Awakenings: Actor Derek Sitter draws on his own struggles for new film project | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Awakenings: Actor Derek Sitter draws on his own struggles for new film project

Local film writer, Derek Sitter tells about a man and his journey with a bipolar disorder.

Panic attacks, psych wards, medications and mental illness are usually the stuff of deep, dark family secrets. But in his film-writing debut, Bend local, Derek Sitter, shines a light on these themes as he tells the story of a man's struggle with bipolar disorder and the would-be cures offered by the pharmaceutical industry.

Sitter, whose life has been rent by his own anxiety and depression, drew on his experiences to forge the scenes in Second Sleep, Sitter's short film, which chronicles a night in the life of Seth Leer, a middle-aged man who volunteers for drug research in exchange for cash. The still-in-production short film is a test balloon for a bigger project and Sitter's goal is "to gain momentum in the festival circuit to make a feature-length film."

The film stars Sitter and actor Fred Lehne, a friend and fellow actor who has appeared on The X-Files, Lost, and most recently as the yellow-eyed demon Azazal on Supernatural. Lehne lives in New York, but is currently starring in a play at the Portland Center Stage. He met Sitter in the mid-'90s and the two actors have remained friends.

"They say there's a thin line between genius and madness. Derek picks up that line and jump ropes with it. How can one not want to get involved?" Lehne said.

While the movie is not yet complete, the Source had a chance to read Sitter's script. Mental illness, overmedication and the hidden side of big pharma play prominently, just as these forces have in Sitter's own life.

"Since I was 21, I was prescribed many different medications to treat anxiety, panic and depression. I was a guinea pig," he said.

Sitter, a professional actor who has appeared on shows like ER and, more recently, Leverage, moved to Bend with his family in 2007 and founded Volcanic Theatre.

Sitter took a circuitous route to his career and, ultimately, to Bend. As a 17-year-old he auditioned in his native Oklahoma for the forgettable, but nationally televised, lip-sync show Puttin' on the Hits. Sitter, his cousin and a few friends dressed up as diapered infants and performed Twisted Sister's head-banging anthem "I Wanna Rock."

Months later Sitter, who had just enlisted in the Air Force, received a call from Dick Clark Productions asking the group to fly to L.A. After nearly winning the entire competition, Sitter's recruiter let him out of his Air Force commitment so he could spend his prize money studying acting in college.

Sitter and his wife, actress Jeanne Sitter, moved to L.A. in 1996 where he quickly found work on television shows like Chicago Hope, E.R., and Presidio Med. After living the actor's dream in West L.A., complete with a 2001 Ovation Award nomination for his work in Joe Pintauro's play, The Dead Boy, Sitter and his wife decided to start a family, but it took many years.

When their daughter, Lily, was born, Sitter found he wasn't equipped for his new life.

"That single moment of holding my daughter in my arms for the first time threw me into an emotional and mental whirlwind. I was no longer interested in acting. I stayed home with my daughter, took my meds and lost my purpose," he said.

In the meantime, the Sitters decided to move to Bend after Jeanne, who taught in Watts, phoned Derek to tell him her school was in lockdown after a gang shooting in the parking lot.

Once in Bend, Sitter found himself, "in a full-blown crisis."

"I began seeing psychiatrists, therapists and physicians. More drugs. It wasn't long before I was admitted to a psych ward. I had isolated myself from the world. Daily panic attacks, drugs and hopelessness were all I knew," he said.

Sitter, who in person is affable, with the sort of kinetic, excitable energy that contrasts with his slight Oklahoma twang, found inspiration in his battle with mental illness.

After spending "the longest night of my life" in a motel where he says he faced his demons, he emerged the following morning with a new outlook on his life.

"I thought to myself, 'What have I been afraid of all these years?' I was not afraid anymore. No anxiety or depression, just hope," he said.

Now Sitter wants to share his experiences of living in that dark place.

"My mental illness and its consequences taught me to live in the moment. If I had not experienced the life-threatening crisis, I would have never truly lived. Now it is my goal to share [that]."

That's a tall order for a film with a running time of only ten minutes, but Sitter thinks he's up to the challenge.

"We are serious, passionate and committed to make this [into a feature] film. Our goal is to create a cinematic piece that will stab you in the heart," Sitter said.

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