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Interview: Ric Burns on “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life”

The poignant documentary Oliver Sacks: His Own Life was released on Kino Marquee and Film Forum Virtual Cinema on September 23rd. We were given the opportunity to have an insightful conversation with director Ric Burns about anything and everything Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Kendall Tinston: I wanted to begin by saying thank you for taking time today, and also congratulations on the film. I personally loved it; it was such a triumph.

Ric Burns: Hey, thank you so much. You know Oliver Sacks taught near here at Columbia a couple of decades ago. We’ve been working on the film for five and a half years and it’s so incredible that here we are on a particular day in September in 2020—this 2020—and I’m so grateful to be able to speak about the film.

KT: I felt like the film was so passionate and I got to actually know Oliver Sacks as not just a doctor, but also a person. He was about 100 things put into one, but was there anything specific about Oliver that made you decide that you had to tell his story?

RB: You know it’s funny, I had read a lot of Oliver’s works, such as “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat,” and “Awakenings,” but I didn’t come to him, he came to me. In early 2015, Kate Edgar, his incredible editor and chief of staff called me and said, “Hey Ric, Oliver’s gonna die, will you come and film it?” So that was the beginning, in January 2015. Carrying everything I knew about Oliver which is one minute to midnight in this man’s life: 81 years old, he just finished writing this incredibly candid memoir. Who knew that Oliver was gay? That he was tormented in all of these ways? I didn’t. Very suddenly I was plunged into the world of a man who I knew through his writings that were avuncular, wise and brilliant and kind of like the Sherlock Holmes of unusual ways of being in the world. He was somebody who was very difficult, very complicated, and he had protected the world and himself from knowledge of that. Getting that news of, “Hey Oliver, you now have a fatal illness” is where he found himself and that’s when they called us. So we rushed in and said, “Hey, we want to talk to you about your life, do you want us to talk to you about your life?” And that was the film, with a man who was going to die for sure. Bad news: you’re going to die, I’m going to die, but we don’t have that date set. Oliver had that date set when I walked in his door. Not saying, “It’s going to be on the 31st of August” as it was on the 30th, but for sure there’s no way you’re going to live any longer than “X.” That feeling when any of us enter that special zone where we can’t any longer engage in the wish fulfillment that we are going to live forever. Oliver Sacks had entered that and been told, “Sorry, that wish fulfillment zone is not available any longer.” That’s where we were with him. Everything he said to us on camera came under the sign of someone who knew for sure that he would be dead within six months.

KT: I think that aspect really did add something to the film, seeing how he faces mortality with such dignity. I also felt that with the way you directed the documentary, it truly encompassed a man’s life so gracefully, which was so enjoyable to watch. I heard you mention that you worked on the film for five and a half years, but how long did you have with Oliver?

RB: When Kate Edgar said, “Come on in and please film,” a couple of weeks later we went in and filmed him. The first interview was five days, 60 hours, 12 hours per day. It was incredible because a dying man had more energy than I will ever have. Then again in April on a couple of occasions, then in June and after that what I understood from Kate and his wonderful late in life partner Billy Hayes was that when Oliver could no longer be completely himself in public, he didn’t want to be filmed. What I love about the film is that this is not a fly on the wall of somebody who got a mortal diagnosis and now we watch him die. This is a fly on the wall of people who understood from someone who got that mortal diagnosis and said, “Come on in, I want to talk with you for as long as I’m able to be myself.” So that’s why it’s called His Own Life, it’s not an objective view of Oliver Sacks; this is a view of who Oliver Sacks was on the inside. When he stopped feeling himself on the inside we were not able to be there, and why would we want to be there? To watch an animal die? We all die. What’s amazing is that Billy Hayes made available to us the notebook in which Oliver Sacks—who was called “Inky” by his earliest family because he wrote obsessively—that contained the last moment that Inky stopped inking a page. It was in late August 2015 when he turned to Billy and said, “I can’t do it anymore” and there’s a spidery way the camera sees that Oliver Sacks could no longer make his pen articulate a word. And that’s incredible. Writing was everything to Oliver Sacks. As he said, “My life has been about the intercourse of writers and readers.” Not to be unpleasant, but intercourse was tough for Oliver. Sexuality was tough for him. His mother had said, “You’re an abomination to me” when he told her he was gay. Who he was, what his body was, how he felt about himself, was tremendously difficult for Oliver Sacks. Hence his incredible ability to understand people who found their own bodies very difficult. It’s very poignant to me that moment when he could no longer feel, “How can I continue to express my inner self through this pen on this page?” It just came to a wobbly wriggly end, and he died 36 hours later.

KT: Wow, that’s incredible.

RB: I will never be involved with a project like this. I wasn’t there when he died, but Billy Hayes was. Billy was lying on one side clutching Oliver and Kate was on the other side. I know that because they told me. On August 30, 2015, the two people who meant, at that moment, most to Oliver had their arms around him and the light went out. The only way to express that in a film is to see a man for whom writing and reading was the major form of intercourse, come to an end. My brother Ken taught me how to make films. I have a zillion projects underhand. I will never, ever, ever be at the point again where there’s the camera, there’s the page, there’s the last word, and 36 hours later this extraordinary human being stopped being alive.

KT: There’s so much of Oliver’s life that seems unbelievable. Hearing him tell stories and hearing his loved ones talk about him left me with a different perspective on life. The way he handles the end of his life, the way people view him, the way he helped so many. It definitely makes you look at things differently and I think everyone who watches it will take something different away from it, which is an amazing thing.

RB: I hope so. I mean, for example, Kendall: how old are you?

KT: I’m 27.

RB: Exactly. Oliver was once 27, I was once 27. Here we are, we go through this journey and every moment of it is fraught and complicated and we disguise and present ourselves within that process. How incredible. Oliver’s life was really helplessly about how that was always the case. I just feel like particularly in this mortal, existential moment we’re living in that is 2020 that Oliver was so alive to how acute reality is for all of us. I really hope for a film about a dying man that people will really understand how joyful and inspirational that is.

KT: It really was inspirational. When you were going to begin filming and interviews, did you have an idea of what you wanted to cover or did you let Oliver decide what he wanted his end of life film to be?

RB: No. Usually, I’ve thought it through and I’m going, “Here’s why I want to do a film.” This was, “Woah, Oliver’s going to die, show up with your cameras.” I will never have a more cinema verite film in my life. I know it has a lot of aspects of historical documentary filmmaking: we go back to 1933 when he was born and we go all the way through his life. Fact of the matter is, they said, “You come in, please—or not—and film it.” We started from, “Wow, Oliver Sacks is an amazing person, who is he? I’ve just been told he was going to die. Our film is about a man in his early 80’s that was born in 1933, what’s his life like?” Then at some point it merges with the fact that he’s dying. I know you know you’re going to die, as do I, but when somebody finally says, “I’m sorry, you’re going to die, you have X amount of time.” Stories are built on endings. I was once going to be a professor of English and Frank Kermode wrote an incredible book called “The Sense of an Ending” about narrative. We always say “Once upon a time” and that’s the beginning. Endings are about where things end up; it’s a very complicated business. Oliver didn’t invite us until he had a sense of his own ending, and that’s huge. I’ll never ever make a film about somebody who said, “Hey, I have a sense of my own ending, come in here” and you and I haven’t had that sense yet. All we do is we borrow someone like Frank Kermode’s or someone like Oliver Sacks’ sense of an ending to try to make sense of our own trajectory. You think of your own birth, your family, you have stories about who you were and all of the complications. It’s all about starting out and going forward. All of us, from this specific moment of beginning and to this very general inevitable moment of ending, descent an ending. Oliver’s grace in dying was to give us a very close up view of what his ending was. He didn’t die and go to heaven; he just died on August 30th, 2015. To be invited as a filmmaker, they didn’t say, “Hey, we want to make a film about Oliver Sacks’ life.” What Kate Edgar said was, “We want to make a film about Oliver because he received a mortal diagnosis.”

KT: What an amazing opportunity for you, not many filmmakers are given that chance. Especially about such an amazing person with such achievements in neurology, who has gone through so much in his life.

RB: Here’s the thing, you’ll go to sleep tonight and a bit of you will disappear, you’ll be asleep. You’ll wake up tomorrow and you’ll re-emerge. A person’s life is who they are when they have a self-experience, when they have subjectivity. When they have this incredible gift that somehow whirling atoms and electrons give us. Here we are. I’m sitting here on 112th and Broadway, I’m vaguely conscious of myself. How the hell did the Big Bang usher in something that includes somebody named Ric who knows who he is? God didn’t give that to me. Descartes thought that, but God didn’t give that to me. It came out of the atoms whirling around. That’s incredible, that’s what Oliver Sacks understood in his bones. We all emerge out of this funny whirling of atoms and here we are. Then we go back to some weird form of somewhat less organized physical energy and we’re not there anymore. And Oliver, his parents were doctors; he was obsessed with chemistry, the periodic table, and biology. He really wanted to know: where does any of this—most importantly our awareness of ourselves—come from? In our day in age, I think Oliver is a novelist of experience and understands that science, literature, art, everything we can possibly bring to it, is part of that. What an amazing life to have lead. He didn’t have to be a scientist, or a novelist, or an artist. I just think, “Wow, here we are, September 23, 2020, how amazing it is to be in the afterglow.” He’s not a genius, he was frustrating and provocative, but it’s amazing that someone’s whole life was dedicated to trying to understand nothing more or less than who you are, who I am, who he was. I’m glad I’m a documentary filmmaker and somebody looked my name up and went, “Try him, he won’t fuck it up.”

KT: And how amazing that he was alive while you were and you got to make this film. How lucky is that?

RB: It’s funny, there’s nothing magical about it. Someday, there will be no Kendall. Whatever Kendall did will live on only in children you have or things you do or things you said, or memories from other people. Oliver was so acutely attuned to that, and people can believe in an afterlife, but how about the afterlife that is not God given but has to do with memory and what gets passed on? What Robert Krulwich said in the film is so beautiful: “Oliver was trying to story these people back into the world”. So you can get up on your high horse and go, “I object! He’s trying to make money off of people who are in a lot of trouble.” Oh, come on, with all the respect in the world: Fuck you.

KT: I whole-heartedly agree with you.

RB: When would anybody, ever, who had been alive in the 1920’s and infected with the Sleeping Sickness Encephalitis Lethargica epidemic and found themselves in a state of suspended animation for 40 years: how would their inner experience ever continue to exist if Oliver Sacks hadn’t been around? Yeah maybe he figured, “I could sell a book on that.” How about if he hadn’t had that ambition, their interiority would’ve sunk to the bottom of the sea. So now we know there’s Sophie and Sylvia and Adam and all these people whose inner experience was so precious to Oliver. Their way of being. Who are you? “Well I’m sorry I haven’t been able to speak for 40 years but I’ve been here the whole time. Can we work on a version of my story together?” That’s literally incredible to me, that’s data that can’t exist without that human being who sat there seemingly helpless, frozen and vegetative.  Oliver Sacks was inspired by nurses who said, “Dr. Sacks, there’s somebody in there, let’s get them out.”

KT: It’s hard to even grasp.

RB: Exactly, it’s so hard to grasp. He got them out. His work, “A Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” was about getting them out. What do you do every day? I know what I do, I try to get myself out, and try to reach other people in the process. That is the most human urgent project. Let us please converge, because you know what? I’m a relatively well-known documentary filmmaker. I exist entirely in my own head. Here’s the big news: I’m trying to get out.

KT: We all are, every day, and he gave all of those people that gift.

RB: Exactly, isn’t that amazing? That one should have the experience of someone who brings us into such direct existential contact with the most important thing for all of us. That was Oliver Sacks’ life. Whatever anybody else thinks, however they appreciate it, that is data. That is data that as Christof Koch says, “Every valuable ten thousand years from now people will go: wait a second, it’s not a piece of observable data, it’s something that someone said something felt about how they felt about themselves in 1970.”

KT: That is only a small part of what makes this film so important. I want everyone to know that the film does have many fun parts; I caught myself laughing a lot. One of my favorite scenes involves Jell-O…

RB: Will you ever think about Jell-O again in the same way?

KT: Orange Jell-O will never be the same to me. I was wondering, are there any other fun behind the scenes moments that you wanted to share? I’m sure you have hours and hours of footage that didn’t make it into the documentary.

RB: We do have hours and hours but let’s let orange Jell-O stand. What I really loved is even before he brings it up, and I know you’ll remember this, the camera is looking at Oliver and he’s kind of looking away. We’re kind of looking at the left side of his face. And off camera, his late in life partner Billy Hayes says, “Oliver, what are you thinking about?” and so even before we know orange Jell-O, the camera is seeing somebody being who they are inside themselves. And he kind of clasps his hands together and says, “I daren’t say.” The whole time what’s happening is the camera is observing a man smiling, a voice off, hands clasped. What’s happening is the camera is observing the interiority of somebody else’s subjective life. Every moment that’s precious to me about this film has to do with the things you can’t see when the camera’s looking. What you can’t see when the camera’s looking is a man, 81 years old, thinking a thought which he hasn’t yet expressed. The camera doesn’t see everything; the camera sees only the “outside.” It sees a man having a thought and smiling. “What are you thinking about, Oliver?” “Oh, I daren’t say.” It’s like a novel. Novels are about the things that a camera can’t see. And so what we were gifted with was the incredible privilege of being there as a camera to be on the one hand an objective cinema verite film, and to be a novel. Novels, here in this world of the novel Coronavirus, are about the interiority that is every day just as material, like everything else, but you can’t see. What does Oliver do? He goes, “I can’t say. Oh, okay, I’ll say!” And now Oliver says, “It used to be, when I went to sleep…” and you know the story.

KT: It’s one of my favorite parts of the film.

RB: It’s so incredible. I didn’t go, “I want to do a film about Oliver Sacks to get that” but our camera and our presence found our way to Oliver and during our time with Oliver, he let us into something. It required Billy coaxing him. Billy, the only person he’d ever had a, let’s put it this way: a satisfyingly turgid penis with. So Billy knew what happened between the moments of Oliver’s turgid penis and orange Jell-O. It was not like Billy was like, “Hey! What are you thinking about!” but what an amazing thing because exteriorizing turning a sock inside out as Oliver does with his periodic table socks, that’s one thing. To turn your own self out as if it were a sock…oh my God. To be with a human being late in life who said, “As with my socks, so with myself, I’m going to turn myself inside out.” I guarantee you I will never ever have that experience again, and it was so simple. Nobody got shot in the brains, we were just able to be in the vicinity of something that human beings typically don’t see: the inner life of a human being. Just as your inner life and my inner life, you’re not here because of your outer life, you’re here because of your inner life, and Oliver made that available. That’s really un-fucking-believable. I know in my heart people respond to this because they see the outer Oliver: rolling up his sleeves, sitting down behind his desk. Suddenly, they begin to sense they’re getting the insides of a human being. It’s not just his own life; it’s who he is on the inside. I will never ever have that opportunity again.

KT: I’m not sure viewers will ever have an opportunity to see another documentary like this in the future. Thank you, first and foremost for making this film. I think viewers will each take something different away from it, and have a different perspective on a multitude of things. I would not be surprised by Oscar buzz around this film either.

RB: Well, yeah, whatever. Thank you, but apart from that, Oliver’s first books became a best seller, but no Oscar buzz about that. “A Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat”…what the hell is that? And that became, by word of mouth, something that people really went, “Woah, I get that.”

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life was released on Kino Marquee and Film Forum Virtual Cinema on September 23rd

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  1. This is like, the most excited I’ve ever seen an interviewer get whilst talking about his own film subject. He sounds like a regular philosopher and it really shines through in his words how much this experience had an impact on him.

    I clicked on this interview having no idea that this film was about the Awakenings guy. I ended up watching it for this first time a few months ago to go along with Awards Circuit’s retrospective on films from the year 1990 and it ended up being by far my favorite film from that year. Burns’ enthusiasm makes total sense; even just by watching a fictionalized account of his work, Sacks was a simply inspiring person.

  2. Ryan, he was SO excited and just in complete awe of the experience he had with Oliver. I’m hoping to watch Awakenings in the near future, especially after this experience. Thank you for the comment!

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Written by Kendall Tinston

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