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The Courage to Create

Visiting artist Mark Duplass creates a multi-department film adaptation class that offers SCU students the chance to tell stories that matter.
June 26, 2023
By Nicole Calande
A man in a black box theater points off-camera with a student standing behind him.
| Photo by Travis Braz

For as long as he can remember, Emmy-winning producer, director, actor, screenwriter, and author Mark Duplass struggled with mental health, channeling his depression and anxiety into his work. But, just as his career was taking off in his late 20s, Duplass faced a complete emotional breakdown.

“I was working myself to death and I hit the deck,” he recalls. “I learned that the sustainability of being an artist is impossible without proper mental health.”

So, he went to therapy and took medication. He learned about diet, sleeping, exercise, working smarter, and being gentle with himself. Slowly, Duplass rebuilt himself and champions the doctrine of self-care to this day.

His journey has resonated with many students during his time serving as Santa Clara University’s 2022-23 Frank Sinatra Artist-in-Residence, where Duplass has made a point to center mental health in his work on campus, from meetings with Wellness Center staff to meaningful discussions in classrooms.

“At a time when we’re having ongoing conversations about mental health and balance among our student population, he really tapped into that,” says Nico Opper, an assistant professor of communications. “Mark and the students connected not just about craft, but about the bigger questions: How do we live our lives fully and successfully? How do we find happiness?”

Big questions, yes. But necessary ones given the difficult, existential time we live in, says Duplass. From his experience, Duplass knows that no matter their success, it’s easy for people to hold themselves back from creating art—believing that the work isn’t good enough or important enough.

“What I'm focused on with students is trying to reduce that fear and the barrier to entry to making great art.”

With this goal in mind, Duplass used his residency to create a space where he could nudge students outside their comfort zone, to take that necessary risk for the sake of art. The result? A two-quarter-long film adaptation class bringing together students from the English, communication, theater, and music departments.

“With this class, my lesson is this: Grab somebody you love, throw yourselves off the cliff, make something terrible, and stumble all the way down. Then get back up and figure it out again.”

Mark Duplass

A student holds a clap board on a film set.

Rena Zhang ’24 on the set of “Fractal”

Art as therapy

When Rena Zhang ’24 signed up for the adaptation class that Duplass designed, it was her first advanced production class. Several teams had wanted her on their projects, but she felt intimidated and unsure about which one to join.

“Reading the script for ‘Fractal’ solidified my choice because I wanted to work on something that would be meaningful,” says Zhang, who served as its assistant director. “My biggest thing is representation and amplifying marginalized voices, so this project felt really aligned with my personal goals and vision.”

Zhang joined director Kaliray Arison ’23, screenwriter, cinematographer, and editor Gabby Yabut ’23, and composers and sound designers Evan Fine ’25 and Ivy Wu ’25—all of whom describe being drawn to the film’s impactful story.

“Fractal” follows a girl haunted by a translucent, glass man. We learn that this ‘Fractal Man’ is the manifestation of her guilt regarding the death of her best friend’s boyfriend, following his attempt to drug her best friend at a party. Though she secretly saved her friend, the protagonist struggles with PTSD and is afraid to reveal what happened.

“As somebody who has had an experience relating to sexual assault, I wanted to tell a story that we know all too well, but focus more on the healing process, friendship, and the ways you get through that kind of experience,” says Matt Oglesby ’24, the author of the original short story. He felt validated when his story was one of eight reviewed by Duplass for adaptation, and he hopes that the film might inspire greater empathy among the SCU community.

Actors playing a therapist and a high school student in the film

A scene from “Fractal” where a student (played by Jessica Simms '23) meets with a therapist (played by Professor Kimberly Mohne Hill)

“Even though we didn’t all have a direct connection with the subject matter, we all understood what this story meant and felt a sense of responsibility to honor that message,” notes Arison, who recalled many moments of collaboration between her, Oglesby, and the film’s actors during the more emotional scenes shot during production.

And for Lucia Hodges ’23, the film’s set decorator, Oglesby’s message speaks to her own mission as a student, artist, and mental health worker on campus.

“Matt really moved me with how much this story is intertwined with mental health and PTSD,” she says. “PTSD is a real, terrifying thing, and it can follow you. I think seeing that symbolism could be really beneficial to viewers.”

As a student coordinator at the Wellness Center, Hodges facilitates educational programming around health, and within her role, she passionately promotes art as a form of self-care—and like Oglesby’s story, she draws inspiration from her own life.

“I’ve always loved art, but I really got the time to develop my skills while I was in treatment for an eating disorder,” she explains. “I found that it was the best coping mechanism for me, and right now my full-time art project is pretty much focused on ‘Fractal,’ which has been awesome.”

“Fractal” enjoyed its campus-wide premiere at the 11th Annual Genesis Film Festival, an annual showcase of student-produced films at Santa Clara, but luckily the movie and all it represents doesn’t end there.

A group of Hodges’ classmates were initially working on a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of “Fractal,” but inspired by Hodges’ advocacy, they shifted focus to her work at the Wellness Center and on the set of “Fractal” to better capture the overlap between art and mental health.

It's a shift in perspective that Duplass is thrilled to see flourishing at Santa Clara.

“This generation is so far ahead on mental health compared to where I was at their age. They’re really considering their feelings which—thank God—is going to prevent what happened to me,” he says. “I hope they leave this experience with a deeply healthy and sustainable community of peers, which is what I’ve found has been one of the most important things in my art.”