s this man who has come from so much sadness and fear and trauma, but he’s overcoming it. Not only is he overcoming it, he’s celebrating who he is to the world. He’s saying, “I survived this”, and he’s helping other people survive it.

Anybody who’s been traumatized needs to go out and reach out to a therapist and get help. That’s the message that I’m trying to bring. We need to change the conversation. It shouldn’t be scary for people to reach out and get help. Things like that are constantly the most important message with Animal Instincts.

It isn’t just about being entertained, though that’s part of it because that’s what movies are about. Also, there’s such a message there. This is what therapy looks like, and this is how it can be beneficial to you. You don’t have to go and grab a gun and shoot up a school. You can actually go and talk to someone about your frustration or your fear or about feeling left out, or whatever. You can live through whatever fear you have by just getting some help.

There are some compassionate people out there, like Theodore Crumpkin, who want to help. That’s all they want to do. They want to help people. They have the language and the tools to do that. We should change the conversation in America about mental health, because it doesn’t have to be a horrible thing.

It doesn’t have to be a fearful thing or a stigmatizing thing. It can be a beautiful thing that allows people like me to grow, to survive, and to become a movie producer and an amazing survivor. I think that’s the biggest message in these movies. We can all reach out and help one another.

To contribute to Animal Instincts’ Seed & Spark campaign, visit:

https://www.seedandspark.com/fund/animal-instincts

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Chris Hadley

Writer, @SnobbyRobot, @FSMOnlineMag, Writer/Creator, @LateLateNewsTV