This intimate documentary follows Andy and Vashti Whitfield through the harrowing process of fighting the progression of Andy’s affliction with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. At 38, Andy became the star of the international hit television show “Spartacus.” He and his wife Vashti worked together to prepare him physically to take on and win this prize role. When Andy was diagnosed, the pair put the same passion and determination into this new battle. While the final outcome of their struggle was negative, the film’s message is overwhelmingly positive, as the couple prove that the only way to endure such a tragedy is to embrace the moment and “be here now.
What in your previous experience as a filmmaker prepared you for this project?
When I first started out, I most admired and was inspired by the cinema verite films made by the masters of Direct Cinema in the US, Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers. I also learned from the talented director, Veronica Young, who took me under her wing. She also turned me onto Frederick Wiseman. I aspired and still aspire, because it is a constant learning process, to this style of filmmaking. I then worked my way up, started a production company, Asphalt Films, and had the good fortune to work with the award winning production company, Radical Media. I have produced, as well as directed and produced, many independent feature documentaries, including, “Soul in the Hole,” “Speaking in Strings” and “Brotherhood: Life in the FDNY,” some of which received great honors such as, an Independent Spirit Award and Oscar Nomination. Although these are not pure verite films, we followed the stories of remarkable individuals through some of the most important times of their lives. I hesitate to even call these “films” which seems either trivial or not descriptive enough. This is especially true with “Be Here Now” (The Andy Whitfield Story), which has been the most transformational experience for me as a filmmaker, because of the trust that Andy and Vashti gave to me to follow them so openly, throughout their personal and intimate journey. “Be Here Now” and all of these films are real stories about real people, faced with major challenges. It is humbling and a huge privilege to be able to tell these stories. For me the observational style of verite is what I hope brings us most closely to our own individual as well as shared human experience. And, in their telling, they often shed light on universal or topical subjects, issues and questions and reveal life-lessons.
What was unexpected?
When I started filming Andy and Vashti’s journey, immediately, what I found so remarkable was how they approached everything in their lives by setting their sites on their goals and making them happen. Andy, the picture of health, with Vashti’s support, did this by becoming a star as the lead of the international hit television show, “Spartacus,” at 38. And now, faced with this huge and unexpected challenge, they were focusing that same powerful determination into beating cancer. Yet simultaneous to manifesting their destiny, they were able to be present and live in the moment, with each other, their children and family – despite the uncertainty of this dramatic roller-coaster ride of ups and downs that they are forced to go on. I hoped that if I could capture this, their story may be inspiring to others. At the same time, I began to notice an emerging love story – in moments between them, their interaction, irrepressible sense of humor, the way they play off each other, their tenderness and mutual support – even when they clash, disagree or break down. This was unexpected. In fact, I re-watched the movie “Love Story” because I hoped to capture and convey this in this film as well. And, I hope that we’ve managed to capture some of those universal themes that we all share and care about such as, family, health, goals, love and the world outside of us (or spirituality for lack of a better word), in the film.
Was this your first time using Kickstarter?
Yes. I knew about Kickstarter but had never used it. In fact, initially I saw it being used by musicians, artists, technology gadget start-ups and there was a great campaign to help a restaurant buy a pizza oven. But, as I explored, I saw that there were several notable filmmakers and actors raising funds such as, Paul Schrader and Whoopi Goldberg. At first the whole idea was daunting because I saw how difficult it is to have a successful crowd funding campaign, especially when it is an all-or-nothing model and you only succeed if you reach your funding goal, in a set time frame. On top of this, if you don’t succeed, it may not go unnoticed, because one of the key recommendations is to spread the word to the press and as many of your colleagues, friends and family as possible. As is typical, my inner nerd kicked in and I threw myself into research and speaking to as many filmmakers who had successful campaigns as possible. They gave me many useful tips and we carefully planned every aspect of the campaign – following their advice but also breaking a few best-practices rules – and in the end our trailer went viral, we received wide press attention and we became Kickstarter’s third most successful documentary campaign. Phew.
Would you recommend this way of financing a film to others?
Yes, very much so. The answer to my previous question may be off-putting to someone considering doing a crowd-sourcing campaign, but as is the case with many endeavors, it is key to plan and then execute the plan. Sounds simple but they do not always go together. With crowd funding, once your campaign starts you are working against a ticking clock so you have to be prepared and then the execution will take every moment of your time. Crowd sourcing, which enables filmmakers to raise funding and, now, release their films, in large part came about to meet demand. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” There are only so many television stations, studios, grants and other sources to go to for funding and distribution, especially for documentaries. So, these platforms create opportunities for filmmakers to make and release films that may otherwise not come to fruition. This is the same for audiences, who are on the other side of this bottleneck, by giving them the opportunity to help filmmakers make films that they want to see. And, now with new and emerging crowd sourced theatrical platforms, audiences may also bring independent films, which may otherwise not be shown in theaters outside of, say, 5-10 major cities, to their communities through popular demand. We are excited to be using Tugg.com on our release because of the opportunities these platforms are providing for both audiences and filmmakers.
How did you discover Andy and decide to tell this story?
Andy had just become a star when “Spartacus” came out and was a huge hit. He was the picture of health and on top of his career. But, he had back pain and he thought that this was because of the rigorous workouts and stunts he performed while fighting every ancient bad-ass imaginable, in his role as a sword-wielding gladiator. Eventually a physical therapist sent him for a scan and he found out that he had non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Right away, he went into chemotherapy treatment and privately, with Vashti’s support, quickly beat it. As he was preparing to film season two, a routine insurance scan showed traces of cancer still in his system. At this stage, they were devastated and he had to drop out of the show. So, this time, Andy and Vashti decided do things differently. Because the first time around was so frightening and isolating, they thought that it was probably equally scary to other people. So, they decided to have matching “Be Here Now” tattoos put on their forearms, and use the small amount of star power Andy now had, towards sharing the next part of their journey in a documentary, in the hopes that it may help and inspire others with challenges and goals, to make the most of the one life we are all given. At this stage, Andy spoke to his manager, Sam Maydew who is my producing partner on the film, to see what he thought of their idea. First, he tried to talk them out of it by asking them if they were prepared to have a camera closely follow them through this intense time in their lives? When they insisted, he said that he would help them. I had been working with Sam’s company developing a show around Dennis Hopper, who also developed cancer. Knowing that I was an Academy Award Nominated documentary filmmaker and that I was also directing segments for Stand Up To Cancer’s live television fundraiser, Sam asked me to speak with Andy and Vashti. During that first conversation, we were getting to know one another and I asked Andy to tell me where in the UK he grew up? He said that I would probably not know it because it is a tiny town, on a small island, off the northern coast of Wales. Curiously, I said “try me?” And, it turned out to be the same small town that my father grew up in. I still feel goose bumps when I think about it, and there and then, although we didn’t know what would happen including how we’d fund it, we knew that it was meant to be and all embarked on this journey together.
If you were to do it over, what would you do differently?
This is a hard question and there are two sides to my answer. If I have to put on my filmmaker hat, I am constantly thinking about what I’d do differently. As D.A. Pennebaker once describe it, when you are trying to capture unfolding stories in a verite style, you feel as though you are missing 99% of what you should be filming. This is why it is a constant learning process. Some of what is happening, you’ve experienced before and know how to handle, others, as with this film, are new and unexpected. But, more importantly, on the personal side, Andy and Vashti, courageously trusted me to follow them on this journey through all the highs and lows, good and bad – and all the nuances in between. This is an honor, responsibility and constant personal learning experience. And, of course, we became friends during this intimate time together. So, if I could do one thing differently, I’d change the ending to this film.
How did Andy’s approach to his journey affect you personally? What was the impact of that on the film?
The courage, positive determination, yet acceptance, and the love that Andy and Vashti’s put into their journey, is very inspiring and aspirational for me personally. Equally impactful is how they are able to powerfully achieve their goals and make their journey into something extraordinary, as Vashti would say, yet manage to live in the present. I knew this theoretically, but I am now trying to actively do the last part of this in particular, which is a constant pursuit. I don’t know how this impacted the film but I hope that, as they wished, their story will help to inspire others with challenges and goals, and shine a light on the need to find cures for cancer.