“As Real as It Gets”: Inside the Making of “Being Mortal”

February 10, 2015
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

(Carla Borras)

Tom Jennings is no stranger to telling complicated and emotional stories on film.

The veteran journalist and producer has made documentaries about police shootings in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the American behind the Mumbai terror attacks, and the inside story of the global financial crisis.

But Being Mortal, Jennings’ new FRONTLINE documentary exploring how doctors can better help terminally ill people prepare for death, presented some unique and difficult challenges — among them, gaining the trust of patients and families to allow him into the exam room as they faced some of the hardest conversations of their lives.

“I’d say the success rate was about 1 in 50,” says Jennings. “You’re asking someone if you can watch them go through the process of dying. You have to embrace how odd that is, and then dismiss the oddity, and just do it.”

Jennings has never been one to shy away from conversations about death and dying. In fact, he began his journalism career as an obituary writer at a small newspaper in Ohio. And his very first film, Dr. Solomon’s Dilemma, involved people facing serious medical issues.

“You’re asking someone if you can watch them go through the process of dying. You have to embrace how odd that is, and then dismiss the oddity, and just do it.”

So when surgeon, bestselling author, and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande told Jennings back in 2012 that he was working on a new book about end-of-life care (which would become the bestseller Being Mortal), Jennings jumped at the chance to tell the story on film.

“Palliative care is not a new concept,” Jennings says. “The genius of Atul is that he has this social barometer – he can sense when tough issues are going to break, and he is often the force that pushes them into the realm of deep, social-change conversations.”

Jennings and Gawande grew up together in Athens, Ohio, and previously partnered on the FRONTLINE piece Doctor Hotspot. This time, filming took them from the Indian hometown of Gawande’s father, whose prolonged dying process catalyzed his quest to better understand end-of-life care, to the bedsides of patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana Farber Cancer Institute, where Gawande practices.

There, Jennings saw up close how difficult it is for many non-palliative care doctors to talk honestly about dying with their terminally ill patients — and what the consequences can be when those conversations don’t happen.

“It’s a very shocking thing, when you think about it,” Jennings says. “These doctors are the most whip-smart, competent people you’ve ever seen in your life. They care so much, and they have an amazing capacity to treat problems. But when there’s no cure for what ails us, and it’s clear that death is imminent, their medicine bags come up empty. They haven’t been trained on how to deal with the limits of their effectiveness.”

“These doctors are the most whip-smart, competent people you’ve ever seen in your life … [but] they haven’t been trained on how to deal with the limits of their effectiveness.”

Gawande writes candidly in his book about how he came to terms with those limits. Not every doctor Jennings and his team (which included Lauren Mucciolo, Annie Wong and Carla Borras) approached for the film was willing to speak so openly.

“Both hospitals, Brigham and Dana, were very cooperative and allowed us to come in,” Jennings says. “But once we were inside, it was a long process of finding the right openings and getting the right doctors and nurses to be our advocates.”

At first, the film team sometimes met with skepticism from patients as well. But after building trust and forming relationships over time, things changed.

“The families of two of the film’s main characters have told me how powerful and positive it was for us to be there with them,” Jennings says. “And it wasn’t just the big-picture idea of their story being documented, and perhaps having a ripple effect. It was, at the time and at the moment, a process that helped them to face what was happening — and that’s something these families tend to look back on with a lot of gratefulness.”

So, too, does Jennings.

“It was an honor and a privilege to be allowed into those last moments,” he says. “I’m a pretty hardened investigative journalist, but this was as real is it gets.”

Jennings says that making Being Mortal, and filming with so many people who have since passed away, has changed him.

“I’ve seen so much and with such intensity — with a lot of beauty and elegance, but also denial and fear,” he says. “This is the closest I’ll ever come to accepting and experiencing death until I die. It’s been a tremendous learning experience – I think that when I do get there one day, I’ll be more equipped.”

He hopes the same will be true of people who watch the Being Mortal documentary and read Gawande’s book.

“I hope that this will catalyze conversations, and that we’re opening the door a little bit to make all of this easier to talk about and, ultimately, face,” Jennings says.

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