When Ken Spooner and Mike Mee graduated from Montclair State in 2013, they set out to make films that would tell important stories, and their documentary Life with Layla does just that.
The film, which won the Montclair Film Festival’s New Jersey Films Competition award, tells the story of one family’s all-too-common struggle with addiction, through the eyes of 7-year-old Layla. Her Aunt Melissa overdosed on heroin before the film begins. As her Uncle Greg’s heroin addiction escalates during the course of the movie, Layla and her mother, Cait, are determined to bring him home to save him from a similar fate – and try to hold their family together.
“As filmmakers, we’ve seen what heroin has done to our friends, community and our state,” says Spooner. “With Life with Layla, we wanted to expose addiction for the disease it really is.”
Cait is equally passionate about spreading that message and took part in the making of the film in order to do that. “As emotional and hard as it was to watch the film, we are grateful our story was shared in a positive way and showed how much addiction can impact a family including children,” she says. “We hope people get to see this film and that our story helps end the stigma – but most importantly breaks the cycle.”
Life with Layla was four years in the making. Co-directors Spooner and Mee began filming in 2015, shooting a total of 80 days during that time – and completed post-production in April 2019, shortly before the Montclair Film Festival. Their former professor, School of Communication and Media News Producer Steve McCarthy, joined the team as a mentor in 2015 and as producer in 2017.
The story unfolds over nine months when Greg was on the run after his sister Melissa’s death. “As filmmakers, we try to stay as objective as possible and be a ‘fly on the wall’ at all times,” explains Spooner. “However, we were immersed in their world for so long that friendship was inevitable. Cait and Layla are like family – and we are extremely grateful and lucky to have them in our lives.”
“Layla is such an amazing little girl,” adds Spooner. “She’s smart, funny and wise beyond her years. I’m most proud of her for having the courage to talk about her life on camera. Her future is so bright – and I’m excited to see where she will end up in life.”
“As filmmakers, we’ve seen what heroin has done to our friends, community and our state. With Life with Layla, we wanted to expose addiction for the disease it really is.”
McCarthy is proud of his former students. “They’ve created an important film for our times about a scourge that’s killing our young people. Documentary filmmaking at its best, this film will help addicts, their families and the public understand much more about addiction and how one family persevered. Keep your eye on these two filmmakers – they’re just getting started.”
According to Spooner, who is also the film’s editor and director of photography, it took a village – and help from a crew of Red Hawks – to make the movie. In addition to Mee and McCarthy, classmates Ryan Miller and Alexis Grosso also worked on Life with Layla behind the scenes.
Funding for the film included support from the Morris County Prevention Is Key Coalition, the Pequannock Township Coalition, a GoFundMe campaign, ReelAbilities New Jersey and The Kessler Foundation.
While Spooner says they are currently exploring potential television and streaming platform interest in the movie, the filmmakers also plan to enter Life with Layla in additional film festivals, including prestigious national festivals such as DOC NYC and SXSW in Austin, Texas.
For the alumni filmmakers, the Montclair Film Festival premiere was an unforgettable homecoming.
“It’s always nice to get recognized for your work, but we don’t make films to get awards,” Spooner insists. “We make films because of the importance and urgency of the subject matter and stories we need to tell.”
“Premiering at the Montclair Film Festival was extremely important to all of us. This is a New Jersey film, made by New Jersey filmmakers,” says Spooner. “To be able to screen the film in front of our friends, family and colleagues was truly special.”