Interview: Ric Burns Discusses His Latest Documentary ‘Oliver Sacks: His Own Life’

Dr. Oliver Sacks was a fascinating figure who changed many lives in his years as a neuro physician. He worked with patients facing a wide range of neurological disorders, diseases and conditions. Penny Marshall’s 1990 film, “Awakenings” told the story of his work with encephalitic patients who suddenly woke from catatonic states for a brief period of time.

Dr. Sacks died in August 2015, just months after finishing a final memoir, “Gratitude.” And early in that year, his longtime editor, Kate Edgar contacted documentary filmmaker Ric Burns about crafting a documentary of this remarkable man.

“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” is screening this weekend at the Hamptons International Film Festival. I had the opportunity to speak with director Ric Burns prior to the festival about this fascinating look at a man many of us have heard about, but few people really ever knew.

Please enjoy this conversation with Ric Burns.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: What was it about Oliver Sacks that made you say, “I need to do a documentary about him?”

Ric Burns: It was a project that really came to me. I got a call in early January of 2015 through a friend of Oliver, the most important professional partner, Kate Edgar, who called to say, “We got your number, Oliver’s going to die, come and film him.” So we had precisely zero research and development. Zero contemplation… All of us who, to one degree or another know Oliver Sacks’ work, understand without necessarily knowing any of the details, that the work is itself extraordinary and there’s going to be an extraordinary person underneath it. The story about this extraordinary person is going to be huge. And then it doesn’t take rocket science to go, “Right. This man, at the very tail-end of his life just finished a memoir—not yet published—talking about things that have been locked up most of his life, now facing death.” That’s a unique perspective that all of us have in our own lives when we come to that moment and here’s this moment with Oliver Sacks. All the chips are on the board and it’s time to say, “Who am I? What’s this been about? What matters to me? And what matters to me? And what do I wish to communicate?”

So having this extraordinary man, author of this extraordinary work at this extraordinary moment of his life? Kind of two minutes to midnight? Was an incredible convergence of factors. We had four filming opportunities with him, about 60 hours one week in February 2015, one in April, and twice in June before he retreated after June of 2015, and then he died in August. To have that experience was really extraordinary. And then to go to the next step. Who are the people who knew him best and can shed light on who he was at various moments of his life? Kind of an unusual opportunity that came looking for us and we would have been idiots to not jump at the opportunity.

KP: I was more familiar than I realized with his work, but I didn’t really know that until I sat down to watch your film.

RB: I know, it’s funny. He did this thing, it was like pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Creating kind of a curtain version of Oliver, with the beard and the glasses up on his forehead and the sense of warmth and—obviously—brilliance and enormous eloquence. But it’s as if you went, “Well of course that’s who I am.” So we got done with that part of it.

But there’s a big thing in Oliver where it’s like, wait, who is this guy? And that avuncular warm, fantastic, calm, insightful writer—all of which is true in some respects—is really also belied by his turbulent, often anguished, tormented in many ways person who was kind of on the run for much of his life, from demons that were guiding him. Some of them self-created, some of them inflicted on him.

It’s not all of us who leave the country of our nativity, go 6000 miles away to California, wander in an amphetamine haze to New York—as a neurologist in the mid-1960s—visit home but never move back, never become a citizen. And when you’re living in New York in the 1960s and 70s and 80s and 90s and aughts, for most of that time, you’re not living on the upper west side or the upper east side or the village. You’re living on city island, this strange little corner that’s almost not even in New York City. Where you have kind of washed up like a horseshoe crab. He not just walked to the beat of his own drummer, he was driven by his own irreducible uniqueness to kind of live a life. He went to places many of us go to, but he did not live in those places the way most of us do.

That was really astonishing. There was a way in which, by coming to rest and finding a wonderful editor, business partner, ghost writer as he said—Kate Edgar, who he started to work with in the 1980s and who was with him when he died. She finally forced him off of the island. “Please move to Horatio Street in the village!” To bring him back in, to connect who he was a little bit more to a community that had a long history of openness toward gay men, for example, which Oliver was and which, when I got the phone call from Kate Edgar in January 2015, I had no idea Oliver was gay, as indeed most people did not. Now I think it’s sort of common knowledge, but that’s really a remarkably recent fact that came about to the publication of his memoir three months before he died. So the man behind the curtain and kind of the portrait which we saw inscribed on that curtain were really revealing. It was a relationship, but it was very complex.

KP:  What were some of your first impressions when you met Oliver and sat down to start talking with him?

RB: That he was a narcissist. I was really worried about that because most ordinary people, you develop—I don’t want to say an aversion, it’s more like an allergic reaction… Oliver did kind of move to the beat of his own internal rhythm and those rhythms were ones which he found very difficult to make compatible for other people. You’re with Oliver on Oliver Time. I was worried the first day that I couldn’t do it in a certain way. Because what was I going to do? Become the instant, appointed pathographer of Oliver Sacks? 

But fortunately, the Oliver Time that we were punched into—five days, twelve hours a day, a week in February 2015—during which I had a chance to metabolize what was going on and work through my own ignorance and aspersion to realize by Tuesday and Wednesday that he was cursed with face blindness. When you walked back into the room, he didn’t necessarily realize you walked back into the room. He might say, “Hey, where’s Ric?”

Or you might say something to him on a Tuesday, ask him a question, and he would in no way act as if he had even heard it, and on Friday give the most remarkably deep, sensitive answer to it. 

That times a thousand is what Oliver was like. It would have been a mistake to think that [he] was somehow unrelatable. He said of Temple Grandin—a remarkable, autistic woman of enormous gifts, who came to know and wrote about it—said she was an “anthropologist on Mars.” He was frank. That’s the way Oliver was, but we all are that way, really. That we’re often masquerading as connected, but as Oliver says we’re irreducibly ourselves. Weird, self-original in our own way. And that the work of life was not to annul that difference, but to find a way of being that allowed that irreducible difference in each of us to share space with and make connections with all the other irreducible differences around us. And starting from that anthropologist on Mars point of departure, which he shared with Temple Grandin, which he shared with everyone, that he had a remarkable ability to realize that a neuro atypical person in a psychiatric ward was more like all of us than less, precisely in their own difference. He once said in a beautiful essay late in life, “The River of Consciousness”: “I rejoice in my irreducible uniqueness and my kinship with all other living things.” He really felt that, really deeply. It wasn’t just a thing to say.

KP: What was the point where you felt like you really started to understand him as a person?

RB: I think it was this moment where a few days after I asked this question, he said, “You know, Ric, we were just speaking a little while ago”—which was in fact by that time 72 hours earlier [laughs]. And when you get to spend some time with a person—not, obviously, over years, but over days, minutes, hours—it’s very hard for any of us to hide from each other. There’s a remarkable, inevitable transparency that comes with just hanging around.

That’s what he did with his patients. He didn’t just breeze in as a neurologist with 14 patients that morning to see. He’d come in at 9:00 and leave at 3 in the afternoon. He had questions to ask. He was noticing things which he did not have 15 minutes to give you. He had five hours. Which made him a really unique and uniquely—in certain respects—impracticable doctor. How are you going to make a living as a doctor doing that? But he knew that the diagnosis, to understand, you had to take time. You had to spend quality time. And so I think that he required quality time from other people and he gave quality time to other people. 

I’ve never started a film project a) virtually overnight and b) by plopping into somebody’s living room and spending the next five days with them. That’s just unheard of. Usually it’s a more decorous kind of thing. You interview for an hour and come back two months later. But this was really kind of, you know, trial by immersion. And of course that would be the only way. It was special that Oliver knew that we were going to get to know him by jumping into the Sea of Oliver. Don’t just stick a toe in tentatively. It was all or nothing.

KP: In addition to these really great interviews you have with him, you also include discussions with other people who knew him. Temple Grandin was one of them—

RB: He, over the course of his complicated odyssey—San Francisco and Los Angeles and New York, and then England—was a little bit on the lam his whole life. He was really kind of at home with almost every person he met. Sort of like a lot of exiles—which we all are—he came to understand that he’s at home nowhere and therefore also everywhere. And that really showed up in the people he worked with. People who had Tourette’s, people who were autistic, who had serious brain damage. And who were in the sleeping sickness in apparent but not actual coma for 40 years…

He was effortlessly gregarious, which could feel very awkward. And he was very awkward in some ways. He had this helpless sense of the fact that at some level, we’re all in it exactly the same way. So for the 25 people we were fortunate enough to interview, he had this amazingly similar disposition to them all, quite rightly. Even though he was ambitious, he also had a sense that we all have skin in the game. We all are working it out from the inside out as best we can… Everyone who went to a dinner party that was done by Oliver said that the motley crew of people that was assembled was partly random, partly happenstance, and just the people he had gathered around him. They could be scientists, patients, family members, friends. The person who sold newspapers on the corner. He had that kind of effortless bond, even as he was awkward and shy… That was Oliver. He was convening and diverging at the same time, just obedient to the rhythms of his own internal rubric… It’s like that cliche: he’s like the rest of us, only more so.

He was deeply private, but at the same time lonely. He found his way. He created a career out of observing, connecting, empathizing, and articulating, and then creating as an act of therapy for his patients, and then, in a sense, as an act of therapy for himself, a way of connecting people, he was finding his best friends. 

KP: How has telling Oliver’s story has changed you?

RB: Some projects that any of us work on are really double projects. They’re about both the subject itself and also about the project—doing the project. They’re meta projects. And this was the most meta of all, in the sense that Oliver was a really beautiful kind of…what it was to be looking out at the world through your own set of eyes, but he also had that perspective that all living beings have some version of what we call consciousness. And I think that to have the opportunity to interact with and think and film someone whose basic life’s work was, what is it to look out your pair of eyes and have that unique curse and blessing, which is to be an irreducible human being. And I think it was an opportunity to sit with and dwell within the basic kind of question: why is any film project that you’re trying to create a bridge for, a reality?

Awards Circuit would like to thank Ric Burns for speaking with us.

“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” does not yet have a release date.

 

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