Monday, February 2, 2009

LIFE. SUPPORT. MUSIC. at Cinema Village; Q&A with filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar

In the annals of the "You think you've got troubles?" documentary, standing tall indeed is Eric Daniel Metzgar's LIFE. SUPPORT. MUSIC. This quiet little movie tracks the life of New York musician Jason Crigler (shown above with wife Monica) after an A.V.M. (arteriovenous malformation, a kind of brain hemorrhage) appears to render him comatose, perhaps permanently -- and so, some would say, better off dead. His close-knit family, including a newly pregnant wife, joins together to make as certain as possible that he comes back to something approaching his former life. Along the way, they work in tandem with his doctors, support staff, physical therapists, friends and co-musicians. (Jason, pre-hospitalization, was a much-loved part of the NYC music scene, and the film is filled with musicians, from Norah Jones to Marshall Crenshaw.)

Does this sound like one of those "inspiring" documentaries that will have you reaching for the Kleenex box ASAP? Well, yes, but believe me: You've no idea how good you'll be feeling and/or how differently you will perceive this movie once you've finished it -- rather than now, when you're reading me or anyone else who's trying to tell you how special it is. On one level, Life. Support. Music. is simply about what can be achieved when people try hard enough. It's also about how little doctors sometimes know or understand, no matter how good they may be. But that's too simple. Really. You have to have been there.

So be there, when the movie opens this Friday for a limited run at the Cinema Village (and eventually elsewhere around the country, I fervently hope). Toward the end of the documentary, Jason notes that he doesn't feel fully himself until the music kicks in. When that music finally does kick in, you'll understand exactly what he means.

TrustMovies loves a lot of the films he sees and, in fact, is of the mind that on any given evening, there's probably something worth watching available among the DVDs released that week, not to mention what's playing around town in various theatres. (Yes, it helps if one lives in a major metropolis). Of everything I've encountered of late, however -- documentaries, narratives, full-length or short -- nothing tops Life. Support. Music. So taken with the film was I that I shared my screener with the married couple upstairs, also film buffs who especially enjoy documentaries. (This was done partly as a corrective: Could the movie possibly be as fine as I'd imagined?) One member of the couple calls himself a "nitpicker extraordinaire"; upon returning the disc to me the following day, he admitted with gratitude that he'd found nary a nit to pick.

When the chance arose to chat with the maker of this documentary, I immediately jumped. While I learned a lot from Mr. Metzgar, to avoid any spoilers (can a film such as this even have spoilers?) you may want to see the movie first and then come back to this post. The photos shown above and below, by the way, begin with Jason, pre-aneurysm, at the top -- and then work their way forward, post-hemorrhage, as he progresses.

Q&A with filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar

TrustMovies: As writer/director/producer/editor/cinematographer/narrator, what was the most difficult part for you regarding the making of this film?

Eric Daniel Metzgar: It wasn't the filmmaking itself. It was being around Jason early in the shooting process. He had been -- and still is -- a friend of mine, and seeing him in such an altered state was really difficult. In my eyes, at the beginning, it seemed like he was a different person, a changed person, somehow a diminished version of his prior self, and at that point, to me, a full recovery seemed unlikely. And that was really hard to accept. But he continued to recover, and my feelings changed as I watched him return to his life -- his new life. And I saw in fact that he wasn't a diminished version of himself, he was, instead, a stronger, more developed person because of all that he had been through.

I’m particularly interested in why you chose what you chose to show us: You must have had oodles of footage…?

This was a film that really found itself in the editing process. (Eric pauses a moment.) Really, I suppose most films are like this. The arc was always clear, from the outset of the project. It would be a simple story, because it would track Jason's recovery. But I came into the story quite late in the game. Jason had already come home from the hospital by that time, and he and his family had a long discussion and then actually asked me to make this movie -- at the point in which he was just home and out of the woods. I told them I would love to, but thought it would be impossible without footage of the early stages of Jason's recovery process. In short, I would really need all the footage that the hospital and family had available. Fortunately, what I needed was there and made available to me. I was handed lots of materials, looked at them, was awestruck by them, and from that point on, I began filming as a continuation of the footage I'd been given. Then, it was a matter of just working backward and forward at the same time to make the story coalesce.

Did you have any idea of what a great, what a meaningful film you had in store? How the family was so amazing and special?

Yes, I think I did. But like I said before, when I started shooting, Jason wasn't quite himself yet. And I decided early on that if I just focused on him, that there might be an enormous sense of loss for the audience watching the movie -- because they sense that the "real" Jason was gone. So I thought, I will focus on the strength of the family. Then, of course, Jason continued to recover, so it became a film about both these things -- Jason returning into himself, and the power of his family. So I guess maybe my answer should be, no, I did not know what I had going in. But then you never know what you have when you start shooting.

Why did you choose to wait so long before really getting into the music angle? Jason had been a musician, after all, and a successful one.

There were several reasons, actually. Music films are tricky. Everyone has different tastes, so to focus too much on the music can put off audience members who don't appreciate the genre you're in.

That's funny, because after I watched the movie, I shared it with my upstairs neighbors, whom I suspected would love the film. They did, and we talked briefly about this question of why the music appeared so late in the movie. We're all senior citizens, and my neighbor Joel offered the exact reason that you just gave: "This would not be the type of music a certain part of your audience would want to hear much of."

Another reason was something more technical: I am a musician, as well as a filmmaker, so I try to treat music in my films with great respect. I won't show a concert -- or use concert sound -- unless it's really good. I filmed Jason playing a lot of shows during his recovery, but the sound of the band was recorded by camera microphone. So the footage was good, but the sound was less-than-stellar, except for the last concert in the film. For that show I took the sound from the "board" -- meaning it was professionally mixed, then mastered. Anyhow, all this led to an interesting thing happening. As I was making the film, putting it together, I thought to myself, I can feel that I should be including some music, some of Jason's music, throughout the story. But then I thought -- no -- let me try holding off until the end, and then I'll have one of Jason's songs play all the way through, and we'll him playing, from five camera angles, with visual flashbacks occurring, and we'll see if it works as a big payoff. So that's what I did. And I feel like it really works, giving the audience that full song -- one that is really well-recorded -- as a kind of long-awaited climax at the end.

What’s the latest update on Jason?

He is doing wonderfully. He's fully back into his life with his wife and new daughter and his music. And he just got his driver's license again!

One of the lovely moments in the film happens when Jason says that he knows that he is not fully back in life until he is there with the music. You -- and he -- make this so clear and meaningful.

Thank you. That's one of my favorite moments in the film. Always make me cry to think of him reconnecting to his sense of music. Because what is that connection? It's so ethereal and personal and private.

The movie hints at some family problems along the way, but we remain thoroughly un-privy to them.

There is no bad blood within this family. They are a truly remarkable group. They had their struggles, but worked through them as part of the process and it brought them all together.

How is Jason's sister doing out in… she went out to California after you finished filming, right?

She came back and now she's here on the east coast. She and Jason are starting to go out and give public speeches about brain injury and recovery. One of the unexpected results of the movie is that it seems to have become a useful tool for people recovering from really any sort of major physical problem -- not just brain injuries. And I am just extremely pleased about that. Because that is never quite one's intention when you make a film. At least not mine. I just hope to tell a good story and do right by my subjects and offer the audience a fresh perspective. But we have had such a positive and tremendous response. People have been writing me these really beautiful emails, saying that their brother, uncle -- whoever -- is struggling to recover from a stroke or back injury or something. And usually what they say is that what really moved them in the film is how Jason's family never gave up, and instead sought after endless creative methods to try to lift Jason's recovery to the next level.

Is the film opening anywhere except NYC?

No. We're starting small. Right now it's just here in NYC at the Cinema Village for a one-week run. Starting Friday, February 6th.

But you never know…


Heidi said...

I hope, I hope, I hope that this film is released to a bigger audience. After reading your review, it's at the top of my list of films I would really love to see.

I survived a ruptured brain aneurysm myself so it has extra special meaning to me and should be shared with other survivors.

Please let us know if the film is going to be released to wider audiences. THANK YOU!

James van Maanen, said...

And thank YOU, Heidi. I'm sure the director and everyone concerned with this film will second your thoughts on this. Turns out I was wrong about the aneurysm. I've just learned that, officially, Jason had an A.V.M. (arteriovenous malformation, a kind of brain hemorrhage) -- and I will correct the earlier mis-information in my post as soon as I finish this comment.

I do know that the movie will be available on DVD soon. So watch my blog in the coming weeks, I'll be posting info on where/how you can get it. Or email me at and I will keep you informed.