We love them. We hate them. We’re vexed by them. We’re terrified by what they might do next. Whether the characters in movies and television shows melt into our hearts or get under our skin, there’s no denying that “reel life” psyches leave an indelible imprint on our “real life” perceptions. In her new book, Best Psychology in Film, author Katherine Marshall Woods, Psy.D. shares her expertise regarding exploration of the psychological dynamics found within Oscar winning and nominated films. Whether one is behind the camera, acting in front of it or sitting in the audience watching the finished product, the book’s takeaway value on what makes a compelling film “tick” is priceless.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: What attracted you to psychology as a profession?
A: From early childhood I was attracted to psychology. I recall asking my mother what profession would allow me to sit and listen to an individual’s problems and help people. From that time on, psychology was my focus with the goal of being an integral part of people’s healing. I believed it would be an honor to hear individuals’ stories that ranged from happiness to pain and allowed the opportunity to be trusted with such intimate information. I have not been disappointed; it has been my honor to serve my patients in what I hope has been as meaningful to them as it has been for me.
Q: Given the diversity of specializations in this field, what types of experiences have been the most influential in shaping your career?
A: What a difficult question! I feel that all of my work has influenced me to become the professional I am today. Whether I provided services within academic settings, mental health hospitals, outpatient treatment programs, private practice, or the Middle East, or teaching university classes with doctoral students, I can easily track how each of these experiences have honed my professional skills and developed my professional self. With the array of experience I have been afforded, I feel now well equipped to apply what I have learned to screenwriters who are in the midst of developing themes and developing their characters as it pertains to psychological dynamics and interpersonal interactions.
Q: Psychology and film make for an interesting combination. How have you connected these two fields?
A: My main interest has been to share what psychology has to offer to those naturally interested in the field and in a manner that is inviting to those who give little attention to psychology in an effort to spark curiosity. Using film, a source of entertainment, to illustrate psychology in a welcoming way has been ideal to marry the two fields.
Q: You also have a background in media. Tell us about it.
A: My first employment included working with children and building a semester curriculum to teach a class. I chose Cartoon Education, a class for children to view cartoons together and discuss the morals found within the episodes. Thereafter, I became employed as an intern at a national insurance company within their visual communications department. There I learned how to perform numerous media activities, teleprompting, editing, etc. Since becoming a psychologist, I have been frequently asked to be the talent/expert. Stepping onto the set always feels like coming home.
Q: What inspired you to develop Best Psychology in Film?
A: For several years I wrote for American Psychological Association’s journal, PsycCritiques regarding psychology and film. In an effort to share these ideas, I began contributing with The Huffington Post and Medium. For the last years, I have continued to contribute to Medium and now Thrive Global. Best Psychology in Film became a way to share these ideas with my readers who wished to think deeply regarding the films they enjoyed.
Q: What governed your focus on films which were nominated for Academy Awards and those that won within a specific year?
A: The Academy Awards is a time of the year when people congregate to films. Whether it is for the fashion displayed on the red carpet or an interest in the films deemed as extraordinary; these films have been most likely viewed and discussed. Because these films were recommended by such an esteemed organization with many viewers support, I felt Best Psychology in Film might capture those works that would be able to include many people in the discussion. Otherwise, it is suggested in Best Psychology in Film that one might view the film prior to reading the associated chapter to personally relate to the book.
Q: What chapter/film was the most enjoyable for you to conceptualize using psychological theory?
A: Chapter IV: La La Land. This film was surprising to me. Though I very much enjoy musicals, I admittedly lacked excitement to view this film. It was also a film that I initially lacked a clear link to the psychological theory that would be best suited to explore. However, after multiple viewings, I found myself seduced by the characters’ passions, determinations and support of one another. I was hooked; singing and poorly performing dance routines in my home! Once the dancing began, the psychological theory was soon to follow.
Q: What are your three favorite films that you remain most intrigued by psychologically?
A: The Shining (1980) as this film highlights the presence of psychotic symptoms budding in an individual (Jack Torrance, performed by Jack Nicholson) and the presence of an early onset of psychosis in his son (Danny, acted by Danny Lloyd); Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) that depicts the hardships on a single mother providing for a child and four elderly grandparents made light by the hopes and inspirations of a young boy who wins the opportunity to view paradise in fantastical chocolate factory and The Color Purple (1985) that illustrates the effects of generational and cultural trauma. All of these films, I could watch a million more times than I already have only to learn of additional psychological theories that apply.
Q: Does Art imitate Life or does Life imitate Art?
A: Honestly, I think both occur. The beauty of art is that it documents life, what it has been and what it is presently. In concert, art also offers possibilities of what life can be. And when art makes suggestions regarding how the world can be, it has the power to inspire its viewers and support change; allowing life to imitate a different reality, one that art proposes as an alternative.
Q: What do you believe is the takeaway value of Best Psychology in Film for readers? And for Hollywood?
A: I am hopeful that readers will take that psychology is an unavoidable aspect in our lives. Psychology is indeed the study of individuals and the way in which we navigate our world. If this is agreeable, I believe the art of film that strives to visually share individuals in their most natural and complex states can benefit from considering the psychology within the themes and characters to create richer productions.
Q: Despite the fact there has been no shortage of crises, tragedies and conflicts throughout the world in recent months, the Los Angeles Times gave much more front-page ink during the month of May to the final season of Game of Thrones than to actual news. In your view, what has driven the obsession of fans to care more about the fate of fictitious characters in fictitious realms than events transpiring in real life?
A: Consistent, structured investment. Game of Thrones has been a collection of narratives that have included the intensities of human nature. Using fictitious realms, animal and human-like creatures have allowed for the stories to become a vehicle to engage the adult fantasy mind. This series has been an outlet for many to feel similar as the characters and wrestle with similar conflicts (typically less intense than depicted in the series) of love, faithfulness, loyalty, humiliation, torture, war and rage. Being based in fiction allows for the viewer to engage in such conflicts and primitive raw behaviors in the safety of our own living areas while being entertained.
Q: Briefly, what was the process that led to your being hired for film projects?
A: Initially, I was requested to be an expert psychologist upon documentaries and was asked to take the role of a psychologist in a scripted series. Thereafter, I was asked to review scripts for writers, provide a psychological perspective upon the work, ensure the representation of psychology and interpersonal exchanges represented a realistic experience and provide set accuracy when there was a psychological scene (i.e. ensuring a therapist’s office appeared accurate). Since, I have offered my services through PsychMinded Media, a business created to house this work.
Q: As a psychologist, do you limit your consultation to films which have a psychological aspect?
A: Absolutely not. I am a strong believer that psychology is all around us. It is within every interaction we have with others and when we are taking part in our own solitude. Because psychology is ever present, I have had the privilege to consult on films that do not have an overt psychological aspect.
Q: When you’re not writing and consulting, what do you do for fun?
A: There are four activities I faithfully turn to for enjoyment: quality time with my husband and dog, visiting my neighboring organic farm to harvest and take in nature, exploring unfamiliar places and resting with a Vogue magazine for inspiration!
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: Currently, I am consulting on a number of short film productions, offering psychological perspectives of films upon panels pertaining to cinema works and conceptualizing my next book publication.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Cinema and media works have great power to display individuals in a manner that captures the richness of the human condition. It has been amazing to be a contributor in this industry while using my love for psychology to offer greater authenticity to the work. I am hopeful that I will remain as fortunate in the future!