Running to Stay Sober in Woke the Monster
Austin filmmaker Andrew Shebay on addiction and virtual fests
By Richard Whittaker,
1:00PM, Fri. Mar. 27, 2020
Andrew Shebay should have been in Denton today, for the second festival screening of his film Woke the Monster; but plans, as everyone knows, change.
Case in point: in 2018, the Austin filmmaker was getting married, and becoming part of his wife's family's efforts to handle his new brother-in-law's substance abuse issues. That was when he met Shawn Livingston, a runner who had taken up the sport as a way to deal with his own heroin addiction.
Their crossing of paths was a lucky coincidence. Every year, Shebay and his production company, Pipeline Films, does a video for a nonprofit, pro-bono, "as my way of giving back." In 2018 it was for Back on My Feet, a national nonprofit using running to help homeless people get their lives back on track, and they introduced him to Livingston, to be the subject of their three-minute short.
Meeting with Livingston suddenly broke the gap between knowing what addiction was and understanding it. Shebay said, "I was a psychology major and I studied addiction, so I knew it was a disease, and you always hear that everyone knows someone that is affected by addiction." But talking with Livingston - a brother, a son, a veteran, an addict - put everything into more visceral context. Most especially, Shebay's own experiences made it clear to the filmmaker that there was a broader story to tell, and that became the feature documentary, Woke the Monster. "I wanted to tell the story from the family's perspective as well as Shawn's perspective."
That short spurred him to follow Livingston, as he undertakes a seemingly impossible task: only 18 months after he was homeless, strung out, with severe PTSD, and facing 20 years in prison, he was going to take on an ultra-marathon. "When Shawn first told me his was running this 100 mile race, I said, let's have this race be the anchor for a film."
But this is not a story about swapping one addiction for another. For Livingston, this was a way of showing his family - most especially his sister - that he was serious this time. Shebay said, "He's relapsed so many times before, and he knows that, so there's nothing he can say."
Livingston's attempts to put his past behind him made Shebay's task complicated, not least with Livingston's family. Understandably, he explained, "They said, 'We don't want to do this. We don't want to air our dirty laundry on film.'" They finally agreed, and so he flew to the family home in Youngstown, Ohio with a stripped-down crew, right in the middle of the 2019 polar vortex. Once he was there and explained his own situation, he added, "They could see my sincerity." Moreover, he could see theirs. "The only reason they're doing it is that they hope it will help other families."There was another component of Livingston's past that was even tougher to tackle, because it was simply missing. Shebay said, "When I was getting to that point of telling the backstory of his addiction, and all the mud and shit that he went through, he didn't have any footage. He erased all of that."
The solution was to recreate the events through a comic-book-style still art, evoking the fact that Livingston's sister always called her big brother her superhero. "The illustrations were a blessing in disguise," Shebay said, calling them "this alternate reality when this monster inside you is up and alive, and that's not who you are."
Shebay's film was selected as part of the film component of this weekend's Thin Line Festival, but under the shadow of coronavirus the fest has gone online. Initially, Shebay said he was nervous about shifting to a virtual festival, "because, as a filmmaker, you love having the crowd response and face-to-face contact."
Yet the new format has only widened that first audience. "Addiction is an international issue," Shebay said, and the experience of last night's virtual screening and Q&A showed how true with that was, as people asked questions from as far away as Europe. "Are they waking up in the middle of the night to watch this?" Even this morning, he added, "People were reaching out to Shawn from Slovenia."
Woke the Monster screens Friday, March 27, 1:30pm as part of the Thin Line Film Festival online. Sign up for free here.