Doug Blush and I first met back in 2012 when CIFF screened Of Two Minds. A riveting look at people who struggle with bipolar disorder, the documentary eroded the taboo of mental illness. How? The people in the film all looked like the people in the audience. In fact, many of the story’s stars watched the movie with us and after a panel, including medical professionals, shared more information and education on the topic.
Since that feature, Doug’s been busy. Busy making films that the media loves talking about. His portfolio includes editing and helping produce The Invisible War, an unprecedented look at sexual abuse in the military and The Hunting Ground, the same premise, but at college campuses.
There’s a David and Goliath theme in his films – the underestimated underdog seeking to stand their ground, often facing an obstacle much bigger than themselves.
In 2014, when I was globetrotting and spent February in Dublin, 20 Feet From Stardom, a film directed by Morgan Neville that Doug edited, screened at the Dublin International Film Festival. Not only did we the audience enjoy a spectacular music event, but Claudia Lennear, one of the film’s stars and the inspiration behind the Rolling Stones’ hit “Brown Sugar,” performed after and also answered questions. Like what it was like being a backup singer and dancer to the Stones and to Tina Turner. A few weeks later, on March 2, in Los Angeles and in front of the whole world, the Academy presented the team behind 20 Feet with a Best Documentary Oscar, the highest industry accolade.
Since then, Doug’s operated at a James Brown momentum – he is THE hardest working man in the documentary business. At least the hardest working one I know. He was just in Cleveland, with his wife and partner Lisa Klein, screening Beyond Laughter and Tears at the CIFF. He and I caught up in late Fall 2014 when he was here, in Akron, filming it, and when I got the pleasure to meet the family featured in the story. Laura Little and I continue to stay in touch, both on Facebook and at local readings.
Doug took a moment from his parallel process universe – even while he’s enjoying his own films at prestigious festivals, in between he’s already filming his next projects. Here’s our interview.
AS: Your new documentary, Beyond Laughter & Tears: A Journey of Hope, brought you back to the CIFF for the first time since your 2012 film Of Two Minds. How does it feel to be back here and to have Beyond Laughter & Tears showcase in N.E. Ohio?
AS: The film educates its audience on PseudoBulbar Affect, a condition where people either laugh or cry uncontrollably in various situations. What attracted you to the subject?
DB: An old friend who now works at a media agency called me and told me that they were interested in doing a full-on documentary on the subject to help raise public awareness, and that they wanted a personal approach much like Of Two Minds. Lisa and I looked into the nearly unknown condition and were fascinated by the stories of overcoming the obvious stigma and challenges of living “outside the norm,” and how the whole concept of “normal” gets rethought as people learn more about issues like this.
AS: The story focuses on a family that’s from the Akron area. How did you did you find them? What about them made their story compelling?
DB: We interviewed a large number of PBA sufferers via Skype before we began filming, and the Parsons family stood out as a unique family story of a wife, daughter and son dealing with the slow loss of verbal connection with Douglas Parsons, who had been such a strong family center. His overlying condition caused him to gradually lose outward communication (frontal temporal dementia) and PBA was an extended effect of this. The entire family is creative in the arts, and the story culminates with his wife Linda composing an orchestral symphony for Douglas, which his son Steven conducts. His daughter Laura is also publishing a children’s book that helps explain the condition to young people who may be facing it in their families. That extended sense of caring and purpose was really moving for us as filmmakers.
AS: You are usually the editor on your films. With Beyond Laughter & Tears, you also wear a director’s hat. What prompted the new challenge and what was the big difference?
DB: I’ve been directing, writing and producing more and more in recent years, though I always think of editing as the ultimate cinematic craft. I was very lucky to have two excellent editors join me for this project, Josh Bayer and Dan Lawrence, and the team was able to bring out character and story in a really collaborative way. Just like with Of Two Minds, Lisa and I co-directed, and we were able to leverage our individual strengths to make it a better film. Lisa is a fantastic interviewer and was really able to bond with our extended cast of subjects in this film, while I was also able to get back out in the field to photograph America in ways I had always wanted to. The film has a nice sense of the vast range and different environments in this country, with the common experience of PBA tying the stories together.
AS: Your team won an Oscar for 20 Feet From Stardom and your documentaries, including The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground, have received tremendous media coverage and won over audiences across the country. What’s next for you?
DB: The most exciting new project is a film we’ve been working very hard on, The S Word, which Lisa is directing and I’m producing and supervising editorial. The S Word will take on what we thing of as the last great stigma in America…talking about suicide, and meeting those who’ve survived attempts and now want to change the world for others. It’s going to be an emotional, surprising and even sometimes funny film that we can’t wait to show the world (and we certainly hope to bring it to CIFF 2017!). I’m also very proud of some recent films I’ve worked on, including two recent Sundance films, Jim: The James Foley Story, which won the Sundance Audience Award and is now on HBO, as well as Holy Hell, which includes Jared Leto as executive producer and will be coming to theaters and CNN later this year.
Also, the 20 Feet team reunited to do a really beautiful film called The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, which literally circles the globe following an unlikely band of musicians led by the famed cellist.
It’s been a great year!