Capturing the Emperor

by Paul Hond
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In 2013, Goodman got a call from WETA in Washington, DC. The station was developing a major PBS program — a Ken Burns project based on The Emperor of All Maladies. Burns, known for his multi-part sagas like Jazz, Baseball, and The Civil War, had lost his mother to cancer when he was eleven, so the project had particular meaning for him. He would executive-produce the film and bring in a director he liked.

After a long search, the Burns team had zeroed in on Goodman. Would he be interested in the job?

Goodman, who lost a grandmother to cancer, was intrigued. For one thing, the cancer-research fundraising organization Stand Up to Cancer was involved, and the group’s connections to the entertainment industry meant significant public attention for the project. Then Goodman read Mukherjee’s self-proclaimed “biography of cancer” and was floored by both the quality of the prose (“one of the best-written nonfiction books I’ve ever read”) and the sprawling ambition of the historical narrative. “Sid has this elegant way of translating science into metaphor that is so convincing and clear,” Goodman says. “It’s very impressive.” Goodman took the gig.

The demands facing the filmmaker were considerable. The Maladies team wanted to incorporate stories of current patients and update the ever-evolving science (the book was published in 2010). They embedded film crews at hospitals and looked for the doctors who would make the best characters. Through those doctors, they found the patients. They juggled multiple stories whose arcs they could not predict. (One outcome, involving a child, shocked everybody, including the doctors.)

Barak Goodman / Photograph by Ben MeadorsThe difficulties inherent in such a weighty undertaking extended, naturally, to the filmmaking itself. “Weaving history, contemporary stories, and a lot of science all into one film was very tough,” Goodman says. “I’ve never seen a project done this way.”

Throughout the process, Mukherjee worked closely with the filmmakers. “Sid certainly kept us honest sciencewise, but he also had lots of opinions about narrative structure and what emphasis to place on the different stories and characters,” Goodman says. “He saw cuts of the film and gave us notes. I’ve never involved an author of a book that closely in filmmaking. We didn’t always see perfectly eye to eye, and, as with Ken and me, we both sometimes had to compromise. But we definitely wanted his advice and listened very carefully to him — no one knows his story better than he does.”

Along the way, Goodman gained a new respect for scientists. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, they fail. It’s that one percent that makes all the difference. They have to have this unbelievable drive and commitment and resilience. Sure, they’re after fame and glory, but they’re also buried in their labs, trying to advance humanity’s knowledge.” And, Goodman adds, they’re getting results. “With cancer, we’re approaching a survival rate of two-thirds of diagnosed cases.”

Edward Herrmann, too, was driven and committed and resilient. But he was not a survivor.

“It was hard,” says Goodman, his feeling for Herrmann softening his voice. “There were days when he was slowed down by chemo. We had to struggle through the narration. The recording took twice as long as it normally would. He gave it everything he had and did a tremendous job.” Goodman pauses. “We said goodbye, and six weeks later he was dead.”

Anyone who has been touched by cancer knows something of the plunging terror, the wild anxiety, the knee-buckling blow of the irrefutable word. But Goodman, who has seen front-line science and terrible grace, desperate agony and humbling recovery, wants to demystify the disease and take some of that fear away. He sees the documentary not just as a historical survey of cancer treatment but also as a witness to its future promise.

“I hope people aren’t as terrified of cancer after seeing the film as they were going in,” Goodman says. “Cancer is punishing. It’s difficult. But more and more patients are getting through it.”


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