A weed-fueled, psychotic break helped inspire new animated film ‘Bug Therapy,’ a nudge for mental health treatment
Screenwriters Michael Jann and Michele Jourdan say the experience of their son underscores the message of the short movie, which stars voice actors Jay Leno, Dr. Phil, Meghan Trainor, Sterling K. Brown and Tom Green
By Michael Tanenbaum
Provided Image/88 Pictures
‘Bug Therapy,’ a new animated short film, aims to tear down mental health stigmas. The short, written by screenwriters Michael Jann and Michele Jourdan, stars voice actors Jay Leno, Dr. Phil, Meghan Trainor, Sterling K. Brown and Tom Green.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, screenwriters Michael Jann and Michele Jourdan were working on a humorous, bug-themed, animated film about mental health when they learned that Jann’s son, Max, had been picked up by police in Burbank, California and taken to a psychiatric ward.
“He truly believed he was God, just out of his f***ing mind,” Jann said. “When Michele and I walked in, Max said, ‘I’m God, what do you want to know?’ He wasn’t kidding. I said, ‘OK, if you’re God, why are you locked in here and that guy over there has the keys?’ Without missing a beat, Max goes, ‘He works for me.'”
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In an earlier, confusing FaceTime call, Max had told his dad that he had died in 2010 and that his ex-girlfriend had his ashes, in case Jann was wondering where they were. Also, the CIA was tracking Max’s whereabouts.
It was some time after sunrise when Jann got the call from police that Max had been taken into custody. Max, then 27, had been standing in the middle of a road with no shirt on, holding a Bible and directing traffic. He was the one who had stopped the cop car, the officer explained.
“Scariest moment of my life,” Jann said.
Under California law, Max had to be held at the psychiatric hospital for 72 hours. The doctors treating Max explained to the stunned couple that he was experiencing a temporary, “THC-induced psychosis” from consuming too much marijuana.
“Like 10 tons,” Jann joked. “The ER doctors will tell you — it’s a thing. They deal with this all the time.”
Although considered rare among most cannabis users, psychotic episodes triggered by pot can cause delusions, extreme paranoia and dissociation from reality. They also can signal an underlying, undiagnosed mental health condition that may be worsened by using too much marijuana.
In Max’s case, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after the night he got stoned and mistook himself for God. He’s now been sober for a year, he’s working, he’s on medication and in weekly therapy, and he’s an expert chess player and teacher.
“He probably had a predisposition to mental illness and smoking all of the pot pushed it over the edge,” said Jourdan, Max’s step-mom.
Jann and Jourdan, who now live in Austin, Texas, were shaken by what happened to Max — as parents and as writers.
“When this happened, we thought, well, we have to stop making this movie,” Jann said. “How can we be making a funny movie about mental illness when this happens?”
The premise of “Bug Therapy,” an animated short now available to watch on YouTube, revolves around a troubled mosquito named Citronella, who’s voiced by singer-songwriter Meghan Trainor. Citronella is struggling in life because she faints at the sight of blood, a tragic phobia for a mosquito.
The film follows Citronella’s reluctant decision to join a bug group therapy session led by Dr. Pill, voiced by TV psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw. Other bugs in the group are voiced by former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, “This Is Us” actor Sterling K. Brown, and comedian Tom Green.
Jann broke into the entertainment world in the 1980s while living in the Philadelphia area and working for an advertising firm in Center City. At the time, Jay Leno was an up-and-coming comedian who sometimes served as a guest host for Johnny Carson. He was poised to take over “The Tonight Show.”
“There was an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about a local man who was writing for Jay,” Jann said. “I wanted to be a comedian and I felt if this guy in Philly can write jokes for Leno, I can, too. I would write them and fax them into Jay, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth. He started buying my jokes, and eventually he hired me.”
Jann worked as one of Leno’s writers for 23 years before he decided to pursue his own creative projects with his wife.
Studios in Hollywood liked the idea of “Bug Therapy” — sort of a mix between “A Bug’s Life” and “Inside Out” — but they weren’t quite ready to take it on as a feature film.
Jann and Jourdan decided they would dip into their savings to finance a short film as a proof-of-concept. They got the buy-in of celebrity voice actors who could draw eyeballs to the project. They hired director Jason Reisig, whose animation credits include various roles on “Shrek,” “Smallfoot,” “Trolls” and “Kung Fu Panda 3.” And they hired animation studio 88 Pictures, which worked on Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning Netflix series “Trollhunters,” produced by Dreamworks Animation Television.
Seeing what happened to Max initially made Jann and Jourdan uneasy about a project that would take a light-hearted approach to mental health awareness. But Jourdan felt that clamming up about their family’s struggle only would reinforce the stigmas that “Bug Therapy” is intended to tear down.
“You have to have a sense of humor or else you will just cry your whole life,” Jourdan said. “Everybody deals with something, and when you deal with it with humor, it kind of allows you to drop your guard.”
To honor Max, Jann and Jourdan added a character to the film — a praying mantis who doesn’t pray because she thinks she’s God.
“He’s really proud of that praying mantis,” Jourdan said of Max, who designed the logo for “Bug Therapy.” “He completely owns what happened to him and he loves the character.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has praised “Bug Therapy” as a promising, relatable way to help people feel safe seeking help for their problems.
“This film is literally our mission statement to fight the stigma and to change the conversation about mental health,” said Jessica Cruz, CEO of NAMI California. “This could help so many people.”
“Bug Therapy” is streaming now on YouTube for a limited release during May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, and is being promoted on TikTok. It will be screened later this month at NAMI’s national conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Jann and Jourdan will share their story.
“The response we’re getting from TikTok specifically is very encouraging that we can actually create a community around ‘Bug Therapy,'” Jourdan said. “People are saying, ‘I’ve struggled with delusions. I’ve struggled with co-dependency.’ Everyone identifies with one of the bugs.”
Trainor, who has been outspoken about her struggles with panic disorder, told the couple that Citronella struck a chord with her.
“Citronella is my girl, I can totally identify with her,” Trainor said of the role.
Jann and Jourdan have already written screenplays for a feature length film and an animated series, ideally hoping to attract financing for the projects in whichever format makes the most sense. The scripts feature an expanded world of insects with a wide range of mental health issues, written from the perspectives of those who are going through hard times.
“We are not experts. We’re not trying to solve any problems. We’re the patients,” Jourdan said. “Right now, more people than ever are struggling with mental health challenges. We just hope that ‘Bug Therapy’ can be used to get people to laugh a little and then actually start talking about what’s bugging them.”
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. NAMI has a helpline available Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET. Connect by phone at (800) 950-6264 or text “Helpline” to 62640 to speak to someone. For more resources, visit NAMI.org.