Drew Stewart | Documenting Hope

"Even though I’m the director I feel more like a courier—just passing along the awakening that I experienced from making this film."



Breadth of Hope, an award-winning documentary by St. Louis native and Mizzou graduate Drew Stewart, chronicles the lives of three individuals living with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). I had a chance to sit down and talk with Stewart in advance of an upcoming screening and ALS benefit event at the Tivoli Theatre in St. Louis on April 27.

Could you tell us a bit about the film and how you came to make it?

Breadth of Hope is about a group of people who are thrown into what’s considered a "hopeless" situation and through faith, family, and love manage to find the hope to live. It began as an assignment for an internship with the local newspaper in Victoria, Texas. I was asked to shoot some video to accompany a story by Erica Rodriguez about Craig Fox, a man living with ALS. Reviewing the footage I shot on the first night I knew the story had to be expanded to something larger, so we kept shooting Craig and his family and later added the stories of two more families in town who were also living with ALS. In the end we came up with one cohesive story about three separate journeys traveled along the same illness.

How did you locate the families featured in Breadth of Hope?

Craig Fox and his kids, Bailey and Tanner, were the subjects of the original story. Mike Shimek, whose wife has had ALS for nearly seven years, was the baseball coach at the local high school. And finally Pastor Bill Hassel was a renowned and beloved preacher in Victoria.

You were filming people at a difficult time in their lives. What kind of decisions did you have to make to maintain a balance between showing us a true picture of what it’s like to struggle with this disease and not invading their privacy?

Filming these individuals affected me in a way I’ve never felt before. Their humor and positive outlook in the midst of what they’re facing gave me an entirely new perspective on life. Even though I’m the director I feel more like a courier—just passing along the awakening that I experienced from making this film. As for privacy, Craig Fox put it best when he said, "With ALS modesty goes out the window." These are people who need assistance to do a lot of their daily tasks so I think they weren’t apprehensive about having their struggles filmed. Also all of the families were adamant about spreading their story and developing more awareness about the disease. It still amazes me how incredibly candid all the families were about sharing their battles with the illness, but that’s just the way they wanted it.

A lot of the focus is on the families trying to maintain their normal activities, rather than on details of the disease. Was that a deliberate choice you made, and if so, why? 

It was a deliberate choice, but it was also the obvious one. Although ALS is a tragic disease, the victims don’t sit around all day moaning about it; they get on with their lives as best they can. There’s a point in the film where Craig says, "All I want to do is what anyone would want to do—make the best out of the situation you have." And this is what I found with the families and what I chose to highlight.   

At one point the stories of the three families converge—in fact they’re all in one room together. Was that brought about because of the film or was it something that was happening anyway, and you were just there with your camera?  

This was a deliberate decision on my part and probably the most substantial storytelling device I chose to use in the film. Going into an ensemble story such as this where we follow three different families, I knew I had to tell it in a way that didn’t seem redundant. I did this by giving each family their own intellectual "real estate," meaning that each had its own theme and that none of the other families could step over it. With Mike and Carolyn it’s love and commitment, with Craig and the kids it’s family, and with Pastor Bill it’s legacy. Giving each family its own theme allowed me to tell three stories about the same disease that all seem unique. By converging all of their stories at the end, the film reaches a final sense of unity. Kind of a War and Peace thing I guess, but a heck of a lot shorter.

The film geeks among us are dying to know the technical details; how much footage did you shoot, what kind of a camera did you use, and how did you get permission to use Richard Thompson’s "When I Get to the Border" on the soundtrack?

Almost the entire film was shot on my Canon XHA1, which is a mid-level HD camcorder, somewhere between consumer and professional. In the course of about six months I shot 45 hours of footage. I spent about three months whittling that down to the 86 minutes that became Breadth of Hope.

One of the questions I get asked the most is how the heck would you decide what to include into the film, out of all that footage, and that’s a darn good question! I started by going through all of the footage and logging out every single thing that happened and every single thing that was said into one Word document. This way, if I needed to find a particular line or event in the footage, instead of sifting through the video file I could just do a quick "Ctrl+F" and search for that line in the Word document. Otherwise I probably just would have gone in circles forever trying to find different needles in the 45 hours of hay.

After I watched and logged out all the footage, I had a pretty good big picture idea of what I had on film. Then I wrote down every potential story thread on notecards and chose the ones that I knew could form a cohesive story. From there I broke the film down into about 30 scenes, lined them up in order on a large corkboard, and starting editing the film scene by scene. Along the process certain scenes would get rearranged, some would get cut, and even some would get added. And this, in a nutshell, is how I turned 45 hours of madness into a cohesive feature-length film.

As for getting the rights to "When I Get to the Border," the story’s not nearly as sexy as one would hope. I realized I wanted to use the song in the credits so I went to his website and sent across an e-mail. I got a prompt response telling me a certain licensing company owns the rights (there are companies out there who buy the rights to songs, just to sell them out to people like me). I then contacted said company inquiring about the rights and, because it’s not one of his more popular songs, I scored the license for a pretty modest price. So if you were hoping I convinced Richard Thompson to license the rights to me over a high-stakes game of darts in an English pub, then I’m sorry to tell you it never happened. If only I would have chosen one of their hits.

I understand Breadth of Hope has won a few awards and is up for at least one more. Could you tell us about that? 

So far Breadth of Hope, along with the Victoria Advocate‘s online ALS coverage, has won the Inland Press Association’s 2011 award for Most Creative Use of Multimedia, the 2011 Texas Associated Press Managing Editors’ Feature Series of the Year, and the U.S. Associated Press Managing Editors’ Innovation of the Month for February 2011. I’m proud to say that it’s also currently in consideration for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. The winners are announced in late April and there’s certainly some stiff competition so I’m not getting my hopes up too high. It’s an honor just to be considered.

OK, the inevitable St. Louis question: where did you go to high school?

I proudly went to Parkway North high school. It was there in my 8th grade English class where I produced my first video project ever. It was a comedic spoof sequel to Macbeth, aptly titled Macbeth II, where the main character came back from the dead to exact revenge on his killers with a Nerf gun. My favorite part was always when my friend who played Macbeth said, "I came here to do two things: eat haggis and kick ass, and I’m all out of haggis!"

Do you have any advice for the budding filmmakers out there?

Work hard and be opportunistic. I believe that goes for any profession. I’m not much more talented than the average director but I’ve always put my blood, sweat, and tears into my work, and I’ve always been ready to pounce on an opportunity when it arises. Love your work, always keep pushing, and eventually good opportunities will arise.

How did you get into filmmaking, and what are your plans for the future?

Well it was never supposed to happen. When I first went to Mizzou I was enrolled in biochemistry. It took me about three hours to realize I hated it. I went to my advisor and told her I love to write so she suggested I switch to agricultural journalism. I started writing more and realized my roommate and I both enjoyed writing short comedy scripts. 

I took a class called "Experimental Media" and got my first experience behind the camera (Macbeth II notwithstanding). Everyone else in the class was shooting experimental stuff, like the side of a building with different lights flashing on and off of it for eight minutes, while I produced comedy sketches. My teacher took a liking to them and clued me in to the fact that if I volunteered for 25 minutes at the local public access station they would allow me to create my own show (what a deal!). So my roommate and I decided to jump right in and a month later we put together the first episode of our half-hour sketch comedy show Illegally Downloaded TV (IDTV for short).

At the same time another friend of mine told me that Mizzou’s university station was accepting pitches for TV shows. We gave our proposal, they liked it, and in the course of two months IDTV, which was really a spur of the moment idea, was broadcast to some 12,000 students on campus. We produced the show for two semesters, resulting in eight or so glorious episodes of fart jokes.

As for the future, I’d like to direct more films but I’m mainly just into creating things in whatever medium I’m interested in at the time. I’m working on a comedy-thriller novel right now. Writing was always my first passion so perhaps that’s what’s drawn me back to it. I also write music and I’m hoping to finally get a proper demo produced. To top it off, I’m trying to get back into radio in some form or fashion.

I’ll be moving to Los Angeles in June to be closer to the film industry. All in all though, I’d like to continue to use my creative abilities to make a positive difference in the world. After stumbling into Breadth of Hope and hearing about the difference it has made in people’s lives I don’t think I could ever go back. It’s a kind of reward you just can’t get anywhere else.

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about the film or the upcoming benefit?

Even if you’re not a huge advocate for the disease it’s going to be an incredible evening filled with hope and humanity. We’ll have live music before the event by a great local singer named Curtis Wilcoxen and we’ll be auctioning off two of the hand-made crosses that Pastor Bill creates in the movie. I feel that this is a film that almost anyone can relate to. Whether you’re a father, a child, a lover, or a wanderer, you can learn a little something about life from seeing Breadth of Hope. And with all the profits from the event going to ALS charity, you can help bring hope to some people in need. | Sarah Boslaugh

Breadth of Hope will be playing at the Tivoli Theatre in St. Louis on April 27. For tickets or information, contact the Tivoli at 314-727-7271.



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