The neurosis doctors
TV documentary-makers Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman are looking for the secrets of mental health — with A-list help.
Jamie Catto (left) and Duncan Bridgeman have conducted hundreds of interviews in their quest to make self-reflection hip. “It’s a mitzvah,” says Catto
It is not many television filmmakers who could assemble a cast of contributors so varied it includes Bob Geldof, Stephen Fry, Hollywood stars Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, philosopher Noam Chomsky and spiritual teacher Ram Dass.
And few are the filmmakers who could get Geldof to admit to suicidal tendencies and Robbins to expound on the problems of medicating "difficult" children, all the while acquiring new music for the soundtrack from the likes of Michael Stipe and Alanis Morrisette.
Then again, not many filmmakers, British or otherwise, are afforded the soubriquet "genius" by none other than Bono. But that is exactly what the U2 leader has called Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman, the free-thinking individuals behind multimedia outfit 1 Giant Leap and the Channel 4 documentary series What About Me?
The project began in 2004 and has seen the pair, formerly musicians (Catto with Faithless, Bridgeman as producer of Take That), travel to 50 locations around the world armed with a digital camera, a laptop and a determination to examine, via hundreds of interviews and encounters with writers and philosophers, actors and comedians, grave diggers and gurus, themes such as the insatiability of desire, emotional scars from childhood, and our addiction to everything from narcotics to lying.
"It's a mitzvah," says Catto, the Jewish half of 1 Giant Leap, of What About Me? Their mission, he says, is "to make self-reflection hip... just long enough to save us", their rationale being that "if it's true for me and Duncan, then it's probably true for you."
"It's as much about what we were going through as people, the hurdles to happiness we face and the ways we drive ourselves nuts trying to hide our suffering," he says. We all need, he decides, to "acknowledge our insanity", arguing that we waste too much time trying to "pretend every day that we're ‘normal'", instead of revealing the truth - that we are all as neurotic, obsessed, and consumed with doubt as each other... It's when we dare to reveal the truth that we give everyone else permission to do the same."
Catto grew up in Hampstead, North London. His parents, he says, weren't particularly "frum". Nevertheless, he has always loved what he calls "the lyricism of Judaism" and he observes Shabbat as often as he can in Mallorca, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. "It's very important to me, because for centuries people have risked their lives to keep that ritual alive. That really resonates with me. I feel like I'm honouring those individuals."
He says that his desire to make some sense of life probably stems back to his unhappy teenage years. "I used to suffer, particularly in my late teens. I felt the usual - isolation, abandonment. I had panic attacks and would totally melt down and feel I couldn't function."
He declines to go into too much detail, excusing himself from further probing by adding: "You know what? In all the scrabbling around to try and find meaning, I'm least interested in the story that birthed it. It's best to concentrate on how you feel now.
"Pain is as much a physical sensation as it is a mental trip. I recommend that you don't listen to all the chatter in your head. The experience that you're having is a physical one. Breathe into it. If you do that, the pain will move, I promise. Like the Torah says: ‘Empty your mind and listen to your pain as well as to God.' Stop thinking, start feeling. The mind - it's a liability."
Just when you start thinking Catto has maybe been listening to too much chatter himself, he will undercut his pronouncements with a self-debunking declaration like, "... and that's not just new age crap".
Does he feel, after being exposed to so many insightful people, that he has been able to evolve himself? "Me? Don't even go there," he laughs. "I'm the least evolved person I know. 1 Giant Leap is great because I get to speak about my pathological neuroses with some of the most inspiring people on the planet."
Of all the people he has interviewed, how many of them struck him as being as messed-up as he is? He stares in disbelief. "All of them! Are you mad?!"
What, even Bono?
"Of course. He's got an ego the size of a brontosaurus! But in a lovely way. And he knows it. But it's not about having an enormous ego; it's about not being the bitch of that enormous ego. There's a massive difference."
And who dispensed the most wisdom? "Ram Dass," he says without hesitation of the author of the celebrated hippie-era tome, Be Here Now. "He talks about making your whole life an appreciation of the present moment. The idea is not to think about the past or worry about the future, because it's a total waste of life. We can all save ourselves that agony - you, me and every other idiot. Let's get over it!"
What About Me? is on Channel 4 on Wednesdays