In 2005, filmmaker Sean Hanish and his wife Kiley lost their son, Norbert, at 37 weeks into Kiley’s pregnancy. On Saturday, May 17 the movie Return To Zero starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein tells their story of stillbirth and recovery (Lifetime 8/7c). The thing is, as awful as the topic certainly is, the movie is wonderfully written, beautifully filmed, and astoundingly acted (if Minnie doesn’t get an Emmy nod for her role, I don’t know what does). It’s even, dare I say, funny as hell in parts.
Outside what you’ll see on the screen, the story of the film itself is a fascinating case study in passion filmmaking and an example of how indie movies get made in the age of new and social media. See, at the time Sean and Kiley lost their son, Sean was making ads for Cindy Crawford’s furniture line. He’d written and directed a couple well-received shorts and a critically acclaimed play, but was effectively at cruising altitude and climbing with a lucrative ad career, a beautiful wife, and his soon-to-be son.
Things were good. Very good. And just like that, they weren’t.
Eventually Sean wrote his way out of an emotional gutter that I won’t spoil by describing in depth – but you can see Sean’s personal transformation in the raw, heartfelt specifics of the film. Take note: you can’t invent the scene in which Minnie Driver’s character tries to return a baby shower gift to a snooty department store salesperson. Hanish didn’t try. Sean just wrote the truth.
“The medical scenes, when my wife was told by the doctor that our baby had no heartbeat, being asked if we wanted a cremation or burial for our son when he was still in the womb, the actual stillbirth itself – those scenes are 100% accurate often down to the dialog,” Hanish says. Other parts, he says, are adapted from real life, adding characters or combining two people into one, but always against the backdrop of Kiley and his experience in the aftermath of their loss.
The quality of the screenplay alone landed him A-list stars Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein, and also Hollywood veteran Alfred Molina (“Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip!”). But today a cast plus a screenplay doesn’t necessarily equal funding. For that, Sean first turned out his pockets. Then he turned to Kickstarter. GeekDad covered his campaign that ended in February 2013 with 451 backers pledging a total of $71,200 – enough to cross the finish line of music and editing.
But then even a great film doesn’t necessarily equal a wide release, especially when the topic is a bit more subdued than, say, the next Transformers movie. So Sean built an empire. See, nobody has ever told the story of stillbirth on screen, but in the U.S. alone there are more than 26,000 stillbirths every year. When you include babies who don’t make it 28 days, the number climbs to 45,000, or nearly 1-in-6 pregnancies.
These families tend to suffer quietly. Sean and Kiley decided to break the silence.
Through social media, they recruited over 2,500 local leaders from over 50 countries to organize screenings and discussion groups. 130,000 people pledged to watch the film. Finally, the numbers made Lifetime take notice and when the telepic premiers this Saturday, it will be the first at the network to get a simultaneous international rollout, including showings in Canada, the U.K., Southeast Asia, and Hong Kong among others.
Sean and Kiley now find themselves with not only a movie but a movement. For example, after posting followers’ stories of stillbirth at the Return to Zero website, the publisher She Writes Press helped Sean collect these personal voices into an anthology titled Three Minus One. And Sean now speaks to audiences around the country about his experience of stillbirth and the emotional aftermath. Consider connecting with Sean and Kiley at the vibrant community they manage on Facebook.
But most of all watch the film. What did you do last Saturday night? I bet you can’t remember. Next week you most definitely will.