“Rockin’, Poignant…Highbrow Brilliant…”
—New York Magazine Approval Matrix
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12 Oct 2015

About

 

Q&A with Writer, Producer, Director Joshua Neuman

How did Johnny Physical Lives come about?

My brother Jonathan started a garage rock band called “The Physicals” at Tufts University in 1999 and was known around campus as “Johnny Physical,” a sweet-talking ladies man from the mean streets of New York City. In other words, Johnny Physical was everything Jonathan was not. Yet when Jonathan was diagnosed with leukemia at age 20, I watched as his rock n’ roll alter ego became only more important to him. Two weeks into his first round of chemotherapy in late 2000, when he was at his most vulnerable, he decided to perform a concert in the hospital as Johnny Physical. It was the single most moving experience of my life. He was making a statement: he wasn’t going to lose his identity and simply become a “cancer guy.” I captured the concert in the hospital on video and afterwards we decided to create a rock n’ roll documentary chronicling Jonathan Neuman’s experiences with cancer as well as Johnny Physical’s improbable new “stage.” When Jonathan passed away a year and a half later, I knew I had to finish the film we started. I aimed to make a film that wouldn’t shy away from the horrible ordeal that Jonathan went through, yet would still communicate his amazing spirit. In cold examining rooms, miserable waiting rooms, lonely hospital rooms, Jonathan was never just a patient. He was a rock star. I tried to capture that and, ultimately, put my own spin on our story.

When did you come up with the idea to use animation to tell the story?

Jonathan’s story was badass. It was strange, darkly comic, and also inspiring, but after he passed away in June of 2002, when I began showing the footage we shot together during his time in the hospital and in recovery at home, people had a hard time watching it. Maybe if I had written the story instead of filming it (I was a writer at the time), or if the outcome would have been different, people would have responded differently, but the image of a kid with a bald head made it super difficult for anyone to feel anything other than sadness. However, when I showed the footage to the two friends of mine who knew the most about documentary films, Edet Belzberg (who came on board as an executive producer) and Jason Spingarn-Koff (the film’s original editor who went on to run Op-Docs for The New York Times), they pushed me to find an entirely different visual language to do justice to the complexity of emotions I was trying to evoke. After a successful Kickstarter campaign I hired Canadian animation studio Style5.tv, so that the audience could really get a window into our experience during that time.

I really wanted the animation to feel like it was the extension of Jonathan’s imagination. Just as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz conjures the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion based on the appearance of her uncles, the characters Johnny encounters in the animated world are based on Jonathan’s favorite rock stars: Frankie Lines is essentially Johnny Thunders of The New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers; Danny Animal is Dee Dee Ramone, the bassist for The Ramones; Nick Fiction is The Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts with some Rimbaud thrown in for good measure; Miss USA is Debbie Harry; the blood monsters were based on the Hell’s Angels in Gimme Shelter, the Maysles Brothers’ documentary about the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont; and Johnny himself is a mix of Jonathan’s two greatest influences, Buddy Holly and Iggy Pop.

Astute observers might also notice iconic moments of rock n’ roll history being incorporated into the animated narrative: The Rolling Stones in a recording studio, Sid Vicious shooting up in the Chelsea Hotel, and the cover of The Clash album “London Calling.” We sort of took that crazy assortment of rock mythologies and dipped them into an ocean of colors from the cartoons Jonathan watched as a kid. So, you have these sordid adventures that seem right out of downtown Manhattan in the 1970s colored like they were out of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe with groupies who seem right out of Jem and the Holograms cartoons—not to mention sequences referencing Jonathan’s favorite movies: The Goonies, Trainspotting and, of course, Night of the Living Dead. Hopefully, the end result is that the audience really feels like they’re entering Jonathan’s fantasy world, and not just mine.

How did Albert Maysles get involved?

Not too long before Jonathan was moved to intensive care, a friend of mine told me that famed documentarian Albert Maysles, responsible for Gimme Shelter—the infamous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont—was interested in shooting Jonathan for a project he was creating for PBS. Even though he intended to shoot Jonathan for 20 minutes, Maysles and his assistant interviewed Jonathan in his hospital room for an entire afternoon. The PBS project never aired, but Albert generously shared that footage with me for use in my film. Whenever Albert and I talked about my project, the conversation would inevitably come around to his feelings about his late brother and creative collaborator, David Maysles. It deeply saddens me that Albert passed away before he could see Johnny Physical Lives because their relationship—not just Albert’s actual footage—inspires my film.

Was it emotionally taxing to make Johnny Physical Lives?

Eugene O’Neill famously described Long Day’s Journey Into Night as, “a play of old sorrow written in tears and blood.” I kept coming back to that line over the years. It wasn’t that my subject matter made me sad—to the contrary. I never felt closer to Jonathan than when I was re-watching old video footage of us from our childhood, or discovering new footage of him in college that I had never before seen. The very act of editing his voice—even if it was just to cut out a pause or an aside—made it feel like he was sharing a new sentiment with me when I played it back. So it was a lot more difficult to finish the film than to make it—if that makes any sense. Jonathan is, of course, the film’s subject, but I very much feel like he made this film with me, that the tears and the blood are not mine, but ours. And so, finishing the film meant accepting that this journey we were undertaking together would finally be coming to an end.

What films influenced your vision for Johnny Physical Lives?

Great rock n’ roll documentaries like Gimme Shelter, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten were formative influences—as were rock n’ roll dramas like Sid and Nancy, Rock N’ Roll High School, and Velvet Goldmine. I spent a great deal of time exploring indie biopics that artfully combined various media (archival and found footage, animation, re-enactment) to communicate the power of memory such as In the Realms of the Unreal, Wild Combination, and Stories We Tell. I also took inspiration from films that explore the power of imagination to forge personal narratives under duress—like The Sea Inside, The Singing Detective, and Heavenly Creatures.

Were there any non-cinematic influences?

Spending time at the headquarters of my non-profit partner, the Creative Visions Foundation was instrumental on several levels. The Foundation is inspired by the life and work of Dan Eldon, a photojournalist for Reuters News Agency who was killed in Somalia in 1993 (also at the age of 22) while covering the conflict there, and that really motivated me to get my story out there “into the world” and out of my head. Dan’s mother Kathy Eldon and sister Amy Eldon Turteltaub created the Foundation to provide critical guidance and resources to “creative activists” to assist them in making positive change through the power of media and the arts. In their painstaking efforts to cobble together the fragments that Dan left behind into a living memorial, Kathy and Amy were really important role models for me.

What do you think of the spate of new films approaching cancer in new ways?

Films that depict cancer, until recently, have followed the lead of Love Story, which came out in 1970. That film’s cultural significance was huge. It came out at a time when people were afraid to even utter the word “cancer” in anything but hushed tones. But the breakthrough of Love Story—and the generation or two of films that it spawned was double-edged. Although having the courage to speak cancer’s name stripped it of its linguistic power and gave voice to millions dealing with it, it also constructed characters who were ultimately defined by their disease, stripping them of their humanity in a way that unfortunately mirrored the way cancer did. These characters so often experienced a double-death, death by way of cancer and death from the camera stripping away their identity. Recently, filmmakers have been exploring richer conceptions of identity in films that depict cancer. In dramas like 50/50 and The Fault in Our Stars and docs like Farewell to Hollywood and Thank You for Playing, you end up feeling so much more for characters experiencing the disease when there is so much more to them than their experience of the disease. We’ve seen it on television too: whether it was The Big C or even Breaking Bad. In a sense, Johnny Physical is to Jonathan what Heisenberg was to Walter White.

What do you think people can learn from Jonathan?

Maybe it was because of his love of music, but he always felt remarkably in tune with the rhythms of the universe. He was always a much more grounded person than I was. While I would find myself routinely getting lost in my thoughts, Jonathan seemed to always be in a dialogue with the present. That’s why when he was diagnosed with cancer, it didn’t surprise me when he embraced the simple philosophy: “This is time, too.” He bristled when people said stuff like “Don’t worry, you’ll be better before you know it,” or, “The time you’re in treatment will just fly by.” He didn’t want to be better “before he knew it.” He didn’t want his time in treatment to “fly by.” He wanted that time he was fighting cancer to feel like it was part of his life’s journey—not a detour. I think that’s what really made him special.

News

Skirball Cultural Center Screening

Join us for an encore screening Johnny Physical Lives at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angele

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21Jan 2018 Screenings

Skirball Cultural Center Screening

Join us for an encore screening Johnny Physical Lives at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on January 21, 2018 at 2 p.m.  Writer/director Joshua Neuman is joined by Suleika Jaouad, New York Times “Well” columnist and Carla F ...

Skirball Cultural Center Screening

Join us for an encore screening Johnny Physical Lives at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angele

View blog post

Emerge Film Festival

Johnny Physical Lives heads to Lewiston/Auburn, Maine for two special screenings at the Emerge Film

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28Apr 2017 Screenings

Emerge Film Festival

Johnny Physical Lives heads to Lewiston/Auburn, Maine for two special screenings at the Emerge Film Festival. The first one will be held on Friday, April 28 at 3 p.m. at the Franco Center Performance Hall with a second one on Saturday, Apri ...

Emerge Film Festival

Johnny Physical Lives heads to Lewiston/Auburn, Maine for two special screenings at the Emerge Film

View blog post

Newport Beach Film Festival

Join Director Joshua Neuman as Johnny Physical Lives screens at The Triangle 1 theater in Newport Be

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23Apr 2017 Screenings

Newport Beach Film Festival

Join Director Joshua Neuman as Johnny Physical Lives screens at The Triangle 1 theater in Newport Beach, CA on Sunday, April 23 at 6 p.m. as part of the "Survival of the Shortest" program at the Newport Beach Film Festival.  We're included ...

Newport Beach Film Festival

Join Director Joshua Neuman as Johnny Physical Lives screens at The Triangle 1 theater in Newport Be

View blog post

Johnny Physical Lives Online Premiere

Johnny Physical Lives was selected to have its Vimeo "Staff Pick Premiere" on Wednesday, April 19. S

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19Apr 2017 Notes

Johnny Physical Lives Online Premiere

Johnny Physical Lives was selected to have its Vimeo "Staff Pick Premiere" on Wednesday, April 19. See the film, in its entirety, for the first time on Vimeo by clicking here!   ...

Johnny Physical Lives Online Premiere

Johnny Physical Lives was selected to have its Vimeo "Staff Pick Premiere" on Wednesday, April 19. S

View blog post

Salem Film Festival Screening

Join us on Sunday, March 5 at 10am at CinemaSalem as Johnny Physical Lives screens as part of Shorts

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05Mar 2017 Screenings

Salem Film Festival Screening

Join us on Sunday, March 5 at 10am at CinemaSalem as Johnny Physical Lives screens as part of Shorts Block I at the Salem Film Festival in Salem, MA. Read about the entire block of films and purchase tickets here. ...

Salem Film Festival Screening

Join us on Sunday, March 5 at 10am at CinemaSalem as Johnny Physical Lives screens as part of Shorts

View blog post