For Amy Heller, it’s always been personal.
The 27-year-old — who graduated from Loyola with a theater major in 2015 — is the writer, co-producer and main character for her upcoming first feature film, “My Little Renaissance Girl.” The dark comedy tackles topics of mental illness and unplanned pregnancy, according to the film’s website.
Both Heller and her character, also named Amy, struggle and live with body dysmorphic disorder, which is a mental illness that affects about five to 10 million people in the U.S. Having body dysmorphia causes someone to have constant thoughts about a perceived physical flaw or defect, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Heller said the film-making process is therapeutic in a way and has forced her to face some harsh truths since the film is partly about her life.
“Sometimes when I read [the script], I really like the character Amy and sometimes I read it, and I really don’t like her,” said Heller, who lives in Lake View East. “That’s very much a mirror to my relationship with myself.”
The idea for the film came from an experience Heller had years ago when someone told her she looked like a Renaissance woman.
“You think about those lumpy-bodied ladies in the Renaissance portraits with big eyes, no lips and egg-shaped heads,” Heller said. “You’re like, ‘That’s what I look like?’ I’m sure it was meant to be a compliment but it bothers you forever.”
The interaction prompted Heller last year to write and produce her first film, which she hopes to finish for the 2022 film festival season.
In the film, the character Amy’s world drastically changes after she too is compared to a Renaissance portrait. She starts dressing as a Renaissance woman and sees her world increasingly become more like the Renaissance — all the while in modern-day Chicago — as no one else shares her perceptions.
“It’s the literal representation of that all-consuming thought, ‘Does everybody else see these flaws I have?’” Heller said. “‘They’re telling me I don’t but when I look at myself, it’s all I can see.’”
The film is currently in its pre-production phase, which mainly involves fundraising. Since its August launch on GoFundMe, the film has raised more than $13,000 of its $40,000 goal as of Nov. 1.
The plan is set to start filming in May 2021 but that may be postponed to next fall depending on when a vaccine for COVID-19 will be widely available, according to Heller.
During the film-making process, the film’s team has called Heller out on cutting out important lines or scenes when the script becomes too personal. In a scene between the main character and her therapist — which is based on real events — Amy wants her therapist to tell her she’s “crazy and thin” instead of being told, “No, there’s nothing wrong with you. You don’t have any mental illness. You just look ugly,” Heller said.
The filmmaker said she wanted to take out those lines in case they gave off the wrong message of “fat shaming,” but her friends encouraged her to add the part back to keep the film authentic.
“There’s an importance to … being like, ‘Yeah, this is about me. This is me. Even when the character sucks, that’s me,’” Heller said.
One aspect of the film that isn’t autobiographical is the main character’s unplanned pregnancy, which Heller said forces Amy to ask herself whether or not she’s capable of unconditional love.
The film also covers female friendships, according to its website. But although 90 percent of the cast and crew is female, Heller said the movie isn’t only for women.
“I don’t want it to become this narrative that it’s men versus women,” Heller said. “I think there’s value in men participating in and supporting female-led projects. It gets icky to keep hearing, ‘Oh, look at this female film’ when you would never say, ‘Look at this male film.’”
Heller said she wants more accurate representation from Hollywood in portraying mental illness and body image stories.
The film differs from movies like Amy Schumer’s 2018 “I Feel Pretty,” as it’s not a narrative about “fat versus thin” or the main character “learn[ing] to love herself even though she’s not thin,” according to Heller.
The film is told through dark comedy, reflective of Heller’s self-deprecating humor which she said adds realism to the story.
“I always joked that my life is like a dark comedy,” Heller said. “My way of dealing with difficult times has always been to make fun of it. It’s echoed in the film, too.”
The filmmaker said she hopes “My Little Renaissance Girl” will spark conversations because her experience with body dysmorphia was her “deep dark secret” before she began working on this project and realized others related to her story.
Heller said despite struggles she’s had with some grants being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s excited to be working on art and supporting other artists.
“I think, maybe now more than ever, we need more art out in the world because there’s so much negative stuff out there,” Heller said. “If this is my one little way of putting good into the world … this is the time for that.”