The word may not mean anything to some. On the other hand it means everything to others. The silence of a subject matter rarely discussed is about to be placed front and center if director Sean Hanish has anything to do with it in his new film RETURN TO ZERO.
RETURN TO ZERO is based upon the real-life experience of Hanish and his wife. Through the work of Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein (Maggie and Aaron) this story is transformed into a film about a married couple who are just weeks away from their baby’s due date when they are devastated by the news that the child they had been preparing for has died in the womb and would be stillborn.
I interviewed Sean about the film and his passion to get this untold story out. He speaks candidly about his own loss, grief and passion that surrounds the very heart of the film in this heart-felt interview. Sean is giving the silent voices a reason to speak and I believe it is time we listen.
Paul De Leon: The film is inspired by your true life, how much of this is reflected in the final product?
Sean Hanish: The film is based on the real-life experience my wife and I had when we unexpectedly lost our son in 2005 in utero at 37 weeks. The movie explores the grief and loneliness of this specific type of loss, how two people can grieve so differently and how that can take a huge toll on their relationship. While still grieving, my wife and I found out we were pregnant with our second child—and the fear that accompanies a second pregnancy after you’ve lost your first child is awful. You white knuckle the entire 9 months. The film explores all of that.
The medical scenes, when my wife was told by the doctor that our baby had no heartbeat, being asked if we wanted a cremation or burial for our son when he was still in the womb, the actual stillbirth itself—those scenes are 100% accurate often down to the dialog. In fact, we use the actual diagnosis of our son in the film as well as some of the beautiful words that were said at his memorial service.
That said, something happened when I wrote the script—and it was a bit of a paradox. When I wrote the story exactly as it happened to us, it didn’t fully capture the emotional journey of what my wife and I went through because “real” life and “reel” life don’t correlate like that. So, I did change and dramatize some events, add a character (or two) who didn’t exist, combine two people into one—I used the tools of the dramatic arts which help get the audience closer to the emotional truth of what my wife and I really went through. That was a priority for me in making this film—to get as close as possible to the emotional journey of what we went through. So, in the end the film is a mix of fact and fiction but it’s all based on fact.
Then along came Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein who brought such incredible ideas to the table during meetings and rehearsals that they really helped to flesh out the characters of Maggie and Aaron Royal—who in the end are very different from who my wife and I are in real life. Frankly, they’re more interesting.
A writer friend who read the script before production put it like this: “I think the movie sits in that beautiful convergence of biography and fiction, that’s more real than either could be on its own.”
I sincerely hope that’s the case.
PD: How did this particular cast come together? Could you discuss the casting process?
SH: The first actor to read the script was Alfred Molina. He’s an old friend and he signed on right away.
Our casting directors, Ronnie Yeskel and Sharon Howard-Field, did a remarkable job pulling together the rest of the cast. Casting is art meets frustration. You’re waiting all the time for the big domino to fall. They floated Minnie Driver’s name by me one day and I thought that was an inspired choice. Fortunately, Minnie loved the script and we connected. The first meeting really set the tone. She said “If we’re going to do this let’s really go for it.” And go for it we did. I can’t imagine this film without her. Her performance is going to remind people that she is one of the finest actresses in the world.
After Minnie signed on, we were off to the races and the wind was at our back because we had Minnie, Alfred and a start date! But we were under an immense time-crunch since we had 5 ½ weeks to cast, prep and put the rest of the financing in place. We had a big board with pictures of actors and actresses on it and photos would fly on and off that board daily.
I didn’t know Paul Adelstein’s work very well but he came highly recommended. One of my casting directors saw him in a reading with Al Pacino years ago and she remembered him. After watching his tape and meeting him in person, I knew he could pull this off. He’s an incredibly talented actor and is so real on screen (and off.) Plus, his chemistry with Minnie in the film is off the charts.
Then we filled out the key roles with the incredible Kathy Baker, hysterical Andrea Anders and Sarah Jones who is a rising star. The last role left to cast was the important role of the high-risk OB, Dr. Claire Holden. My producer and I fought for someone who we thought would be perfect, Connie Nielsen. She’s soulful and brilliant in the role. I’m really happy we held out for her.
It’s a powerhouse cast. I know I’m the luckiest first time director ever.
PD: The trailer discusses the loss of an infant as well as a rainbow baby. How is the film divided between such complex and distant emotions?
SH: That’s an interesting way to put it. I don’t think of losing an infant and then having a “rainbow” baby as being distant emotions. I think they’re all of a piece at least in the way we experienced it. The loss of our first baby colored the experience of and contextualized the birth of our “rainbow” baby.
I believe that once you have lost a child in this way that pain and grief never fully go away. In fact, after my wife and I had our “rainbow” daughter 14 months later a lot of people thought that we were “okay” because we had a healthy child. That having a baby would heal us completely. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The loss of our son affected everything that followed: our relationship, the second (and third) pregnancies, and the two children we have here with us now.
Not a day goes by without thinking about the son that we believed and hoped would be here with us. It’s still quite a head trip thinking about that alternate reality which never happened. In fact there’s a scene right after the birth of their “rainbow” baby in the film where Maggie asks her compassionate doctor “When does the joy come?” I think that captures the complexity of emotion for this character and the people who go through these experiences. Joy is tempered.
PD: The responsibility your producer speaks of about getting the story right and that this was something that is owed to those who have experienced a stillbirth seems so genuine. What precautions or measures were taken to make this come true in the film?
SH: This was incredibly important to us. Paul and I reminded ourselves daily that we were probably going to be the only film that would get a bite at the apple of telling the story of a couple who loses a child in utero and delivers a stillborn. So, we wanted to make sure we got it completely right because we might be the only reference point a wider audience has to this subject for years and even decades to come. I hope not, but that’s the reality.
As far as precautions, I had obviously gone through this myself and wrote and directed the film so that gave us a leg up. I was always comparing what really happened with what we were capturing on set and making sure it was as “real” as possible, or at least as real as I remembered it happening.
Also, our incredible real-life OB who delivered our “rainbow”, Dr. Karla Iacampo, was on set as our medical consultant for every medical and delivery scene. We worked those beats out for hours with Minnie, Paul and Connie before filming to make it as real and spontaneous-feeling as possible. I’m excited for you to see those. Those scenes are really something to watch.
I also thought it would be important for Minnie to meet my wife before shooting, so they sat down for hours and had an incredible heart-to-heart without me present. I didn’t want either of them to feel censored. In the end, my wife ended up telling Minnie some things I had never heard before which came out through Minnie’s performance in the film. That was wild.
PD: With staggering statistics like 26,000 stillbirths a year, at 3 an hour, why do you think this subject has become so taboo and why hasn’t it been explored before – especially knowing that so many lives are touched by this type of loss?
SH: I think that there are a number of reasons why this topic hasn’t been explored before. First, the subject matter is dark and difficult. Films like this rarely get made any more. Second, I believe there’s a 2nd tier status afforded to women’s health issues in this country. I think stillbirth is considered solely a women’s issue and not an issue that affects families and communities. This is plainly wrong but fueled mostly by ignorance I believe. Thirdly, I believe that we’re a culture that does a really poor job dealing with the topic of death to the point of denying its existence. That’s incredibly unhealthy for any culture.
In this climate it’s a minor miracle to get a film like this made. And it’s a credit to the investors, cast, crew and community who have supported this film from the get go.
PD: ‘Breaking the silence’ is such a powerful thought. In my own experience, we were so surprised to learn how many people around our everyday lives had experienced some sort of infant loss but never voiced it until my wife and I lost our daughter. Was this your experience as well?
SH: Yes! Absolutely! It’s ridiculous the lack of information and the taboo surrounding stillbirth. It’s like one day you’re part of the pregnancy party and then literally the next day you’re a part of a “club” that you never wanted to belong to. What makes it even crazier is that it’s a club that no one talks about so you don’t even know other people like you exist. You feel completely alone in your grief, pain and loss. It’s a pound of salt in a gaping, pus-filled wound. Hopefully, this film will be some kind of salve.
PD: What made you decide to tell this ‘untold story’?
SH: There are stories you want to tell and stories you have to tell. This story definitely falls into the latter category. I took a hiatus from my day job (directing tv commercials) so that I could write this script and try to get the movie made. I honestly thought when I wrote this script that I was writing a film that no one would ever want to see and there were nights when I thought I was a crazy person for trading in steady work for the opportunity to tell this incredibly difficult story. I joked with my wife about it. Gallows humor. But then something amazing started to happen when people read it: they liked it. It’s absolutely true what people say about the most personal being the most universal.
PD: How can others find out more about the film?
PD: What is next for Return to Zero?
SH: Film festivals! And then finding the right distributor for the film. That’s going to be incredibly important—to find a distribution partner who gets the importance of this subject matter and with whom our priorities are aligned. It’s going to be a fun journey.