Florida Film Festival to premiere end-of-life doc ‘Jack Has a Plan’

(Trailer screenshot from YouTube)

ORLANDO | The Florida Film Festival, hosted by the Enzian Theater in Maitland April 8-17, will include the world premiere of the documentary “Jack Has a Plan,” directed by Central Florida-native Bradley Berman.

“Jack Has a Plan” is the story of Berman’s friend Jack Tuller. Tuller was given six months to live after doctors discovered he had a malignant brain tumor. Twenty-five years later, as he begins to feel more of an impact on his health from the tumor, Tuller decides he wants to end his life on his terms and he asks Berman to record the time he has left with his family and friends in his hometown of San Francisco.

Tuller’s decision propels him “on a quest to reconcile with his mother, find his biological father, and prepare for a dignified exit strategy,” the festival’s film description reads. “Despite its emotional subject, ‘Jack Has a Plan’ is something of a revelation. The film is both intimate and moving, as the filmmaker and the subject weigh the implications and questions that arise from seeing this ‘project’ to its natural conclusion, and provide a compassionate, entertaining, and surprisingly uplifting universal story that invites an audience along to reflect on the most serious topic of life—death.”

Berman spoke with Watermark ahead of the film’s release, scheduled to run during the Florida Film Festival April 9 and 12.

WATERMARK: Why did you want to make this film?

BRADLEY BERMAN: So many of the films about this subject and about mortality and end of life issues are medicalized. Usually someone is hooked up to tubes or a respirator and it just becomes this sterile, overly medical decision and I think what was so unique about Jack and his story is that it can be humanized, you can feel connected to this person.

There are several times in the film where you talk about not wanting to film Jack and document his journey. What was it that made you push those doubts and feelings aside and say yes I will do it?

Jack’s persistence. He was so determined to leave a legacy, so determined to share his story. When he had his first surgery, the way we always talked about it, when they removed the tumor they also removed some of his inhibition. He was already a performer and a musician and a storyteller, so he was already comfortable presenting himself. And given the circumstances of his family life, he was very good at making friends and connecting with people. I think that just became a part of who he was that in this stage of his life he was extremely persistent.

He wore me down to the point where, I never intended this to be the documentary that it is right now. It was always “What are you doing this weekend?” and I would bring my camera and we would just start talking. It was more an excuse to get together and hang out with him more than some grand plan to make a documentary.

So many times in our lives when we have a friend who is in need we say we’re busy, maybe we can do something next week. When are you free? This project became a way to not make that excuse anymore. He would say “I’m going to go get my MRI, bring the camera” and I was “OK, OK.” I would just start shooting and we started accumulating all this footage.

After he passed, I didn’t touch the footage for an entire year. It just sat there, like I couldn’t do it. My motivation to even bring it out into the world is to fulfill his great request. This grand request from a man that I loved and was my best friend. I couldn’t bare to look at it for a year, and then on the one-year anniversary of his passing, I said I have to do it now.

You filmed this over several years. How much footage did you end up shooting and how did you decide which parts you wanted to include?

I never really added up the hours, but my best guess is we shot about 50-60 hours of footage. He also had a repository of stuff; things like his wedding, the early days, so we were able to draw upon that as well.

The way it worked is I strung together something that was chronological. There were clearly some moments that were so powerful and had to be included in the film. Like when he approaches his mother after 25 years and was rebuffed. There is no doubt that that had to be in the film. The final moments of his life were the same. Other moments I put in there because of my personal relationship with him and I just had so much fun being with him. It was a long rough cut. At that point I reached out to colleagues in the film community because I didn’t know, it took a good year of editing, I didn’t know at that point if this was something just for me, like my remembrance of him, or will somebody else be interested in this story?

The response was amazing. People who looked at that rough cut said that they cried and fell in love with Jack. It raised so many interesting questions that eventually I found a producer and editor to work with and they’re the ones who worked it down. They brought it down to its foundation and then started to reconstruct the story. That took another year to carve it out and streamline it into a story that would be accessible to a broad audience.

Did Jack have any input on how he wanted to be seen in the film?

Yes and no. You have to understand the kind of person he was. He was so encouraging and not only of me but his whole circle of friends. He is facing his demise but he would always ask “How are you?” “What’s going on with you?” “How’s the family, how’s the job?” He put total faith in me to make those decisions but when I showed him things, he loved it. It was never like “Don’t show this, don’t show that.” He said, “you know better than I do about what’s going to make this story.”

We would collaborate in terms of ideas of what to shoot but he never put any restraints on what could be shown. Except, we had a lot of conversations towards the end about whether to show him drinking the medicine, the cocktail. Did he want me to show his death, and he said no, that is too much. He didn’t want to make a gratuitous depiction of somebody dying. He wanted it to be about the relationships with his friends and family.

The editor and producer really pushed me to insert myself into the story more than I had originally planned. I’m more comfortable behind the camera instead of in front of it but they felt like it needed to be more like a buddy film between the two of us.

And Jack’s relationships with you, his wife Jennifer, everyone in the film, that is the fascinating thing to watch. It’s almost like each person represented a different stage of grief.

He knew what he wanted to do, so in a sense it is his community; it’s me, it’s Jennifer, it’s our friend Lemon, that go through the change in the film. Jack knew what he wanted to do, he had his plan, so much of the film is about how we responded. We are the ones who are left. We are the ones who have to, like you said, go through the grief, so that becomes the central tension of the story.

We can speak in the abstract of the support or not of Death with Dignity, of every person being able to make the decision of how they want to make their exit. But it’s different when it is someone you love who is doing it. What Jack wanted, and what I tried to fulfill, was to create a film and a story that people in the same situation can watch all the thought process and the feelings of what happens when someone can no longer work or how are we all going to do. That’s what we tried to capture.

What were your opinions on Death with Dignity laws before making this film and what are they now? Did Jack’s decision to go through with it change your opinion either way?

I didn’t really have super strong opinions on it. I guess my politics are more like people should have the right to decide what happens with their lives. It just so happened that when we started shooting, that was the same year that California passed the End-of-Life Options Act. It’s not in the film but he was seeking out options with an organization in Switzerland. He really wants to do this and he needed help and contacts to reach out to Switzerland to see if that was possible and then the law passed in California. The point I want to make is he is kind of a unique case and I think what makes this film interesting is that it’s his brain. He was in a race to take care of this before he lost the ability to have the mental capacity to be able to do it. You have to be of sound mind to do it and if you wait to long then you lose the option to do it, so it was fascinating because if you were with Jack you wouldn’t even think he was ill. He wasn’t hooked up to machines, it wasn’t so obvious that he only had six months to live.

I really came around that this was his decision. I mean, I may not want him to go because I’m gonna miss him but he was originally only given six months to live and then he was granted another 25 years. That put him in a position where he felt satisfied with his life. He felt he had checked everything off from his bucket list. He had 25 great years with his wife and his family and friends, then when he started to decline he said “I’m satisfied with what I have and I’m ready.” At a certain point all we can do is support our loved one who makes that decision.

“Jack Has a Plan” plays at the Enzian Theater during the Florida Film Festival April 9 at 4 p.m. and April 12 at 6 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at FloridaFilmFestival.com/films/jack-has-a-plan.

To learn more about this year’s Florida Film Festival and to read about the festival’s LGBTQ-related films, go here.

You can watch the trailer for “Jack Has a Plan” below.

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