Filmmaker Interview

POV: At what point did you decide to make a film about your father's decision?

Susan Stern: It was something I knew I wanted to do right away. My father made this startling videotape for our family, discussing the possibility that he might choose to take his own life rather than go through terminal illness. I realized that this was a piece of videotape the likes of which no one had ever seen. I did a lot of research and there is no other such piece of videotape. So I knew I wanted to make the film and I resolved to make the film.

Fortunately for me, my family decided to cooperate with the making of the film. So right after the incident occurred, I sat down with my mother and brother and began to interview them, because I knew that the events were fresh in their minds. And I knew immediately what the arc of the story was. I knew that I was going to set it like a three-act drama, all taking place within a 24-hour period. And so it came together kind of easily, compared to some of my other work. And the other pivotal decision was probably to shoot it in 16-millimeter film, and that was because I wanted to capture the beauty of the landscape on this California ranch where my family lives.

POV: Was it difficult to convince your family to be involved with the project?

Stern: I think one of the things that this film has taught me is how painful it is, how difficult it is, to be in a documentary. What a gift people are giving to you when they consent to be subjects. And what a responsibility you have. I really thank my family for being in the film, and I think they did it out of love. They're private people, so I don't think that they are all that thrilled, but they love the film. They can appreciate the art of the film, and I think that watching it with other people has been a healing experience for them.

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POV: What were their fears about being involved?

Stern: I think that my family took a lot of risks to be in this film. The first risk is the legal risk, the fears around whether there would be any legal repercussions to admitting what happened. Then there is fear of any other kind of societal repercussions. My family had tended not to talk about what actually happened to other people. I think most families in this situation don't. So it was risky for my family to go on camera and speak publicly about something very difficult. They had to open up their emotions and yet keep their dignity. And I think they did that.

I want viewers to come away from this film with a sense of compassion for my family, because I'm giving my family to them in this film, to make it easier for them to talk in their own family about these difficult things. So I don't want people to take that lightly. I want them to have compassion for each other, for their own differences and how they want to die. I want them to listen to each other and try not to impose their will on each other, but to hear what each other want. I'm really hoping that my family's story can help people do that.

And even though this story is very personal, it's actually a very common story that speaks to one of the only certainties in life, which is that we're all going to die. And we all need to get together with our families, much as my family did, and we need to talk about it.

The Self-Made Man - The Stern family.

The Stern family.

POV: How did you piece together the connections between your family's personal story and larger dynamics in our society?

Stern: One of the things that was surprising to me was how many people I worked with who turned out to have similar stories, even when they didn't think they'd had similar experiences. I would be working with an editor, or a transcriber, or something like that, and when they first heard the story they'd say, "Oh my God, that's so dramatic, I can't imagine it." And then two weeks later they were saying, "You know, my grandfather did that." Or, "My uncle did that." Ultimately I found out that statistically, white men over 85 kill themselves at six times the national average. So what had seemed like an intense personal story was something much more widespread, that so many other people could relate to.

TBob Stern as a young salesman in Chicago.

Bob Stern as a young salesman in Chicago.

So, this film is about my father going through a very intense, maybe the most intense, personal experience. A decision of whether or not to live. And yet through this individual story, we can see all these larger issues about our own culture. They have to do with the way we die, but also with the way we think of ourselves as Americans. The way we approach life and the great questions of independence and love within families.

POV: Talk about the title of the film.

Stern: The film is called "The Self-Made Man" because Bob, my father, is a businessman's businessman. Kind of a Horatio Alger figure. He was obsessed with business. He had no hobbies, that's what he did. Even after he became a success, he would open up one business after another. Some of them were comical, others were really way ahead of their time.

My father was a very powerful, dominating person. Everyone in my family is strong, but I think there is no question, part of what this film is about is the dynamics of a family with a really strong father figure. How everyone else revolves around that figure. In Greek classical terms, a character has a tragic flaw. And I guess the question that has to be asked in my own family is, if my father's own powerfulness, if his own dominating-ness, was his tragic flaw.

But when I talk about death and the choice of death as opposed to terminal illness, I think there's a larger strain running through American culture: feeling like we are in control and we should be in control. The question becomes, if we can celebrate the self-made man, can we celebrate the self-made death? Where do we draw the line in this wonderful and sometimes overpowering sense of individualism that we have as a country?

POV: Were you changed in the making of this film?

Stern: I think that releasing the film is going to change me more than making the film. I've spent many, many years as a journalist, telling other peoples' stories, cloaking my own opinions under the mask of objectivity. And this is not an objective film, this is a film with a point of view. Coming forward and admitting that point of view, taking off the mask of the journalist and showing the face of the participant, will change me.

Also, my family's dynamics are laid bare in this film. I've never been in that position before, I've always been on the other side of the camera. I've always asked other families to expose themselves. Now I'm doing it to my own family, and I think that will force me to stand up more and be who I am in public, which is actually a good thing because we are in an age of media-making when the idea of objectivity is actually on the wane.

POV: Why do you choose documentary?

Stern: I love documentary. I would always choose documentary. I come from a background in new journalism, which is telling true stories using fictional techniques. And I think that there is really nothing more powerful than a non-fiction story. Stories redeem us. Obviously, they're a mirror that we hold up to our society. Without that mirror, society can't see itself. I forget who it was that said, "God created man because he loved stories."

POV: What would be your advice for a first time filmmaker?

Stern: I would say that it's all about character. It's all about the person in front of the camera.

Also, I think maybe the hardest thing is to actually have a vision strong enough to help you not get lost in the details, so that you don't fall in love with all your darlings. I hear endless stories of people who are just shooting and shooting and shooting and they never get the film done. They can't bear to cut stuff out — getting a picture on tape is so easy. So it leads to a lot of abuse.

POV: Who do you want to see your film?

Stern: I hope it will be seen by people of all ages. I think it has particular resonance for people over 40 who are dealing with their own aging and with their aging parents. But I really hope that people will see this film with their families, with their teenage children and with their aging parents, because in this film we see three generations dealing with the issue of death. I think that it can be very moving and very rewarding for families to see it together.

I think this film can also be used for medical and nursing and social work professionals, dealing with people who are elderly and ill. Of older men who end up committing suicide, who have physical problems, a huge percentage of them have seen their primary care physician within a week of killing themselves. So there's a role that this film can play in educating health care professionals as to people who are at risk for committing suicide. I think that it can also be really useful in the field of gerontology, in social work and in all sorts of psychology courses having to do with family dynamics.

POV: Some viewers are going to be left with questions about how terminal your father's condition had become. How do you respond to that?

Stern: One of the interesting and troubling things about this film is there's no way of knowing how sick my father was, because the family didn't do an autopsy. We know that he had cancer and we know that he had very serious heart disease. But whether he would have died on the operating table, or in two weeks, or not for ten years is unknowable. That's one of the things that makes the film difficult and challenging. But that's part of why I wanted to do it. We really need to be able to look at the question of when — if ever — and where we draw the line in terms of making a decision to die. We've come to a point in time when how we die is not necessarily something that happens to us, but perhaps something that we do. We're seeing that reflected in decisions now pending before the Supreme Court, in decisions pending in legislatures all over the country. And you know the devil is in the details. It isn't just when it's easy, well it's easy. The problems that our society is having right now, as we see with cases before the Supreme Court and in state legislatures, is that it's not easy and there are very many places to draw the line. Through the film, I'm trying to get families to start talking among themselves about where they want draw the line. And beyond talking, to write advance directives so that they can help each other determine where to draw the line, because it's going to be different for everybody, that's the point.

POV: What do you take away from the film?

Stern: I think my father, Bob Stern, was really inspiring. He was a pioneer in solar power. He was a pioneer as a social entrepreneur. And he had this great love for humanity and this great sense of humor. At the end of the film, what it's really about to me is not even all the issues. It's the fact that when we die, what we leave behind is not so much even our achievements as our dreams, really. That's what is passed on to the next generation. I hope that through this film, people will come to see my father, Bob Stern, as I knew him, as a very inspiring figure. And that maybe some of his dreams will be passed on.