ARTICLE IN BRIEF
Howard L. Weiner, MD, discusses his passion for directing films — in fiction and nonfiction formats — when he is not doing research and seeing patients.
Howard L. Weiner, MD, the Robert L. Kroc professor of neurology at the Harvard Medical School, director and founder of the Partners Multiple Sclerosis Center, and co-director of the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at the Brigham & Women's Hospital, is a leader in the use of immunotherapy for the treatment of multiple sclerosis. He has pioneered the use of the mucosal immune system for the treatment of autoimmune and other diseases and is investigating immune mechanisms in Alzheimer's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and stroke.
The 2007 recipient of the AAN's John Dystel Prize for Multiple Sclerosis Research, Dr. Weiner is also the author of Curing MS: How Science is Solving the Mysteries of Multiple Sclerosis (Harmony, 2005), which chronicles the history of MS and his “21-point hypothesis” on the etiology and treatment of the disease.
Remarkably, Dr. Weiner has managed to find time in this career packed with achievements to write and direct his own movies. His first feature-length film, Abe and Phil's Last Poker Game, an honest, heartfelt examination of the nature of aging, death, and friendship starring Martin Landau and Paul Sorvino, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017. The Village Voice praised it as “a compassionate portrayal of lives stripped down to bare essentials by aging, illness, and loss.”
Dr. Weiner spoke with Neurology Today about his passion for filmmaking and his first-time foray into directing — off the clock. His comments are excerpted below.
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU FIRST START MAKING MOVIES?
I've always had an interest in films. When I was in medical school in the late 1960s, long before there was MTV, I made music videos of Beatles songs featuring my medical school classmates. I did “Run for Your Life” and “Hide Your Love Away.” But while I was interested in film, my passion was medicine, so I pursued my medical career and kept film as a hobby.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST FULL-LENGTH FILM?
I was a philosophy major in college, I think my philosophy training got me interested in neurology. A lot of philosophical questions ultimately relate to the brain. So a few years ago, I made a full-length feature documentary film called What Is Life? The Movie, which is still available on YouTube. In that movie, I travel around the world exploring the major philosophical questions like: “What happens when you die?” “Is there free will?” “Why is there evil?” I interview people like a rabbi, a Holocaust survivor, a Palestinian couple, a physicist, and a philosopher. There are these humorous scenes where I'm in my daily life and someone asks me a question, and rather than answering it, I'll say something like, “What happens when you die?” But the film is also very poignant as well. One of the questions is “What do you fear the most?” That segment includes one of my MS patients. Her husband says that his greatest fear is that he dies before she does, because he is her caregiver.
HOW DID YOU FIND YOUR CREW?
When I traveled to scientific conferences as a neurologist and an academic, I would hire a film crew locally and spend time outside the conferences interviewing people in places like Paris, Brazil, and Israel, and we'd spend a few hours shooting B-roll.
Here in Boston, I found a crew thanks to an award I received for MS research. For that award, they made a little documentary about me and had a film crew follow me in the lab. When we were finished, I mentioned to the crew that I had this idea to make a documentary film and asked if they would be interested. They were, and I hired them, and that's how I got my film crew and editor. I'd sit with my editor and work on weekends and nights editing the film.
HOW DID YOU GO FROM MAKING A DOCUMENTARY TO A FULL-LENGTH FICTIONAL FILM STARRING MAJOR HOLLYWOOD ACTORS?
After I finished “What Is Life?”, which took about five years to make, I was talking to my son about making a more standard fictional film. You could argue that my “creative” genes were directly expressed in him — he wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and went to Hollywood, where he's been an Emmy-winning writer for 30 Rock and also for Silicon Valley. I had written a draft of a manuscript dealing with older people that I'd never published, and I thought maybe I could make a movie out of it. He explained that I had to write a screenplay using a special software called Final Draft that everyone uses. Screenplays are a very specific type of writing — just like research papers, they have their own style. So I wrote the screenplay and after I'd finished it, I happened to meet a guy named Walter Klenhard who was teaching film at Emerson College. I told him that I was a doctor and had written a screenplay that I wanted to direct. His exact words were, “Yes, and I want to do brain surgery.”
WHAT IS THE FILM ABOUT?
It's the story of an old Jewish doctor who no longer can take care of his wife, who has Alzheimer's disease. He moves with her into a nursing home, where he meets an old Italian guy who was a womanizer and a gambler. They would never have met before, but they become unlikely friends. They talk about life, they're both impotent, and they bond over that. There is also a woman who's adopted and goes to search for her biological parents, and she gets an anonymous note that her father is in this nursing home. So she takes a job at the home and meets these two old guys, and they both want to be her father. It's a story of friendship and getting older. The movie's tag line is “It's never too late for life.”
HOW DID YOU GET IT PRODUCED?
I asked Walter to read my script, and he said, “I'm not your mother, I've got a lot of scripts to read, so I'll read a few pages.” I gave it to him, and a couple of weeks later I got an email that said, “Hey, this is really a great script, I read the whole thing.” We had dinner together and he gave me some notes, like to take out the narrator I originally had at the beginning. After that, I happen to be friends with a New York actor named Bob Balaban, and he told me that I needed to do a “table read” and see how it sounds. So he helped me arrange for some actors to do a table read in a conference room at the NYU Multiple Sclerosis Center.
HOW DID YOU RAISE FUNDS TO MAKE THE MOVIE?
First, I found out that I had to hire a line producer — this was all like going through film school. A line producer is someone who tells you how much it will cost to make the film, how many days it will take to shoot, things like that. The line producer told me that it would take a million and a half dollars to make it. I did find some people who were interested in producing the movie, but they didn't have the financing. So I decided to raise the money myself. I've raised a lot of money over the years from major philanthropists for our research, which many doctors do, so I turned to some of these people and they were very supportive. Our last investor was Henri Termeer, the chief executive of Genzyme, who passed away last year. He was fascinated. He said it was like venture capital in a way. He was all in and then we had the money.
HOW DID YOU GET YOUR STARS, PAUL SORVINO AND MARTIN LANDAU?
We hired a casting agency, and they sent the scripts out to agents to show to their clients. Sorvino read the script and loved it, and so did Landau. I was a little concerned about Landau, since he was 87 years old, but we had lunch together in Hollywood and he was a very vibrant guy. So we had our two main actors and we had our money, and we were ready to go. We cast an actress named Maria Dizzia as the young woman and local actors here in Massachusetts for the rest of the roles. We used local rooms in the medical school for casting — the actors told us that it was the first time they'd gone to a medical school to audition! To film, we found a place in Newburyport, north of Boston, where a facility for people with dementia had just been built. The second floor had not yet been occupied, so we turned that whole floor into a movie set.
YOU DIRECTED THE FILM YOURSELF? WASN'T THAT INTIMIDATING?
I can't say I wasn't nervous, but I wasn't afraid. I had a great rapport with Landau and Sorvino. After two or three days of filming they said “Howard, you're no longer a first-time director.” I had taken over. When you direct, you're in charge of absolutely everything. I wanted a dog in a particular scene, so they brought me pictures of 20 dogs and said, “Which dog do you want?” In medicine, there's a lot of multi-tasking and you make a lot of decisions at once, and that's what making a film was like, so I guess I was ready for it. There were problems here and there, but nothing major. Filming went amazingly well and then it was done.
TELL US ABOUT HOW LONG IT TOOK AND HOW YOU MANAGED TO KEEP YOUR ‘DAY JOB’?
Our filming took only five weeks, because everything costs so much and you have to pack it all in. So during filming I didn't see patients and had someone cover the practice for me, but that was only for a short time. On the set, there was a lot of dead time so I could make calls, and on the weekends I'd drive down to meet with the people in my lab. I was interviewed for WBUR and they asked a film professor at Boston University if there had ever been a physician in practice who made a film like this, and he said that he didn't know of anyone. Finding a treatment for ALS or a vaccine for Alzheimer's, that's a much bigger challenge than writing and directing a movie.
HOW DID YOU GET AN AUDIENCE FOR THE FILM?
What you do with a new film is to try and get into film festivals. We first tried for Sundance and almost got in, but then we made it into Tribeca, Robert De Niro's festival and one of the top film festivals in the world. The film premiered there and had a great opening. I was one of the oldest directors there. Pete Hammond did a great piece on it for Deadline Hollywood. From there, I was able to get the movie into other festivals, and a company called Gravitas picked it up for distribution in theaters. We had a premiere in Hollywood and one in Boston. While it didn't have a long theatrical run, it's been well reviewed and is now available on iTunes and Amazon and on DVD. We also changed the name. It was released at Tribeca as “The Last Poker Game,” but I was told that it helps if your title comes up earlier in listings, like with a number or earlier in the alphabet. So it became “Abe and Phil's Last Poker Game,” and I actually like that much better because it's more personal.
MARTIN LANDAU DIED IN JULY 2017, JUST A FEW MONTHS AFTER THE MOVIE DEBUTED AT TRIBECA. WAS THIS HIS LAST FILM?
Yes, and he went out starring. He'd won Academy Awards in his career as supporting actor, but this was the first time he was a film's star. That was quite a thing for him at the end of his life. I'm very happy that he was able to do this and proud that I was able to give him the opportunity. The day before he died, his daughter told me how much he loved the film. I gave him my stethoscope to use in the movie. He would say that it's a doctor's view of a retirement home as opposed to a Hollywood view. It doesn't put old people on a pedestal, but it doesn't treat them as children either. It has a lot of sexuality in it — four sex scenes — and two death scenes.
WILL YOU BE MAKING OTHER MOVIES?
I do have a couple of scripts I'm working on now. One is a medical thriller called Love Kills and the other is called Subways, in which the chief character, a neurosurgeon, goes through a life crisis. These are my next two projects, if I can get them into the shape I want them to be.
WHAT DO YOUR PATIENTS AND COLLEAGUES THINK OF ALL THIS?
They're tickled pink! They can't believe it. They love the idea of their doctor, or their colleague, doing something like this. They ask a lot of questions. And now they like to use a lot of film metaphors in our conversations. When we're doing research, I'll hear, “So, are we going to greenlight this experiment?” To go from Beatles videos in medical school to a documentary on life's big questions, to writing and directing a feature film — I feel very fortunate.
“Off the Clock” is a new series featuring neurologists and neuroscientists who pursue a rich array of hobbies, interests, and passions outside of their work. Want to nominate someone for a feature? Send your suggestions in (and why they are good candidates) to [email protected].