Two years ago in May 2009 my family suffered two of its biggest tragedies – the death of Pat Brune, my grandfather, and the rapid onset of my grandmother’s (Pat’s wife) dementia - which was a direct result of losing the man she was married to for almost 60 years. Gramps, as he was affectionately called, was the patriarch of our family. He was a father, husband, gardener and Cadillac-owner. He could often be seen caning a chair, driving a riding lawnmower over his half-acre yard or exalting the Nutrageous Candy Bar. These events brought my father as near to emotional collapse as I’ve ever seen him. He cried often. He asked for help and he demonstrated that even the most stoic men have their limits. You always need your family, but sometimes you REALLY need your family. This was the first time I experienced death on the level that it can (or cannot) be comprehended by those left living. The doctor brought us all into the room and explained that there was nothing more they could do and that is was only a matter of time. This doctor ceded control over my grandfather’s life to my grandfather’s heart, which didn’t have the strength to beat any longer than another twenty-four hours. This lack of control over life seemed unfair and I was petulant. I remember telling my brother Matthew, “They just told us Gramps is going to die and there is nothing we can do.” Imagine that. My family is Catholic and we’re all healthy and strong. I have three brothers and we can scrap like hooligans if need be. Physical strength is futile in these situations.
Two years ago in Feburary 2009, I was asked by John Henry Summerour, a filmmaker and fellow Southerner I had met at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival the year before, to read his script Sahkanaga and join his production team as a 1st Assistant Director. I read the script and I loved it. I thought it was bold, touching and personal. His short film Chickamauga, on which Sahkanaga is based, screened along with a film of mine and we tag-teamed a Q&A of attentive moviegoers in a large meeting room in downtown Birmingham. I was struck then by his restrained, beautifully shot film about a boy who finds a dead body in the woods. Everything that drew me to that short film was present in the script for Sahkanaga. I was eager to work on the film.
When my grandfather was hospitalized a week before I was supposed to travel up to Chickamauga for pre-production, I informed John I might be a bit delayed. He said, “Take all the time you need.” I did not know then, walking westbound on North Avenue across Peachtree St. toward Emory/Crawford Long Hospital, how quickly Gramps’s condition would deteriorate. For the next several days, my family and I built a home in the Cardiac Care Center. My brothers would arrive after work or school. My parents were semi-permanent residents like so many others before them. We could not bring flowers or food inside. My grandfather asked for fried chicken, but we were told not to oblige him. He was on a strict diet – strict meaning bland and colorless hospital food. To this day, I regret not walking over to Gladys Chicken and Waffles, just a block away, to buy some fried chicken and smuggle it in under my shirt.
My father called me around 130AM on Wednesday morning and said that Gramps had passed. I drove over to the hospital. My father and grandmother were there in the room. Gramps lay there dead. The funeral home was notified and their crew dispatched to us. My mother, who had gone home for a shower and some sleep, was driving from Alpharetta. This was the end. I’d shed enough tears the day before during the “Your grandfather is going to die and there’s nothing we can do” speech that I had none left. I just felt motivated to help, to be there, to be present, to be around family. The hardest part – caring for my elderly grandmother who was knee-deep in clinical dementia and excruciating grief – fell to my crippled father and mother. Where will she stay? Who will take care of her? Why is she blaming the hospital for Gramps’ death? Why are she and my dad fighting all the time? She can’t use a telephone. She can’t drive. She can’t cook. She can barely dress herself and needs a cane to walk. How can she possibly think she can take care of herself? Does she not realize it? I wish she could have held a press conference, but we kept our mouths collectively shut and decided to ‘be there’ for her.
I felt conflicted about leaving for six weeks following such an earth-shattering event. On the one hand, I felt like I was leaving my family when they needed me. On the other hand, I had made a commitment to work and to a film that I believed in. As insignificant as the latter may sound, it was not just another job. Had it been, I would have replaced myself. Perhaps it was a way to cope, to not become lost in grief, to avoid despondency and self-pity, to ‘get back to work’. Perhaps not. As anyone who has worked on a film will tell you, it’s a demanding job. It demands your time and energy and, when the stars align just right it demands your soul and your heart. But moving on is a natural part of grief. One cannot, or should not, grieve forever.
A week or so after the funeral, I headed north on I-75 toward the northwest corner of the fine state of Georgia. Chickamauga was the destination. Mountain Cove Farm, my home for the next six weeks, was in a valley of hay and cornfields between the mountains. It was a brand new five-bedroom house with borrowed furniture, one phone line with an area code I’d never seen before, six New Yorkers, a sound mixer from Jersey, a musician from Birmingham, an adopted kitten named Crash and me. I remember walking into the garage one day before shooting and seeing production designer Kay L. with a can of black spray paint standing next to a prop crematorium-incinerator made out of wood. It stood about five or six feet tall and was probably only one fifth the size of a real crematorium b/c it was going to be filmed in shadow in the foreground of one or two shots.
Another item that was called for in the script were dead flowers. Well, if you’re asked to go out and buy dead flowers, you can’t really do that because chances are your local Florist doesn’t sell dead flowers. You buy flowers that are alive and wait for them to die. Moreover, who decides when flowers are dead? Is wilted the same as dead? Maybe dead flowers are actually dead. Maybe they are just dying. They’re still alive and there’s nothing you can do, but they’re not dead yet.
Our story followed a teenage boy who finds a dead body in the woods and keeps it a secret, for better or for worse. Based on true events that befell many of the residents of the Tri-State area around Northwest Georgia, Sahkanaga was filmed with the support of the surrounding community. We filmed in the Walker County Civic Center, which during the scandal served as a refuge for bereaved who wanted the ashes of their loved ones examined by specialists to determine if the urns on their mantles contained the remains of family or just concrete dust. Several Sheriff’s Deputies who appeared in the film served when the scandal broke. Many involved in the film had relatives whose remains were called into question.
During the six weeks that followed the family of Sahkanaga was built. We woke together, went to work together and ate together. With any independent film, you see the family of the filmmakers come out in full force to support their sons, daughters, brothers and cousins. Movies bring people together. Whether you are making them or watching them – movies magnetize people. They build families all their own. Perhaps the same can be said of traders on the NYSE or coal miners in a mountain – their work synthesizes them into a single force with a mission.
The cycle of this film comes full circle as it has (or had) its premiere this week in both Boston and Atlanta. May Sahkanaga live a long and healthy life and be welcomed into the grand cinema canon we all cherish.