A 1,000 Piece Jigsaw Puzzle

Director Barak Goodman sits down to discuss the cinematic process and the challenges and joys of producing this landmark film.

Q&A With Director Barak Goodman

Recently, Director Barak Goodman sat down to discuss the process of filming and producing The Story of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. The transcript below has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you first get involved with The Story of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies?

I was just wrapping up a film I was doing on women’s history called Makers, when I got a call from Dalton Delan at WETA (the flagship public broadcasting station in Washington, DC), who was very excited to tell me about a project that he described as one of the biggest projects that PBS would do in 2015. He told me that the film would be a comprehensive look at cancer, based upon this much-lauded book called The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Finally, Dalton told me that the documentary was going to be executively produced by Ken Burns, whose early films in many ways inspired me to get into documentaries in the first place. Needless to say, when Dalton asked me if I would take on the role of director for the series, it didn’t take me very long to say ‘yes.’

Almost two years later, I can say that this has been the most challenging and most interesting project I’ve ever worked on. It calls on so many different kinds of filmmaking – from compressing a sweeping tapestry of history into a tight narrative; to translating some very technical science; to the purist kind of observational filmmaking with real patients as they experience the disease. The challenge of weaving each of those strands into a unified whole has been both extremely challenging and deeply rewarding.


Where does the project stand right now?

We’ve just shown our work to Ken for the first time and we’re nearing a rough cut of the entire series. I think we’ve crossed a very important threshold in that we’ve proved that these very different narrative styles can co-exist in one film. I think we’ve also proved that we can fit this sweeping story into six hours without sacrificing important narrative details or oversimplifying the science. So we’re feeling very good about where we are.


How did you approach the challenge of merging a historical documentary, verité stories and scientific research into one film?

It has been tricky. We made a conscious decision early-on that we were not going to try to cherry pick verité stories – profiles of individuals affected by cancer – in order to match them with particular elements of history or science. In other words, we were not going to have these stories simply act as illustrations, as you often see on the evening news or some kinds of cable documentaries. We wanted stories that were completely immersive; that gave viewers a sense of having glimpsed the full gamut of emotion and experience, which cancer patients must undergo. Most importantly, we wanted to immerse ourselves in some recognizable places to which we’d return throughout the series. So we chose two very different hospitals in which to embed for more than a year:  Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and the Charleston Area Medical Center. We would get to know the doctors and staff very well and choose our stories from among the patients we happen to meet during our stay.

It was a risky gambit but I think it has paid off. While we had far less control over the kinds of stories we might tell, we had much, much deeper access to both patients and staff, and a real sense of having gotten to know a couple of fascinating cancer hospitals.

As far as weaving the science and history, we’ve been helped enormously by a set of extraordinarily eloquent interview subjects, starting with Sid Mukherjee himself, who are able to translate even the most complex science and give it historical context. It’s perhaps axiomatic that the more brilliant a scientist is, the less he or she has to resort to jargon, and we’re fortunate to have access to the world’s most brilliant cancer researchers.


Tell me about the crew you have assembled to produce a film of this magnitude.

If I’ve done anything right in this series, it is to assemble one of the strongest possible teams of storytellers, researchers, and technicians. From associate producers to field producers to editors, camera people, and directors, everyone is totally committed to the project and understands the unique possibility this series has to plough new ground in documentary film.

In addition, the cooperation we’ve received from the cancer field has been extraordinary. Both Johns Hopkins University Kimmel Cancer Center and the Charleston Area Medical Center in West Virginia have thrown open their doors and allowed us unfettered access to patients and staff. We’ve received that kind of cooperation everywhere we’ve gone – from Nobel prize-winning scientists to pharmaceutical industry executives, to doctors and nurses. It has been the first time in my career that people have been calling me to ask ‘how can I get into this film?’ and offering any assistance that they can provide. So that’s been amazing.


How does this film differ from previous projects you’ve done such as Makers (the first complete history of the modern women’s movement), Clinton or Mai Lai?

There are a lot of differences. It’s not as simple a narrative to tell – it doesn’t have as clear a beginning, middle and end.

Every film is a puzzle, but this one is the 1,000 piece jigsaw. Fortunately, we have a guide in Sid Mukherjee’s masterful book. You sometimes scratch your head and think, how am I going to get all these pieces in the puzzle to work together and to create something that is coherent for the viewer? Sid’s already been there and done that, so we have a fantastic head-start, but we’re not there yet. The puzzle is resolving into something one can recognize, but there are still a lot of pieces missing and pieces in the wrong place. It’s going to be a real challenge to finish the puzzle, but a fun one.


What do you hope the impact of this film will be when it premieres?

There is so much misunderstanding and confusion about cancer, partly because it is so awful and scary that a lot of people shy away from the subject until it is staring them in the face – either because they have it or a loved one has it.

If we can cut through some of that confusion – if we can confront cancer head-on, come to terms with it and not be as frightened of it as we all are – if the film can help do that, I will be thrilled.

We’re not Pollyannaish – the film doesn’t say ‘in the end there is nothing to worry about.’ But there is enough excitement, energy and momentum in the medical field right now that we should have more hope than despair when it comes to our society’s fight against cancer. That is a wonderful story to tell.

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