Spartacus star's cancer fight captured in new documentary
It didn't take long for Lilibet Foster to realise she had to make a film about actor Andy Whitfield's battle with cancer.
Where some filmmakers might have blanched at tackling a story where the outcome was uncertain and the ending unhappy, just one conversation had the New York-based documentarian convinced that this was a tale worth travelling halfway around the world to capture.
"I had been in the process of making a programme about Dennis Hopper, but when he got cancer, that project went away," says Foster.
"The producer I had been working for [Sam Maydew] had been approached by Andy and his wife Vashti and he introduced us. I was just really take by them – their holistic way of living and personalities. Then I asked Andy where he was from and he said 'oh, you'll have never heard of it – it's tiny town [Amlwch] on a little island in Northern Wales' and I said 'ah, that's interesting because that's the same town my father grew up in'.
"The next day I told them I was 'in' and sort of threw myself passionately into making the film."
But why would an actor, who had only just achieved fame thanks to a season on the Kiwi-shot swords-and-sandals series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, want to put his own personal struggle up on screen? Foster says there were a number of factors at work.
"Andy had finished the first season of the show, but was still experiencing back-pain, which he put down to doing a lot of his own stunts and the rigorous 'Gladiator boot camp' they initially went through. After going to lots of physiotherapists, one of them finally suggested he have a scan and that's when they found the lymphoma. He and Vashti decided to immediately have chemotherapy and quietly, privately thought they had eradicated it. But then, just as he was preparing to start season two, he underwent a scan for insurance purposes and they found a small amount of the cancer still lingering in his system – basically he wasn't in remission.
"That night they went to restaurant and talked about how they were going to take a very different approach this time. They saw a tattoo parlour across the street and decided to go and get 'Be Here Now' tattooed on their arms and thought they would share their journey with others because they felt frightened and isolated and believed there must be other people going through this who could be helped and inspired by such a story. And not just people facing cancer either, Andy had already shown he could inspire people to go for it and make the best of their lives, by becoming a star at age 38, after so many years of perserverance."
Foster says the Whitfields had already shot an interview and were exploring how to realise their dream with Spartacus producers Chloe Smith and Rob Tapert when she came on board. A specialist in cinema verite or "observational cinema", Foster's filmmaking style eschews voiceovers and a traditional movie structure, favouring a looser, more organic style. "That requires a great degree of trust on both sides. I have to be trustworthy in order to be trusted and they have to rust me enough to be trusting in what they are able to share. Sometimes people don't want to film on a particular day, or they want to know why you want to film that day or are asking particular kinds of questions. On those days, I would say 'let's remember why we are doing this'. On the days that we did strike that, Vashti would say 'oh, I'm so glad we did that – it was like ripping off a band-aid – it kind of hurts when you're doing I, but it is also cathartic'.
"I would interview them separately and together, which gave them the ability to speak about things differently, and then Andy was really keen to shoot some 'home videos', so I got him a small-format camera and a microphone."
She admits they did also filmed a coupe of re-enactments – "although you would never know where they were in the finished film, they were very subtle".
Compromising was also a key part of the trust between filmmaker and subjects. "I always tried to work with them on what they were comfortable with, so it sometimes came down to just doing half-days, which is an unusual way to film. There were also times when I couldn't be there, but fortunately I had some amazing people who understood what and how I wanted to film. That was also how I was able to manage my own life."
Yes, what started out as a "six-month" project ended up taking 18. "The beauty about being a cinema verite-style filmmaker is you are following somebody through a period of their life and life isn't going to necessarily tell you how long that's going to be, but that's almost something you try to estimate and then you have to go with it.
"It became about stretching every tiny little penny and dollar that you have. We ended up doing a Kickstarter campaign so we had money to finish filming, finish editing and get us through that hump in the middle."
As she spent more time with the pair and their family (children Jesse and Indigo and both sets of parents), Foster says she was struck by a couple of profound things. "Just their ability to both manifest destiny – make a plan and go for it – and, at the same time, be 'in the moment'. That's a really difficult thing to do and I found it really remarkable that they could walk that fine line and that was their way of being and living."
She was also entranced by the "real, irrepressible" love story she was witnessing. "It even inspired by to go and watch the movie Love Story again. It also, more importantly, gave me a focus for the film. I thought if I could capture their way of living and that love story, as well as the progressing story following them all on this journey together, then all the little, subtle things we were capturing would add up to a terrific film."
It's a view now shared by many who have seen it, with Be Here Now picking up the audience award for best documentary feature at last year's Los Angeles Film Festival (a title it shared with South African sports tale I Am Thalente).
"That was such a gift," Foster says of the accolade. "The reason we did it was to inspire people, so when I went up to receive the award, I literally looked up and said 'wow, your story is starting to do what you wanted it to do'. It couldn't have been more of a rewarding feeling, especially as audiences were the ones who voted for it. I still get a little choked up when I think about it."
This week's Documentary Edge Film Festival debut screening in Wellington, which Foster will attend, marks the first time Be Here Now has been screened outside the US. It recently had its theatrical premiere in New York and has been used a fundraiser for various cancer research organisations across the United States. Many more screenings have already been set up through crowd-sourcing platform Tugg.com, something Foster hopes might also allow New Zealanders all around the country to see the film.
"Everyone who comes to see this has gotten something different out of it, depending on what they were bringing to the theatre that night. I do hope people go away inspired to do something they've always wanted to do in their life. Whether that is become an airline pilot, a violinist, call their grandma, go on a date, or spend a day with their kids.
"As a filmmaker, I firmly believe there are universalities that we all share, no matter what language we speak, or continent we live on. Life boils down to a few things – love, families, work, health, security and something outside of ourselves. I believe this touches on all of those things and brings us closer to each other."
The opening night film for the Documentary Edge Film Festival, Be Here Now will screen at 8pm on Wednesday night at The Roxy Cinema (Lilibet Foster and Vashti Whitfield will be in attendance), as well as 4.30pm on May 14. For more information, see docedge.nz