20 Feet From Stardom to the Mystery of the Mind
By Alex Sukhoy
Doug Blush is a man of big talent. An editor with an eye for selecting the right projects that best define the zeitgeist of humanity’s current state of grace, as of last year, Blush is also an Oscar winner. 20 Feet From Stardom, the rockumentary that won Best Documentary, put Blush into the elite list of people that the Academy recognizes as top of their field. As a result, he now gets to be even more selective and the phone rings with all kinds of interesting opportunities.
Most recently, Doug is working on his next project, one that brings him back the subject of the complexity of the human mind. As medical science continues to develop research in this arena and as the stigma of mental illness slowly erodes while awareness grows, it’s people like Blush, filmmakers with the power to tell a story on a grand scale, that shift our perspective of what’s normal.
Blush was in town in early November, and we had a chance to break bread, catch up and exchange a few ideas. Here’s what he’s up to now.
Alex Sukhoy: You and I first met here in Cleveland a couple of years ago when you brought Of Two Minds, a film that deals with bipolar disorder, to the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF). After the film there was an in-depth discussion with people impacted by the illness, including the subjects featured in the documentary, as well as industry professionals discussing ways people can help others and get help themselves. Why was that specific screening so important and what, if anything, changed for the project after?
Doug Blush: Cleveland truly was our first public premiere of the film, and that first screening was when we realized we were tapping into something that hadn’t been available to the community — a raw, personal look at real bipolar lives. The turnout at CIFF was just phenomenal. We sold out both of our weekend screenings, and nearly sold out a Monday morning screening(!), which gave us a real boost at the beginning of what has now been a nearly three year adventure. We recently had TWO sold out theater screenings, in Phoenix, AZ and Santa Rosa, CA. And the film’s been on Netflix for over a year!
We had so much positive feedback from that first series of screenings at CIFF. People bringing family members, others standing up at the Q&As to publicly reveal their struggles with bipolar for the first time, positive reviews in the media. It was the payback for MANY long hours of work when we didn’t know if there would be much interest. And as you saw, it was the first time the entire “cast” had been in the same place together at the same time. That weekend was memorable for many reasons, including a dinner right after the premiere where everyone got to really talk some deep stuff! My co-director (and wife) Lisa Klein and I were a bit flabbergasted at how REAL this all became now that the film was out in the world. CIFF is still our favorite festival stop of the whole long road we’ve been on with the film.
One of the most exciting new developments is a continuation of the spirit of Of Two Minds (is) my wife Lisa is directing and I’m co-producting a new film called The S Word, which takes a look at the growing community of vocal suicide survivors, who are now advocating for better understanding of those who’ve dealt with this toughest and most taboo of human conditions. This community is full of life, love, humor and profound stories of perseverance, and we think the film will help many people in finding they’re not alone in facing this issue, much like Of Two Minds with bipolar disorder.
AS: Last year 20 Feet From Stardom (which I had the distinct pleasure to view in Dublin, Ireland, at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival), your tribute to the nameless, talented voices of the backup singers that made everyone from Jagger to Springsteen sell millions of records, earned the Oscar for Best Documentary. How was that experience and how has it changed your career?
DB: 20 Feet was one of those dream rides you hope you get to take maybe once or twice in a lifetime. Director Morgan Neville and I had become friends when I was working on the previous music documentary he helped called Troubadors, about the singer-songwriter movement of the early ‘70s, and we bonded over both musical tastes and filmmaking ideas. 20 Feet really was a bit of a labor of love project for Morgan — he was involved in some other big projects at the time — and that film was a really special, soulful work that I was very honored to have been a part of. Our fellow editors Jason Zeldes and Kevin Klauber did such great work in building the stories of these legends of singing, and I was really part of a “blend” not unlike what we describe in the film in reference to the art of the background singers. We merged our work into a surprisingly harmonious film, with Morgan steering the whole show.
Obviously, the film exploded right out of Sundance. It premiered to 1300 people in Park City and sold about six hours later. From there all the way to the Oscars was just a great whirlwind, most of all for those brilliant women portrayed in the film. Hearing them sing live at the screenings, and seeing the camaraderie of such a talented sisterhood, was the real reward of working on that film. And yes, Oscar night was damn fun! Bill Murray came over to congratulate us at the after party, you know, things like that.
I had many really good offers for films before 20 Feet, but since then, it’s been pretty overwhelming. There’s some great stuff coming in 2015 and beyond that I’m editing or supervising, and several new projects I’m co-directing or producing.
AS: Earlier, I suggested that 20 Feet be screened at the 2015 Rock Hall Induction, which will take place here in Cleveland next April. What would it mean to you if that actually happened?
DB: That would be so righteous! There’s no way to overstate how important these women were and are to the music and artists throughout the (Rock & Roll) Hall of Fame, and of course, Darlene Love famously was inducted into the Hall in 2011. 20 Feet is also nominated for Best Music Film at the Grammys this year, and having it screen at the Hall of Fame would be an incredible high point. Save me a seat up front!
AS: Your current project brought you back to to N.E. Ohio, specifically Canton. What is this documentary about, how did you find this specific family and will you be submitting the final product to next year’s CIFF?
DB: Our new film is an exploration of a condition called Pseudo Bulbar Affect, (PBA), a disorder marked by sudden, frequent, uncontrollable outbursts of crying or laughing in people with certain neurological issues or brain injuries. These outbursts often occurs in difficult and inappropriate social situations (imagine falling over laughing at a funeral). Although PBA is not a new condition, there is little awareness amongst the general public, despite the fact that approximately 2 million people suffer from PBA symptoms. We think this documentary is the perfect vehicle to shine a national spotlight on PBA by portraying the inspiring and unique people who live with the condition every day, and the stories we’re tracking are fascinating and emotional to boot.
Our subjects in Canton are a truly inspiring family, the Parsons, surrounding a beloved husband and father named Douglas who had Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD) and PBA. The family rallied to create a musical concert in Doug’s honor, and to raise awareness in the public about his conditions. We were really moved by the strength and love of this family, and it’s going to be a major part of the film — Doug was able to attend the concert and there was a real sense of how much it affected him.
Sadly, Doug passed away over the holidays, and we were both shaken by the news and touched by the gracious acceptance the family shared as they gathered around him in those final moments…we were all in touch on social media, and we felt in a small way like part of the family. We are very excited to hopefully bring the film back to the Canton (and Cleveland) area at some point when it’s finished.
AS: What’s next for you?
DB: Like I mentioned, 2014 was a really wild year…MANY new films are coming down the pike that I’ve been involved in, including two really excellent documentaries premiering at Sundance 2015. Kirby Dick’s new film, The Hunting Ground, which will take on the white-hot topic of campus sexual assault, and a beautiful film called Sembène! from my friends Jason Silverman and Samba Gadjigo, on the life and work of Ousmane Sembène, the true father of African cinema. I was co-editor and associate producer on Kirby’s film and an advising editor on Sembène!, and I’m hoping these films might play at CIFF this coming year.
Beyond that, and on the horizon after the PBA project, there’s some amazing stuff, documentaries that range from Afghan photographers trying to reclaim their country’s soul, to a man’s quest to bring 3D printed artificial limbs for victims of the Sudan conflict, to the life and music of jazz legend Wayne Shorter. That’s just the short list!
I’m hoping that a bunch of these films end up on the slate at CIFF either this year or next. Cleveland has become a very special place for us.
Alexsandra (Alex) Sukhoy, a globally-networked creative and business professional, is CEO of Creative Cadence LLC. Her Career Coaching skills have resulted in numerous success stories for her clients.
Her new novella, Diary of the Dumped: 30 Days From Break Up to Breakthrough, is now available on Amazon, in paperback and Kindle.
Follow Alex on Twitter: @creativecadence