One of the many intriguing documentaries playing at this year’s TCFF is Victor’s Last Class, documentary about an acting teacher getting ready to end his life, and a student who attempts to change his mind.
Our blog staff Laura Schaubschlager talked to producer/filmmaker Brendan Brandt on the journey to making his film, where along the course of the project became more than just a filmmaker asking why, but became a close friend trying to change his new friend and mentor’s mind.
1. How did you discover Victor and his blog (and, subsequently, his announcement of ending his life)?
I’m an actor in Los Angeles. I was at a cast party after having just closed a play. The host of the party was a little upset, and when I asked why, he told me that his friend Victor was getting ready to kill himself in two weeks, and he didn’t know what to do.
I was fascinated with the story and asked if Victor would be willing to meet me. I just wanted to talk to him. Before we met, I read all his blogs and got a sense of who he was. At some point right before we met I got the idea to document his story in some way. So I pitched him the documentary idea sort of on the fly.
2. Why were you compelled to make this documentary? How did you hope to challenge Victor’s decision through filming this?
“Why was I compelled” initially is tough to answer. I’m not great at psycho-analyzing myself so there may be some subconscious stuff going on that I’m unaware of. If I was forced to guess I would say I had never truly experienced a death at that point in my life (other than losing a grandpa and grandma). I hadn’t lost a close friend or parent, so I think I was perhaps a little curious about it. That was at first. Then after I met Victor, I bonded with him in a very intense way, and I was compelled to “save” him. I had a mission, to talk someone out of killing themselves. I think that’s how I saw it after awhile.I hoped to do it by asking him some super smart questions. I was on a righteous mission! It sounds incredibly naive and a little arrogant to me now, but I really thought I could get into the philosophy and logic behind the decision and perhaps find a flaw or crack. I was convinced there was a chance to unlock some previously undiscovered angle, and when we fully looked at it, we could come to a different conclusion.
3. Last year, Jojo Moyes’s book Me Before You, which deals with the issue of assisted suicide and ending one’s life due to lifelong medical struggles, was adapted into a major motion picture. Have you read the book or seen the movie, and if so, how did you feel about the depiction of this situation after going through it yourself?
Oh man, I was not aware of that book or film. I will check it out when I’m ready to have a good cry.
4. Victor stated in the documentary that he didn’t believe ending one’s life has to just be due to physical pain (he gives the example of someone losing a wife and child in an accident and not being able to go on), but didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to say it would extend to mental illness.
What do you think? How do you feel it extends (or doesn’t) to mental illness? Where do you think the limit is?
Great question. Let me preface this with I don’t have a clear, concrete answer. One of the main lessons I got from this experience was that life is less ‘black and white’ and more ‘grey’. So you have to take it on a case by case basis. We can do a better job of seeking help for mental pain, and we can do a better job of treating mental illness. I didn’t like Victor’s car accident analogy in the moment. That seemed like an injury that, while horrific, would slowly, at least partially, heal with time, and deciding to die before giving it a chance to partially heal would be unwise. Maybe after 10 years, with no improvement in mental health, still devastated and unable to cope, I would be more willing to accept that.
All that being said, mental pain is often worse than physical pain, and ultimately an individual should be in charge of their own life. So, if a mental health expert could determine that someone who is suffering extreme mental pain and wants to die is not “crazy”, I would probably accept that. The main point would be to make sure they talk about it with experts and loved ones, and that we would get a chance to really explore that decision.
5. After going through all of this with Victor, what advice do you have for anyone who has a friend or family member considering ending their lives due to chronic pain or illness? You state toward the end of the film that while you understand his reasoning more, you still don’t agree with his decision; how do you come to terms with those conflicting feelings?
My advice would be to make sure you listen to the person. I’m very grateful I got to have this experience with Victor. And he was grateful I gave him that experience because we got to really investigate every facet of that decision. It was good for both of us, and I think it’s a healthy process to go through. Tell the truth, listen, question, and seek to understand. Not to be nit-picky, but I said: “I still don’t know that I agree”. I think that’s an important distinction. It goes back to my ‘things are grey’ point. I can’t say what he did was right or wrong. I don’t want to say that. But I do want people to look at it and think about it, and maybe make up their own mind.
When I made that comment toward the end of the film, I was hurting. I thought I made a pretty strong case to continue on. It was a little selfish of me to be honest. He was making my life better, and I didn’t want that to stop. It’s taken time and a lot of reflection, and the conflicting feelings are still there, but basically, at this point, I understand and accept. Wish it wasn’t the case, but I accept. Dealing with the conflicting feelings was interesting. As I spoke with his friends after the fact and heard their takes on it, I found myself swinging back and forth, and that continued for a while until I arrived at ‘there is no right answer. It just is.’
Brendan Brandt (Director/Producer), is a Los Angeles based actor who has been working professionally for the last twelve years in theater, film, and television. He’s appeared in prime-time dramas for CBS, sitcoms for ABC, Comedy Central, and CMT, and films that have been distributed by Netflix, Amazon, and Directv. In addition, he has been in over twenty commercials as a principal actor. His book “Waiting Tables, Dodging Bullets: An Actor’s Guide to Surviving Los Angeles” was published in 2010. Although he’s worked in the industry for twelve years, this is his first time directing a film.
Arielle Amsalem is an Emmy Award winning editor of feature length documentary films. After graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts film program, where she apprenticed under the editor Sam Pollard, Arielle started her career working on Spike Lee’s award winning documentary “When the Levees Broke” (2006), a film about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She has since been the editor of many feature- length documentaries including the Edward Norton produced HBO documentary “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama” (2009) for which she won the Primetime Emmy for Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming. She worked as a Producer on Jennifer Fox’s 6-part documentary series “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman”, which premiered at Sundance and aired on the Sundance channel. Additionally, she has consulted on the production and distribution of many of the documentaries which she has edited.
What’s in store for Day 4
Today we are screening lots of movies, there is something for everyone!
Victors Last Class, Instructions for Living, Ice House, Coyote, Cold November, Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict, Bill Nye: The Science Guy, Beyond the Trek, Beauty Mark, and two blocks of short films (Age of Innocence – coming of age stories, and True Life Inspired– documentaries).
Stay tuned for my Day 3 & 4 recap tomorrow