Meet the DocuWeek Filmmakers: Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan--'So Much So Fast'

Over the next couple of weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 18-24. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here are Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, directors/producers of So Much So Fast.
Synopsis: So Much So Fast unfolds like a nonfiction novel. Stephen Heywood finds out he has the paralyzing neurological disorder ALS. His brother Jamie becomes obsessed with finding a cure. The woman who's falling in love with Stephen has a decision to make. So Much So Fast is a black-humored cliffhanger of romance, guerrilla science and the redefinition of time.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Steven Ascher & Jeanne Jordan: Out of college, Steve was interested in a lot of things and saw filmmaking as a way to get access to many of them. He started working in New York, then in Boston at the MIT film section, which was then a terrific place for documentary. After the University
of Iowa, Jeannie went to work for Iowa Public Television in a small documentary unit where everyone did everything and it was a film school in and of itself.

IDA: What inspired you to make So Much So Fast?

SA & JJ: Jeannie's mother was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) just as we were finishing Troublesome Creek (about Jeannie's parents and the Jordan family). We'd been looking for a way to address the impossibility of ALS ever since, without falling into depressing
clichés. The Heywoods were profiled in The New Yorker and had the right combination of black humor and a fascinating and varied cast of characters.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

SA & JJ: We're always trying to make films that have layers of meaning. Hopefully there's a plot or storyline to give it shape, but the real interest for us is around the edges and under the surface. In this kind of documentary, the only way we know to get those moments that reveal
character, or suggest metaphor, or take the audience to an unexpected place is to spend a lot of time filming. Or not filming, but being there just in case. Weeks, months, years--it's an insane way to work! It's not about rolling endless amounts of tape, but becoming interwoven with what's going on so you can capture those moments that makes all the difference. It's also about letting time pass, and seeing on film the power of time to change people's lives. We did it on Troublesome Creek, which involved traveling back and forth to Iowa, and actually had a much shorter schedule than So Much So Fast. The first time we started filming this film back in 2000, we looked at each other and said, "Are we really ready to do this again?" Fortunately, we live in the same city as the Heywoods, so it was possible to keep this and other projects going at the same time. But making the commitment to doing a film like this is a huge challenge.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

SA & JJ: When you set out to make a film like this one, about a group of real people over a period of years, you can only guess where the story is going to go. We knew the story had to have an arc of years because it's partly about time. And the film is also a race against time--could they find a treatment in time to help Stephen Heywood? We were following a number of story threads--Stephen's family life, the business and growth of ALS-TDF (the Heywood's research foundation), the science. All of them are interrelated and reinforce each other, but at one point we had a cut that was a little under two and a half hours and it was just too much story. Anne Even, at ZDF in Germany, who supported the film, made the comment that we had three films, each interesting, but no one viewer could fully engage in all three. This reinforced what we were already feeling, that to sustain the level of emotion in the film, it couldn't be over 90 minutes. We lost a lot of the science, and the business, but those things survive in a vestigial way. It was six years from the beginning of shooting to the end of editing. The film changed in countless ways, but somehow become what it was all along.

IDA: As you've screened So Much So Fast--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
SA & JJ: This is an emotional film, but humor is a very important part of it. It's important to the Heywoods and it's important to us as filmmakers. In some rough-cut screenings people got very quiet, and seemed to feel that maybe laughing was disrespectful in some way to what the Heywoods were going through. But the first time we showed it to a big audience, we actually said beforehand that it's okay to laugh, and it was incredibly gratifying to hear these waves of laughter all the way through the film.  The film is meant to be emotional but not sentimental, and audiences get that. In the end, we want the audience to see that it's a film about themselves as much as about the Heywood family or about ALS. A lot of people have responded that way.

Probably the best thing has been that families coping with ALS have reacted so powerfully. One man said, "It's realistic but it gives me hope." When Jeannie's mother died, we felt like we had to do something, and what we do is make films. Our biggest hope is that the film will make a difference for ALS and the way our society approaches--or avoids--illness. People everywhere are going through similar things, and it's incredibly lonely and isolating when you're in it. A story like this
can make it not so lonely.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

SA & JJ: When we met, a key moment was when we discovered that Badlands was maybe each of our favorite films. Jeanne probably saw Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God 20 times. Both of us have always loved the inherent drama of documentary and the lucid,
documentary-like moments in dramas. Documentary and drama flow together as inspirations for all our films.

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