Screenwriter and director Scott Z. Burns says he’s been interested in issues related to death since he was a child growing up in Minnesota in the 1960s. His dad, he explains, worked for NASA as a research psychologist and gave Scott, then seven or eight, a telescope through which to explore the night sky. “I remember going out in the yard and pointing the telescope in the sky, and it landed on nothing,” Burns says. “I somehow managed to miss every star and moon that there was, and I was staring into the void. And, at that point in time, just the concept of the nothing being there, I think, made me connect with death in a very deep, scary, existential kind of way.” He pauses for a beat. “I don’t know that my relationship, or at least my fascination with it, ever diminished after that.”
Burns is the creative force behind Topic’s The View From Here, a new, five-episode documentary series that explores death through the eyes of five terminally ill individuals near or at the ends of their lives. In collaboration with producer Brandon Milbradt and psychiatrist Dr. John Wynn, who specializes in issues relating to oncology, the screenwriter and director (Contagion, The Report) has created a powerful series of straight-to-camera testimonials in which terminally ill individuals speak candidly about confronting dying, death, and what follows. This past October, Topic spoke to Burns, Milbradt, and Wynn to hear more about the series’ origin story and the challenges and rewards it provided to the filmmakers, participants, friends, and family.
The following interview has been condensed and edited.
Why the name The View From Here?
Scott Z. Burns: A few years ago, I was watching the ESPY Awards and I saw [college basketball legend] Jim Valvano make a speech during the awards. I just was so struck by the bravery of somebody who could see the horizon line of their life [and] was willing to turn around and look back at all of us and tell us what he saw from where he was standing. I sort of view some of these people as being astronauts that are way in front of us on a path that we’re all on, and I want them to turn around and look at us and tell us what they see about life in general—and about regrets, about faith, about what matters, about love, about fear of the unknown. I’ve always been interested in hearing what people have to say when they’re in that position.
We have a lot of insights about being born, about growing up, raising our kids, about relationships, about work. We don’t have a ton of societal insight about how to say goodbye to those we love, but even on a more individual and intimate level, about what you’re going feel. How you’re going feel. And that’s what I wanted: people who know that they’re not going be here much longer, to be able to see over the horizon and look back and go, “Whoa, this is what it looks like from here.”
Brandon and John, how did you get involved in the project?
Brandon Milbradt: My mother had just passed away. She had committed suicide. Scott and I were hanging out, and we were talking about death and what it is in this country, how it’s treated, and the lack of dignity. Scott came up with this idea, and I was just fascinated by it. I thought it was a brilliant idea. And then my father, I have no doubt because of grief, deep, deep profound grief—that’s what they say in Chinese traditional medicine, that lung cancer is the cancer of grief—had this diagnosis. Then it just became even more of a calling, and I just wanted to participate in whatever way I could.
Dr. John Wynn: A friend of mine in Los Angeles asked me if I would be willing to speak with a filmmaker who’s interested in doing some work around death and dying. Scott and I chatted on the phone, and it felt like our interests and goals aligned so immediately that I actually felt we were creating the project on the spot. That’s how good it felt. I was unaware of the fact that he had this idea and had discussed it with Brandon for over a year at that point. It immediately felt like an opportunity to create a resource of such power and value for patients, for family members, for a larger community.
Scott and I talked about the importance of demystifying this hidden process of approaching death … and the possibility of talking about it. The taboos in society are so great that people feel embarrassed or rude if they talk about it. We live in the shadow of our mortality all our lives and the shadow is reinforced by these taboos. So, for someone to say ‘Talk to me about dying now that you’re dying’ presents a great opportunity for the interviewer, for the person who is approaching death, and for all the people connected with that person, and all the people who are human beings, all those of us still living.
“We have a lot of insights about being born, about growing up, raising our kids, about relationships, about work. We don’t have a ton of societal insight about how to say goodbye to those we love.”
And how did you find the individuals you would eventually put on camera?
Wynn: We basically had two fronts in this process: one in New York, and one in Seattle. In New York, we were trying to work with folks at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and after lots of false starts, we realized that we were not going to generate any leads there at all, which was unfortunate and frustrating. And so, in Seattle, I wound up connecting with my contact in the medical community where I’d practiced for almost 30 years, and found the most responsive folks in palliative care, oncology, and neurology. A couple of clinicians just were really excited about the project and got back to us with some names. And then there was the ALS clinic, the Lou Gehrig’s disease clinic at Swedish Hospital in Seattle. They were so excited to be a part of this and just immediately started brainstorming and gave us the names and contact information for three of these people.
We are not clinicians providing clinical services. And so, as a clinician, I had to remind people that they could ask the patient to contact me, but they can’t tell me to contact the patient, because that would be disclosing information about somebody. So, I walked each of the referral sources through the process of encouraging the patient to call me and then had a conversation with maybe seven or eight people. They thought about it, and we connected them all eventually with Brandon, who did the preliminary interviews.
Milbradt: They were all very excited. It was an incredible experience speaking with them for the first time. I was doing these pre-interviews, and I’d just given birth probably seven days earlier. I would have my baby breastfeeding and making these cooing noises, and I felt terrible for them because in my mind I’m thinking, I have this new life. I wanted to hide that aspect of it. But the women that I spoke to, they were so interested in the baby. It was a very moving experience for me.
How did you decide how you were going to approach the production and the actual filming?
Burns: In all candor, at one point, the idea was to create this as a kit—that people might even be able to self-tape. I had even, at one point, had a conversation with Steven Soderbergh saying, “You and I sit down and help design a kit where we could tell people, you know, draw what the frame should be and tell them what kind of light should be at a 45-degree angle to the subject.” At one point, we were hoping we might be able to do it that way. But then, as we had more discussions, it seemed better to go and do this. Some of it was pragmatism, in that some of the people were going to have a difficult time traveling, so it was easier for us to come to them, which made us change a little bit creatively. I became very interested in windows because of the thing being called The View From Here. I wanted to try to find the place where the subject was looking out at the world. That had something to do with how we positioned these people.
Wynn: I just want to add that in our original conversation, Scott made a lovely point about how personal we wanted this to be, and how so many people in their natural environment would really enhance, increase the power of what people were saying. That they weren’t lab rats. That they weren’t just subjects being interviewed. That they were people in their homes in real life, in the real world. That point was poignantly driven home to us as we went from home to home. It was really powerful to be in people’s homes.
You wanted to keep the episodes short. What didn’t make it into the series?
Burns: Brian’s process of self-diagnosis. It’s in there a little bit, but he was very eloquent about deciding that he was going to kill himself while he still could. He had decided he would go into the backcountry and give himself hypothermia. He had really thought it out to that degree. And what Brandon said earlier, it’s particularly chilling when you hear people put together thoughts that you’ve considered on your darker days, when you realize that this in front of you. Or maybe not even darker days. John was able to get him to talk a lot about dreams he had. The dreams were pretty long but really fascinating. You could do a whole other film with Brian about his dreams. In the case of Linda, she had spent some portion of her adult life teaching English in China. She talked about her experience of that and how she was going to get cared for there, and how scary it would be to be away from home and learning that you’re sick.
Wynn: I think another part that is not as obvious in the final edits is how each of these people experienced a profound isolation at one point or another. When Linda talks about seeing blood in her bra, she’s in China. She’s thousands of miles from home or any hope of adequate health care in that moment. She felt there was no one she could talk to, there was little hope of getting adequate help. And each of them, at one point or another, addressed that feeling. So that’s a really important process that we had to eliminate.
“I felt bad removing one word, one breath, one look, one spot, one pause, one anything. I had to very much balance my emotional side, where I just wanted everything that they said to be used.”
Burns: The other thing that John and I spoke about is there are belief systems that people really invest in when they get to this stage of their life and they’re dying. Those tend to come out in language that we’re very familiar with. So they’ll talk about Scripture or they’ll talk about God’s will. After a couple of those interviews I would say to John that I didn’t feel we got as close to those people, because it probably takes more than two or three hours to dig in deeply and start really teasing out what that faith means to that person, in an individual way.
Wynn: Yeah. I think what Scott and I were both responding to were the hackneyed phrases of rote faith that often open these conversations, and how what we really wanted to get to was the process of adaptation and the role of faith in that process. The ways in which people dealt with their fear, and their grief, and their guilt about leaving people behind, and their frustration about not achieving the things that they’d hoped to achieve. This is a long-standing particular interest of mine: how people adopt faith in different ways to help them through the process. As we got to know people better and better, we got more and more comfortable with the variety and range. And I have to say, I felt closer and closer to these people as the editing process went along. I feel like there has been a lovely distillation toward the final product.
What I’m hearing you say is that discussions of faith sometimes got in the way of discussions of actual feelings. That things were being intellectualized, not felt. Is that a fair assessment?
Wynn: It’s fair from one angle and unfair from another. My goal is not to get people to cry on camera, right? My goal is to elucidate how people cope. And so I think that if our interviewing and camerawork are skillful, then you can read people’s emotional states on their faces as they intellectualize. So it gets felt. And that’s really what we want. We want to convey the strategy and the lived experience of this predicament. And as we got to know people better, as Scott was saying, if we had more time with anyone, we would perhaps get into fuller conversations about their emotional experience, but we really want both. We’re peeling the onion, but we really want the outer layers too.
Was it difficult editing and assembling the stories in the series?
Milbradt: I felt bad removing one word, one breath, one look, one spot, one pause, one anything. I had to very much balance my emotional side, where I just wanted everything that they said to be used. These are human beings. They’re real people. They’re not actors knowing that they’re going to end up on the editing-room floor.
Burns: I don’t know where I came across this. It was while we were in Seattle, but I don’t know if it was the name of a book or whatever, some little aphorism: Don’t tell a dying person to shut up. Was that a book title or something? I guess on some moral ground, I feel like there’s this obligation, when you get in front of a person and they’re willing to be so open, to give them all the time and space they need, because their time and space is finite and they’re acutely aware of that. On one hand, everybody’s entitled to their own feature. So, there’s that feeling.
On the other hand, this is kind of a new space for me to be working in. I did a lot of TV commercials in my life. But knowing there seems to be a magic number around five minutes that is good for the audience, you’re sort of caught between, “Who am I servicing, the audience or the subject?” And you kind of have to take care of both. But I think it was really hard sometimes to park one thought next to another and wonder if I’m being fair to their narrative, or if I was cobbling together a different narrative. That’s always the case with documentary filmmaking. Juxtaposition becomes an incredibly morally complex thing. At one point we’d had a shorter piece with Linda talking about memento mori, and it felt to me like I wasn’t giving her enough space to really finish that thought, and so we expanded that, but then something else has to go. It’s really hard.
You’re all professionals at telling stories and trying to help others understand and share their own narratives. Do the three of you feel that the way we talk about death is changing? How have your feelings about talking about death evolved?
Burns: I’ll go first. I don’t know of a specific thing that exploded out of this, other than the strong desire to do a lot more of these. There’s sort of a scientist side of me that wants a bigger sample. I want to do enough of them that I see patterns emerging. The lessons that I’ve learned from these things always meander into a scripted thing, and I’m sure if I have to write a theme about someone facing death, this is going to inform that completely.
Milbradt: I would echo that completely. I think it’s definitely made me a better filmmaker going forward, because I did not expect this outcome at all. I’ve learned so much from both Scott and John on how to approach something like this. Watching them both work has been such an incredible experience. I’m so much more excited every day that I wake up, and I was probably to an annoying extent beforehand, but now even more, with my daily gratitudes. I’ve worked with kids, with foster kids. I’ve worked with women, sex workers. How can I be in service to people who are going through this, their family members, their friends? Does that mean becoming a death doula at one point in my life? I’ve certainly watched a birth doula at my own birth. Personally, I could not do that and I know that 100 percent, but I know I could be a death doula, and be of service. That has really affected me. I think this conversation—you had asked if things were changing, and I think this rise of the discussions around death and assisted dying, and it becoming legal in more places, means it is. I really hope this can contribute to change.
Wynn: I had a lot of thoughts listening to Scott and Brandon talk.
There’s a paradox inherent in what Brandon was saying: the total uniqueness of every person’s approach to death and the amazing universality of it. The idea that these people have a completely unique experience is negated by the fact that we feel so moved by it, and feel so personally touched by it. There’s this paradox that by helping people give their fully personal individual experience full expression, we find ourselves in the conversation just listening to them talk. Again, Scott and I were talking about this in the last few weeks, okay, we just need to do 100 more of these videos. We were riffing: OK, I want to go into Cajun country and do this. I want to do Lake Superior neighborhoods. I want to go to Orange County and interview a bunch of Trump supporters about death. There’s such richness in these populations and in their strategies of adapting to this universal thing we’re all heading toward.