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Guidelines and Application

General Guidelines and Philosophy

The emphasis of this program is on discussing how mental health/illness has been depicted and might be depicted and in helping students develop a more nuanced understanding of the associated issues. For example:

  • What are the ethics of depicting mental illness?
  • When is “accuracy” an important concept?
  • When is mental illness and health culturally determined?
  • How do we balance creativity with accuracy?
  • How do we use drama, comedy, and horror to both entertain, but also to educate in terms of mental health/illness?
  • How can we use film/tv to normalize mental health/illness and encourage a more accepting society with less stigma?
  • From a craft perspective, how do we use writing and filmmaking to represent internal states, especially the state of mental health/illness? What techniques have been used and what might be used?
  • What are the creative possibilities and dangers of embracing the “trauma trope,” the “tortured artist trope,” and the dissociative personality?
  • How do historical conceptions of and depictions of mental illness inform current conceptions and depictions?
  • And there are many others.

There may be time for limited craft and technical discussions within the context of the courses across all aspects of filmmaking. Faculty are also available for consultations outside class, and outside workshops can be arranged. This is an intermediate-to-advanced-level class to hone and build upon the visual storytelling skills that you and your collaborators have already gained, focused on a complete short film.

Application Timeline and Procedures

Sept 15: Application deadline.
Mid October: Semi-finalists will be selected for interviews
Oct 15-30: Interviews.
Early Nov: Final selections will be made. Before being allowed to register in the class, students will sign a letter that underscores that they have read, understood, and agree to the above language.

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General Flow

Quarter 1 

Students will work together to first pitch/conceive and then write short scripts (in whatever way that collaboration makes sense). Those scripts will be standalone works but may also be a proof of concept for something longer.

Each participant will receive $1,000 for completing the first quarter/script. They may use that money to host readings of those works if they so choose.

Students may write more than five scripts together, but only five projects will ultimately be produced (chosen by the prof for Quarter 2 in consultation with a judging panel).  Ideally, each participant will have had a hand in creating one of the five scripts, either as a co-writer or as an overseeing director or as a producer or some hyphenate (i.e., writer-producer).

Each of the five crewed projects that move forward will have a budget of $3,000, with money disbursed based on different bars being reached—pre-production, production, post-production, and completion.

Each of these projects can only utilize up to three “outside” crew members (part of NU but not part of the class). However, hiring outside professionals (not part of NU)  is a possibility, although students are still asked to cap their overall crews at five-to-seven people.

The idea is to have the small crew/small footprint crew reflect the script’s content (which we assume will be intimate/personal in nature given the subject of mental health/illness). We also aim to model a healthy pre-production, production, and post-production experiences, in terms of how crew interact with one another and with cast.

Auxiliary projects/funds

Either at the same time or right after the five productions are announced, students may petition to make an additional “solo” personal project, i.e., something they’d do themselves without other crew, with a cap of five projects possible and a budget of up to $1,000/each. We can only support up to five and, again, the professor of Quarter 2 in consultation with a judging panel will decide.

If there are no solo projects or none are greenlit, students involved with the five crewed films described above can petition for additional funds.

All PPSL students are expected to either have a central role in one of the PPSL crewed projects or in an auxiliary project.

QUARTER 2/Summer/Quarter 3

Quarter 2 will either be a pre-production quarter or a production quarter, depending on the nature of each production/where students are in their process.


Students are able to continue to work independently on their projects. (Some students have chosen to do so via a SURG grant.)

Quarter 3

Students will be required to sign up for a finishing course (either RTVF finishing or a section sponsored by PPSL).

Throughout, PPSL students will still be required to attend PPSL-sponsored events as part of their participation in the program.

The expectation is that students will finish their films and receive their completion funds by the end of their third quarter.

Tasks to Complete

During Quarters 1/2/3, students will complete tasks in whatever order makes sense for their project/genre and their process (in consultation with the professor):

  1. Structural, tone, and character analysis of a screenplay.
  2. the first table read (assume the end of Quarter 1)
  3. table read of rewrite before production
  4. in-class scene workshop with actors
  5. audiovisual/lookbook presentation
  6. screen a selection of dailies
  7. screen first rough cut
  8. screen second rough cut
  9. A presentation/report on a director or writer’s work who tends to deal with issues of mental health/illness. Students usually choose a director for whom they feel a creative affinity, and emphasis is put on how they got their start and then sustained their careers.
  10. Research log of a particular arena of mental health/illness and how that arena has been depicted, including at least one interview with an expert or someone who has lived experience of the mental health condition/arena/illness; two textual sources, and two movies/TV shows (what has worked well in those depictions, what may be problematic).
  11. Reflections journal: a half a page reflecting on each of our Thursday public sessions. What did you learn? What was surprising? How did this session relate to others? How did it relate to your film project(s)?

Timing of Courses

Courses will meet on Tuesday and Thursday: Tuesdays from 3-5:50 p.m. and Thursdays 7-9 p.m.. Thursdays are reserved for our public screenings/lectures/performances around mental health/illness from a variety of perspectives. See examples of our past events and upcoming events here:

Tuesdays will entail: (a) reactions to the Thursday session; (b) craft lecture/discussion; and (c ) critique. Some of the craft lectures will center on writing (probably mostly in the first quarter), others will address issues of production. The focus will be on understanding mental illness depictions.

Crew, Equipment, Collaboration, and Production Philosophy

PPSL equipment is the equipment to which students will have guaranteed priority access.  Other equipment will be available on the same priority as other RTVF production courses. PPSL money may be used to rent outside equipment.

We will be exploring how to make a film that honors the intimate subjects of our films, with just the students in the class acting as crew. We are teaching how the process of making a film about mental health can reflect that subject—so small, intimate, and contained.


Licensed clinical social worker Meghan Finn will join us in the courses to add in psychological perspectives, to monitor the conversations, and to be an added resource to students, both for their research and if they need psychological support.

Our Board Members who represent different approaches to mental health and mental health depictions (from screenwriting to playwriting to anthropology to psychiatry, from comedy to drama to horror) are also available as a resource:

We also have a growing relationship with NAMI:

Frequently Asked Questions

Is this opportunity open to freshmen/first-years?

Alas, no, but you can apply in your second and/or third year.

The good news is the winter course has a public component. On Thursday evenings, 7-9 p.m., we will be holding public lectures, discussions, and screenings around mental health/mental illness. All are welcome. Announcements are forthcoming

Is this opportunity open to seniors/fourth-years?

Alas, no, since you have to be in residence/enrolled through fall of 2022.  The good news is the winter course has a public component. On Thursday evenings, 7-9 p.m., we will be holding public lectures, discussions, and screenings around mental health/mental illness. All are welcome. Announcements are forthcoming

Is this opportunity open to graduate students?

If you are in residence in 2022-2023 and fall of 2023 and are cleared to take coursework, yes. If not, The good news is the winter course has a public component. On Thursday evenings, 7-9 p.m., we will be holding public lectures, discussions, and screenings around mental health/mental illness. All are welcome. Announcements are forthcoming

How can I get involved as a faculty member?

Reach out to the Lab’s director, Dave Tolchinsky.  We’re excited to have faculty offer up lectures, participate in the public discussions, and/or devise a course that might be of interest in an auxiliary way.  Also, if you have suggestions for guests, organizations, or news outlets across screenwriting, television writing, media making, social science, media scholarship, anthropology, etc., please reach out to Dave Tolchinsky. Our dream is to make this Northwestern effort the beginning of a national/international sea change in how mental health is depicted.

Will there be comprehensive technical and craft lectures from start to finish, for a screenplay and/or film?

No. There will be some, but this is an intermediate-to-advanced opportunity. Students will be expected to seek out additional help and/or PPSL can arrange for additional workshops as needed.

Students should be ready to watch and discuss films/TV shows/plays that foreground mental health concerns/illness/trauma. Some of these films are difficult and may involve violence or sexual violence.

Students should be ready to discuss their work—including receiving feedback from professors and peers. So, they need to have enough distance from their stories, especially if those stories are autobiographical, to do so.

I have a very personal story I want to pursue in PPSL. Is that appropriate for this course sequence?

Possibly. We’re developing scripts together, so one model may be a writer-director model. Also, the question is: Are you able to receive feedback and openly discuss your work?  If not, then that story might not be the best story to work on in the context of the program. If you are not sure, program director Dave Tolchinsky is available to discuss all. Also, students will have the opportunity to consult with the course’s psychological consultant to discuss the impact that sharing a personal narrative may have, but are also encouraged to discuss these matters with their mental health care providers.

In the application, students will be asked to provide up to three ideas for films focusing on mental health/illness. And they may submit a writing sample of a previously completed script. But the expectation of this program is you will be creating a NEW work, in collaboration with one or more of your classmates, based on what you’ll be learning about mental health/illness depictions.

I have a script ready to go. Should I apply to PPSL?

If your script is finished and you’re ready to begin filming and aren’t in a place where you feel like you need feedback or additional perspectives, this program may not be the best match.  This program is based on collaboration and new learning. If you have a finished film ready to go, please look to MAG or one of the student group grants and/or perhaps the directing sequence would be a better fit.

I want to apply to PPSL and create a film with a larger crew model. Is that doable?

You will not be allowed to follow a large crew model. If you are looking for a large crew experience, this is not the right program for you. There are other grant opportunities in RTF like the MAG grants and/or grants by student groups.

How many credits is each PPSL course?

Each course is worth a standard 1 credit.

Other questions? Please email