Podcast #84 Jack Has a Plan, A Documentary Film – Bradley Berman – Director

“Jack Has a Plan” is a 73-minute personal documentary which follows the story of a man diagnosed with a brain tumor. Director Bradley Berman says, “This is first and foremost a story. It is not an advocacy film for any particular outcome. It is just a story of Jack Tuller and what happened to him.” Yet this story is filled with so much to consider! Bradley and I discuss: How did this film come about? What was unique about Jack and his friends and family that made this film work? What does Jack’s experience have to share about living and dying? In this story of one man’s life, what are the enduring themes? What do audiences take away from seeing this movie? If you have a chance to see this film — grab it! I can’t stop thinking about it and will be sharing it online on 4/23/23.

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Transcription:

Diane Hullet: I am Diane Hullett and welcome to the Best Life Best Death podcast. I’m excited today to have Bradley Berman on with me. Hi Bradley. Hi, Diane. How are you? Good. And Bradley and I actually met in person last week at the Boulder International Film Festival where he was showing this wonderful touching film called Jack Has a Plan.

So I of course, couldn’t help myself, jumped outta my cinema seat, ran down and introduced myself, and I’m just really excited to talk more about this movie and bring it to a wider audience. 

Bradley Berman: Thank you. I appreciate that. 

Diane Hullet: So tell us, tell us a little about Jack has a plan. I mean, I’ve been hearing about it for a few months on Facebook and so on, but, oh, cool.

Tell us about the film. 

Bradley Berman: It’s a 73 minute feature documentary, a personal documentary about my very close friend Jack Teller who as a young man, you know, relatively young man in his early thirties. Was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor and given six months to live, but he lived for 25 years.

So that gave him a front row seat, like a kind of a unique experience with mortality, with the Im permanent nature of life, and with an amazing comfort to discuss. Death openly, but even more than that, he was a lifelong performer, musician and this charismatic very funny guy. So he makes the ideal guide through the experience of like what, how do you approach the end when you know it’s coming?

How do you resolve both the medical side of things but also the personal family dynamics? Because a lot of us have kind of. Unresolved issues with life and family. And he went about making a plan for how to resolve those things. So we’re now about halfway through a 35 film festival run all across the country, meeting people talk, sharing Jack’s story, having discussions with a lot of end of life doulas hospice care clinicians, palliative folks.

And, and the general Audi, you know, general film buffs because it’s, it’s first and foremost a story. It’s a film. It’s not an advocacy film for any particular outcome. It’s just a story of Jack Teller and what happened to him. 

Diane Hullet: That is so well put, Bradley, I, I found the, the thread of the story to be so moving and Jack happens to be a good storyteller, as are you and the team that put this, put this story together and thank you.

Was this, this was not your first movie, but it’s not like you’ve been a filmmaker for your whole life? No, 

Bradley Berman: Well, I studied art and photography and filmmaking as a young man, and then I really primarily became a writer. I mean, a. Content guy and all different kinds of, I’ve worked in museums, I’ve worked on big websites.

I’ve done a little bit of marketing and you know, I’ve been a, a journalist covering primarily transportation. I write for the New York Times and other publications about the kind of new breed of more eco-friendly cars. I’ve been doing that for 20 years, like well before Tesla even came about. So, During that time in the, in about already.

Now, let’s see, about 10 years ago, I decided to make a film about a local election in the Bay Area where I’m from. And that did well, and then I. It was called Nat Bates for mayor. It’s about, it was election in the Bay area’s, kind of overlooked Oil Town about the different political factions there.

That’s a, that’s a feature. And that played on p b s locally and in film festivals. And then right at that same time, Jack, My good friend Jack said, oh, well, your next film should be about me. And I’m like, why should it be about you? I mean, I’ve, I knew his unique story and I knew his unique personality, but I really was not keen to just launch into a film about him.

But he convinced me, and especially, you know, he had gone through a second bout of of seizures. Well, he, he had a. To say he was ill for 25 years might be a little bit of a stretch because he had his first bout and then he had a reprieve for, you know, more than a decade. But always kind of wondering what was happening cuz this was after surgery and after other kinds of treatment.

So he, he knew, he knew, he, he knew that. His life expectancy was diminished as a result of having two surgery, two brain surgeries, and. He knew his capacities to think, to read, to reason, to to have endurance, to, you know, do all kinds of things. He knew that was diminished, and so he had. A lot of time to make a plan, and that’s what he wanted the film to be about.

And so we just event over time, we just decided to start and just hang out and rec record. And he was a gr like you said, he is a great storyteller. So he, I would turn the camera on and he would start telling stories about how, what he was thinking about or what he, where, you know, Where he wanted to go that day, or about his parents or about any number of things.

And that got built up over a six year period and it enabled me to see, and to capture this, this trajectory of how do you have a truly like enlightened, compassionate experience in the final ch how do you write, basically, how do you write. Your life story, especially the the final chapters. 

Diane Hullet: And, and he really had what, like Barbara Karin’s great educator, has referred to as like precious time.

He really had this extended precious time with his wife, with his family to kind of say, and with, with friends. Friends were so dear to him. It’s so clear in the film to say, how do I wanna write this story? Yeah. I, I think it’s so interesting that part of that to him was, let’s make a film. And, and it does seem like he had this.

Impetus to share wider than his circle so that people could learn from it. I mean, as you said, it’s not a, it’s not a film that promotes a certain point of view or has a right idea, and yet it says this is one person’s experience and this is what he did. 

Bradley Berman: Yes. I mean, he, he, so he, he was funny in how he did it.

He used to, I, I would say, well, why do you want to do this? He said, well, he was a big jazz fan. He said, Louis Armstrong has been passed away decades and people are still enjoying his music and love it. You know, it’s all around the world and some small way, and it’s even in the film. He says, I just wanna tell a little story.

I just wanna leave Le a little bit of a legacy. 

Diane Hullet: Yeah. Yeah. And to happen to have a, a friend who was a filmmaker who could do this and bring it forward, I, I really valued, I mean, you must have gone over hours and hours and hours of film because one of the things that’s a thread in the film is just the simple, every day just having a cup of coffee and having a conversation and going for a walk.

And you described that you would make little clips for him to see. 

Bradley Berman: Right, like I, the, the, the traditional or, or sort of textbook way to make a documentary is, first of all, you plan it out, the whole thing. Like you, you have an intention that it’s gonna be. A feature film or a short or whatever it is, we didn’t do any of that.

Right. You 

Diane Hullet: kind of, you kind of create the trajectory that will say the message you want it to say, and that isn’t 

Bradley Berman: what you do. Right? Right. You start at the end, you say like, this is the message I wanna deliver, and how do I build up a story to, to do that? I mean, that’s one. Kind of genre of, of this. So the, the conventional way to do these things is you shoot for weeks or months or years, and then you take another set of weeks or months of years to edit something and then you have a rough cut.

Right? Well, the final chapter of the story, you know, Jack passes away, you know. No, no. No. No spoiler. No spoiler there, spoil, no spoilers there that that’s what happened. So I didn’t want to. Have, I wanted him to participate. I mean, this was his idea. This was, he was ostensibly a writer of this film.

He was the performer. He, it was a lot of it was improvisational, but it was, these are his, his ideas. I didn’t want him never to see any of it. So instead, I mean, in the film world, people call these dailies, but we, I didn’t show ’em all the, that would’ve been boring, like to go if we shot for an hour.

I’m not gonna show ’em all hour of the footage. I would cut out, cut little highlight reels and, but I just wouldn’t cut the highlights and edit the highlights. I’d put, put it to music and try to, you know, take, get to find the laughs in there and the funny things and the visually interesting things. So we made a series of about 15 little three and four minute YouTube videos.

We didn’t try to distribute them beyond just our, fr our friends, but we called it a few minutes with Jack. That was the operated operative title of, and this was a way that when someone, I mean, it’s kind of a cool idea. Think about that. Like if you know that someone who you love has limited time, and yet all of us.

Very few of us, I should say, stop what we’re doing. You know, we have jobs, we have kids, we have all these things. We’re not gonna stop what we’re doing. And, and you know, we, we don’t, we’re pressed for time in this busy, you know, highly connected world. So I, I. He would, we would get together, I would shoot something cut together a little three or four minute reel or little story, gave it a title, and had a funny opening line you know, o opening music.

And that allowed all of us, even those who weren’t able to come see him because of distance or busyness, to spend a few minutes with Jack. 

Diane Hullet: Yeah. I love that. I love that it’s such a sweet way for the community to come together in this visual and verbal way that Jack had one. One of the things I really, really loved about the movie is the title.

Jack has a plan I. And on the one hand, you know, you go to the film and you know, well, Jack has a plan and this is that he’s going to end his life before this brain tumor robs him of all capacity, but there were nuances to it. I don’t think it gives anything big a way to say that there’s a really moving piece with his wife towards the end.

And it, it sort of surprised me and I loved it where she said, you know, Jack has a plan. And the plan was to be with friends and family until the end. And I thought, oh, that’s what the title means, you know? And I think Jack had a plan to make a movie that would show a story, and Jack had a plan to end his life, and Jack had a plan to love his family and friends to the very last moment.

So there were these great layers to the title that I just thought was, yeah, 

Bradley Berman: it was weird. It was almost self-fulfilling or something like we our good friend, mutual friend, Matt, er Barn, who’s a writer, came up with the title and as soon as it hit, I was like, yeah, that, that’s a good, and then, then once we had the title, we were continuing to edit, and then people kept talking about his pl, like it was already in the footage.

But his, like his mother-in-law who loved him dearly, was his de facto mom. She said, I don’t know if I’ll ever understand that this is your plan to do. Like, there’s that word plan again. Yeah. The, the word plan kept creeping up after like it. It just got, it just emerged like so many other aspects of this project.

Diane Hullet: Yeah, it really unfolded in such a great way. There, there were just so many moving parts to this film and I, you know, I don’t wanna talk about it in a way that gives it away, but there’s this, I, I think it’s really wonderful that the midsection is really about, Kind of Jack coming to terms with limited time and given that he had limited time, two people that he wanted to reach out to were his parents, who he was not in contact with.

And so he goes on this extensive, totally serendipitous thing that turns out finding his father that, you know, really is one of the real heart pieces in the film. His father’s response to him showing up. 

Bradley Berman: Totally. They were separated when Jack was three months old and the parents were separated and he lost track of his father.

So there were 55 years there that he did not have, you know, that there was a gap between being three months old and, and you know, nearly, you know, a third of the way through his 55th year. And then they had, you know, to make up for, for lost time. But the, what you’re, what you’re describing is the, kinda, the structure of the film is classic three act structure.

You like the first, first act is and there’s almost like an allegorical feel to it. It’s a documentary, but it feels like a narrative story. And so the first third is we get to know him, we. Understand his condition, right? And then we see that his days are numbered, and then he goes into the second act, which is all about it’s Quest, 

Diane Hullet: family quest.

Bradley Berman: It’s all about. Feeling good and understanding who, like, again, these like unfinished business fan. Like this is not a medical film. It’s about medical aid and dying in a sense, but it’s not a medicalized film. So the second act is about all those personal things that really make you connect with him and see him as a whole person.

And then finally in the, you know, the final third, it comes back, you almost forget, like, wait a second, is he ill? You know, like, oh yeah, that’s what this is about. Like you remember and that, and then it just, I think it gives a richness to it that re that audiences have fairly responded 

Diane Hullet: to. Absolutely.

Absolutely. And you see the love of his friends too, and I thought it was so, I. Really powerful also that even right at the end, right at this party with his dear friends, at the very end when he knows the time that he plans to take the medication, his friends are kind of still arguing about it and arguing isn’t even quite the right word.

They’re still discussing this and they’re, yeah, they’re. The, the ethical issues of it. And the one friend says so clearly, you know, if he was going to die by shooting himself with a gun, I would stop him. So how is this any different? And, and you capture that on film. I don’t know if it was you filming or somebody else, but so did No, I was filming.

Bradley Berman: Yeah. I mean this was all shot. I shot all this completely myself cause I didn’t wanna have a crew and, you know, encroach upon these personal. Scenes. 

Diane Hullet: Wow. Wow. So right there in the final like social party and goodbye party and sort of love fest. There’s also this intense philosophical debate going on among his friends.

Like, I don’t feel okay about this. Well, I don’t either, but it’s his choice and what do we do? And I just. That to me was really moving that it didn’t have some kind of neat resolution. Like everybody was on board and everybody supported Jack’s plan. It’s like, no, this was really hard and there was still respect for Jack’s plan.

Bradley Berman: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting when the lights come up and we showed in movie theaters and there’s, I know it’s having an impact cuz you can, you know, see. People laugh. They at one point they cheer. People are, you can hear the sniffles. People are crying. And so there’s not like a giant round of applause at the very end.

I mean, there’s a good side of applause. But it’s not giant because people are baffled. The audience like, that’s what you want. Like, because that’s how life is. Like you want. That’s the, like, that’s good to me. Good storytelling and good art is not neat. Tidy packages, but provoke thought, provoke feelings.

Diane Hullet: Right? I, yeah. I think you leave the audience wrestling, like you really, as the audience member, you say to yourself, wow, what would I do? Yeah. I think that’s a really, like you said, a powerful film. I mean, what, what do you, what do you hope audiences take away from the movie? 

Bradley Berman: Yeah, I mean, that’s what we, that’s what I wanted.

I mean, that’s, I mean, I don’t, there’s, I, there’s no need packages in terms of what I wanted, but I think what happens is like let everybody sort through these issues themselves, first of all realize that like it’s okay to talk about death. Jack was so open about it, right? This is a taboo that needs to come down so that we can have discussions.

Secondly that the individual, as, as it didn’t make it to the film, but I, one of the char, one of the, our friends said, you don’t know what anyone’s feeling to, you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins. That’s how acutely said it. It’s like the Jack got to decide. We, we might not agree. We might nobody, not everybody needs to agree with what the person who’s going through the dying process is experiencing or wants, but it’s not up to us.

It’s up to them. Right. So we can have these two conflicting feelings in our mind at the same time. And those, I mean, that’s another part of the baffling nature of it, is that you can say, I don’t want you to go, I’m gonna miss you a lot. Like, can’t you stay another day? Can’t you stay another month?

Isn’t there. Isn’t there some way we could work our way out of this? Just buy some more time. And so you can have all those feelings about not wanting to lose your, your loved one and at the same exact time have kind of an opposite feeling, which is, you know, what you want, you know where the line is drawn.

And so I can respect that. 

Diane Hullet: The word paradox comes to mind, right? It’s this exquisite paradox of believing in Jack and trusting his truth and then having your own conflicted feelings and mixed up response to it. Yeah, and I guess it’s like the friends and family shown in the movie. I. They really had their own response and emotions while also making space for Jack.

It, it was really, I I thought it really also captured how death is a communal event. Yeah. And even though in the very, very final bid, it’s Jack and his wife, it’s really Jack and Jennifer are right at the end. At the same time, it was very much a community communal experience of dear friends. 

Bradley Berman: Yeah, that, that’s absolutely true.

And I think another reason that we kind of got lucky in terms of the filmmaking is that Jack was so good at having friends. You know, he was such a, he just, he was a good friend to so many people and everyone rallied around him. And, and it was a group of like articulate, loving people. So, And kind of all of the same you know, open spirit of dialogue.

And so like a lot of, I think, I mean, you, you know better than I do, as in your work is in end of life doula endeavors too, that probably, you know, some people are afraid to talk about it or they don’t want to talk about it, or some other folks just. You know, too many issues come out, but we, you know, we were just good law, very long-term friends, and so it just opened up the possibilities for us to, again, kind of a paradox.

Like we could disagree, right? But nobody stormed off, got mad and turned the table over and said, I’m outta here. Right? Like, you know, 

Diane Hullet: I can’t be friends. I can’t be friends with. This 

Bradley Berman: is over. Like, I can’t deal with this anymore. We all just, even like you say right up to the very last sentence, like, what are we, what are we like?

It is the confounding nature of death itself in a way. It’s like, yeah, it’s inevitable. 

Diane Hullet: Well, I am so grateful that, you know, Jack had this idea of capturing it on film, not really knowing where it would end up. And you, you know, rose to that challenge and said, okay, I’ll try to film this and see where it goes.

And then, you know, you really gave a nice shout out at the movie theater where we met you to the whole team that it really was Yes. Scheme that made it so coherent. Oh, one more funny thing I have to mention is I just loved the little funny black and white old movie clips Uhhuh that were interspersed, and that was part of the thread of the story that I think captured Jack’s sense of humor and the whole kind of liveliness of it.

I mean, when the, when the mad scientist mixes up a potion and slugs back the drink from somebody. Yeah. 1940s, black and white film. Yeah. It just added, I don’t even know, it’s not like it added levity. It almost added, I don’t know, culture, weight. I, I don’t know. Yeah. Yeah. 

Bradley Berman: We needed a way to, Get inside Jack’s head a little bit, also, like a little bit of a pallet cleanser.

Like, let, let’s, let’s see where we are and, and like, take a big step back and take a, you know, think about the like levity, humor, kind of artistry distance, and then, So when you pop back in, like right after that shot of, I forget what it was from, I think it was, I think it was like from 

Diane Hullet: Frankenstein or something.

Yeah. 

Bradley Berman: Yeah. I, I have to look it back up. I forget. So, you know, the mad scientist takes the potion and then it cut right to Jack’s face. Like looking a little bit like that scientist, frankly, because he saw the, the ability to, you know, to work a little magic in his own life or death. 

Diane Hullet: Yeah. Well, it was just a brilliant film.

So when and where and how do people see this? What’s happening with distribution, with independent films these 

Bradley Berman: days? It’s not easy. We first of all, jack documentary.com is a, or facebook.com/jack documentary are ways to follow our tour. It is, you know, continuing to make its way across the country.

We’re adding more stops as well. So that’s one way. If you don’t see it, Coming to a theater near you, use the contact form and say, oh, I would love to bring it to here, like we’ve worked with End of Life doula to bring it to different communities we have, and then Diane, you and I we’re gonna work on having a special screening sometime in the next couple of months.

Yep. So we’re, we’re figuring it out. We’re, we haven’t made some, you know, major breakthrough where it’s in every cplex throughout the country, or it’s not necessarily on a, you know, major broadcast or cable casting or streaming service at this point, but maybe. Not yet, but maybe someone, someone in the earshot of, of your podcast will say, oh, I know how to do this.

But we, we believe in the story. I mean, this is the main thing. You were in the audience, you know, like we had two audiences of about 200 each in Boulder, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And the impact, like people get up afterwards and it’s not just to like tout. My great team’s filmmaking skills, which they definitely have.

It’s the fact that, that something happened, like we captured a little magic in a bottle of, of lightning in a bottle of this incredible life story that happened. Right. Just, it just happened and I was lucky enough to, to get it and to tell it. And so every time we show it, People say, I will never, I mean multiple people every showing and who knows how many people think it, but don’t say it.

I will never forget the story for the rest of my life. Or I’ve never had felt like this in the theater before. So now it’s just, we wanna take the, I mean, maybe we’ve shown it 40 times or 50. That’s a lot. 40 times, 50 times. We wanna turn that into a thousand. So anybody who’s hearing this that wants to help us get to those thousand screenings, you know I mentioned the websites, or they can contact you and we can figure out how to do that.

Diane Hullet: Great. I love it. Again, it’s jack documentary.com. Yes, and I’ve been talking with Bradley. Thank you so much, Bradley, for making this film and for talking to me today. Thank you 

Bradley Berman: Diane. Thanks so much for this exposure. Every little bit helps and it’s a whole community and there’s a whole move. As you know, you’re part of it.

There’s a movement underway and I’m glad that the film could kind of help spur that along. 

Diane Hullet: I couldn’t agree more. Well, thanks so much. You’ve been listening to the Best Life Best Death podcast with Diane Hullett and Bradley Berman, and you can find out more about the work I do at Best Life. Best death.com.

Thanks for listening. 

Diane Hullet

Diane Hullet

End of Life Doula, Podcaster, and founder of Best Life Best Death.

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