When Mariel Hemingway says she has been running most of her life, the health and wellness advocate is not talking about racking up road miles.
She means running from a fate she feared was inevitably forecast by her family's history of suicide, depression, mental illness and alcoholism.
"That I'd worried about my whole life," says the actress and granddaughter of American writer Ernest Hemingway, who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1961, just months before she was born. "In some ways I thought I was destined to have an issue."
"Running From Crazy," a documentary by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple and a centerpiece film at the Sarasota Film Festival, chronicles the 52-year-old actress and model's search for a greater understanding of her famous family's troubled history and the effect it has had on her own life.
In addition to her grandfather's death, six other relatives have committed suicide in the past four generations, including Hemingway's older sister Margaux, an actress and supermodel, who died from an overdose in 1996. Her oldest sister, Joan, now 61, has been long been institutionalized with a mental illness. There is also a history of depression, alcoholism and addiction within the lineage.
Kopple uses intense interviews with Hemingway, a never-released video shot by Margaux Hemingway and other previously unseen archival footage of the family to dig beneath the superficial Hemingway myths and misconceptions. Released at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the film will air on the Oprah Winfrey Network later this year.
It was 2-1/2 years ago that a friend of Hemingway's who worked at OWN and also knew Kopple encouraged her to tell her story on film. The actress's first reaction was disbelief.
"Are you crazy?" Hemingway remembers saying. "My family is way too crazy."
To which her friend replied: "That's the whole point."
Once Hemingway met with Kopple and committed to the project, she cast aside her reservations and all thoughts of privacy. The film touches on some painful and previously unexposed topics, including incest within her immediate family.
"I didn't have a choice," says Hemingway, who is best known for her role in Woody Allen's 1979 film, "Manhattan," shot when she was 16. "Once you decide to tell the truth, you can't tell half stories; you have to dig in. I knew it would ultimately be healing for myself, and for a lot of other people."
It also forced her to examine her feelings about Margaux, with whom she had always had a troubled relationship. Her older sister was responsible for her first major acting role (in "Lipstick"), but when critics applauded her performance and panned Margaux's it added to the sibling tension.
An especially chilling moment in the film shows Margaux in Ernest Hemingway's Idaho home, speaking of his suicide and adding the prophetic comment, "I've always felt that if somebody can't go on living and creating the way they can, I mean, the way they're used to, and in a healthy form, in which Grandpapa was accustomed to, I mean, I accept the fact that he — that he killed himself.
"You can see my sister was really tortured," Hemingway says.
Even as she was being interviewed for the film, however, Hemingway questioned the veracity of her own memories — was her childhood kitchen really blue and yellow? Did her mother always sit on the counter with her feet draped over the sink? Was she unfairly portraying Margaux, with whom she had a difficult, sometimes estranged, relationship?
Unbeknownst to her, through a sound man on the film who had shot some video for Margaux Hemingway before her death, Kopple had stumbled on 43 hours of unseen footage of the family from Hemingway's childhood. Kopple now says that discovery "just made the film."
"Any time you're doing a film, no matter what kind, and you find archival footage, it's like a FedEx package suddenly arrives and you find gold in it," said Kopple from her home in New York. "It brought us into the world of the young Mariel and allowed Margaux to actually speak."
There are scenes of evenings from Hemingway's childhood, when alcohol fueled post-dinner conversations and escalated arguments. To this Kopple added more recent footage with links to the past, such as footage of Hemingway exploring for the first time the small anteroom of her grandfather's house in Ketchum, Idaho, where he shot himself.
Kopple did not tell Hemingway about the archival find until the film was already in its final cut. Then she flew to Hemingway's California home so the two could screen it together. The moment she first saw it was "mind-blowing," says the actress.
"It just stopped me," she said. "It was like watching my childhood on film, the way it was every evening for years and years. It kind of brought everything home."
Hemingway says she was conscious her whole life of trying to make better and healthier choices for herself, but it wasn't until she saw the film that she could finally let go of her fear that those efforts would not be enough.
"I realized I'd gone all over the map trying different things in search of sanity and out of depression," she says. "The film reminded me of how powerful I could be, how I had stepped into my own shoes and hadn't realized I had."
For the first time, she felt her two daughters from a difficult 24-year marriage to Stephan Crisman, from whom she was separated in 2008, would not inherit the family "curse." Dree Hemingway, 25, is a fashion model and actress; Langley Hemingway, 23, who appears in the film, is an illustrator and artist.
"When a story's in your head, you always wonder how much of it is real," Hemingway says. "It just liberated me in the sense of, wow, you got through this. You really don't have to pass this on to your daughters."
Hemingway, who has written two previous books focusing on her yoga practice and holistic lifestyle, recently launched a website and a book called "The Willing Way" with her life and business partner, Bobby Williams, an eco-adventurer. She is convinced that healthy lifestyle choices — diet, exercise and contact with nature — is overlooked in treatment for mental health issues.
"I think it's important for people of all walks of life to realize there are ways of getting out of pain, and doing it through addiction is not the answer," she says. "I believe lifestyle has a big role in mental illness and it's a piece of the equation I think is really missing."
Both filmmaker and subject say that their hopes are for "Running From Crazy" to be distributed widely, not only commercially but as a tool in mental health care facilities. Already it has sparked unusually frank conversations and confessions after screenings, Kopple says. At Sundance, for example, the moderator of a post-screening Q & A discussed for the first time his sister's death to suicide.
"You're so much stronger when you face this with other people," Kopple says. "This film allows people to be close to each other in the moment."
"There's so much about this subject we're so afraid to speak about. I was scared, too. You wonder what people's reactions will be. But it's like it has given them permission to speak about it themselves."
SARASOTA FILM FESTIVAL
RUNNING FROM CRAZY, starring Mariel Hemingway; directed by Barbara Kopple, 100 min. 6 p.m. April 12, Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota. Q & A with Hemingway and Kopple to follow. $20. 366-6288, (866) 575-3456; www.sarasotafilmfestival.com.