Peter Nicks’ acclaimed film The Waiting Room, which makes its broadcast debut on Independent Lens on PBS this coming Monday, October 21 at 10 PM (check local listings), certainly could not be more timely. With health care on the minds of all Americans these days, both citizens and politicians, with discussions happening for better and for worse, it’s easy to lose sight of the human element in this narrative. The Waiting Room goes a long way toward changing that, focusing on a diverse group of patients as well as staff, all brought together in the busy emergency room of Oakland’s Highland Hospital, each with their own story to tell, their own path that lead them to this point.
The Waiting Room is “as poetic and universal as a modern day Grapes of Wrath,” wrote The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday. It is “a series of revelations. Some might be called political, but most are spiritual,” adds The San Francisco Chronicle. “To watch Peter Nicks’ The Waiting Room is to wish it would never end.”
In an exclusive interview for Independent Lens, Nicks took the time out from his busy schedule to chat with us about the making of this film, as well as the contentious subject at hand.
IL: Why did you initially decide to make a film about health care, and what lead you to Highland Hospital in particular?
Nicks: How I arrived at Highland Hospital shooting a documentary is an interesting and somewhat complicated story of chance. My wife Vanna and I both finished graduate school in 1999 and her first job was at Highland. After hearing the umpteenth amazing story, I knew I wanted to make a film about that hospital. But I never approached the administration because I knew access would be difficult. Flash forward to 2007. Vanna came home one day and told me someone was making a documentary about Highland. I happened to know the directors — Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman — so I joined the team as a field producer. That project never quite got off the ground and went into hiatus.
Then, in 2009, I approached the original executive producers of the film, local attorneys William B. Hirsch and Scott Verges, and asked to take over the project. They wanted to make an impact on the conversation about the uninsured and I explained to them my vision for not just a film but a community engagement project that would use storytelling in the waiting room at Highland and beyond. I added the location-based storytelling project to the concept proposal, went out and raised the money and the rest is history.
How did you latch onto the subjects, the patients, that you focused on for the film?
At first we looked at the entire hospital. We sat in on executive staff meetings, visited clinics, observed the ER and ICU, hung out at the bus stop. But it dawned on us that the waiting room was this remarkable manifestation of many of the issues challenging our health care system: lack of primary care, the economy, community violence, mental health. But it was also a profound reflection of community and we were struck at how the diverse collection of humanity were all bound together by shared experience in this one space. It was here that we met CJ, the star nurse in our film, and countless other caregivers and patients that appear in the film.
Could you talk a little about your own history with health insurance — have you usually had coverage?
I had the same doctors — Dr. Earl and Dr. Strauss — from the age of two until about 22. I think there was a period of time between the age of 22 and 27 when I wasn’t really covered. But I recall I had some sort of access to health care through my parents’ plan. Today I have Kaiser, which is great, through my wife’s job. But were it not for her I would have to pay the cost of insurance myself, probably through the new health care exchanges.
Have you followed up with any of the patients shown in the film? Any updates on their health?
I’m in touch with many of the patients. Their health — like all of ours — follows an unpredictable path. Some are doing great. Others are not. There are ups and there are downs. We didn’t make it a point to give people the “where are they now” blurbs at the end of the film because the reality is that those patients in our film represents millions of other people around this country struggling to care for themselves and their loved ones.
What were the challenges of filming within the confinement of a busy hospital waiting room? How did you both get in the way while keeping out of it?
We basically camped out with CJ — the intake nurse — much of the time and met patients as they walked into the hospital. The waiting room itself can get wild, but we were able to develop a rhythm and a presence that was not too intrusive — at least from our perspective! But we did not have any complaints from staff or patients, so I think we did okay. The more difficult scenes involved filming back in the emergency department when traumas rolled in. For the most part we would pick a stationary spot to film and just let the action unfold. But the majority of moments we filmed were actually quiet moments between family members, or between caregivers and patients that we felt revealed the relationship between this institution and the community.
What are some other documentaries, and films in general, that have influenced you over the years?
That question is tough to answer, because so many different films informed this film in subtle — and not so subtle ways. We digitized Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital and took that film apart frame by frame trying to understand how he approached the subject and what it revealed. And, of course, most of the folks on our team, including editor Lawrence Lerew and producer Linda Davis, were familiar with the classic cinéma vérité of Wiseman, Mayles, Blank, Kopple, and Pennebaker. Another film that was constantly in my head was Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker, and the final sequence in our film where the day sort of resets was inspired by the end of that amazing film.
Tell us a little about what you’re working on now, or next.
I’m working on the second of what will be a series of inter-connected non-fiction feature documentaries about Oakland similar to how [HBO’s] The Wire examined the intersection of criminal justice, education, politics, and the economy in Baltimore. We are not quite ready to announce the setting for the next film but are hard at work on it and plan to announce soon.
Trailer for The Waiting Room: