For documentarian Ric Burns, whose work includes New York: A Documentary Film, American Ballet Theatre and VA: The Human Cost of War ( and who co-produced and co-wrote The Civil War ), the tumultuous life of gay neurologist and author Oliver Sacks was prime material for a film profile.
Sacks' gift, Burns said, was giving his patients and subjects ( who often included himself ) "a sense of their own narratives," transforming clinical case histories into rich exercises in storytelling aimed at giving both practitioner and patient insights into the patient's complexities . At one point, the New York Times called him "the Poet Laureate of contemporary medicine."
Examining Sacks' complexities was among the goals of Burns' new film Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, which began streaming Sept. 25. The documentary intercuts between two narratives, Sacks' life and his final six months. Burns began work on the film in 2015, when he was asked to film Sacks as he battled what would prove to be a terminal illness.
"I knew Oliver through his work," Burns recalled. "I admired it enormously. I hadn't been thinking about a film about Oliver, but with that shock out of the bluea bolt out of the bluewe immediately went in. We didn't raise money. We went, 'You know what? Oliver is one of the personalities of the century. His work has impacted so many people. We felt duty-bound."
Burns shot 90 hours of footage with Sacks over the course of his last months, at one point doing 12-hour interviews for five days in a row. "We got thrown into the 'deep-end of Oliver Sacks' in quite a remarkable way," the filmmaker said.
Many viewers might know of Sacks primarily as the basis for Malcom Sayer, Robin Williams' character in Penny Marshall's 1990 film of Sacks' book Awakenings. That film overlooked a key aspect of Sacks' persona that Burns and the neurologist addressed head-on in their conversations: Sacks' homosexuality.
"Oliver had just published a remarkably candid memoir called On the Move, in which he discussed, as an 81-year-old man, his sexuality, which he'd never discussed outside a very small circle of people," Burns said.
Sacks had what Burns called both a "tormented and wonderful" childhood in his native Great Britain. His parents were both physicians, and he was doted upon by his mother especially. But when, at age 18, he told her that he was gay, she told her son that he had become "an abomination" in her eyes, an episode that left Sacks emotionally scarred. The film also addresses his eventual move to America and the addiction issues he contended with, even as his writings began to take hold with readers, scientists and practitioners.
With the film, Burns explained, "We wanted to give an account that was just as candid as Oliver was now willing to beabout his sexuality, his drug use and his extraordinary conflicts with people in positions of authority. He was fired from every official job he's ever had."
Burns found Sacks to be a compelling subject in part because he mobilized his strengths and passions to "invent" his own job: "He was a scientist, artist, storyteller, doctor. He firmly believed that those things were not only compatible, they were inevitable."
Once Sacks passed away, Burns interviewed numerous other subjects to flesh out the scientist's memories, among them Sacks' partner Billy Hayes, with whom Sacks started a relationship after decades of celibacy. Burns admitted to being almost "embarrassed" by beginning to raise funds for the film mid-production, since he began filming so hastily thanks to Sacks' declining health. Some production expenses had to be put on Burns' credit card.
But the finished product in the end did the same thing that Sacks did in his case histories, Burns said. It captured Sacks' inner life.
"When he was face-to-face with people, it was very difficult for him to both be there and not be there, which a writer can often can dobe present and absent at the same time," Burns explained. "You could feel that wariness in him. But at the same time there was this childlike desire to connect. There was some voice you could almost hear saying, 'Don't say that, Oliver,' and he would say, 'I have to say it.' … You realize that the camera is seeing what can't be seen."
Oliver Sacks: His Own Life can be streamed at kinomarquee.com/film/oliver-sacks-his-own-life/5f331d779759290001908a00 .