POV: Eric, you have a penchant for finding incredible stories and characters, but this is one that hits a bit closer to home, because Jason Crigler is a friend of yours. In your own words, can you tell us about your relationship with Jason and his family, what happened to them and the journey that you take viewers on in Life. Support. Music.?
Eric Daniel Metzgar: I moved to New York in 1999 and was pursuing music at the time. I went out one night and saw Jason playing in a club and asked him to play in my band. We played together for four years— he was also playing with many other bands. In 2004, Jason had his brain hemorrhage. Along with his other friends, I tracked his progress through the email updates from his family.
Eventually, when Jason was out of the woods and back at home, he and his family decided they wanted to write a book about their experiences. But then they thought, let’s try a documentary first. So they called me and asked whether I would be interested in making a film.
POV: One of the themes throughout the film is Jason’s progression from a musician into a vegetative state and then his emergence out of that state. What role did music play in his rehabilitation and his rejuvenation?
Metzgar: Music played a mysterious role in Jason’s recovery, in my mind. The brain is kind of the final frontier in medicine, and a lot of doctors admit we still don’t know how it works and we still don’t understand how to heal it.
During Jason’s recovery, when he was still in the hospital, his mother would put on this CD of Indian music that he had never heard before for half an hour as he fell asleep. She did that for months, and when Jason was home from the hospital, months and months later, she and Jason were in the car together and she put in this CD and Jason said, “Oh I know this.” And she said, “No you don’t. I played it for you when you were unresponsive, in a vegetative state.” He said, “No I know every song,” and they went through the CD and he did know every song. So the music he heard when he was in his vegetative state was going in. Jason’s family had played a lot of music for him during that time. Friends would send mixed CDs and then between songs they would talk to him. And there was no indication that Jason was responding to it, but again, that’s the mystery of it: It was being heard, and it was being processed. So in terms of music’s role in his recovery, there are more questions than there are answers, but I think that music played a big part.
POV: There’s a turning point in the film in which Jason talks about how playing music clicks within him and talks about the emotional response that he has to playing a gig. Can you talk a bit about that moment?
Metzgar: You can think about that moment in terms of the subtleties of his recovery. He was playing music again, and to be just playing was wonderful, but if he wasn’t connecting with the music, then it was sort of meaningless to him. So while everyone was so excited when he picked up the guitar, if he wasn’t having an emotional connection to what he was doing, then it was a hollow experience for him. In that scene, where he finally is playing again with a connection, it’s so extraordinary to him to feel the music with a sense of expression; he was finally feeling like he was expressing himself. That was a great turning point and very exciting, but also very internal. It wasn’t as obvious as just picking up the guitar.
POV: What was it like to film such a close friend of yours?
Metzgar: At the beginning it was really quite depressing filming Jason, because there was this very palpable sense that something was missing. I felt like this was not the person that I used to know. I wondered: Where is that person? Is this as far as he’s going to come? I wondered if the person I knew was gone and now I needed to get to know this new person, who seemed a diminishment of what I knew.
At that point he had recovered quite significantly. And his family didn’t hold the same view as I did; they felt like he was fully in there, that he was coming back and he would be himself again. I was a bit skeptical, as I talk about in the film. But I did feel like I was watching him slowly become himself again. That hope was really contagious. Eventually he did just blossom back into himself. But I don’t want to make it seem like if someone who suffers an injury does not come back to himself or herself that it’s a tragedy either. Jason is a new person now, and he’s a bigger person for having gone through all of that. But, yes, it was hard at the beginning to film him as a friend.
POV: Jason’s story serves as a real model of hope and inspiration, yet sometimes you probably have to step back and realize that not everybody’s brain injury is the same. What do you say to another family that’s in a similar situation?
Metzgar: A lot of people at screenings come because they’re dealing with similar situations, whether it’s a brain injury, or a stroke, or a spinal injury or something else. There are two parts in my response to those in a similar situation. One is about the family. A lot of people can watch the film and think, “Gosh, I don’t know if my family would do this for me, and I don’t know if I could do this for my family.” And there can be a little bit of a sad reaction to the film in that sense, because you almost know that your family might not be able to step up like that. But what the Criglers say at the Q&As is so important! They say that while it may look like they were this extraordinarily unified family when this happened, that really wasn’t the case. These are extraordinary people whose amazing actions were manifested by this problem. So they really hope that the film is an example of what’s possible, not really what anyone lacks.
The other part of the answer is that on the medical side it’s absolutely right that every brain injury is different, and the Criglers were told that from the beginning. There aren’t a lot of models we can look at, because every injury happens in a different place. Everyone’s at a different age and in different health. So everyone who has a brain injury is not going to recover to the degree that Jason did. But I think the take-home point is that nobody knows how far anyone can recover. So if you’re being told that your future is in a nursing home, there’s no reason you shouldn’t try to prove that wrong. I think another thing that the Criglers have proven is that family support is just absolutely crucial. It’s important to have an advocate there for you at all times, and it’s important to understand that the brain will respond to stimulation. A person who is lying in a vegetative state can take input into their brain, and if you creatively put together a program for that person to get them back, it’s possible that they can come out of the vegetative state.
But it’s a balancing act: You do have to work in tandem with doctors; you can’t just do this by yourself. And there’s no easy answer. Marjorie, Jason’s sister, once said, “We didn’t know what we were capable of, and you don’t know what you’re capable of until you’re tested.” The Criglers did come together, and they found this huge reservoir of strength. I hope in the end that the film is a reflection of what’s possible.