DONOVAN: Using The Power of Film To Help People Understand Bipolar Disorder

Though bipolar disorder can impact even the most successful among us, many people don’t quite understand the devastating effects that it can bring upon those who cope with it. Facing the challenges of that illness in his everyday life is actor/filmmaker Jason Bee. His feature film debut Donovan provides a poignant look at the emotional toll that bipolar disorder takes on those who suffer from it, while serving as a vital tool to help reach families and friends of people affected by the illness.

Written and directed by Bee, Donovan stars Bee as Donovan Drake. While successful in the advertising world, he continues to discount the threat that bipolar disorder poses to his life. Divorced, and confronted with the heartbreaking realities of losing custody of his son, Evan (played by Bee’s real life son Grayson), Donovan finds a new yet potentially dangerous love in Jessica (Kelsey Deanne).

As Jessica continues to become a negative influence in Donovan’s life, Donovan seeks help through the guidance of his latest psychiatrist, Dr. Jonas Cray (Raymund King, who also co-executive produced the film). Harboring a stubborn desire to overcome his illness without medication, Donovan’s already fragile life begins to fall apart. With this as prelude, it’s up to Donovan to save himself from losing everything — and everyone — he values.

Donovan’s official web site (see link below) offers Bee’s film for purchase in DVD and digital formats, along with its original soundtrack. The movie can also be viewed on subscription indie video service Stream Now PRO (link also below), which currently offers an $8 membership discount for those who purchase the film via that platform.

Its premiere screening in June of 2017 at Dallas’ Angelika Film Center attracted a record crowd, with an equally revelatory post-film Q and A session that demonstrated the potential for Bee’s film to have a greater impact beyond mere entertainment. That potential continues through the producers’ ongoing partnership with Dallas mental health awareness group Okay To Say (more on that ahead).

On the festival circuit, Donovan has won over audiences while winning accolades in the process. At the recent Bare Bones International Film and Music Festival in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the film took home the award for Best Picture Feature (USA), plus its Producer award for the same category.

In addition to being one of the festival’s Indie Auteur Ambassadors, Bee also won for Best Male Lead Actor in a Feature for his performance in Donovan. The film’s younger cast members — Jason’s two sons Gavin and Grayson, and co-star Major Dodge, Jr. — won three of the festival’s four Rising Star Awards for Youth Actor in a Feature.

Bee, who is already working on his second feature film script, describes his memories of how Donovan would become an equally therapeutic and enlightening filmmaking experience; one that he couldn’t have accomplished without the invaluable talents and support of family, friends and filmmakers.

Chris Hadley: Talk about how you developed the concept for Donovan, and about your decision to play its title character.

Jason Bee: I started out as an actor long ago. I got sidetracked with booze and partying in my early 20’s, which put acting on the back burner to my having fun. Somewhere in there, I accidentally slipped into a career as a designer in advertising. After the last of a long succession of lay-offs from one agency to the other, I decided I wanted to get back into something I truly loved, acting.

At this age, I knew I had to offer something more of myself than (to be) “just” an actor if I was to be taken seriously as an actor. That’s kind of where the whole idea of writing a screenplay came from — to offer something more of myself. So, the decision to be the lead character was always in the cards. In fact, I protected it vehemently against many who told me I couldn’t or shouldn’t do it, and that I should cast a known-actor in the role.

Jason Bee stars as Donovan Drake, a man challenged by bipolar disorder in Donovan.

However, as the story itself and my journey within it grew, I noticed there was a power to casting myself — a complete unknown — in this role that would make Donovan as a character even stronger. If I were to cast a known actor, my fear was the audience would see this character as that actor playing the character. With me in the role, Donovan is suddenly anyone — he could be your neighbor, your brother, your co-worker, he could even be you.

I also knew that no one else was going to be able to play this role quite like I would, mainly because the role was written from my own experiences in having bipolar disorder and much of the situations and emotional turmoil I had already lived. That stance turned a lot of people off early on in the production because they thought I was being selfish or pompous, but it was the only way I knew of to keep this character pure to the story.

CH: Like your character (Donovan Drake), you experienced the struggles of living and coping with bipolar disorder. Describe how you channeled those aspects of your life into the creation of this film, the arc of your character, and the plot of the film.

JB: I had a bit of a hard time with the first draft of the screenplay, particularly the opening sequence. I felt it was pretentious and forced. Finally, I thought to myself, “if I’m going to do this story any justice, I have to be 100% open and honest about what this is and what it has done to me.”

Suddenly, I saw this character running through the woods, away from something, and I could hear, “when you’re not manic, it’s hard to remember what it feels like to be manic,” calmly speaking in my head. I got chills all over my body and ran to my computer for a much needed rewrite.

I knew that was the true opening of the film, and the idea of being absolutely authentic and honest drove the rest of not only writing the rest of film, but the acting, the directing, all of it. I had to revisit some incredibly uncomfortable places to bring this out, but I also knew that if I could reach just one person in their struggle and help them make sense of their own story by sharing mine, it was worth it.

CH: When you wrote the script, how much of its story and characters were based on your own life?

JB: When my oldest son was three, his mother and I divorced. The break up of our relationship was partially due to my not taking care of my mental illness along with other factors at play. I was in the advertising industry, and while I never “denied” my diagnosis, I didn’t take it seriously until shortly after she and I divorced and I nearly destroyed everything about myself, including me. In those moments, I realized that in order to be a better dad for my son, I needed to take my condition seriously.

So when you read the synopsis, “a recently divorced advertising director tries to be a good father to his young son while being torn apart by his own bipolar disorder,” that statement was totally me at that time. As far as the other characters go, they’re mostly made up, or compilations of people I know/knew built into one or more of the characters within. They’re made up, but very relatable.

CH: Did your past memories of life with bipolar disorder factor in any way into those scenes, your script, and in your performance as Donovan? If so, how?

JB: Absolutely, but those memories are also what drive the performance. The hardest parts to convey are the ones that you have to most solidly visualize to make believable. There’s a saying in acting: “if I believe it, the audience will believe it,” and I had to go to a lot of places I’d rather forget about to make you understand and feel where I was coming from. It was therapeutic and scary as hell, but necessary and absolutely worth it.

L-R: Donovan co-star/executive producer Raymund King and star/writer/director Jason Bee, at the film’s premiere in Dallas in June of 2017.

CH: Describe your memories of Donovan’s debut screening, and the reaction that you got afterward.

JB: It was unbelievable. The night blew by in the blink of an eye. The theater was packed with 300 people there, and almost the entire audience stayed for the post-screening Q & A. I don’t remember the first question that was asked, but the second question was, “how did you choose this topic to write about?”

I’m pretty open one-on-one-on-one about my condition, but this was the first time in a big audience that I shared some of my story. I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “okay, let’s do this,” and shared some of my own story in how the topic actually chose me instead of the other way around.

Then, the most amazing thing happened: the rest of the Q & A became less about me and the film we just watched and more about audience members in that theater, mostly complete strangers to one another, taking turns standing up and openly, genuinely sharing how mental illnesses had affected their own lives. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever been a part of at a film Q & A.

What that told me is that we’re sharing a story that is touching peoples’ lives and that it needs to be shared. Beyond my own fear of “being out” or however you want to call it, this story could actually help people, and that’s what it’s always been about for me. Seeing that come to fruition was not only validating for my fight to get it made, but also rekindled that spark to get it out there in front of people.

Behind the scenes of Donovan.

CH: How has making Donovan helped you to grow — not just as an actor and filmmaker, but also as a person?

JB: Making this film taught me a lot about myself and what I’m capable of doing, but it also taught me a lot about the people around me, my relationships with them, the ones who had been impacted the greatest by my own condition, and their ability to stick with me and see me through my own journey. Namely, my wife and kids.

And as odd as it might sound, the cast and crew that worked so hard on this film with me. We did this together, it was never just me. But in making this film, it taught me to ask for help and to accept that help with humility and gratitude. I think that’s something I struggled with greatly before being in a position of having to ask for it.

It has also helped me understand that the story of Donovan is much bigger than me. What started out as something of a cathartic and therapeutic journey for me, has become the story of others. The reaction I see so many people have to this film, and how it has helped those people make better sense of their own stories, tells me that Donovan is no longer about me: it’s about them.

CH: In what ways has your work on Donovan helped you to cope with the challenges of bipolar disorder?

JB: It’s no longer simply a disease that controls me. I have bad days, sure, but I’ve learned that I get to choose how to respond to those bad days. I also get to define my condition and my view of it to bring out the best in myself. When the days get really bad, and they do, I have to be insightful enough to communicate that with my family until “the storm blows over.” It’s all about perspective.

Jason Bee stars in, writes and directs Donovan.

CH: Besides Donovan, what other ways have you used the story of your own experiences with bipolar disorder to help others who are impacted by it?

JB: Donovan is the first example in allowing me to reach a greater number of people at once. I’d like to be more involved in the conversations around mental health and the stigmas surrounding it in whatever capacity that looks like — be that speaking to groups about my own journey, showing the film to audiences that can relate to it, or simply listening to someone struggling with a recent diagnosis or how to reach a better level of stability.

My belief is that stigma holds its power from its own darkness, a mysterious cloud in which it is enveloped within, and that by shining as many lights on it as possible, it can no longer hide. If stigma can no longer hide, it must evolve into something else. Though Donovan is bigger than me, I feel I am more than just one film (or) one story. I feel I have a bigger voice that I could lend to other stories to help guide that evolution of stigma into hope.

CH: Describe the ways that you and Dallas-based mental health awareness organization Okay to Say are using Donovan to help those affected by bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.

JB: We (the executive producers and I) felt that while bringing this film to the community to promote conversations around mental health is important, it’s also important to give back to the community itself, beyond the film, through organizations that directly impact those conversations on a daily basis.

With that in mind, we decided to donate a portion of proceeds from the film’s premiere to the organization Okay to Say, because their message almost mirrors the reason I made this film to begin with: to reach others in their own journeys, to let them know you’re never alone, that it’s okay to talk about it, and that it’s okay to ask for help. I’ve talked to them about further partnering up around some screening ideas, but nothing has yet to come around that.

Jason Bee, manning the director’s chair for Donovan.

CH: Overall, what are your hopes for Donovan’s success — primarily in how it will help people affected by bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses?

JB: I think this film is already working its way toward its own success. I see it in the messages I receive from those that have watched it. For example, I got a message from a woman who told me a little about her own situation, in how for many years she couldn’t cry and felt she was stuck within herself. She told me that she watched Donovan, and that by the end of it, she was bawling her eyes out. The following week, she had a huge breakthrough in her own therapy.

She went to her therapist that week, told her about the film and the impact it had on her, and in that session she made a huge breakthrough in her own therapy. A psychiatrist who was in that initial Q & A at the premiere told me, “what you’ve done with this for professionals like myself is to take us beyond the walls of the patient. We only see patients when they want help. This helps me see them when they don’t.”

For more information on Donovan, and to purchase a DVD/digital copy of the movie and its soundtrack, visit:

Donovan can also be viewed on Stream Now PRO, which is currently offering an $8 discount on your first year of subscription:

For more information about Okay to Say and their services for those affected by mental illness, visit:



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

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Chris Hadley

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