A New Filmmaker Documents His Mother’s Journey as an Artist Living with Parkinson’s Disease
Interview by Mike O'Donnell / Editor
When it comes to personal projects, plenty of creatives use the freedom from client demands as an opportunity to get just that: personal. For WNW Member Zack Grant, the dive into personal exploration has become a journey with one-way ticket. “Filmmaking has now gone from being a vague ambition to a vehicle to exorcise some really complicated feelings.”
Zack’s creative background is primarily as a producer on the agency side. But when his mom, an artist, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, he felt a calling to document both the journey of her health as well as the effects it has on her work and family. The resulting short film is called Shake With Me and has been on the festival circuit, next up at the Holly Shorts Film Festival in Los Angeles, which kicks off in a week.
Below, Zack shares how the making of this film and its reception has affected the dynamic of a normally private family, how he balances objectivity and subjectivity despite its deeply personal focus, and why it was important to insert himself and his experience into the film.
When did you first start to explore the idea of filming your mom’s experience and journey?
My mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012. As a family, we kept her condition hidden from most people until early 2016. In the early days after her diagnosis, I really struggled to process the news. The secrecy we had to maintain certainly didn’t help. So, while I didn’t approach my mom about making the film until 2016 – her Parkinons’s was public knowledge at this point – the desire to talk through and then ultimately document her experience was something I knew I wanted very early on after her diagnosis.
What were some of the challenges and breakthroughs that came with this undertaking, both creatively and personally?
The film’s initial focus was on crafting a narrative that juxtaposed my mom's art and her condition, with little consideration for my role in the story. I had no idea this film would be so personal, and in fact, I wanted to stay out of the film entirely as I thought it would take away from my mom’s story. But after almost two years of filming – and plenty of nudging by my talented editor, Melanie Vi Levy – I realized that I’d be doing a disservice by not acknowledging my unique role as son and filmmaker. From there, I embraced the personal nature of this project; I not only accepted the blurred lines between the film and my journey but also realized the importance of articulating my place in my mom's story.
Creatively, my background is as a producer mostly on the agency side. Intellectually, I always knew I wanted to direct but emotionally, I had no sense of purpose in the work I set out to create. Shake With Me was the first project where I truly understood that directing could be this incredibly rewarding and cathartic experience. Filmmaking has now gone from being a vague ambition to a vehicle to exorcise some really complicated feelings.
How has the experience of making this documentary impacted your relationship with your mom and family?
We’re a naturally private family, so going public with my mom’s story has been a life-changing experience and something that’s really pushed us all outside of our comfort zones. But forcing ourselves into the spotlight – which becomes more comfortable with every screening and Q+A – helped us overall be more open and honest as a family.
For my mom and I specifically, the film was our first time talking about Parkinson’s and all the emotions and challenges that came with her diagnosis. So to have these incredibly charged conversations for the first time, on camera, all while having a shared artistic experience, really shaped our relationship going forward. As a family we’ve truly gone from a place of extreme privacy to extreme publicity. Even as I type this response, I’m still astounded by the transformation.
How did your mom’s art develop post-diagnosis? What do you think your mother’s experience with Parkinson’s says about the way an artist should approach creativity?
My mom re-discovered her artistic roots right around the time of her diagnosis. She went to RISD for college where she experimented as a fine artist, but then pursued a fairly practical career in industrial design. The PD diagnosis was the spark that got her back into creating art.
I think all great artists have a sense of urgency and PD has certainly given a sense of motivation and purpose to my mom’s artwork. Art is also quite therapeutic for my mom. It’s an escape from reality and her latest work – primarily portraiture – has a really interesting sense of abstraction. The way she paints faces and eyes is particularly mesmerizing.
What were some of the technical components and strategies that informed your approach?
I was a one-man band for the entirety of production. I ran the camera, lights, audio and interview questions – often while discussing difficult, emotional topics. I considered bringing in a second camera op for certain shoot days, but I was concerned it would throw a wrench in the intimate environment that had been created over months of filming. But as a result, shooting was a real balancing act, and I often found the need to go back to my footage days later just to be able to really absorb each moment and sound bite closely. I often picked up on details that had totally gone unnoticed while I was filming. This pre-screening process not only informed every subsequent shoot day, but also facilitated the edit, allowing Melanie and I to move quickly through thirty hours of footage.
Looking back, what about this project are you proudest of?
I’m the most proud of how the film is both personal and relatable. It’s a raw, unfiltered look at my mom’s health and art, and how our family copes with her Parkinson’s. But it’s also a story about adversity and perseverance that transcends PD. We’ve screened the film for a handful of different audiences at this point, and it’s incredibly rewarding to hear the unique ways people connect to my mom’s story.
What lessons have you learned about the process of applying a creative skillset to a personal challenge?
I certainly didn’t feel this way in the thick of the project, but looking back, I liked the challenge of taking a story so personal and crafting it so that it was relatable to an audience, regardless of their connection to Parkinson’s. My next project is another personal film so I think I’m now in this creative space where I’m drawn to stories where I can put myself and my emotions on display.