Author, Director Kelly Oxford Channels Her Anxiety Into Creativity And Humor

Kelly Oxford talks about her directorial debut with “Pink Skies Ahead”, cannabis, and the art of the calculated vomit draft.
Author, Director Kelly Oxford Channels Her Anxiety Into Creativity And Humor
Behind the scenes of “Pink Skies Ahead”: Jessica Barden (left) and Kelly Oxford (right); Photo credit: Tiffany Roohani

Kelly Oxford now has filmmaker on her resume. For years, Oxford’s has been a prominent voice in pop culture. She’s the New York Times bestselling author of “Everything is Perfect When You’re a Liar” and “When You Find Out the World Is Against You: And Other Funny Memories About Awful Moments,” as well a screenwriter, activist, and social media favorite. Oxford’s body of work is defined by her honest writing and razor sharp lines, which once landed her a gig writing for Jimmy Kimmel Live!

A part of the drive behind Oxford’s signature humor, as she told us, is her anxiety. It’s a part of her life. When Oxford was 19 years old and living in Edmonton, Alberta, she experienced her first panic attack. It was a life-altering experience. Now, she’s telling her story in her feature directorial debut, Pink Skies Ahead, which debuts on MTV on Saturday, May 8th. Oxford’s film talks about mental health without any easy solutions or Hallmark-quality messages. The writer, who often smokes when she works, hopes Pink Skies Ahead makes its audience feel less alone. 

Kelly Oxford: “I think you can find inspiration no matter where you are.”

High Times: Where did this story start for you?

Kelly Oxford: Well, it started with me having that exact experience. And the experience of being diagnosed and going through the circuit of denial and shame and ignoring it and escapism and all of those things coming to the point where I had my first panic attack. I wanted to portray that journey in a film.

First, I wrote it in my second book. When I was on my book tour, so many people related to it and said how much it helped them to see somebody else go through that. And so, when I was thinking of script ideas, I was like, “Well, this one hit home for a lot of people in a book. I hope it can hit home for a lot of people in a film.” A lot of it is autobiographical, but a lot of it’s also fiction. 

High Times: There’s now ‘90s nostalgia, but this movie just presents that time as is. Was that important to you?

Kelly Oxford: Totally. I wanted it to be natural looking and feeling for the ‘90s. I love ‘90s music, so that was also fun to put in the movie. I really wanted to set it in that time period, not only because that was the time period that I went through this, but also because when mental conditions are diagnosed, it’s generally between the ages of 19 and 24.

For kids that age today, 1998 is around the time that they were born. I wanted them to see that this has been going on for a long time. This isn’t a new thing, just because we’re talking about it more now. This is something that happened in the ‘90s before you had the internet to go home and Google anxiety disorder, which I didn’t have. I had no resources.

Once I was diagnosed, it was just me talking to my friends saying, “I don’t have this thing. I’ve never had a panic attack. I’m fine.” But I think that it would have been a different story for me if I had been able to come home and get on the internet and read about it. I have a lot of hope for kids, and I’m hoping that this movie gets them to speak, to talk, to share with other people how they’re feeling, because that’s the only route to help and hope.

High Times: You wrote the script in five or six days, right? Do you usually write that fast?

Kelly Oxford: It’s a bit of both. It’s a bit of mania, it’s a bit of OCD, it’s a bit of anxiety to get everything in my head out as fast as I can. I don’t like things that take a lot of time. That stresses me out. That’s why school was hard for me because it was just so much time to put into these long projects that you had to turn in in a month.

I’m like, “I just want to do everything right now. I just can’t sit there.” My writing is like that as well. It comes in spurts. I shouldn’t do that every week in six days. I don’t have that in me, but every few months it’s just the ideas there and I have to get it out as fast as possible.

High Times: Are you a believer in the vomit draft, just putting everything down?

Kelly Oxford: Yeah, but my vomit draft is very calculated. Usually by page 70, I figure it out and I can go back and add a couple scenes here and there to tie in the things that I wasn’t seeing before I got to page 70. I can finish off the movie in a productive way, but I don’t rewrite anything before I submit it. I’m generally really happy with what I can do in the six days. It’s math to me. Storytelling is a lot like math to me.

High Times: Problem solving.

Kelly Oxford: It is. It is tying the stories together and making sure that every scene is moving the engine of the story along and not just a funny banter that I thought of that I want to put in a movie. I would never do something like that. I’m always trying to move the engine forward. I can attribute a lot of that to my mental conditions, which is also very nice to know that they’re also helping me in a lot of ways.

High Times: There are so many depictions of writers in movies. For you, what comes off as bullshit?

Kelly Oxford: Honestly, I never really think anything’s bullshit because I know the possibilities out there are endless for how people are. I just don’t relate to a lot of them. Those would be the ones that I would call bullshit. But just because I don’t relate to them doesn’t mean that it’s not real for somebody.

I hope people come into this film thinking the same thing. Lots of people are on the spectrum of having a mental condition. I don’t want to say this is how it goes for everybody. That’s why I showed her doing things that I did, like, drinking and smoking pot and getting into relationship after relationship, because that clearly isn’t everybody’s journey when they have anxiety, but it was for me. I wanted it to be as real as possible, putting in all of the things that are real for me.

High Times: You write late at night, too, right? Is it for the quiet and solitude?

Kelly Oxford: Yeah. I think too, it’s just that everything is so much slower at night and I have more time. It is really about experience for me. My whole life is about experience. I can get more done. It’s a lot more chill at night. I don’t have anything left to do. I’m a mom, I’ve got three kids, and they’re in bed, so I can do what I need to do for a while and not have to worry about them.

High Times: Late at night when you’re writing does cannabis help at all? 

Kelly Oxford: Absolutely. I use it at night, I’d say, a lot. It does help me write and it does help me figure out a lot of connections in stories. The THC takes my brain to a different place where I can see things differently. I wouldn’t say it’s a different person reading the script, but it’s a different unbiased mindset to smoke a little and go back to the story.

High Times: Sativa or Indica?

Kelly Oxford: Sativa does it. I prefer indica, but sativa definitely does for me.

High Times: Obviously, the last year has been terrible. Some writers have been very productive, others have struggled getting work done. What about you?

Kelly Oxford: It’s been okay. I wrote a YA book and I wrote another feature this year. I did maybe smoke too much pot this year, because it was so easy because I was home and I didn’t have to drive every day. And everybody was sending me pot everyday. So many companies sent me a lot of pot. So, I’ve had to smoke it.

High Times: It’s helped a lot of people during the pandemic.

Kelly Oxford: Yeah, absolutely. Totally. It’s something that I wanted to put in the movie, too. I haven’t seen a lot of stoner movies other than Seth Rogen’s and not a lot of girls stoner movies. Definitely Broad City. But films where it’s something that she’s using to self-medicate her own anxiety, I wrote in all of those smoking scenes without even thinking about it, to be honest. Later on I realized, she’s self-medicating for her anxiety. It just makes sense.

High Times: How does writing in Los Angeles compare to Canada? Does your environment influence what you write?

Kelly Oxford: That’s an interesting question. I think that I can’t really answer that because I do have three children and they were a lot younger when I lived in Canada. They took up a lot more of my time than they do now. I have more time in LA, but I honestly think that’s because my kids are older. The culture doesn’t inspire me anymore than it did in Canada. In Canada, I had nature and everything was super chill, and that was inspiring. Here, I’m surrounded by artists, and that’s also very inspiring. I think you can find inspiration no matter where you are, truly.

High Times: Do you ever get writer’s block?

Kelly Oxford: Yes, of course I do. Those are my days where I clean the house. I’ve got a million other things to do with my life. Writer’s block, I don’t sit there and fuss over it. I know immediately in the morning, whether or not I’m going to be able to write that day. If I can’t, then I do all my other business. I do all of my emailing and all of the business side of casting and talking to producers and things like that. I just don’t write on those days.

High Times: When your writing career first took off, you said it was very unplanned. You were just enjoying what you were doing and people responded. Now, with your success, do you plan more now?

Kelly Oxford: Now it’s how I support my family. I’m a single mom. That’s how I support my family. It is different but it’s still the same in that I enjoy it so much. I have a lot of stories that I still want to tell. The ambition is the exact same as it was before. Before it was a career for me, it was just something that I did for me. It was my hobby.

I definitely didn’t think that I would ever be in a position that I’m in right now, talking to you about the first movie that I made. There weren’t a lot of female directors to look up to, and I was Canadian, and I never thought that this was a possibility for me. When opportunities arose, I took them.

When people saw my writing online and liked it and offered me opportunities to meet with producers and studios and things like that, I took them. I didn’t think twice about it. It ended up working out for me.

High Times: I know Cameron Crowe was supportive of your writing. How did that relationship begin and evolve?

Kelly Oxford: Actually, the first film that I sold, he was sent the script for directing. He read it and called me afterwards and said, “You should direct this. You shouldn’t be sending this out. This is such a personal, amazing story.” That’s called, Son of a Bitch, and I am going to direct that. We’re in casting right now.

He was always there for me to talk to. I’ve been to his sets and watched him work for days at a time, and that was my film school. I was so lucky that my film school was being on actual sets and learning from people who were willing to mentor and help me based on the writing that they saw from me, that they enjoyed.

I don’t want to say right place right time, but maybe right place right time. Even though I was in Canada, I don’t know how that works. You know what I mean? I wasn’t even here when I sold that script and Cameron called me. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s just a sign of people connecting to my writing. And that’s really nice for me to know that I can write something like Pink Skies Ahead, which is so personal.

High Times: How does communicating on the page visually compare? 

Kelly Oxford: Writing books is definitely more tedious because you have to explain all the things you’re seeing, but that’s a fun experience on its own. Having to put into words how a person moves or what color the floor is or all of those things that you take for granted when you’re directing and writing a script, you don’t write in those things. Your production team, your production designers, they all do all of those things for you based on what you tell them you want. 

High Times: You usually write in hotels, too, right?

Kelly Oxford: Yeah. I’m in a hotel right now. I do like doing that a lot. I find that it forces you though to write. You can’t just go to a hotel and then be like, “I don’t feel like doing it now.” You’ve got a hotel room, so you have to write. .

High Times: How do you strike the flow and tone in your writing? Do you read your writing aloud?

Kelly Oxford: Honestly, I think it’s part of my condition. I think it’s part of my OCD. I always listened to people talking, and I always think about conversations, and every single way they can go to the point where sometimes I just draw a blank because I’m overthinking all of the different possible angles. Mostly, it’s a tone that I’m looking for, but what’s the tone of this story? How are these people going to speak in this tone? How are they going to talk to each other in a natural way that also progresses the film?

I think that’s an instinct for me. Maybe because I watched so many movies and read so many books when I was a kid, but I’ve always found that to be the least tricky for me. That’s the easiest thing for me to do for sure.

High Times: Now that you’re done with Pink Skies Ahead, are you able to sit back and enjoy the experience or is your mind already thinking like, “What do I do next?”

Kelly Oxford: No, I can enjoy it. Once I finished the editing, all of the post-production took so long and I ended up being really happy with the end product. I can definitely sit back and enjoy the performances that are in it because those aren’t mine at all and were so good. I definitely enjoy the film, for watching everybody put their heart and soul into it, down to the lighting. Everybody on the crew, we were very close. We did yoga during breaks together and all of those sorts of things. I prefer it to writing by myself, for sure. I would much rather direct than spend six days in a hole, figuring out my math story.

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