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Filmmaker Q&A

The filmmakers with PBS former President Pat Mitchell at a podium - “It was a joy to hang out with these kids, to give them the camera so they could run around filming, to see them play practical jokes on their parents, nurses and doctors.” --Julia ReichertFilmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar talk about what drew them to make A LION IN THE HOUSE, how they adapted to the challenges of filming intimate moments in public places and the monumental post-production task of shaping hundreds of hours of footage and six years of shooting into a single film.

What was it like to be present as filmmakers for the intimate and emotional moments recorded in your film?

Julia Reichert: There were a lot of tears in the editing room. There were a lot of tears in the shooting. There were times when we felt completely, just completely drained emotionally…. But I never felt I was losing interest.

Steven Bognar: I went through guilt and whole periods of real depression for a while. You bottom out because the worst things have happened. We were not about to stop filming these families who lost their kids, just because they lost their kids. If the families told us to get lost, then that’s one thing. But if they were willing to let the cameras be there, then they had to be there. We had been through something with them. We had been through something horrible and traumatic with them and we had to stick with that.

What was it like to shoot in a children’s hospital?

Julia: Kids are vagabonds, pirates and natural troublemakers, whether they have cancer or not. It was a joy to hang out with these kids, to give them the camera so they could run around filming, to see them play practical jokes on their parents, nurses and doctors.  Meanwhile, down the hall, to see these same nurses and doctors grappling with life and death decisions around a family, and to struggle to understand what was going on in each family’s emotional life––this was amazing and very moving. A children’s hospital is an incredibly vital environment, where every moment matters. 

Steve: When you’re in a hospital, you do a lot of hanging out, you know. I think what’s interesting is that the camera became more of a confessor. When it first started happening, we were a little thrown by it. We had this habit of pulling people into the hallway in between stuff, just to get a little update, like “How ya feeling? What do you think’s going on?” We called them “hallway interviews.”

Did you ever encounter situations in which you thought you should stop filming or intervene?

Early on, when Tim is getting on a scale, he gets on the scale and there’s no nurse in the room. And then the doctor asks, “Is this how much you weigh?” And he says, “Yeah, that’s how much I weigh.” And he’s making a number up. He’s been losing weight and he doesn’t want them to put a feeding tube in his nose or anything. So he tells them a false number. Well, we saw him cheat. So okay, what’s our responsibility? Is it our responsibility to tell on him because he’s actually messing with his life? Or is the responsibility to him to maintain the trust he showed us by letting us film that? It puts the documentarian into an interesting ethical question.

In following the different cancer journeys, did your own views on the issues change?

Dramatically. We didn’t even know the terms “cancer health disparities” or “survivorship” when we started, and we barely knew anything about palliative care. Survivorship is a new concept, and we were educated by our national partners, particularly the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Our education about cancer health disparities came from the Intercultural Cancer Council (ICC) and the National Cancer Institute's (NCI) Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities. Jay Silver at the ICC specifically gave us the name for things we had observed but not defined. 

What led you to make this film?

Steve: Dr. Arceci, who’s in the film (he’s the guy who reads The Plague aloud at the staff meeting), had seen the documentary Hoop Dreams, and he really felt like he wanted to make a Hoop Dreams-style film about childhood cancer because he knew what families go through. He knew how complex it was, how it affects everybody, and how long it took. So he went looking for somebody like that and called us out of the blue, little realizing, little knowing, that Julia’s daughter, my stepdaughter, had just finished her treatment for cancer. Just an amazing coincidence.

Julia: When Steve and I walked into those hospital rooms and the parents heard our story, the walls fell down right away. The other parents were full of empathy, curiosity (What did [my daughter] Lela have? What treatment did she get? How is she now?)  and encouragement. I am a member of the same community as the moms in our film.  As such, I saw my role as a participant as well as observer, and, perhaps even more, as a witness to profound events.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

Julia: One of the trying things about making this film was how isolated it made us from our friends and families. It was impossible to talk about it, because almost no one could understand what we were observing, what we were living through. We couldn’t really explain it until we started having stuff we could show. Our friends didn’t really know what we were going through until we had a rough cut screening, five years after we had started. Then they knew.

And making a film in hand-held cinema verité was a tough, wonderful, personal challenge. Neither of us had worked in this way, as a two person crew––with the ability to keep shooting––I mean literally rolling tape––hour after hour. Sheer endurance was a factor for me at times. I was over 50 when we started. The physical demands of holding the camera or boom pole were great. Would I be able to come through? 

Steve: Once we had taped over a hundred hours of footage, we realized that keeping it organized would be a major challenge. I developed a few systems, like quick reference charts, and Julia took on the huge job of getting all the footage logged, transcribed.  Because at the rate we were filming, we knew that if it wasn’t all thoroughly logged, we’d never know what tape contained this visit, or that meeting, or the moment when someone said something great. 

We also disagreed about how long to stay at someone’s house, or in their hospital room.  I was always hyper self-conscious about overstaying our welcome. And I felt like Julia always wanted to stay way longer than people wanted us there. And you know, in Ohio, where people are generous and polite, they wouldn’t tell us to leave. But I remember having a few big arguments in the car on the way home about how we should have left earlier, or how we should have stayed longer.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

Julia: For my entire adult life, I have seen myself as a social issue filmmaker. I am very proud of my past work. Yet I hope LION may be seen as the most political of all, because it so deeply reveals what we in the human family are made of.

Steve: The idea that if there’s a lion in the house, you are going to be alive. You have to be as smart as you can be, you have to as brave as you can be, you have to be as generous as you can be. And you just have to not let anyone down. That’s a very awake place to live.

What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude?

We started shooting on July 4, 1997. We finished shooting in the autumn of 2005.  The heart of the filming occurred between 1998 and 2003. Before that was ramping up. After that was follow-up.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

Julia: Looking back, I’m proud that I was able to do it. I don’t think I ever seriously considered giving up on the project. We didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.  It was always the most compelling thing in our lives, a rare privilege. Yet it was something we couldn’t really describe to our friends and family. It really became an experience we shared only with the families, the nurses and docs, and each other. That’s one reason why this film really drew us together.

Steve: In the early days of this film, it found champions, though it had yet to find itself.  David Davis of Oregon Public Broadcasting, David Liu of ITVS and Lisa Heller of HBO documentary gave us confidence and guidance as we worked to keep the film going, and to find funding. 

Though we funded the film ourselves for the first several years, we also found early and crucial support from our own, great Ohio Arts Council and from the National Endowment for the Arts. ITVS gave us the time to find the film, and helped us with incisive feedback.  The ITVS staff is a tremendous group of strong individuals who somehow manage to work brilliantly as a unified team. 

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

Because ITVS and PBS know how to maximize the impact of a show, how to make it useful in communities across the country. For ITVS and PBS, the broadcast is just one part of the process of using movies and stories like A LION IN THE HOUSE to make a difference in people’s lives.

What are your three favorite films?

Julia: Casablanca, Godfather I and II, The Farmer’s Wife
Steve: American Dream, Eyes on the Prize, Battle of Algiers

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?

Julia: An organic farmer
Steve: A carpenter

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

Pasta with pesto, dark chocolate

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Julia: Talk less, listen more. Learn your craft from top to bottom. Seek mentors.  Mostly, make films about things you deeply care about and feel connected with.

Steve: For documentarians, make sure early on that you record plenty of the every day life of the people in your movie. Doing the dishes. Folding laundry, driving, looking out windows. Do this in the first few days of shooting. And take good stills. You’ll be so glad you have this later. Also always remember, in documentaries, good sound matters much more than good camerawork.

Which filmmakers have influenced your work?

Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, American Dream) and David Sutherland (The Farmer’s Wife). The Farmer’s Wife was a very good example for us. It takes place across many years, it takes its time, it’s a long film. It was a big reference point. American Dream, Barbara Kopple’s great film, was a good example of how you have multiple characters, multiple plot lines, how you keep a narrative racing forward, galloping forward, without being shallow, without just skimming across the surface of things. That was a big influence on us.

If you could have one motto, what would it be?

Steve: Work, risk and love with all your heart.
Julia: The job of an artist is to tell the truth.

What sparks your creativity?

Julia: Nature, sleep, the sea, the sounds of ocean, river, streams, Steve.
Steve: People with divided hearts, ethical conflicts, people facing the absurd.

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