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Filmmaker Journal

In an operating room: camera held by shooter dressed in hospital garb, surrounded by working medical professionals

The following journal is excerpted from the filmmakers’ forthcoming book about the making of A LION IN THE HOUSE, called A LION IN THE HOUSE: Five Children. Six Years. True Stories from the War on Cancer

Written in diary form, this journal offers a rare look into the process of making a documentary film and shares intimate reflections from the directors, producers, editors and crew, describing what it was like to bond with the families and children and witness their stories.

Getting Started »
Shooting »
Financing »
Documenting Truth »
Editing and Post Production »
Outreach »
Screenings »

Getting Started    Top

Julia Reichert, director: My daughter was diagnosed with a relatively rare cancer—lymphoma—in 1996, a week before her seventeenth birthday. This plunged us both into the most harrowing and painful year and a half of our lives. I know the shock and disorientation parents feel. I’ve faced the huge decisions that must be made on a dime.  I’ve sat up night after night, reading everything available on cancer, day after day, watching my lively girl turn sick and gray.

I would never have considered taking on this film if I had not myself gone through the experience of fighting cancer with my child. Otherwise, I would see myself as a voyeur, peering into other people’s heartache.  Instead my life gave me a goal: to help to end the isolation of people fighting cancer.

Shooting    Top

Steven Bognar, director: We started shooting with just one digital video camera, a Sony VX-1000. At that time we didn’t have a microphone, no wide-angle lens, no boom pole or even headphones. But you can’t let stuff stop you from making your movie. We started shooting and calling friends to see if we could borrow this or that. 

Eventually we had a camera that had a cardioid microphone on top. A cardioid mic records sound in a heart-shaped pattern, where the tip of the mic is the pointy bottom of the heart… It’s good for hearing people within, say, five feet of the camera.

We then had a shotgun mic, on a boom pole… In a lot of the doctor rounds meetings, or family meetings, having the shotgun on a boom pole was important, because many people are speaking from different places in a room, and there’s no time to tip-toe over to them… After it was aimed, the boom could slowly be eased closer to that person. As long as we learned to immediately and silently pivot the mic, our sound was generally good.

Julia: We started making the drive to Cincinnati on a regular basis. After a few months, the hospital felt comfortable with us, almost everyone got to know us, and we were given Children’s Hospital ID badges, for those who didn’t know us. I think they said “Filmmaker in Residence.”

Steven: In the early days of filming, we argued a lot, about how to do this work. It was actually kind of bumpy.

Julia: We had different ideas of how we should be as filmmakers in the room, what we should shoot. I remember the central question as how much do we be “flies on the wall,” staying out of the way, versus how much do we interact. I thought we shouldn’t be interacting a lot, and Steve thought we should—that we should be like normal people, except we would have cameras and be shooting. 

Financing    Top

Steven: Crucial to the filming years was the utter understanding and support of the colleagues at our day jobs. Julia is a film professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. I work throughout the state as an artist in the schools.

Though we funded the film ourselves for the first several years, we found early and crucial support from our own, great Ohio Arts Council and from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Documenting Truth    Top

Steven: Julia and I and our editing colleagues have struggled pretty much every week for the nearly five years it took to edit this film with how to tell this story, how to do right by these families while still telling the truth.

And in a way, you could say, that’s the documentarian’s job: to do right by the truth while doing right by the people who trusted you. And to tell a good story. But the question of trust and trustworthiness comes up again and again.

The terrifying nuns at my Catholic schools would say… that the ends do not justify the means. But you make a pact. Both parties in a documentary, the looker and the looked-at, make a pact to tell the truth.  And if both parties hold to that pact, then you can’t put your camera down… Is that a dubious justification? Some would say yes. But that kind of ground rule is also how good documentaries get made.

Julia: Shame never entered into my mind. This was my view: the families agreed we should be there, and document, no matter what. It was our job. Our primary reason to be there was not as a caregiver, not as a friend, though we were those somewhat.

We were there to be witness, to document, and then to take on the responsibility of sharing that with the world. That meant keeping shooting unless the families asked us to stop. To me, if we put the camera down at hard times, we would not be doing our job. It really helped clarify for me how to be in those moments.

Editing and Post Production    Top

Steven: 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. 

Julia: Logging over 500 hours of tape was a big job. At first, our interns from Antioch College and former students of mine from Wright State University’s film program helped out. But the sheer volume of work made it slow going. And not everyone has the aptitude for logging.

Steven: A good example of how we approached editing the difficult scenes in the film is Jen’s spinal tap. In the final film, this scene is 30-to-40 seconds long. In real life, it was at least 20 minutes, if not half an hour.

Julia: But when we started showing it, our small test audiences—meaning our friends and neighbors—couldn’t handle it. 

Steven: So for almost four years, that scene gradually got shorter and shorter, little by little, until audiences didn’t emotionally, emphatically say to us, “It’s too long!”… We couldn’t have people fainting. So specific decisions, like how long each shot lasts, was gradually and organically figured out. 
 
Julia: But editing wore on our souls. It certainly wore on Steve’s soul. 

Steven: It’s not easy for me to describe how hard the editing process was, for me. It’s like first we had been through an amazing and profoundly challenging experience, in filming these stories and spending all that time with the families. And the experience of losing the kids we lost—this was the hardest thing I’d ever been through in my life, up to then… Looking at these kids suffering again and again, day in and day out, reliving their deaths and funerals... It was hard. Profoundly hard.

Julia: We put together a kick-ass editing team. We had young kids at first, to help us rough-cut scenes together from raw footage. It was valuable experience for new, emerging filmmakers, and it helped us a ton in taking the 525 hours of raw footage down to a watchable first cut, which was something like 28 hours long.

Steven: It was an organic process, finding this team. They all really let the material get under their skin, into their hearts.

Julia: These editors came up with crucial ideas, like the gradual realization we had that the film shouldn’t start with Jen Moone and Al Fields, because their stories get spread too thin if they span the entire four hours. Kevin Jones, one of the senior editors on the film, came up with the major idea that Jen and Al should begin part two, to bring in fresh energy, and to start part two in a way that distinguishes itself from part one.

Steven: Kevin also deserves real credit for finally figuring out how to end the movie… We were in love with many of these small scenes and moments, and we were having difficulty letting go of them. He found the essence of each family’s ending story, and he wove it together masterfully.

Outreach    Top

Karen Durgans, outreach coordinator: From the first week that I met Julia and Steve in November of 2002, they talked about outreach. They didn’t want LION, then a still loosely-shaped documentary, to air one day and be gone the next without making a lasting impact.

Steven: Julia poured her heart and soul into the outreach efforts.  Relatively early on, she found great colleagues in Jim Sommers and Susan Latton of ITVS. They all saw the potential of this film, the need to choose specific content areas, and the ball got rolling. 

Karen: I felt I had a place with Julia and Steve because of my background as a licensed professional counselor and years of doing social work in the Cincinnati area where LION was filmed.

Julia: The “Survivor Alert” project is close to my heart, because of my kid Lela, because of the kids in the film, and because of the young adult survivors I’ve known, some of whom are doing fine, some of whom have late side effects of their treatment. It will mean a lot to me if this project can empower young adults who’ve survived cancer to take charge of their life and long-term health.

Screenings    Top

Steven: Finishing the film was utterly exhausting. Here we are, already fighting to make it to the top of the mountain we set out to climb years earlier. The last push—from August through December of 2005—we knew would take everything we had.

Julia: I was worried about Steve’s health. He was so burned out, and he started complaining about chest pains. I was worried he’d have a heart attack.
                                                                                            
Steven: I was worried about it too—which looking back is all part of the awful irony, that we were focused on my health instead of Julia’s. 

Julia: Steve got a stress test in October, to make sure he wasn’t about to keel over.

Karen: Julia and Steve began to show the close-to-finished product to the families, after LION was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival.

Steven: Each one of them, despite all the hardships of their own cancer battle, expressed concern and empathy for the other families, for how hard it had been for the other kids and families…. During the screenings, members of each family talked back to the screen, even got mad at some of the stuff that was said. But each parent said they would leave it as is, that it was real, and hard, that it had to be shown.

Julia: All hell broke loose when we got the news from Sundance. We couldn’t believe our good fortune.

Steven: We saw there was a message on the phone from Shari Frilot, one of the senior Sundance programmers. For all we knew they had made all the acceptance calls, all the congratulations calls, and now they were doing the condolence calls.

Julia: Shari asked what we were doing, and we explained how we were editing and just got back from showing the film to Marietha [Woods, Tim's mom]. Then she said,  “Well, that’s good. And you’re also going to be showing the film in the documentary competition at Sundance.”
 
Steven: It was crazy. They had never shown a film that long in competition. It made for some serious logistical challenges for them.

Julia: And it kicked our lives into complete chaos. It threw us into an overdrive we had never experienced before. 

Steven: From end of November through early January, our lives were not our own. Julia was tired all the time. We were both wrecks. Also she had terrible back and neck pain, so much so that she had to start sleeping sitting up. We thought it was because of the stress and the strange beds we slept in during a long trip to New York. 

Julia: I saw my doctor and got a chest x-ray. I had to deal with the increasing pain. A few days later, my doc called and said, “There’s something on the x-ray, we have to do a CAT scan.”

Steven: We were just leaving that morning for Los Angeles, to present the film at the Television Critics Association winter meeting. Julia’s doctor said we could go because it was the weekend, but as soon as she got back on Monday, she would need to get the scan.  We got back on Monday morning. That afternoon, Julia had the scan.

Julia: We went in to see our doc, Dr. Anja Shah, and she told me there was definitely a large mass in my chest that was a tumor. She didn’t use the word “cancer,” but she said it really didn’t look good. That day was the tenth anniversary of my daughter Lela’s cancer diagnosis.

Steven: The next day Julia got a biopsy, thanks to the fast work of Dr. Thomas Merle at Kettering Medical Center outside Dayton. We left for Sundance two days later.

Julia: When we got off the plane in Salt Lake City, I turned my phone back on and there was a message to call the doctor for the biopsy results.  And there at the gate, standing next to the rows of bucket seats, with everyone pulling their roller bags past us, I heard that I had cancer—a large mass of lymphoma.

Ann Rotolante, associate editor, post production: The hardest part has been getting the news of Julia’s cancer.  With her diagnosis coming ten years to the day that her daughter Lela was diagnosed, the timing was so ironic as to be unbelievable. It broke all of our hearts to realize that Julia and Steve had a whole new fight on their hands after working so hard to finish the film.

Steven: We got home from Sundance on Sunday, January 22. We were admitted to the James Cancer Hospital on Monday, January 23, and did not leave for the next three weeks. With the clock ticking and the tumor growing in Julia’s chest, we began a process of figuring out which treatment to do.

Julia: We were talking to Dr. Arceci every day, connecting us to lymphoma experts at Johns Hopkins, where he now runs the pediatric oncology division. We also consulted with leading lymphoma experts at Stanford, Northwestern, the University of Nebraska and the National Cancer Institute. One thing we were told repeatedly was that the first treatment you use matters most.

Steven: We were suddenly like the families in our film. And you know what—it was scary as hell.

Julia: The families of LION were not only a great support, they were great mentors. The years we spent with them made me less afraid, and had taught us all so much, about being proactive, being assertive, being clear. 

I didn’t have that much of an idea of what it is to go through cancer treatment. Which should sound funny, coming from me, with my own daughter having fought cancer, with the years spent making the film. But it’s different when it’s you. Which is why I wear my “cancer sucks” button.

Steven: After round two of chemo, Julia went in for a series of scans, which would determine if and how well the plan was working. The scans showed her tumors had shrunk dramatically, that she was exceeding expectations. She is now soldiering through the rest of her chemo rounds, buoyed by tremendous support of family, friends and community, and if all goes well she should be done with chemo by mid-summer. Then we hope to take the break that we didn’t get when we finished the film.  

Melissa Godoy, line producer: To me, LION—the film and its creators, subjects and world-class crew all together—is about grace. It's about staring down the barrel of the lens at truth and finding pain, but also joy, even during moments when fate is kicking you in the butt. When we recognize that we are all midwives to each other in the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth, we treat each other differently, toast to each other with much more respect.  

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