Ward Roberts was a small-town kid from Peru, Indiana, who came to Hollywood to be a celluloid hero. Sixteen years later, he’s not quite the toast of Tinseltown, but he’s got some clout in the far eastern corner of the San Fernando Valley. Roberts, a Glendale resident, directed the short film, “Pro-Ana,” screening at the AMC Burbank 16 on Sept. 10 as part of the Burbank International Film Festival.
It’s the latest of many accolades the film’s received on the global festival circuit, but the director’s just happy this one’s close to home. “When I got word we were in, I was happy, because it’s close enough that I might actually be able to get over there,” says Roberts, 37.
“Pro-Ana,” conceived, written by and starring Shawn Kathryn Kane, is an unsettling glimpse into the world of body dysmorphia and the subculture that encourages and enables eating disorders. Kane says she decided to write about the issue after a friend started a social media campaign highlighting support for recovery from eating disorders. The campaign also uncovered some unseemly factors that perpetuate the cycle. “I wanted the story to be about a young woman who wanted to get better,” she says.
For Kane, the issue is personal: “For me, it was an ugliness. When I look in the mirror I see an unattractive person, and I have to work on that.” The problems can be magnified when you work in a business where looks can be currency. “There’s a healthy way to approach or absorb the feedback you get from your advertisements or your directors,” she says. “Your core has to be strong without internalizing it.”
Roberts, who admitted to having issues with alcohol in the past, was a neophyte with the heaviness of the material. “This is totally outside my wheelhouse,” Roberts says. “I don’t usually dabble in the truly dramatic realm. But I was drawn in by the power of the story. I was horrified and repulsed but also fascinated.”
He had previously worked with Kane on a comedy pilot called “Apocalypse Wow!” “'Pro-Ana’ was 180 degrees from that in tone and sensibility.” But when you’re directing an independent short film, you roll with the punches. “It’s just a matter of how many days in a row I don’t have time or money. My approach has always been, all you have to do is tell the story. My priority is to get the actor as many takes as that actor needs. Everything else is icing on the cake.”
The curve thrown at Roberts was a brand-new script, delivered by Kane one day before the two-day shoot was scheduled in June 2015. Originally, the film was to focus on a typical Al-Anon-type support group.
“It was well done but it was a traditional approach to the disorder world,” Roberts says. “I thought we could make it really strong. We’d just had to avoid the melodrama.” Then Kane flipped the script. Literally. The focus changed to a Pro-Ana group, which focused on the power of the disorder.
“This was clearly the way to go,” he adds. “Really different and really fascinating. Shawn had such a clear vision. I’m there to serve her vision. I’m the objective set of eyes that can reassure Shawn that her vision is intact. Even if it came together 24 hours before.”
Roberts’ own vision has always tended to be double. He maintained an interest in both acting and directing from an early age. His dad gave him a camera at age 5. He was doing Public Access TV in his hometown in high school.
He realizes that a singular focus might have pushed him off the fringes, but he’s OK with it. “I’ve just accepted my fate, daring to be somebody who wants to do it all,” he says. “If I could do just one, I could get some momentum, but when I look back, 16 years in, I wouldn’t have done anything different, even though it’s taken longer.”
And now he’s on to something different altogether. Roberts is in the early stages of producing and directing a documentary about legendary pop music composer Cole Porter. “We are blood relations in the same small town in Indiana,” he says. “In the last few years I’ve gotten really interested in the music. He is one of the top-10 songwriters in pop music history and I just wanted to bring the spotlight to him personally.”
With “Pro-Ana,” Roberts and Kane have already shined a very big spotlight on body dysmorphia. As far as they’re concerned, every new screening is a way to reach one more person in need of help.
“There’s so much isolation and shame and guilt with disordered eating and body dysmorphia,” Kane says. “One in five women struggle with this. One in 10 men. They think they’re alone. They’re not. They need to be allowed to deal with their issues without shame. People need to be able to talk about it and get help quickly. From that side it’s important for the film to keep going.”
What: Burbank International Film Festival (including the short “Pro-Ana”)
When: Sept. 7 through 11
Where: Burbank AMC 16, 125 E Palm Ave., Burbank
More info: www.burbankfilmfest.org
ERIK HIMMELSBACH-WEINSTEIN is a Los Angeles writer and producer.