Boston-area film-maker Richard Tilkin decided he wanted to make a documentary about a subject everyone virtually avoids at all cost: The inevitability of leaving this mortal coil. How do we regard our life knowing that – but not dwelling upon it? How does what we think happens after death affect what we do now? And, oh yeah, does anything happen after death?
Me, I play a small part in the film called “Aside From That” – just a man in the street, no great authority mind you – stating my theory that it’s like it was before birth: Nothingness, total blackness. I hope I’m wrong and there’s everlasting bliss of which I can’t now conceive. But that’s me. Tilkin – who directed and narrated “Aside From That” – talks to a variety of people who were willing to ponder the unknowable. There are three key thread-lines – or voices – in the film; The daughter of Holocaust survivors facing an incurable degenerative disease, an Iraq war veteran haunted by images of mutilation and death, and a 20-year-old Kansas native and Boston College pre-med student whos world is rocked by a grave diagnosis, a relapse of her cancer, given a 50/50 chance of survival. Also a Brigham and Women’s oncologist and a Buddhist scholar among them. Oh yeah, and his pal, terrific existential comic Steven Wright.
The film is … well … see below …
I sent Tilkin – who’s been a friend of mine for years, too – some questions about the project and here’s what he came back with.
What sparked your desire to make this film?
I had a very clear fascination and a shocking awareness as a young child about our mortality and that all life ends. That stuck with me my whole life and I always wanted to make a film about it. I got a call from a good friend Cindy Ross Gruber (Executive Producer) who was interested in working on a meaningful and creative venture. We talked about the idea, shared some concerning medical issues and decided to move forward to try and create a piece that might help encourage a more open discussion around the topic and the emotional aspect. How do people cope with the realization that we’re all going to die? How do people face, or not face their own mortality? Does facing your mortality help you to live a better life? Clearly, because this is such a massive and universal topic — there would be infinite ways to approach it, but this was the avenue we chose, which also evolved during the process while working with excellent co-writer/producer Rocco Giuliano and the very talented, Jen Bagley as editor.
Obviously, as you and others note in the film, death is a subject most of us try to avoid talking about – how did you get people to open up about mortality?
As you might imagine some people just don’t want to talk about it and just won’t go there. Certainly that’s their prerogative. But actually, even approaching strangers on the street during their lunch break from work, we found an amazing amount of these people willing to open up and share some really personal and fascinating thoughts about the topic. The Pulitzer Prize winning philosopher Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death) believed (my take of his view) that we don’t fully understand how avoidance and walking around with unresolved feelings about our own mortality has such a profound effect on everything we do, say and feel. Ironically, he became famous and won the Pulitzer Prize after his death. As part of our documentary, we interviewed Dr. John Wynn among his many accomplishments; he lectures extensively on death anxiety and is a Board Member of The Ernest Becker Foundation.
And, along with that thought, it’s not exactly the kind of movie people necessarily flock to with tubs of popcorn in their laps; it’s no escape, it’s about confronting the most disturbing fact of our existence – that it ends and for all the theories none of us know what, if anything, is next. So, you’re chronicling the questions and discomfort we all face about the end – and throwing it back at us. How do you sell this to an audience?
Good question. It’s not an easy sell. We tried to not make it all so deadly serious by incorporating some comedians as well as talking to interesting everyday people on the street from Seattle to Santa Fe to Boston and getting their perspectives. I think the many people interviewed feel very natural and real and approachable. So it’s more of an opening of the discussion. People that have screened it to date don’t feel like it’s depressing, but uplifting. It’s actually a very hot topic. You see death cafes opening up all over the country and various NY Times articles on an aspect of it every week.
People in the film all have different theories about afterlife – from basically none at all (Steven Wright, me, others) to a traditional big happy heaven. Was the effort made to encompass a wide range of beliefs or did that just come as the interviewing began?
We tried to encompass a wide range of beliefs. There are many comments on afterlife but we didn’t spend a tremendous amount of time on it. Obviously we had a strategy and outline to start but then a lot of it just evolved organically. For example, when we were filming a college mortality class, we met Meghan who ended up being one of our featured people. The combination of the courageous people we profiled who faced death with an incredible spirit, the many prestigious experts, in addition to people on the street give the audience a wide spectrum of ideas on how to live knowing you’re going to die.
Steven Wright is, I know, one of your good friends and is featured fairly prominently in the film – not as expert or anything (who’s an expert on what we don’t know?) but offering his wry, honest take of what may or may not await us after we exit this mortal coil. (And of course he’ll be at the RIFF screening). How does Steven’s voice and/or celebrity give a boost to the film?
He’s a legendary comedian that many other comedians look up to. I believe his material has brilliance to it in its observational humor. He has such a unique perspective and a way to express the bigger picture in a way that most of us cannot. I would think people would then be interested to hear his unique take on life and death. He is a good friend (and in fact was very supportive when I went through some medical stuff) but I don’t think I’m biased in saying he is an amazing talent.
Did your own opinion on the afterlife (or lack thereof) change throughout the making of the film? Where did you start? Where did you end up? And might that even change, where you are now?
It did not change. I didn’t really believe in an afterlife before, (although I’m open to it and would be beyond elated if someone could convince me otherwise) and post film has not changed my mind. Although posthumous might.
The Rhode Island Film Festival is the first festival you’re in. Certainly, the hopes are to gain acceptance in other festivals and search for distribution. How do you see this course playing out? Do you hope to have a theatrical release and then maybe land on HBO or Showtime, i.e. in one of the prestige cable slots?
What happens now is as much of a journey as the film was. We will see where it takes us. We have an experienced distribution person exploring our options and we are still in the early stages of entering film festivals. The Rhode Island International Film Festival has been very positive about our film and has been actively promoting it. I think this is not lost on other festival programmers and distributors. At the moment broadcast distribution and a myriad of possibilities for educational use seem very likely. Not sure about a theatrical release, but you never know as there seems to be a lot of momentum around the film right now.
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