How a panic attack led to Kelly Oxford’s directorial debut

Kelly Oxford
Writer Kelly Oxford’s directorial debut, “Pink Skies Ahead,” will premiere at AFI Fest on Sunday.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

The cashier was ringing up her yerba mate when she felt it starting to happen. The hot surge of adrenaline. Her breath speeding up inside of her mask, causing her glasses to fog. A sudden inability to move.

Kelly Oxford was having a panic attack. Not her first, but her first in years — and in the middle of a Canadian gas station. She squatted, trying to steady her breathing. After a few moments she felt calmer, and stood up to retrieve her receipt. The cashier acted like nothing had happened.

Hours later, Oxford posted about the experience on Instagram, accompanying the story with a blurry selfie she’d accidentally snapped in the midst of the anxiety. Since 2012 — when her droll, confessional tweets literally made her famous — she has been unflinchingly transparent with her followers. She tells them how much trouble she’s having quitting smoking her Juul; that she got drunk and purchased miniature furniture on EBay; how she had to inform her horrified 7-year-old daughter that, yes, women get their periods on the weekend too.

Two decades ago, when Oxford had her first ever panic attack, she was too scared to even tell her parents about it. She was 19, living at home in Edmonton, Alberta, after dropping out of college. Her boyfriend, in the midst of pursuing his PhD, had just broken up with her because he found her listlessness unattractive. And she just started freaking out — pacing around her house, unable to enter her own bedroom without vomiting.

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“I had stolen this CK One poster from a bus shelter, and it was on my wall,” Oxford, now 42, recalled. “And I’d throw up every time I saw it, because I f—ing stole it from a bus shelter, and I’m a terrible person, and Kate Moss was staring at me. I was living in my childhood bedroom and I had a physical reaction, like, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’”

Eventually, when her parents got home from work, they tended to her. But the attack lasted 10 days, ending only when she finally visited a doctor who prescribed her Ativan. The whole scene is painstakingly depicted in Oxford’s new movie, “Pink Skies Ahead,” which marks her directorial debut. The movie, which will premiere at the all-virtual AFI Fest on Sunday, was supposed to launch at SXSW in March.

Kelly Oxford, 42, spent 10 years raising her three children in Canada before moving to Hollywood to pursue a writing career.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Days before the film was scheduled to bow in Austin, Texas, COVID-19 still seemed like a distant threat. There were rumblings that the festival might be canceled, but organizers kept vowing to forge ahead until the government shut them down. At an initial lunchtime interview, she talked about the outfits she planned to wear and played a voicemail from her film’s star, Jessica Barden, who said she’d heard there was no way the event wouldn’t move forward.

But then SXSW did get scrapped, and the world shut down. Oxford was upset, and she didn’t hide it. From her home in Studio City she posted moody selfies, lounging around in the clothes she had planned to wear in Texas.

“Covid ruined the release of my movie,” she posted in May. “I have no idea when it will be released and that’s a major frustration. Major. There’s literally nothing I can do, I’m sorry.”

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2020 was supposed to be her year — the payoff for the grind she’d lived since moving to Los Angeles eight years ago. “Pink Skies Ahead” would come out, she’d begin writing her third book and start production on her second feature film. She felt she’d gotten a late start on her career. Her 20s had been devoted to her husband, an environmental engineer, and her three children. But when she started tweeting in 2009, her voice resonated.

Jhoni Marchinko, then best known as a writer and producer from shows such as “Murphy Brown” and “Will & Grace,” reached out to Oxford and offered to mentor her. A screenplay she’d written under Marchinko’s tutelage gave her an in with William Morris Endeavor, which started representing her. Jessica Alba, who said she connected with Oxford as a fellow mom, signed up to executive produce one of her pilots. Jimmy Kimmel, a fan of her one-liners, suggested Oxford should write for his late-night show. And when Warner Bros. bought one of her scripts, she decided to move her family to L.A. and give it her best shot.

On social media, it all seemed like a Hollywood dream. Suddenly, this ultra-beautiful former stay-at-home mom from the outskirts of Canada was palling around with celebrities. Her youngest daughter, then 3, became best friends with one of Busy Phillips’ kids, and the two adults became BFFs themselves. She and her family went on vacation with David Copperfield at his private island in the Bahamas. In a 2017 paparazzi shot, Anne Hathaway used Oxford’s second book of essays — a New York Times bestseller — to hide her face.

Jessica Barden, left, with Kelly Oxford on the set of "Pink Skies Ahead."
(Tiffany Roohani)

“Kelly has this star quality that people gravitate toward,” said Barden. “But this was a person who 10 years ago was living in the middle of nowhere in Canada and had three kids by the time she was 30. I don’t think people know that about her. They just view her as this extremely attractive woman who does Instagram and is the cool person everybody likes to be around. But she worked really hard to get here.”

Indeed, while her social media feed depicted casual glamour, privately, Oxford was struggling. In 2016 — on the evening Donald Trump was elected president — her marriage officially fell apart. She’d already been the breadwinner, but she said after she got divorced her husband moved back to Canada and did not pay spousal support. Suddenly, she was raising three teenagers on her income alone.

“They’re not in private schools or anything — I can’t afford that — but they wanted to buy cars and do things with their friends,” she said this week during a Zoom catch-up. “Emotionally, I just felt so upset that I could be successful and make a good amount of money, but because I don’t have a dual income from another parent, I was really struggling.”

Her panic disorder, which she’d largely been able to keep at bay, started to rear its head again. She confided in a girlfriend that she was considering moving back to Canada. “Just write about how you’re feeling,” her friend advised.

So she did. Over the course of five days, barely sleeping at all, she wrote “Pink Skies Ahead.” It was a largely autobiographical story: A college dropout moves back in with her parents, where she wrestles with both what career she wants to pursue and burgeoning anxiety issues.

“It’s about the uncertainty of being in a transitionary period in one’s life, and as that feeling happened to me again, I tapped back into it,” she said. “I felt a lot better when it was done, because I’d made it all into something. A weight had been lifted.”

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Before writing the screenplay, Oxford had been flirting with the idea of directing her own work. Cameron Crowe encouraged the pursuit, inviting her to shadow him on the set of one of his movies. She watched how closely he worked with his actors, playing music for them to help them channel their creativity. A couple of years later, as the on-set writer for “The Disaster Artist,” she watched how James Franco worked with the script on the fly.

“At first we were like, ‘There’s gonna be another writer on set?’” remembered Michael H. Weber, who co-wrote “The Disaster Artist” screenplay with partner Scott Neustadter. “We had never done that before. But from day one, we all hit it off. There was no ego. And that’s all because of Kelly. The way she writes is the way she interacts with people — with a tremendous amount of empathy. When I found out she was directing, it didn’t surprise me at all because of how well she connects with people.”

“Pink Skies Ahead” wasn’t a big production: It cost just $2 million to make, and was filmed in 19 days in L.A. Barden, the lead actress, isn’t a household name — though she does have 2.1 million Instagram followers, largely a result of her role on the U.K. dark comedy series “The End of the F—ing World,” which streams on Netflix.

Barden works with Oxford on set.
(Tiffany Roohani)

Barden had followed Oxford on Instagram for years before meeting her after one of her friends “told me I had to follow her because we had the same exact sense of humor.” Then two years ago Barden got a direct message from Oxford, asking if she’d be interested in reading “Pink Skies Ahead.” She was in a taxi, stuck in traffic, and pored over the entire script while still in the car.

She signed onto the project and she and Oxford became fast friends, with Barden becoming a staple on the filmmaker’s Instagram stories. Their relationship — and work on the film — helped the actress come to grips with her own anxiety issues.

“At the time we filmed, I’d been working constantly for two years and I didn’t have a therapist. I definitely knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t really understand what was going on,” said Barden, 28. “But through making the movie and being able to process things with Kelly, by the end I was like, ‘OK, cool. I’m going to get a therapist.’ Kelly writes about her anxiety and has three kids and lives her life and is a successful person. I’m going to figure out how to live my life with this too.”

On set, Oxford actually found herself eerily calm — a result, she surmised, of dealing with the chaos of raising three kids. (Sal, 19, is now in college in Santa Barbara, while Henry, 16, and Bea, 12, live at home.) Greg Silverman, whose production company Stampede Ventures financed the movie, admitted he wasn’t sure how nervous Oxford would be during the shoot.

“It’s a movie about someone who is overwhelmed, and then you put them in a super stressful situation directing a low-budget movie? You assume you’re going to have to be there for emotional support,” said Silverman, the executive who bought Oxford’s first script when he was Warner Bros.’ production head back in 2012. “But it was the opposite. She was much calmer than I thought she would be. She was so clearly in her element.”

Silverman has already signed on to produce Oxford’s next film, “Son of a Bitch” — the same project he tried to make at Warner Bros. years ago. The movie, which HBO Max bought in July, is another spin on Oxford’s own life, this time tackling her adjustment from wild child to young motherhood at 23.

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The project is in the casting stage, but she’s reluctant to get excited about it yet in the era of COVID-19. “I’m thinking about my family and if somebody is gonna get sick and if I’m going to be able to even stay in this country after the election,” she said.

Quarantine has been difficult for her, like it has been for most of us. She spent a couple of months in Canada with her parents, which is when she had that panic attack in April. Back in L.A., she’s had a couple of coronavirus scares, and she tries to make sure her kids are staying in their friend pods. She’s constantly making them food; Henry is partial to scrambled eggs with maple syrup. At night, when she’s sure she doesn’t have to drive her children anywhere else, she tries to quell her nervousness by smoking marijuana. (She also takes anti-anxiety medication.)

Kelly Oxford said she had her first panic attack in years during quarantine.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Her boyfriend, Adrian Galvin — a musician who goes by the moniker Yoke Lore — lives five minutes away. She met him after sliding into his DMs and suggesting they should hang out when he had a tour stop in L.A. He’s 30, which she jokes makes her a cougar. “He doesn’t want kids, so that doesn’t matter,” she said. “And if he changes his mind, he’ll have to break up with me. But whatever. I mean, he’ll probably want kids when he’s 45, and then I don’t know what will happen.”

Making a living, she said, is still at the forefront of her mind. In May, Publisher’s Weekly reported that she had sold two young adult novels for “mid-six figures” to Delacorte. She’s already completed the first book, and a quick scan of her office from her laptop shows a Post-it grid outline for the second one.

“I’ve gotta hustle,” said Oxford. “I’m not just supporting myself. I need to pay for a house and three kids. I feel like I have a lot of ambition and drive and I’m a very capable person, but also, I’m so chill. I would be fine being a trophy wife. Is that terrible to say? If I was in love with the right person. I don’t know if I want you to put that in there. Because while it’s true, I don’t think it paints an exact picture of me.

“Just being personally fulfilled is enough for me in life, really. I like doing my job, for sure. But if somebody said, ‘I’m taking it all away from you tomorrow?’ I’ll still emotionally be on the same level. I think that’s part of my anxiety. I’m always ready for everything to go away.”