Steven Bernstein made a name for himself in Hollywood as a cinematographer, working as the director of photography on films ranging from the award-winning Monster to the slightly more sophomoric The Waterboy.
Many suggested that Bernstein direct his own film, and when he finally made the plunge, he decided to make a film that could make a difference beyond any commercial or critical success. The film he chose to make became Decoding Annie Parker.
For his first project as director, Steven Bernstein decided to make a film that could make a difference beyond any commercial or critical success.
Based on a true story
Bernstein and Clark Peterson, his producer from Monster, came across a story by Dr. Mike Moss about Annie Parker, one of the first women in Canada to test positive for the BRCA 1 gene mutation that leads to a higher risk of many breast and ovarian cancers. Parker lost several close family members to breast cancer and survived three separate cancer diagnoses herself.
The story of tragedy and triumph immediately stuck out to Bernstein, who said he was interested in “seeing how people survive catastrophe.” But he also decided to add a second voice to the story, that of Dr. Mary Claire King, the American human geneticist who demonstrated how a single gene could be responsible for forms of cancer and revolutionized the study of other common diseases.
With the help of his son, Adam, and a scientific consultation from Dr. Moss, Bernstein wove a second, parallel narrative into the new script. He also sought out personal stories from cancer patients to learn more about living with the disease.
Stars line up
Bernstein says he “got lucky” with casting agencies due to the powerful story, bringing in talents such as Samantha Morton for Annie Parker; Helen Hunt as Dr. King; and a supporting cast that includes Aaron Paul, Rashida Jones and Maggie Grace.
Despite those lucky breaks with the story and the cast, there was still the issue of raising money. “I spent five years of my life getting money,” Bernstein says. After only one week of filming, the funds dried up.
In a model referred to as “filmanthropy,” Decoding Annie Parker partnered with BRCA Gene Awareness Inc. to host screenings that raise funds and awareness for breast cancer research.
“I gathered the cast together, told them we were out of money, and asked that they give me five days to raise some more,” he says. In just those few days, he raised $300,000 and kept the film going.
The film would continue to be a constant struggle over the course of production, but eventually it was finished. It has earned critical praise this year, including a Best Actress nod for Samantha Morton at the Seattle International Film Festival.
The real reward
Bernstein and the producers began to get their due on their labor of love. But the director wanted to take another gamble with his work — in the name of helping others. He wanted survivors to benefit from the film, but instead of splitting the revenue, he went a different route.
“I asked that I be given a small altruistic window,” he says. In a model referred to as “filmanthropy,” Decoding Annie Parker and the owners of the film partnered with BRCA Gene Awareness Inc. to tour the country for special screenings through October.
The film screened in Austin on September 3, in conjunction with Breast Cancer Resource Centers and the Austin Radiological Association. Bernstein and local experts answered questions before the screening.
Each of these events is meant to raise public awareness and funds for research, tests, patient support and finding a cure. Bernstein estimates that more than $500,000 was raised so far through this grassroots model. “We’ve proven it could work,” says the exhausted director, after more than 80 cities.
Bernstein says if there’s one lesson to be taken from his film, it’s that “people can overcome through sheer force of will.”
Although some time may pass before the film receives another commercial release, don’t be surprised if you hear chatter about Decoding Annie Parker come awards season. In the meantime, to learn more about the BRCA gene, or to make a donation, visit the BRCA Gene Awareness website.