Filmmaker Interview by Chris Olson
We loved your film The Time We Have. What's the journey been like for the film?
The journey was full of unexpected surprises. First of all, we didn’t think that it would take thirteen years to make the film. When we met Caitlin early in 2005, she had already been through five years of invasive medical treatments for metastatic bone cancer and made the decision to stop getting scans in order to live the rest of her life as normally as possible. We had the idea that she might not live beyond a month, but then found ourselves filming through the spring, summer, and fall, as Caitlin did the usual things that a suburban American teenager does—she went to the senior prom, graduated from high school, and spent the summer hanging out with her family and her best friend. We never expected that she would be featured in People Magazine or that she would get to chat on the phone with her celebrity idols, Amy Lee and Johnny Depp.
The whole family was so welcoming, especially to our director, David Drewry. And Caitlin was always relaxed, completely herself in front of the camera. In the years after she passed away, as we edited and re-edited the film, she was always with us. We felt honoured to be a part of such an intensely private experience.
For those who don't know, how would you describe the plot of the movie?
We struggled over how to tell this story without being sentimental or exploitative. I can’t tell you how many times we declared the film was finished, only to look again and know that we hadn’t told it right. Initially, we conceived of the film as a follow-up to Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine, a documentary we had made for PBS. We were planning to highlight Caitlin’s use of journaling and poetry writing as part of her palliative care. But as we got to know the family better and came to feel in a deeper way what Caitlin was going through, we realized we were in the presence of something profound. Yes, poetry was an important part of her story, but it was just part. Caitlin’s life—the wholeness of her self—as she faced her terminal illness with courage, grace, sarcasm, silliness, anger, resignation, finally got through our thick skulls. We then scrutinized every scene with the question, Is Caitlin here? Once we did that, her real story began to emerge.
With documentaries, there’s a temptation to follow the chronological narrative. We knew all along that Caitlin would die but we didn’t want our film to be morbid or depressing. She was so gutsy and her parents had such a strong faith that we couldn’t let death win in the end. We wanted to showcase Caitlin’s accomplishments and how she maintained her spirit—her quirky, teenage self—in spite of the inevitable. So we moved a significant scene, Caitlin’s near-death experience, from the end to the mid-point, so that the second half of the film would focus on all she did with her last year. This allowed us to create the feeling of uplift we wanted, the triumph of the spirit which Caitlin deserved.
You were the Producer and Co-Editor for this film. Why did you want to tell this story?
Simply put, Caitlin wanted her story told. Life had dealt her a terrible blow. Our film would carry her story beyond her intimate circle of friends and family. We were invited, and we accepted. Caitlin deserved at least that much.
There’s another reason we learned along the way. At one point in the film, Caitlin’s father asks why so much the attention is given to people who beat cancer: “What about the ones who don’t win their battle against cancer? What about them? Were their struggles not worth mentioning?” This is a humbling question that should make us all reassess what heroism means. We all love a story where the hero vanquishes the enemy and raises a fist in victory. The same is true for cancer stories—we love hearing about the lucky ones whose cancer goes into remission. But what about the heroism of those whose cancer spreads despite the best medical treatments? In making the film we learned that it’s not the outcome, but how we face our challenges that gives grace and meaning to our lives. Caitlin showed us how an unknown teenager from the suburbs had the strength to confront her terminal illness head-on.
What have the lessons been? How are you stronger as a filmmaker now?
I think my director and co-editor, David Drewry, would agree that we learned how to put together a feature-length film by making this one. David is fabulous at building scenes, as you can see in his collage-style impressionistic treatment of significant moments. I’m a creative writing professor and am used to teaching students how to write short stories within the time constraint of a fifteen-week semester. So this was our first experience with the long-form. I’d like to give a shout-out to John Yorke’s Into the Woods for explaining something that helped us when we had hit a roadblock. Yorke talks about motivation, a basic concept all story-tellers know. But the phrasing he uses really clicked: “Characters have both a want and a need, and they are not necessarily the same thing.” This was a lightbulb moment for us—Caitlin wanted to live, but what she needed was to make something of the time she had. This allowed us to finally construct the narrative and to give the story the uplift we needed.
Who would you love to make a movie with and why?
I don’t have a particular filmmaker in mind I’d like to work with. I usually write poetry, so the pleasure of filmmaking came as a surprise. Yet now I see that the elements of poetry and film are somewhat similar: they both use a sequence of images to build a story or convey emotion. The difference, however, is that filmmaking is a collaborative art. What’s important for me is to work with someone who has a collaborative temperament, an aesthetic perception in sync with mine, and technical expertise. I’m drawn to telling intimate, personal stories that don’t necessarily have an activist message.
What's next for you?
My next project is to create a YouTube channel of short poetry and healing videos, using beautiful, unused footage from a cross-country trip we made years ago, filming well-known poets who wrote about the illnesses they had suffered. Each video will feature a single poem or idea about healing, accompanied by visuals and music, to give the viewer insight, inspiration, and hope.
What advice would you give to a new filmmaker?
Use the most current technology available, even if you can’t afford it. We started filming when widescreen and HD were just coming into common use and if I had known how many years it would take to finish, I would have spent the extra money. In the end, we needed to have the film upscaled anyway, which was an expense that would have been better spent at the outset. Speaking of money, be prepared to run out of whatever funds you have and to pay out of pocket if you really want to finish your film. It’s an expensive, under-funded art.
And don’t take thirteen years to finish.
What would you say if you were a dolphin?
My life would be so blissful I wouldn’t need to say anything!