Man on Earth Director Amiel Courtin-Wilson Talks About His Most High-Pressure Film Yet in This Interview

Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s work as a filmmaker consistently operates in the realm of the emotional, presenting the rawness and reality of humanity with a stark honesty like few other filmmakers. From his stunning 2011 film Hail which presented two characters clashing and exploding against each other in a turbulent relationship, to his character-focused documentaries on Uncle Jack Charles with 2008’s Bastardy and musician Ben Lee with 2012’s Ben Lee: Catch My Disease, Amiel’s focus as a director has always been on that entity that thrives within us, conjuring our spirit into existence, day in, day out.

His latest film, Man on Earth, is his most grounded and immediate film yet, following the final seven days of Robert Rosenzweig – Bob – as he is surrounded by family and friends as he embarks on his journey to die with dignity as the impact of Parkinson’s disease overwhelms his body and his quality of life diminishes. The embrace and depiction of Bob’s soul is laid bare with profound empathy by Amiel and the crew of considerate filmmakers by his side that includes producers Alice Jamieson-Dowd and Chris Luscri, cinematographer Jacqueline Fitzgerald, sound recordist Steve Bond, and more.

In this interview, Amiel talks about the journey to become part of Bob’s legacy, the Traces project that brought the two together, the way Man on Earth was edited, and his relationship with Australian filmmakers.

Man on Earth screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival and is one of the must see films of the festival.

This interview has been edited for clarity purposes.

How did you get to become part of Bob’s legacy?

Amiel Courtin-Wilson: That’s a beautiful way of putting it. It was a very circuitous process. We were actually working on another project entirely called Traces, which is a feature documentary shot entirely with thermal imaging cameras looking at the human body at the moment of death, that we were researching for upwards of two years before we got in contact with Bob. As part of that research, producers Alice Jamieson-Dowd and Chris Luscri, quite a large team of other associate producers and supporters working on it, reached out to upwards of 1,500 hospices, death doulas, dying with dignity groups, advocacy groups, everywhere from Canada, the UK, Europe, we were looking at Mexico, Southeast Asia.

And for this Traces project, and after around two and a half years, we were starting to question whether or not the project would go ahead and in the space of one week, we got a call from a hospice in Denver about the Traces film. So that film went ahead. And we also got a call from a gentleman Robert Rosenzweig in Aberdeen, Washington, he had heard about this Traces project through the dying with dignity non-profit group that he was he was working with. And he contacted us with a deal. He said, “Oh, I’ll participate in this thermal imaging project if you come and spend the last seven days of my life with me and document my family and my feelings and thoughts.” It was really his idea from the get go.

And that was certainly the first time that has ever happened as a filmmaker. And I think from the moment we spoke on the phone, only one month out from the date of his scheduled death, it was abundantly clear that Bob was an amazing human being, an amazing storyteller, very funny, very self-aware. [He had] this great acerbic wit. We had a lot in common in strange, unexpected ways. And so, it was a no brainer that this entire other feature film suddenly sprouted from this very long research process.

Besides being a documentarian, what did you see your role in Bob’s final days as being?

AC-W: Everything was so accelerated. Bob and I connected in a pretty unusually unique way just in those first conversations in terms of humour and some shared experiences. I was pretty confident that we had the beginnings of some kind of burgeoning friendship outside of the usual filmmaker-subject relationship and then once we’ve landed, it was absolutely instrumental that we had the right kind of crew with us for such a sensitive endeavour.

We worked with Steve Bond who’s an amazing sound recordist. I’m a great believer that sound recordists don’t get enough of a limelight so I’m going to plug Steve Bond. I think he’s the best location sound recordist in Australia. I knew that he would be amazing. I knew that Jacqueline Fitzgerald, our cinematographer would be unbelievably sensitive and then also Alice Jamieson-Dowd, our lead producer, was on the ground. Because I knew inevitably that not only would we be filming with Bob in his home with his son and carer Jesse, but there would be dinners and breakfasts, and we’re sharing a family space.

So to answer your question, I think a lot of that remained unknown until we landed. And then we very quickly realised that the way in which Bob was experiencing time, and each day, given that he had only had seven days left, it was really clear that there was a very intensified and accelerated need for intimacy and connection with the people that he met around him whether it was a conversation with a woman at a diner, or with this film crew suddenly arrived from Australia. So I think there’s a scene in the film, where he says, “Welcome to the family.” And to give you an indication of just how rapid this acclimatisation [was], it felt like really being absorbed into his family, Bob said that 10 hours after meeting us. I think in many ways, myself and the crew were needing to each day debrief and sort of catch up with just the intensity of how much was occurring.

Funnily enough, because Bob had instigated the project, and he had been in management for much of his life, he was an amazing second producer, really. He would gather the crew at the end of the shooting day, and ask us a series of questions, what we thought went well, what we thought we could do better. He would critique us in terms of the questions I was asking. In that sense, he was leading the way in many respects, and we were just trying to be as malleable and as sensitive as we could.

That’s a wonderful way of leading into discussing Bob’s legacy. For many viewers, we’re going to come to know Bob, and get to know him through the definition of his death, rather than the life that he lived. Of course, there are moments where he talks about what he’s done in the past, but I’m curious about what kind of discussions you had with Bob and his family about making sure that his life resonated through this story, and he wasn’t just defined by his death.

AC-W: Absolutely. I certainly agree with medically assisted dying legislation, [I] didn’t have any former personal experience with that in my family or with friends, but at the same time, it was really important for us that we weren’t going there to make an advocacy film. We weren’t looking to make an overly didactic study of the American healthcare system or shifts in legislation.

From this first phone call with Bob, he struck me as being uniquely archetypal in and of a place and a generation, an American person of a certain age. His experiences of popular culture are a testament to that. Going to Woodstock at 14, being around the punk scene and in New York jamming with the Ramones in Queens in high school. It was really, really important that we create a portrait of Bob there was a celebration of his very unique electric energy, and his drive.

And there’s a remarkable story that his ex-wife told that isn’t in the film that I think sums up Bob’s obsessive optimism and vision and verve. He once had an apartment, and he was obsessed with having owning a boat, he loved sailing. So he decided in his 40s to build a boat inside his apartment. So he built this entire small yacht that took up the entire apartment, [it] could not be taken out of the apartment, because he hadn’t thought that far ahead.

When I heard that story, there was just a lot of similarities in terms of here was someone who had clearly made mistakes and had regrets and taken maybe some wrong turns with relationships and certain family members and things like this, and certainly had to do a lot of work to make amends with some of those relationships. But in terms of sheer vision and drive, and this kind of zest and appetite for life, I knew that that was something that really had to be the governing energy or force behind the film. And that his death, while it shapes every frame of the film, the outcome of those seven days was wanting to do it in a way that could allow an audience to be with him and to grow to love him in the 85 minutes prior.

When it comes to editing a film like this and you’ve got all your footage there, how does the involvement of Bob’s family and friends play into the editing process of the film?

AC-W: I hadn’t encountered such a high pressure [shoot]. As I said, the first phone call with Bob was three weeks out from when we actually landed. Everything was happening very, very quickly. Jesse, who’s his primary carer, a wonderful human being, was understandably very sceptical of a group of strangers arriving in his home for such an immensely monumental and personal experience.

So pretty much from the first phone call with them – Jesse was on that call for part of the initial call – we very quickly negotiated a situation whereby the usual release forms wouldn’t be signed by anyone until [the end]. We would bring an editor to the location and cut as much as we possibly could for Bob to watch the night before he died, which we did. We worked with amazing Romanian editor who again came up to Aberdeen and worked with us because she believed in the project, we were able to show Bob a 40-minute assembly of material. And then we returned a year later to show Jesse a two-hour rough cut of the film. And it was only at that point that a release was signed. So, while it’s not the most pragmatic or practical from a producers standpoint, there was no other way that it would proceed, and nor would I feel comfortable doing it any other way, really.

I must say, that sitting there next to Jesse at his home, 12 months after Bob had died – we returned also to spread Bob’s ashes as part of that trip, which was also I think a testament to how close we became over that seven days that we were invited back a year later to participate in that event, which wasn’t filmed and was not part of the story –, I don’t think I’ve sweated so much until the credits rolled on that rough cut. Thankfully, Jesse was unbelievably generous and understanding, and so we proceeded with the traditional funding route from that point forward.

How did you change as a creative person during this process? Imagine getting yourself into mental headspace within a short period of time to be able to document this has got to be difficult. But it’s been some time since the film has been completed, so how have you progressed as a creative person?

AC-W: I had been very interested in this topic for about five-six years prior to us shooting. [I] had lost a couple of family members and seen people around me maybe not as prepared in terms of developing a framework for the grieving process. And in a secular context, that lack of framework and that lack of ritual, in the lead up to and in the aftermath of death of a loved one just hit me very, very hard. So I think that was certainly the genesis for this Traces project, and subsequent to that, Man On Earth, just looking for a way to look at death in as honest and as direct a way as possible.

I’d seen other documentaries, of which there are some amazing films, but I think other previous films that I’d seen dealing with this subject matter or dealing with death on screen, tended to maybe sit in a different bandwidth than our film. They either had a respectful distance at the moment of death, which I understand of course entirely, or a film like Mrs. Fang the Wang Bing documentary [which] is a far starker and graphic, confronting portrayal of death. So I was looking to find a way to navigate a film that was compassionate and intimate, and yet also unflinching and didn’t shy away from these very raw, almost animal-like emotions that occur in those times.

To be honest with you, man, I probably underestimated the impact the film would have on me, and I knew the film would have a profound impact. We recently screened the film for the first time in the UK at Sheffield Documentary Festival. And I think there was like a delayed grieving process that occurred where, because Bob had wanted us to make this film, part of his classic New York salesman approach was it needs to be seen by as many people as it possibly can. I hadn’t realised how much pressure I put on myself to make this film and bring it to the world in a way that was befitting of Bob’s memory. So after that first screening, I think it was in some ways like seeing my friend die for the first time on screen, in a room full of strangers in the cinema. So that certainly was an unexpected emotional wave to crash on you, but in a cathartic, in a good way.

And I think, to be perfectly honest, this film, in some ways, is sort of five years in the making, including the really long research process. And I think the way it’s changed me is I’m 43, there’s only so many films you can make in a lifetime. I think it’s really, absolutely distilled and refined my approach to the remaining stories I want to tell. Again one of the touchstones for me, throughout all my films, is that Werner Herzog quote, “We must create new images or perish.” And I really, really resonate with that even more now because I feel like if a work isn’t born of real urgency, then maybe you need to question why it is you’re pursuing that particular endeavour.

One of the motifs that Brodie Poole’s General Hercules is the House of the Rising Sun, which flows in and out of the film. We’ve all got connections with that song, but my most recent connection is through that particular film, and then watching Man On Earth, getting to experience the way that that song is recontextualised there, it’s just so powerful. I’m curious about how you feel about that song, and the energy that it creates?

AC-W: Even just thinking about the song makes [my] hair stand up on end. That song for me, I remember being 13 years old and going to a party, and there was a jukebox there, and I had that song on repeat all night. That song is unbelievably powerful. I grew up listening to it so much in around the house. And so the fact that it came on randomly, when Jesse told the Alexa algorithm to play 60s Rock at that particular moment, and for Jesse to know that about his dad for that song to come on, and then for Bob to take his last breath literally at the climax of the organ solo. There’s a moment where the cameras is noticeably being moved by Jacqueline’s kind of heaving sobbing. I looked over to Steve Bond and he was managing to use his shirt as a tissue while booming because he was also just in a state, really beside himself.

What can you say about that? It’s just a beautiful convergence. I can’t think of a more perfect song really for the way Bob lived his life and how he felt about some of the decisions he made. And there’s this very kind of searing, melancholy coupled with, again, this kind of locomotive strength and drive.

I’m really grateful that these stories are being told, especially for Australians because that fight and struggle for the choice to die and the right to die has been one that has been hard fought over the years. I think that it’s really important that we get these stories told, so thank you very much.

AC-W: No, thank you. it’s something that again, [with] the screenings the film has had internationally to date, I’m just unbelievably happy that audiences have come away from the screenings with a shared or collective feeling of this idea of wanting to up the ante of the urgency with which they live. As several audience members said, “Once I stop weeping, I need to go call my parents or I need to go call my wife or my kids.”

It is a film about mortality. Having been raised Buddhist, basically meditating on death every day, every seventh Mallah bead is a carved skull, so idea of death being imminent, and making that – obviously not in a morose way – part of your life is the thing that gives life its charge. I would hope if the film can contribute to that in some tiny, miniscule way then that’s remarkable.

One last thing, I just want to say that the edit between when Bob’s dying, and then seeing him in the doorway, and then step back, and then cutting back to the bed just broke me. That is one of the best edits I’ve ever seen in a film. I just thought that was really, really magical and powerful. Thank you for that moment in particular. The whole film is great, but that one particular moment, I’m going to hold that with me for a very long time.

AC-W: That means so much, man. I must admit, it does throw some people, which is kind of crazy to me, but I’m so glad that you said that because it’s one of the edits that was in the very first assembly and I can’t even tell you how it happens. It was one of those truly subconscious edits I tried super early, and it just stuck. So I’m very glad you said that.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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