Growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley in the ‘60s was just like in the movies – sunshine and rock ‘n roll.
My favorite subject in high school was photography; and luckily for me, my teacher was passionate about his job. He introduced us to some of the most famous photographers in the world, those whose iconic works were featured in LIFE Magazine, National Geographic and The New York Times. By the tender age of 16, my goal was to become as successful as these historic photographers – telling stories through images became my calling.
It was after working for over 35 years shooting both print advertisements and directing commercials for major brands that I decided it was time to realize my true dream. A friend recommended that I peruse a story on a subject about which I was passionate. As a result, I began developing a TV show that eventually became A&E’s The Cleaner. This one-hour drama starring Benjamin Bratt was based on a real-life interventionist who uses unorthodox methods to save the lives of those battling addiction. The Cleaner not only received critical acclaim, but also helped many viewers who related to the issues addressed in the show.
I had no idea how close to home this subject would hit. I was unprepared when I discovered my own daughter was struggling with alcohol and substance abuse problems. Like most parents, I did not recognize the signs. I had assumed that while I was at work, everything at home was fine. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
My new film, Girl on the Edge, is loosely based on the journey my daughter and I took to restore her health and help her find inner peace. The film explores how sexual trauma and the subsequent shame can haunt a child into adulthood – then lead to self-medicating and other poor coping strategies.
Girl on the Edge was also inspired by two adolescent treatment centers that employ unconventional and innovative approaches to healing and recovery. Pacific Quest, a remarkable wilderness program in Hawaii, specializes in horticultural therapy. The Uinta Academy in Utah is a therapeutic boarding school that utilizes equine therapy. Both are very effective programs.
I had absolutely no knowledge of such unconventional approaches that could help kids who are using drugs and alcohol to cope with post-traumatic stress. Had we not been introduced to an educational consultant who directed us to these unique programs, I’m not sure what path we might have taken with our daughter.
Making a movie was one of the toughest tasks I’d ever undertaken – yet producing such a personal story about my own daughter was one of the most fulfilling events of my life. I knew if I could share my family’s experience, we could help many others going through the same challenges.
We began the script development by hiring renowned Blue Valentine cowriter, Joey Curtis. I shared the script with my daughter so I could recreate her experience as truthfully as possible. Because this was an independently-financed project and funds were limited, we had to be resourceful during location scouting. We found places in California that could mirror the actual locations in Utah and Hawaii.
We were able to keep most of the production in Los Angeles by combining the equine therapy program and the wilderness program into the one featured in the story. Local resources greatly benefited the film, including a great crew, the stages in Hollywood and an exceptional cast of leading talent. We would not have been able to secure all these resources had we filmed in another state.
After many rewrites were completed, casting the lead role of Hannah was first and foremost on our agenda. We wanted an actress who could convincingly portray a fifteen-year-old, but was still mature enough to carry our film. After weeks of auditions, we chose a remarkable young woman by the name of Taylor Spreitler. Early in the casting process, we were quite fortunate to have Peter Coyote join the project. Filling other roles were two stars from The Cleaner, Gil Bellows and Amy Price-Francis. We were graced with other talented individuals: Mackenzie Phillips, Amy Davidson, Entourage’s Rex Lee and the late Elizabeth Peña, in her last movie role.
We felt someone was watching over us every step of the way. Our treatment center location was a rustic ranch just outside of Lake Sherwood, a well-known property used in many great Hollywood films. The ranch’s owner asked us to consider hiring his young granddaughter, who had a real passion for working with horses. When we saw a YouTube video of her with her horse, we were impressed with her talent. I was moved to tears by the unspoken bond she and her horse displayed. She proved to be a master of Liberty Horsemanship, a discipline for training horses without ropes, halters, saddles or any physical contact. She also happened to be the same height as our lead actress; so without even searching, we found the perfect stunt double.
From concept to script to screen, making this film was an all-consuming and deeply cathartic process. No longer was I just talking about my lifelong dream, I was actually living it.
Working a tight, 18-day schedule around our actors and their other commitments meant that we had to be efficient, often shooting out of sequence and toiling long days and late nights. At times, we were forced to shoot exterior night scenes in the studio using a projection backdrop, as well as building the ranch interiors on the stage.
As the executive producer and director, one of the most daunting challenges was to remain true to my heart in how this story would be told. An important contemporary issue I wanted to address was that today’s teens are placed under a lot of pressure to grow up too fast. They also have access to powerful technology, but often have little understanding of the consequences of its misuse.
My purpose in making Girl on the Edge was not only to entertain, but also to provide alternatives for healing and recovery for families in crisis. If we help even one family, our efforts were not in vain. After prescreenings, so many young people have come up to me with tears in their eyes and confided in me that – like the protagonist – they were sexually abused. They would say, “That was my story.” One 19-year-old boy told me that this film helped him understand what his parents went through during his challenging teens. After watching the film, a 13-year-old who was self-medicating after a date rape finally consented to her parent’s wishes that she accept professional help.
I want parents of troubled kids to know that there is no shame in asking for help, even when you have no idea of the pain they’re secretly harboring. Had I known then what I know now, my daughter may have been spared so much unnecessary anguish. It is my hope that this film will inspire anyone who has gone through a traumatic experience to find the inner strength and outside assistance to not only survive it, but to come through it a happier, healthier person.
For over 30 years, Jay Silverman has excelled as a leading producer, director and photographer specializing in award-winning television, digital and print campaigns. He has worked with renowned celebrities such as Denzel Washington, Beyonce, Quentin Tarantino and Ray Charles. In 1980, he founded Jay Silverman Productions in Hollywood, California. His advertising clients include Disney, Budweiser and Apple. Jay was the co-creator and executive producer of A&E’s The Cleaner. Jay lives in Santa Monica, California and continues to be inspired every day by his daughter’s recovery.