Beauty of Certainty Interview Transcript #1

To shoot Beauty of Certainty, Brian and I spent a day together just walking around Vancouver and talking. Sometimes we set up and shot while we were talking, and sometimes we just talked. I had prepared a list of questions which gave us a framework for the day. Some of the questions were pretty tough. Questions I can't really imagine having the gall to ask anyone else. But Brian was fearless.

As Brian says in the documentary, he was on a hardcore health regime at the time, but without even really discussing it we stopped at corner store and bought some cigars for the day. I was a bad influence, I guess.

Anyway, we walked and talked and shot until we lost the light and all my batteries were dead. 

I thought that you might like to see the transcripts from our interviews. Obviously we covered many more topics at a deeper level than was possible to capture in a watchable documentary. You can see that in the transcripts. 

So, here is the first transcript. We had set up at an outdoor cafe at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I have edited these for readability and to make us both look smarter.  I'll post more. 

Beauty of Certainty Interview Transcript #1


TIMECODE 00:00:00   BRoll of Brian outside with his dog, at a cafe table, drinking coffee.

BRICK: All right. Well, anytime you’re ready.

BRIAN: Okay. I’m going to start now with question number one, which is what has it been like having cancer in my life for the last six years?

My initial answer to that is that it’s been a blessing. And I say that because of what I experienced when I was first diagnosed six years ago Halloween. When I got the news I went out to the backyard and took a deep breath and felt this ridiculous sense of peace that I hadn’t felt since I was a child. I realized that from this moment forward all I had to accomplish of the 700 things that come into my mind every day, is stay alive.

So the diagnosis gave me that. But of course it’s illusive because you can’t stay in that zone forever. But, it gave me a sense of being present that does stay with me everyday. And I realized that I was well armed for this. I had written about the beauty of uncertainty, about how it prepares us to face life in the face of death. I had written about Carl Jung and his statement that most people spend the first half of their lives afraid to live and the second half of their lives afraid to die.

So, there I was at fifty, in the dark woods and suddenly having a chance to really confront and overcome my fear of death. That also led me to new levels of compassion and empathy for other people. Everyone has his or her equivalent of my situation in some way. And mine was just an opportunity to step it up and to get better at who I am and to live more fully as well. To live unencumbered by fear and the things that a fifty-year-old man would normally be thinking about.

So obviously its has been filled with all kind of nuances and ups and downs. But overall I’m literally the guy who’s going say, if I could go back six years ago to Halloween and get a different diagnosis . . . of course I would, knowing what I know now.

But, I really wouldn’t, because the things I’ve gained through having cancer, can’t be attained any other way.

BRICK: Nice. Excellent.




TIMECODE 00:03:39:00

BRIAN: So getting back to this topic of my experience having cancer for the last six years now. And, being given an opportunity to prepare for things that otherwise I wouldn’t have been at all prepared for. And perhaps deconstruct and dismantle things that I had been building that no longer really had any direct purpose.

I always like the line by Orson Welles: I made it to the top of the ladder and found it was against the wrong wall. It stopped me in my tracks, because without even really knowing it, this had happened to me. I had so much on the go at the university. You know, I was fourteen years into nonstop teaching. I was surrounded by, literally hundreds, thousands of students that, that I was kind of living off of their energy and supplying that energy. And building these fires of enthusiasm and inspiration.

I had written this screenplay with KT Tunstall that, you know, was kind of floating. And, at any given time, I thought maybe something exciting was going to happen with it. At Hobo Magazine, I had done some good interviews with Philip Seymour Hoffman. And so, I was kind of at that point where there was that part of me that was fulfilling my dreams of all the stuff that I thought was cool and important and kind of fed into my image of myself.

And then I got the cancer diagnosis. As a matter of fact, it happened the very same day that I got an offer to move to Philadelphia and, do some film work there at my old alma mater. And uh, the fact that the—




TIMECODE 00:05:57:00

BRICK: All right. Anytime.

BRIAN: So yeah.

BRICK: So here’s the question. A consistent theme with you is that you seem to have these periods where everything is going really well and you’re fully engaged, but then you seem to get fatalistic, and convinced that it will all end – and not only end, but end horribly. I mean, is that . . .

BRIAN: Yeah, it’s kind of uncanny. I almost have a sense of humor about it. Like I hope that really good things don’t come my way because I know something bad will follow. When I interviewed Ethan Hawke for Hobo Magazine, he said he experiences the same thing. I was just rereading that interview I did with him. He married Uma Thurman. He had all this great stuff going on. His life was at its very best. And he just had this sense of dread that something was coming down the pipe, and sure enough, that was the case.

So just recently again, I started thinking like this. You know it’s like I almost was keeping myself uh under wraps because I thought if I get too excited and too inspired about something then it could encourage this other force to come. But, having said that . . .

BRICK: I was going to say, one way you seem to be different than other people is that your fatalism doesn’t seem to temper your enjoyment of the upswing. While the great stuff is happening you’re not like, “oh this is going to be terrible because it is going to end.” Instead, you’re fully enjoying the ride.

BRIAN: I’m fully enjoying the ride and in some way I get even more excited when bad things happen. There is almost this subconscious thing that happens.  Like you want to feel that level of risk or that level of like urgency.

I used to tell my classes about the guy who was stuck in the crevasse in Arizona desert and had to cut his arm off to free himself. And then he wrote a book called of course, Between A Rock And A Hard Place. And he went on the inspirational speaking tour. I have no idea whether he’s as blessed as he says he is. But he was adamant about the fact that cutting off his arm was the greatest thing that ever happened to him. Just being alive was the most important thing.

So, I used to ask my classes, how can we get to where this guy is without having to cut our arms off?

And you know, maybe the answer is there are no shortcuts.

Maybe some people just have a bigger appetite for life than others. But in a perverse kind of way, or in a whatever kind of way, I do feel the most blessed and the most alive, and maybe the happiest when I’m up against things that most people would consider to be absolutely the worst thing that could happen to them.

BRICK: So, what do you think you’d be doing now if you hadn’t gotten the cancer diagnosis six years ago?

BRIAN: Wow, yeah. Such a good question. I don’t know. I have no way of knowing. I guess I would still be at the university fighting the fight there. I probably would not have become quite as controversial or radical in my teaching method of totally handing the whole thing over to the students. And maybe I would have conformed into more of a tenured type position where I’d be spending most of my time still golfing. And having less and less interest but doing a decent job. Worrying about not having enough money for retirement. Trying to pay off the mortgage. Hopefully I would have figured out ways to look after my health better. Because when I get obsessed with my health, I go crazy and I do things like give up my car. I run. I canoe, I ski, I golf. I go to the gym everyday. I used to do that in the winters but then, never really had the consistency to keep that going.

BRICK: What are the downsides?

BRIAN: One big one would be intimacy with Sandy. The hormone treatments have basically taken away my libido and my testosterone. So, I can get used to that, and in some ways you don’t miss what you don’t have. But Sandy has obviously been robbed a normal kind of intimacy that we might be enjoying otherwise.

Also a sense of, whether you want to call it guilt, or just a sense of remorse and sadness that, at any moment, my kids or my parents or my friends or my brothers and sisters have to worry about their own health, their own mortality, their own chance of getting cancer. Or just a sense of knowing what I would feel if I was going to lose my dad or if I was going to lose my son of course.

Perhaps it is more appropriate to be sad than it is to be seize the day and think "how exciting it is to have cancer.” Because it’s really not that exciting. But you know, wherever there’s darkness, there’s light and the light becomes . . .