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an interview with the filmmakers

Steven Ascher

 

Jeanne Jordan

Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan have been making documentary and fiction films for over 20 years. Their first collaboration, Troublesome Creek: a Midwestern, won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance, the Prix Italia, Peabody and IDA awards and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1996. They have collaborated on Emmy-winning portraits of artists, including Chuck Close and Shimon Attie. Jordan's work includes Eyes on the Prize and films for American Playhouse, and she is currently series producer of PBS's Postcards From Buster. Ascher's directing credits include many films for PBS, TV spots and the drama Del and Alex. He is author of The Filmmaker's Handbook, a bestselling text.

Where did the initial idea for your film come from?

Jeannie's mother was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) just as we were finishing Troublesome Creek (about Jeannie's parents' plan to save their Iowa farm). Ever since, we'd been looking for a way to address the impossibility of ALS without falling into depressing clichés. The Heywoods were profiled in The New Yorker in February 2000 and had the right combination of black humor and a fascinating and varied cast of characters. We saw a chance to look at both the experience of having the disease plus the foundation's headlong rush to find a cure.

How was the process of making this film different from Troublesome Creek?

Troublesome was about Jeannie's family, so we already knew the people intimately, and it was structured around a year on the farm which culminated in an auction, so we had a sense of the arc of the story when we started.

On So Much So Fast, we started filming right after we met the Heywoods, so the early months were very much about getting to know and trust each other. While we fantasized that a drug would be discovered while we were filming, which would have given a shape and ending to the film, we always knew it would be much more complicated than that. We were following a number of story threads: Stephen's experience with the disease; the family; the children growing up; building and managing the foundation; the science. Finding the right balance of those storylines was tricky, both in shooting and editing.

How long did you film? How frequently were you there?

We started filming in spring 2000 and the last scene of Ben and Sherie's wedding is July 2004. During that time we worked on a lot of other projects. Shooting on So Much So Fast might be once or twice a week; in some stretches every day; and sometimes a few weeks might go by without shooting. Even so, a film like this about real people living their lives requires an extraordinarily high number of shooting days. You just have to be there when things happen. Some of the most special scenes, like Alex taking his first steps while Stephen watches, occur as unexpected moments in a day when "nothing" is going on. You can't really plan for that, other than to be around as much as you can.

When you're making such an intimate film, how do you maintain a professional distance? Can you?

We're pretty good at maintaining perspective from the inside and the outside at the same time. But this film is much more about intimacy than distance. We're looking to reveal truths that come from understanding and experiencing a situation deeply. From that closeness comes insight and emotion that makes what happens on screen feel like it's part of your own life. We believe that documentary films can be truthful, but not that they're "objective" in a scientific sense. There's always a point of view. We're explicit about our presence in the film (and our reasons for making it) to allow the audience to see how we shaped that perspective. In this case, we felt that our personal experience with ALS and Jeannie's mom was part of earning our right to tell this story the way we did.

What surprised you the most during the making of this film? Is the final product different than you somehow imagined it during the process?

Filming lives lived over four years is continually surprising, and you're constantly adjusting your approach to try to keep up with it. Following all the many storylines is like herding cats. You hope that when you get into the editing room, you have enough material so that all the stories make sense and have resonance. Actually, we reached a point in editing where we had a two-and-a-half hour cut that was packed with detail and storylines that we felt were just too much for an audience to absorb. To sustain the level of emotion, we thought the film should be under 90 minutes, which meant painful cuts to distill 200 hours of material and four years of life into an hour an a half. It's one of the hardest things about making a film like this.

Were there times that you felt uncomfortable filming or times when you were asked to stop filming?

None of the Heywoods ever asked us to stop filming. On the contrary, there were times they thought we should film when we didn't. For example, one of the things that happens as the throat muscles deteriorate with ALS is that choking becomes a real problem. There were several times when Stephen really started choking badly and we would stop filming, hoping to help in some way. Later Stephen would tell us that we should have kept shooting so people could see what really happens. That's typical of him.

What were the Heywood family's reactions to the film? Did Stephen get to see it?

We showed all of the Heywoods the film when it was at its two-and-a-half hour length. They were all very positive about it. We especially liked Stephen's two comments: that it was funny (humor being incredibly important to him) and that he didn't want it to end. There were ways that the Heywoods reacted much like the Jordan family did when they saw Troublesome Creek. When you see your life -- that you experience with all the chaos and confusion of daily events -- portrayed on the big screen as a story with a beginning and an end, music and narration, it can seem larger than you. Recognizable as your life, but at the same time somehow beyond it. It's a very strange experience.

All of the Heywoods went to the Sundance Film Festival with us in 2006. When we introduced them at the end of screenings it brought the house down. Stephen and Wendy always loved to see the film, and to revisit the time before Stephen's symptoms became what they were. Alex Heywood, a six-year-old bundle of energy who NEVER sits still, has watched the film quietly in his parents' laps more times than we can count!

How did you get involved in filmmaking?

Out of college, Steve was interested in a number of things and saw filmmaking as a way to get access to many of them. After working in New York, he got involved in documentaries working at the MIT Film Section, where he went on to teach. Jeannie went to work for Iowa Public Television in a small documentary unit where everyone did everything, and it was a film school in and of itself.

When we met, a key moment was when we discovered that Badlands was maybe each of our favorite films. We love the inherent drama of documentary and the lucid, documentary-like moments in dramas.

What are you working on now?

We are partners in West City Films, Inc. We make documentaries, dramas and projects for TV, corporations and nonprofits. Jeannie has been series producer on the PBS children's series Postcards from Buster and is launching an international version of the show. Steve just completed a new edition of his bestselling text, The Filmmaker's Handbook. We are working on a new feature documentary, Raising Renee, about painter Beverly McIver, her art and her life with her learning-disabled sister, Renee. (You can see her work and ours at www.westcityfilms.com.)

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posted apr. 3, 2007

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