SKSM: Tell us about yourself, who is Maximilian Blaska and what do you do or have you done?
Maximilian Blaska: I am the lead writer, co-producer and spear-header of “Last Rung On The Ladder”, a film adapted from a Stephen King short story that came out last month. I have two passions, the performing arts and mental health advocacy. What I want to do is merge the performing arts with mental health advocacy. We know a lot more about mental illness than we did when I was a teen in the 90’s but there still is a lot of stigmas about mental illness. and that’s what I want to do. Break those barriers and stigmas in a creative way. I have struggled with severe anxiety depression, OCD most of my life and I found writing a great outlet.
SKSM: Has it helped you to talk openly about what makes you who you are now?
Maximilian Blaska: Yes it has. With the stigmas both external and internal, we keep these things to ourselves and that is only harmful and compounds the stigma. Being a mental health advocate is part of what I am. But it is not all that I am.
I want my story to be an inspiration for others who are struggling with crippling anxiety and depression. In September 2022 I was at the end of my roped and considered ending. My existence. Almost a year and a half later and look at me. I am hoping that people who read this and might be contemplating suicide will rethink that.
SKSM: Why did you choose the Last Rung and not, for example, another story?
Maximilian Blaska: I picked Last Rung because I wanted to have a story that talked about mental health and suicide. The story is about a woman who takes her life. I wanted to do a story on stigmas and family dynamics. Last Rung On The Ladder was the only story I thought of adapting. I believe this resonates because everyone has that sibling that that due to circumstances or just time and distance get estranged. I hope with this film people watch it and might call their sister of brother or family member that they’re estranged from.
SKSM: How did you know about the Dollar Baby program? Was it a wild guess?
Maximilian Blaska: I heard of the program before but it wasn’t until June of 21 when my cousin Olivia and I took a trip to King Country, Bangor Maine, and took the SKTours tour. I would recommend it to any Stephen King fan to go at least once. James Tinker takes you to all the sites that inspired King and his works.
I told James that I was a writer and I wrote a couple short films and he suggested the Dollar Baby program. I actually started writing on that trip.
SKSM: Several easter eggs are included in the film. Can you tell what these are?
Maximilian Blaska: The first one was Larry’s name. “Children Of The Corn” was the one film we didn’t watch. The opening scene was too intense for both of us. The original story of “Last Rung On The Ladder” was set in a farm in Nebraska. I knew I wanted to set it in my home state of Wisconsin. so as a nod, I gave Larry the last name of Gatlin, the location of “Children Of The Corn”.
Another one was the production house that published Larry’s book . It was Stark-Beaumont press. That was taken from “The Dark Half”. It was the first Stephen King book my mom gave me.
We had the penguin prop from “Misery”. The motel in LandOlakes, The Bel Aire Motel, had “Four To Midnight” in their lounging room. We knew we had to put that in the film. Also the last shot was a nod to “Carrie” and “The Shining”.
SKSM: Your Aunt Betty is an important person to you. Can you tell us a little more about her?
Maximilian Blaska: Betty Blaska was the sister of my father. She would babysit me often and we would watch movies. They were movies that my parents probably wouldn’t have approved of. They were mostly Woody Allen and Stephen King films. We watched almost every Stephen King film from the 80’s and early 90’s together. She also gave me some of his books as well.
She also was a mental health rights activist in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. She wrote many essays on what it is like to be part of the mental health system and helped come up with the consumer movement. Basically, that people with mental illness, those who consume mental health services should be treated with dignity and respect.
She struggled with Bipolar disorder and it took her from us in august 1997. That is another reason why I picked The Last Rung On The Ladder. Originally it was slated to come out in late 22 on the 25th anniversary of her death.
SKSM: You worked with Jeff Blakenship on this film, how was that?
Maximilian Blaska: I actually worked with him once before. We met doing a 48 hour film project film. That is when your tea, has 48 hours to write, direct, act, score, and edit a 5-7 minute film in 48 hours.
I knew I wanted a talented director whom I could trust. We had some severe creative differences. The original script had Larry going to the banquet knowing that his sister took her own life and the conflict was the Carnival Barker Of a despair was urging Larry to join her in death.
Jeff thought it would be better if Kitty took her life the same night of the banquet. I fought him tooth and nail on that. But I am so glad that we went his way. It added to the drama and the editing of the last scene is masterwork.
SKSM: Was there a funny and/or special moment during production that you would like to share with us?
Maximilian Blaska: When we were filming Kitty’s flashback scene in the Gateway Lodge, Kurt Kraus, our fearless producer, played Kitty’s husband. When he threw the pool cue down, he yelled “ARE YOU SERIOUS RIGHT NOW!” On the third take one of the patrons screamed that line and everyone laughed. We joked about making t-shirts that said “Are You serious right Now” and “Yes, we have dumplings”.
SKSM: What do you think about the existence of a Dollar Baby community? Were you aware of this before?
Maximilian Blaska: No, I never knew it existed before this past year. It started with Anthony Northrup and his Facebook group. Part of my social anxiety is that it is very hard for me to reach out and make new friends. He was very nice and helped put my mind at ease about doubts that I had about how King fans would accept the changes we made to the material. We also got the film done just in time to be in his sequel book.
SKSM: Everyone recognizes themselves in Kitty at some point. How could that happen, do you think?
Maximilian Blaska: It is so easy for lives to slip out of control. I think loneliness is like fuel to the fire of depression, it makes it so much worse. That is why we need close relationships to keep us grounded.
SKSM: The Last Rung was written by you. What difference did Karla S. Bryant make?
Maximilian Blaska: It is a funny story, I like to say that Karla was my Tabitha in the way that when King was writing “Carrie” he threw it away because he was having problems writing in the mind of a teenage girl and Tabitha helped Stephen King write the book that put him on the map. I was concerned about the cam girl scenes. I didn’t want it to be exploitative, I didn’t want it to seem like a man’s fantasy. I wanted it to be real. Kitty is the dynamic character she is because of Karla.
SKSM: I didn’t see the chat with Teddygirl_<3 coming, very unexpected. How did that happen?
Maximilian Blaska: In the original story, Kitty was a call girl. I thought a nice update would be to make her a cam girl. I was also inspired by the 2018 horror thriller Cam on Netflix. I knew that I wanted to show the Camgirl scenes as if you were watching it on a computer screen. Zach McLaine who was our great editor also did special effects and made those scenes pop.
SKSM: The chat seems innocent, but who is user “NotaB0t69” with the text “lemme slap that ass”?
Maximilian Blaska: I don’t know how that came about, that was our editor.
SKSM: Tightrope, is a great song, how did that happen?
Maximilian Blaska: This is a great story. We had an open casting call in Oshkosh for the banquet scene. Those who played the award recipients actually work with mental health. The speeches were written but were changed to fit what they actually did. And Franki Jo Moscoto, told me that she ran a suicide prevention program, I played with that. She received a fake award for a real foundation.
I found out that she was an American Idol finalist , I went to YouTube and typed in her name and found Tightrope. I fell in love with the song. It was perfect and I emailed her to get the rights for her song to be the theme song. Mark Croft did a great acoustic cover of it for the credits.
We just had our world premiere up in her hometown. And she played Tightrope and other songs and told her story. It was magical. And she sang “Happy Birthday” to me. The premier was on my birthday and she helped make it the best birthday I ever had.
It was great to work with a fellow mental health warrior like her.
SKSM: You made several changes from the original story, why was that?
Maximilian Blaska: I wanted to make him a psychologist because I loved the irony of a man who spent his life fighting the stigma of mental illness let his own stigma damage the closest relationship he ever had.
I wanted to show Larry’s guilt. I thought the best way was to personalize it. That is where the Carnival Barker Of Despair came in. I have been working with my therapist on the SuperBetter program. It is a way of getting better gamefully. You come up with a secret hero identity, come up with quests, get your allies and name your bad guys. Bad guys are thought patterns or habits that prevent you from achieving your goals.
I named mine, the Carnival Barker Of Despair. He is the voice in the back of your head that never lets up, he tries very hard to make it so you are paralyzed and prevents you from achieving your goals. It is not everyone who is able immortalize him on film though.
I wanted to show Kitty’s suicide. I didn’t want to glamorize it. But I wanted to show the horror of it. With the budget, we couldn’t afford a high rise location and make the swan dive look like I wanted to, so we made the suicide the way it ended up in the film. I think it is very powerful.
And of course, changing the order of the events. That Kitty was not dead at the beginning of my adaptation. While this was the change that troubled me the most at the time, I am so glad that we did it because it puts an exclamation point on the idea that you never know when it is too late to reach out to a loved one.
SKSM: Now the Dollar Baby program has been disbanded, do you think that a internet or dvd release could be possible?
Maximilian Blaska: Oh, I would love that. I want as many people to see this as possible. What I would like would be either a DVD release or live Dollar Baby Film Festival that be a suicide awareness event and hold it in states that have high teenage suicide rates.
SKSM: Knowing what you went through, what did you find most difficult during and/or outside of filming?
Maximilian Blaska: It is very hard to trust people and communicate with people. With my anxiety I am always afraid I will say or do something to hurt people or that people who say that they like me really don’t.
I had to learn to trust and delegate. Because of this I never felt that I really belonged anywhere. This production became a family and one that I am so blessed to have found.
SKSM: What are you thinking of the end result of the film?
Maximilian Blaska: I love it. It couldn’t have gone better.
SKSM: You say you are happy that your parents and your cousin Olivia got close-ups in the crowd. Why is this so important to you?
Maximilian Blaska: My family has been very supportive of me through all my artistic endeavors. I am so glad that they got there close ups, the only thing I really would have loved was that my Aunt Betty was alive and had her closeup. That is why I put the Mental Health Warrior logo with her and me on at the end.
SKSM: Were any movie fragments cut out that you now miss?
Maximilian Blaska: Well most of the footage we shot in Madison of the high school graduation scene was damaged. I am glad that some of it survived and is in the film. Because that shoot was really fun.
SKSM: What was your main goal you wanted to achieve about this film?
Maximilian Blaska: I wanted to have a film that was entertaining and thought provoking. I wanted to have a film that was a fitting tribute to my aunt. I think we succeeded on all counts.
SKSM: A selected audience has now seen your film adaptation, what were their reactions?
Maximilian Blaska: A lot of people have liked this film and my nervousness was that King fans would not because of the changes but when Bernd texted me and how you enjoyed it I just all those fears went and so now I mean everyone who’s seen it loved it and we got accepted at the do County Film Festival and we are our film was nominated to the judges of a film festival in California that actually celebrates film that talks about mental health and neurod divergent and filmmakers with mental illness I mean I couldn’t be happier I really hope we get in the Wisconsin Film Festival because that would be here and Medison because that would be super. Watching the film with a live audience is always a treat.
SKSM: Are you a Stephen King fan? If so, which are your favorite works and adaptations?
Maximilian Blaska: Yes I am. I could say “IT”, “The Dead Zone”, “The Stand” and “Insomnia, I love them all. But my favorite is the Mr. Mercedes Trilogy. I fell in love with Holly Gibney. She and I are a lot alike. Both in our late 40’s, both neurodivergent and struggling with anxiety and depression, but we both are thriving. And this line struck me so much.
SKSM: If you could make another Stephen King story into a (Dollar Baby-)movie, what would it be and why?
Maximilian Blaska: Actually, I would love to buy the rights to the story outright. I would love to expand the story. People may not think there is a feature here but the line “You got big when she got small.” got me thinking of showing their paths. In the short story Kitty ran away with a beauty pageant judge. In a feature I would have it be her drama teacher and deal with how people with mental illness can be prey for sexual groomers. In my dream casting I would cast Grant Gustin of the Flash in that role. I think he would relish playing a nefarious character. I also would love to cast him because he has been very outspoken about his struggles with anxiety.
I would love to have cameos from people like Maria Bamford, Chris Gethard, Will Wheaton and Mayim Bialik. They are all actors or comedians who have talked about their own experiences with mental illness.
I would also love to give Kitty a “bad guy”. I would want to use movie making tricks to actually show the audience what anxiety and depression feels like.
SKSM: What is in the top 5 on your bucket list? (Everything is possible and nothing is too strange)
Maximilian Blaska: What is the top five on my bucket list, 1. Make the feature film. 2. Make my mental health warrior performing arts cooperative a non-profit. It’s basically would help teens who are touch mist who are creative to nurture their talents and eventually put on shows for their cohort and a fund that would help fund uh films or um plays uh albums of fellow mental health warriors and put on events like I’m trying to put on in um may uh Film Festival a m Health Film Festival. 3. Get married. Actually those are really three. I don’t really have any more on my bucket list.
SKSM: What are you working on nowadays?
Maximilian Blaska: I am working on putting together a Mental Health Warrior Film Festival in my hometown of Madison WI. It will celebrate films that break down mental illness barriers and stigmas and showcase filmmakers like myself who are fellow mental health warriors. I already have a great film to headline it, a horror movie written and directed by Richard Burgin, “Fang” it is a great horror film that has touches of King and Cronenberg. My ultimate goal is to create a non profit with Richard that would merge the performing arts with mental health advocacy. We would have performing arts clubs for teens who have been touched by mental illness, grants to help fund plays, films, albums, etc from artists who have overcome mental health adversity, and put on events like the film festival.
Doing something like this is daunting but I have faith it can be done.
SKSM: What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
Maximilian Blaska: The performing arts has been part of my life since I was a kid. I was in plays going back to kindergarten. I would write little mysteries that the local kids would act in, casting the neighborhood bully as the killer. I was also an improv kid.
I was on my high school Comedy Sportz team, it was competitive improv like “Whose Line Is It Anyway”. I don’t think I would have gotten out of high school alive if it wasn’t for improv. I know the power of the performing arts in mental health healing.
SKSM: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything you want to say to the fans that read this interview?
Maximilian Blaska: Thank you all. I am grateful for the Dollar Baby fan community that welcomed me with open arms.
SKSM: Maximilian Blaska thanks his cast for everything. This text below comes from a trans script of a previously made video.
Maximilian Blaska: I did not mention the cast and I really don’t want to do this without doing that. Our cast was wonderful you couldn’t ask for a better cast and I want to start with Tyler Love and Ruby Mandli is young Larry and young Kitty they are so natural and so real. Sometimes when you have kid actors you have the two cute by half affect. But they were natural “real kids”. Theywere not the original cast. Original young Larry dropped out a couple months before filming the barn scene and the actress who played young Kitty dropped out about a month before the barn scene. Chanel Volpel, our casting director did a wonderful job in casting. I based Young Larry on myself. The conversation he had with himself in the film, I had many times when I was his age. Ruby Mandli was just so cute and has a mischievous streak, Iloved when she looked at the ladder and then talked about the game. I mean that was just a master stroke and you could believe that they were brothers and sisters ask for more.
Seth Hale was great as Larry. He had a quiet intensity. You felt his emotions with just a look as well as the lines. I mean you felt for him and I believe he did an award-winning performance in this film.
Kayla Kelly as Kitty is a star in the making, I mean someday I will see her in a big motion picture and I will say “I knew her when”. I didn’t give her a big start because she has good has a list of films even before this. If you want to watch a great TV series Northbound that she was in. She was also in a movie that just came out called Faith which is a little bit too intense for me but very very good and I’m hoping that she will win an award at one of these film festivals for Kitty because she deserves it.
And Brian Belz, the Carnival Barker of Despair. I work with the SuperBetter program which is self-help kind of a therapy regimen that helps you fight your demons in a gameful way. You create a secret hero identity. Mine is Max the Mental Health Warrior. You create quests to get you to your epic win and pick out bad guys. Bad guys are thought patterns and behaviors that prevent you from succeeding. I named my bad guy, the Carnivsl Barker of Despair because he’s screaming in my head almost all the time I mean he’s screaming in my head right now telling me that I’m screwing up this video that I should do it again… again… again… again… and… again.
So Brian Belz personalizing that was awesome to see.I mean he has a malevolence but never over the top. It takes a real good actor to thread that line and Belz did it wonderfully. One of my backers basically said that she saw the devil in Brian Belz as the Carnival Barker of Despair. He is a really great guy off the set as well. Watching him play off of Seth Hale’s Larry was also awesome to see.
I think that the Carnival Barker of Despair is up there with Pennywise, Andre Linoge, Etc.I am so proud to call these people also not not just actors but friends and I’ve made more friends on this project than I had in the previous 5 or 10 years and so yeah thank you!