Filmmaker Justin Schein and Activist Mayer Vishner in LeftOnPurpose.com
Film Courage: Where did you grow up?
Justin Schein: I grew up in New York City of the 70’s and 80’s. It was a time that felt much more raw than the New York City of today. Muggings, graffiti, dealers on the corner offering you drugs were a fact of life. Artists and writers could afford to live in Manhattan. Music and art was the main form of political protest. As a child my window literally faced out at thousands of other windows…. I had this feeling that each window was like a frame or stage that had a story inside it.
Film Courage: Do you have sisters, brothers and or a large extended family?
Justin: My mom is a dancer. My dad was a lawyer… very different personalities. My one older brother was a star athlete, so I defined myself in opposition, skateboarding, punk rock and making movies with my friends.
Film Courage: What were your plans after high school?
Justin: In high school became interested in photo-journalism and documentary photography. Robert Frank and Danny Lyon were my idols. My girlfriend’s parents were photo journalists who often talked about the decline of the photo market. They encouraged me to look at documentary film as an option.
I studied literature and (post structuralists) philosophy as an undergrad while taking film and photo courses in the summer. After college I spent a year at the London Film School and then got my Master’s in documentary film at Stanford University.
Film Courage: How did you first meet Mayer Vishner? What was your initial impression of him?
Justin: In 2007 I made No Impact Man with Laura Gabbert, a feature documentary about a family trying to live a year in New York City with no environmental impact. Mayer Vishner was the community gardener who helped them grow vegetables. Growing up in the Ronald Regan era, when activism was not cool, I looked back at the civil rights and anti-war moments of the 60’s with a longing. So when I met Mayer and heard of his lifetime amazing history of activism I wanted to know more.
Film Courage: When you began filming Mayer for NO IMPACT MAN, how much more of a fight or will to live did you see in his daily life and ideologies at this time? At what point did it begin to change?
Justin: No Impact Man premiered at Sundance and people always wanted to know more about Mayer, so I decided to make a short film about him. For me it was about an aging activist who had had been so idealistic in his youth in the peace movement and now he was very isolated. He was still very sharp and very funny. Slowly over the course of a few months I saw that he was using alcohol to self-medicate for depression.
On our first shoot together I went with him to an anti-tax demonstration in front of the IRS. He complained that he was too old, that all his friends in the movement were not alive…he was on the periphery.
Film Courage: At what point after you met Mayer did he admit his depression?
Justin: Mayer was very open about his isolation and feelings of loneliness, but when we were together he was usually very gregarious and talkative. I had not had a lot of experience with clinical depression, so it took me a while to understand the depth of it and to see the ebb and flow of it. Dark and desperate weeks and months could be followed by very lucid and productive times. Often times working in the garden when he would stop drinking and be much more upbeat.
Film Courage: Who was Mayer when he was drinking? Who was Mayer when he was sober?
Justin: Mayer was often drinking and smoking pot. That was his baseline. The marijuana helped him to be less anxious, the alcohol — according to him, helped dull the pain of his depression. It wasn’t until months of filming that came by his house and found him falling down drunk. I only saw that a hand full of times, but it was very disturbing.
Film Courage: “I wasn’t just hanging out with giants, I was helping them be giants” says Mayer in one scene of LEFT ON PURPOSE, which embodies how he viewed his part of his purpose. He also said that his life was devoted to trying to be useful. Why do you think Mayer felt he had nothing left to offer toward the end?
Justin: When Mayer was a young Yippie (which stands for the Youth International Party), his close friend and mentor Abbie Hoffman’s slogan was “never trust anyone over 30.” When I met Mayer, he was pushing 60 and still working toward a social revolution that he’d expected 40 years before…that was not easy for him. Still, I feel that for a large part Mayer’s feeling of having outlived his usefulness was driven by clinical depression. I look at the political situation today and know that Mayer’s wisdom and experience could have been valuable to those “resisting” today…. But the darkness of his depression always left his glass half empty. Still the spirit and many of the methods of young activists today owe a lot to Mayer, the Yippies and the activists of the 1960’s.
“Ultimately I believe that difficult stories are important to tell; that you shouldn’t abandon them because they are challenging. But I knew that if I were to continue filming those challenges I faced as a filmmaker and a friend I had to be part of the story. I couldn’t hide behind the camera and pretend that they didn’t exist. Thus the film became about my friendship with Mayer.”
Film Courage: At what point did you begin filming Mayer for LEFT ON PURPOSE? What was the conversation like to begin the project?
Justin: I started filming sporadically with Mayer in 2009, thinking it was for a short profile of an aging activist. I had a 2-year old-son at the time. It was about 6 months into filming that Mayer told me of his desire to end his life. With that declaration I needed to stop and reevaluate the whole project. I didn’t set out to make a film about suicide. I didn’t want Mayer to die. And though I have a basic belief that one has the right to choose life or death, I didn’t want to be a deciding influence on that most personal of decisions. I had a lot of conversations with my wife and with Mayer’s physician and psychiatrist. The doctors, who knew of Mayer’s feelings, felt that a film could be good for him by showing him the appreciation and validation that he so craved. My wife (Producer Eden Wurmfeld) was very helpful in offering me a sounding board for the moral and ethical concerns that I had.
Ultimately I believe that difficult stories are important to tell; that you shouldn’t abandon them because they are challenging. But I knew that if I were to continue filming those challenges I faced as a filmmaker and a friend I had to be part of the story. I couldn’t hide behind the camera and pretend that they didn’t exist. Thus the film became about my friendship with Mayer.
Film Courage: How did you meet your collaborator, David Mehlman?
Justin: David and I both got Master’s Degrees in Documentary Film from Stanford University in the 1990’s. Dave is an editor and I am a cameraman so when we both found ourselves in New York City we decided to start Shadowbox Films in 1998. We worked together for about 10 years, producing our own projects and working for hire. The idea was to make character driven documentaries about social issues.
For the first 3 years of making the film about Mayer I worked alone. Since I am not an editor and the project really needed an outside perspective I brought on David to be the editor and co-director about 4 months before Mayer died. The film would not be what it is without David’s collaboration.
Film Courage: Your comments on the highs and lows of Mayer’s life as “The ebb and flow of how Mayer lived” was an interesting observation in the film. Is this the way of life for most creatives?
Justin: I would say that the ebb and flow was more a description of Mayer’s depression. I believe that often artists feel in some way outside of the mainstream of society. While that can be very painful, it also give a perspective that can inspire creativity.
Film Courage: What scene shows the strength of Mayer, the best Mayer he could be?
Justin: Mayer was a very complex person with many contradictions— he had a brilliant mind for social politics but he could be very anti-social at times. I loved his sardonic humor that he used like a scalpel, exposing the painful truth. But personally my favorite moment in the film was when he took my 2-year-old son by the hand and so lovingly taught him how to grow garlic in his garden. For me is showed his tender side.
Film Courage: Personally, what do you feel is Mayer’s biggest accomplishment?
Justin: Mayer led a life that had many different phases… from being an activist to a journalist, a radio host and comedian, a gardener and a music producer… but all along the way he never compromised his core belief in striving for a moral and just society. I think that was quite a burden, but a noble one.
Film Courage: Mayer briefly mentions in the film never living the way he wanted to. From looking at his fascinating life (which many people would envy for creativity and accomplishment), how do you frame your own life in terms of success? In terms of things you want to accomplish and the inevitability of old age?
Justin: That statement by Mayer at the end of the film is terribly sad. He is really saying that he focused too much on his ideals and didn’t make the compromises needed (by anyone) to have a family. I am so privileged to have a profession that allows me to enter the lives of people and learn from them. It enriches my life and my hope is that my work can serve a similar purpose for those who see my work. The goal is greater understanding.
Film Courage: In the film Mayer’s friend and former colleague Michael Ventura says “You can’t save anyone who doesn’t want saving.” Do you think Mayer wanted to be saved?
Justin: I do believe Mayer wanted to be happy. I also believe that he felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. Was that caused by his depression or the cause of it, I do not know. At some point he decided that he didn’t want to continue living with the pain he was feeling and in the end I had to respect that, no matter how sad it was.
Film Courage: Did Mayer have a support system?
Justin: For years the peace movement was a community that formed his surrogate family. As the movement dissipated in the 1970’s he lost that support and that focus. Still he had many friends who loved and respected him who were fiercely loyal. As Mayer descended into depression and substance abuse, those friends tried and tried to help him. They staged interventions, cleaned his house, gave him money. But he would eventually push them away.
Film Courage: Did Mayer’s (or any activists) ideologies become a trap in that he fought for a just, perfect world that was impossible to achieve and find enjoyment in? Why the common thread of suicide within activists such as Abbie Hoffman and others close to the Yippies?
Justin: That question of why these brilliant, idealistic and impactful people took their own lives was one of the motivating questions for my continuing the film. It is a complicated issue. The peace movement was often called “the struggle” because it was difficult. To stand up and say no to your parents, to your government, to your teachers takes a toll. They felt a burden of what they saw as injustice around them. The drugs and alcohol that were so prevalent at the time didn’t help their stability either. Lastly there is a notion by psychologists that when someone close to you takes their own life it becomes a viable choice. I believe this came into play for Mayer. If Abbie and Phil Ochs and others could do it, then maybe it was okay.
Film Courage: Your film is incredibly unique and given this, the filmmaker/subject relationship is always complicated and interesting. Do you have advice for other documentarians who get this close to a subject?
Justin: I think it is essential to be questioning the impact that such a relationship is having on your perspective as a filmmaker. Like any other close relationship there is transference. And when you are documenting someone with substance abuse issues there is a contagion of sorts. It is a natural consequence of empathy. In the end you need to try to have some separation in order to gain perspective on that relationship. It is also helpful to have collaborators who do not have the same level of attachment as you do. Who can call you out? I was lucky to have David Mehlman to do that.
Film Courage: Will you ever make another film where you get this close to a subject?
Justin: The films that I like to make are very intimate character driven stories and that requires a trust and closeness. Still, the relationship I had with Mayer was unique because it really became a very personal relationship. Thus the film became a story about our friendship.
Film Courage: What did Mayer teach you about living? How did you view your own life afterward?
Justin: All the films I work on teach me the importance of respecting other people’s life experiences. Left on Purpose in particular reaffirmed for me the power and importance of being a witness. Sometimes that is the most powerful and respectful thing you can do.
“All the films I work on teach me the importance of respecting other people’s life experiences. Left on Purpose in particular reaffirmed for me the power and importance of being a witness. Sometimes that is the most powerful and respectful thing you can do.”
Film Courage: Is there a particular audience that you would like to see this film?
Justin: Screening Left on Purpose at festivals around the world has been amazing. I am particularly gratified by the discussions it inspires about so many issues from aging to film ethics, to how we help a loved one in pain. I believe that the film serves as a wonderful tool for mental health practitioners as a case study. It also is a way to hopefully remove some of the stigma of those of us who have had loved ones battling depression and suicide.
Film Courage: How was it to reveal your own life and the thoughts of your wife Eden and family within the movie?
Justin: This was the first time I had ever narrated a film, let alone included my family. Given the subject matter and the fact that I was opening myself to criticism of my ethics, it was scary… but as I said, I felt like hiding behind the camera would have been worse. Mayer became part of my life and my family in a way and so I felt like I had to show that.
Film Courage: Where is the film available to watch?
Film Courage: When you watch LEFT ON PURPOSE again (such as screenings, etc.), how does it affect you?
Justin: Having filmed with Mayer for several years and then being in the edit room with the footage, I have not had the separation that one would normally have from a friend who dies. In some ways I have not fully grieved. Thus I imagine that taking some time off from watching and thinking about the movie will give me a new perspective. I look forward to that.
Film Courage: What did you shoot with?
Film Courage: What shot are you most proud of?
Justin: When I shoot documentary films for other people I am much more focused on aesthetics than I was in Left on Purpose. Because of the subject matter, the most important thing was trust and intimacy… and for me that begins with eye contact. Sometimes I used a tripod, but often did not and thus it has a very raw feel. But I believe that is appropriate for this particular film.
Film Courage: Where did you draw the line on what to film and when to turn off the camera or leave footage on the editing room floor? Was there any one particular scene you struggled with in terms of including in the film?
Justin: We had about 150 hours of footage (not including archival). It is important to me that my subjects have the power to ask for the camera to be turned off. Often (and several times in the film) I will ask if Mayer wants me to turn the camera off. Once I know that the subject feels that right then I will be less inclined to turn the camera off if I think there is something worth filming. I am generally against filming people who do not know they are being filmed.
One very difficult issue I faced was that Mayer wanted me to film his actual death. He thought it would be important for the film. While I don’t have a problem with filming end of life (as I have filmed people passing away before)… I felt that this would be an act that encouraged him to take his life… As a filmmaker I felt that this crossed a line that I was not comfortable with and more importantly, as a friend I didn’t want him to die. When I refused he was furious, which only confirmed to me that I made the correct decision.
As for scenes… there were many scenes that I loved that didn’t make the cut. In the end you need to look at the whole of the film and decide what works for the story. You had to balance the sadness and the humor so that people would be able to watch. David Mehlman, as editor and co-director, did a wonderful job of finding that balance.
Film Courage: What had your prior beliefs about depression, suicide and addiction been before meeting Mayer? Afterward?
Justin: I did not have a lot of first hand experience with depression or suicide in my life before the film which may have helped me to not be stuck in preconceived ideas. The film forced me to look at it in a very personal way, as I was part of the story. I am a strong believer that mental health problems can and should be treated by professionals. Therapy can be helpful. People with depression can make great strides with some medications. Still Mayer’s situation also showed me that the term suicide is a very imperfect one. It is a very complex. A young person who is being bullied and is feeling suicidal can and should get help. A person in chronic pain is a different situation and while they do need help, they have a right to make the most basic decisions about their own life, even if that decision is to end it.
Film Courage: How did you fund this movie?
Justin: When I’m not making my own films I often work as a documentary cameraman for hire. This allows me to start a project on my own without getting funding first. The first grant for Left on Purpose came from the Catapult Film Fund. That only gave a important injection of funds to cut a trailer, but more importantly it was a strong endorsement of my work. We went on to get grants from the Sundance Documentary Fund and the Jerome Foundation, both of which served as wind in our sails.
Film Courage: At what point did you decide to use Kickstarter and why? How long had you been working on the film?
Justin: The editing process for Left on Purpose took longer than anyone expected. Getting the narration right alone was a long process that we couldn’t rush. After more than a year of editing we decided to turn to Kickstarter to help give us the luxury of that extra time to finish.
Film Courage: How many of the 331 backers did you know who helped raise over $52,000 on Kickstarter? Did you reach out to any organization regarding suicide, aging, etc. for campaign support?
Justin: I’m not sure exactly how many of the backer’s I knew, but I do know that many friends, colleagues and family members were very supportive.
We didn’t reach out to organizations at the Kickstarter phase but we have been very lucky to receive a Sundance Grant for outreach of the film. Through that grant we have partnered with AARP NY to create a website to help those facing old age plan for those years. It moved beyond just physical health to talk about community engagement, mental health and spirituality.
Film Courage: Why is talking about suicidal or depressive feelings a stigma?
Justin: Mayer would say that the drive to live is built in to humans on the molecular level… so if you question that “imperative” you are immediately shunned. The prohibition on taking your own life goes back through history. In medieval times subjects were thought to be property of the King… and taking your own life was taking his property. Similarly religious prohibitions often state that only God can take a life. And thus the stigma is built. Additionally, my experience in Left on Purpose was that people do everything they can to help their loved one in pain. If they attempt or succeed in taking their life there is a tendency to blame oneself for not doing enough. Keeping these feelings to one self if very destructive. Hopefully a film like Left on Purpose can allow people to see that they are not alone with these feelings.
Film Courage: In this age of social media, instant celebrity and creating a following, what is your advice to people who look for external validation? How can creative people find worth in a world that values the external from social media numbers, etc.?
Justin: One great piece of wisdom that Mayer taught me is that things are always getting better and worse at the same time. There are always unintended consequences and thus complacency is very dangerous. The new digital landscape has proven very difficult and a very exciting. Social media can be a tremendous drain on one’s time and energy…. but it is also an opportunity. Some, like Mayer, feel lost in the digital world, while others are creating community.
Film Courage: What is next for you creatively?
Justin: I am working on a film about Palliative Care. In Left on Purpose I seek advice from Dr. Diane Meier who had been my dad’s doctor at the end of his life. She is a Macarthur Grant winning innovator and founder of the Mount Sinai Palliative Care program. She has allowed me and two wonderful collaborators Peggy Stern and Peter Miller to make a film about the Palliative Care Unit and this amazing new way of practicing medicine.
Also, in 1993 I made a film about a group of young homeless kids in San Francisco. Now, about 25 years later, I am following up to see where their lives have taken them.
Watch LEFT ON PURPOSE via iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, Microsoft Film and TV, or Vimeo.
About Left on Purpose:
Midway through the filming of a documentary about his life as an anti war activist, Mayer Vishner declares that his time has passed and that his last political act will be to commit suicide— and he wants it all on camera. Now the director must decide whether to turn off his camera or use it to keep his friend alive. Left on Purpose is an award winning feature length documentary that confronts the growing issues of aging, isolation and end of life choices through an intense character driven story of the relationship between filmmaker and subject. With humor and heart it provides a rare cinematic look at what it means to be a friend to someone in pain.
Mayer Vishner may be the most important 1960s radical that you’ve never heard of. His story, beginning at the center of the optimistic Yippie movement but ending in a life of increasing isolation, is one that you should know (read more here via LeftOnPurpose.com).
Every 40 seconds a person dies by suicide somewhere in the world. It is estimated that over 800,000 people take their own lives annually and for each adult who died of suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting.* In middle aged men, the age group of Mayer Vishner (the subject of LEFT ON PURPOSE) the suicide rate has increased by 50% in the last decade in the United States. It is our hope that this film will help start a discussion about this pressing issue.
If you are thinking about suicide please seek help call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255 (Open 24/7).
CONNECT WITH LEFT ON PURPOSE MOVIE:
Audience Award- Doc NYC
Audience Award- Woodstock Film Festival
Best of Festival Award- Astra Film Festival
Starring: Mayer Vishner
Directed By: Justin Schein
Co-Directed and Edited By: David Mehlman
Written By: Joanna Hershon, Susan Korda, David Mehlman, Justin Schein
Produced By: Eden Wurmfeld, Doug Liman, Yael Bridge
LEFT ON PURPOSE – Midway through the filming of a documentary about his life as an anti war activist, Mayer Vishner declares that his time has passed and that his last political act will be to commit suicide— and he wants it all on camera. Now the director must decide whether to turn off his camera or use it to keep his friend alive. Left on Purpose is an award winning feature length documentary that confronts the growing issues of aging, isolation and end of life choices through an intense character driven story of the relationship between filmmaker and subject. With humor and heart it provides a rare cinematic look at what it means to be a friend to someone in pain.
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