Interview: Pink Skies Ahead Director Kelly Oxford Finds Humor in Anxiety

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Kelly Oxford

(Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

Author Kelly Oxford found success due to her honest writing, and now her anxiety-tinged coming of age film Pink Skies Ahead is set to air on MTV this Saturday, May 8 at 9 p.m. commercial-free. Starring Jessica Barden (The End of the F***ing World) as the 20-year-old Winona, the comedic film chronicles her first anxiety attack after dropping out of college. ComingSoon.net Managing Editor Tyler Treese got the chance to discuss the film with Oxford ahead of the premiere.

Check out our Kelly Oxford interview below as she discussed destigmatizing mental health issues, her next project for HBO Max, and much more:

Tyler Treese: I read that a lot of Pink Skies Ahead was autobiographical, and I think it’s an incredible statement for you to be so open with your own struggles with anxiety in your own life. How daunting was it to put Pink Skies Ahead out in the world, and was it sort of a therapeutic thing to do?

Kelly Oxford: Originally, the story was in a book of mine, my second book, and it was an essay. When I wrote that essay, I kind of went through all of those emotions then, and I was really scared. I’d never talked about my own mental conditions and my anxiety disorder before publicly. I just wrote them in a book and put the book out, and kind of forgot about it. It was difficult to write, but I kind of forgot about it until I was on my book tour. People started coming forward and saying how much they could relate to that story and how it affected them. From that, I knew that I was helping people, and being honest was good for everybody. I wanted to put that on screen to reach more people with the hopes that a bigger audience is going to also feel this way.

Jessica Barden does an incredible job in the main role. You two have a friendship that predates the film with you, both being comfortable with each other. Was it easier to film such a personal story?

We didn’t have a real relationship before this. We just followed each other on Instagram and thought the other person was cool. I thought she was super cool, and she thought I was super cool. Then for us to both get to work together was just exciting. The first day we met, we were both bouncing off the walls because that’s our character. We’re so similar, and working with her was just a dream. She’s such a talented actor, and she’s just dynamite on screen. I was truly lucky that she read this script and felt so connected to it, and wanted to bring this character to life for other people. You know, I’m just grateful for that.

Pink Skies Ahead

One of the most powerful moments in the film is how it depicts the panic attacks, and it really comes across as it’s uncomfortable to watch. It really communicates what the attack is like well to the people that don’t have them. Was it difficult figuring out how to communicate that on screen?

I knew how I wanted it to look because I’ve had so many panic attacks, and I just really wanted to focus on how alone you can feel. With my first panic attack, I did come home, and I was alone, just like Winona was in the movie. I just blocked it out like a normal scene, and Jessy knew exactly what a panic attack or very strong anxiety felt like. We just went with it. I just made sure, up until that point and beyond that, that everybody on set was happy and everything felt safe so that she was really able to dig into that scene and feel like it was okay to really let go.

MTV is doing this amazing Mental Health is Health initiative. Can you discuss what that means for your film to be a part of it and how that deal came together?

My goal in making this film is it’s for people with mental health conditions to feel seen and to feel hope. In my story that anything’s possible. You can always have hope, no matter how many times you failed. There’s always hope for everybody, and a lot of it comes with just talking and communicating with people around you, how you’re feeling. I really wanted to portray that in the film through Winona talking to her friends and going to therapy. I think that, that films like this and films in the future that MTV puts together, I hope that they’re very successful in reaching these audiences and de-stigmatizing mental conditions.

Despite the serious subject matter, the film is very funny throughout. How important was it to make sure that the film had some comedy in it and to lighten the mood a bit? Because as a viewer, I felt like the serious moments really stood out all the more because of the disparity in there.

Here’s the thing, life is just like that, you know, sometimes things are really, really bad, and most of the time things are really, really good. In writing it, I just wanted it to be truthful with a lot of things that people that anxiety do. They are funny. Like you have to laugh at them, you have to laugh at yourself and what you do and how you’re living your life and how the anxiety is affecting you and making you do stupid things. I really wanted this story to ring as true as possible for as many people as possible. For me to do that, my best bet was to tell my version of it, which was my truth, because if I had fictionalized it completely, I wouldn’t have known that experience.

So I really had to tell it from my point of view and my life. I’ve been able to laugh at it. I’ve been able to laugh at myself, and I wanted to bring that to screen. I think it is a fun movie and, and it does have really poignant parts, but I hope that it shows people that mental conditions and all of these things are kind of stigmatized to the point where you think people are just like in a dark room all the time, doing nothing if they have an anxiety disorder, which is completely not true. You can have so many levels of anxiety, social anxiety, anything, and still be out there and challenging yourself. I really was that type of person. So I wanted to portray that type of person in the movie, and I think that that’s why there is so much lightheartedness to it. The reality is life really does contrast like that. You know, it is really dark sometimes, and it’s really light sometimes. Some of those best moments are when you are laughing, and it turns into a cry, or you’re crying, and it turns into a laugh. I wanted to tell that story.

Pink Skies Ahead

With it landing on MTV, is that sort of a best-case scenario for this film? It has a chance to really reach a lot of young adults and teens and really teach them about anxiety attacks. Do you feel like this release really came out ideal?

Yeah, it really did. I think it’s at the right time too. I think kids after this COVID year have been struggling the most out of anybody. They aren’t seeing their friends. They aren’t going to school. They are stuck with their parents, who are the last people they want to be stuck with. I feel like MTV is the hub for all of these kids, you know, and it’s so funny that it’s a movie about the 90s, and it’s now at MTV. I mean, MTV was everything in the 90s, and it’s still so many kids just watch it and are looking for this. It’s got such a good stamp on it for this age group that I’m so happy that it’s there. Especially that they’re doing this mental health initiative just makes it so special and so great. I’m really happy about it.

Henry Wrinkler really steals the scenes he is in. His role as a pediatrician is hilarious. What was it like working with him?

He is amazing. He is the sweetest guy. He came to set, introduced himself to everybody, and was just like the sweetest, greatest guy. He made Jessy feel so comfortable. He’s just, and he’s a phenomenal actor. Everything he said, I was just like, “Oh my God, is the camera on? We have to make sure we’re getting all of this stuff.” Even when we’re in rehearsal like, “Let’s just get everything that Henry does.” He’s amazing. I love him so much.

As to your future, you sold Son of a Bitch to HBO Max. That’s another take on your own life that tackles the transition from a young adult to a mother. Can we expect a similar tone to this film, and what should we expect from that?

It’s definitely a similar tone, but it’s more of a comedy because we don’t have a panic attack in the film. It definitely is the same tone, and I think it’s a really good follow-up for Pink Skies Ahead. I think that it’s almost Winona a little bit older again. I think that they’re going to complement each other really well because this character in Son of a Bitch is just a little bit older, and the tone is really similar, but the story is lighter and the obstacles are completely different.