KC film producer challenges audiences to confront the unpredictability of death and disease in his newest doc, screening at KCFFI
Kansas City native Chris Metzler screened his first films at KC Film Fest International when he was in high school. At this year’s festival he gets to bring his career full circle, screen his newest documentary, and come home as a film producer.
The documentary that Metzler produces is called Jack Has a Plan, and it tells the story of musician and storyteller Jack Tuller. It follows the final 25 years of Jack’s life after being told he has a brain tumor.
To tell his story, Jack enlisted the help of his good friend Bradley Berman. It takes some convincing, but Berman agrees to document the final years of his friend’s life.
The main narrative of Jack Has a Plan starts in 2016, when Jack is 55, and is beginning to lose the mental capabilities that allow him to tell his own story. What is documented is the tale of a man embracing life’s silliness and unpredictability.
Metzler joined us to discuss his involvement with this project and what a documentary like this means for audiences. “Medical documentaries” are inherently sad, but Metzler talks about how Jack’s genial personality as a creator and performer will engage and uplift audiences.
Jack Has a Plan will be shown March 26 at 3:55 p.m. in AMC Ward Parkway theater. Tickets for the screening are $10 and available online.
The Pitch: What preparation do you have before the festival?
With a film like Jack Has a Plan, there’s always a community engagement effort. We work with different partners and the death with dignity community to make people aware so that people can get familiar with the issue. Obviously, the film has a quirky, funny bent. It’s not an activist film by nature, but we want to be able to spread the word so that people in that community can get the chance to experience it and use it as a tool. One of the things we really love about film festivals is that it’s not like you just go and sit in the darkness and watch a film for an hour and a half and then leave. I’ll be in attendance to do a Q and A and we will get a chance to take questions from the audience about the making of the film to pull back the curtain in that way. Then, use it as a catalyst for discussing how people feel about Jack’s decision and what was involved in his process.
How were you brought on to the project?
I’m a producer of Jack Has a Plan and Bradley, the director, and I have worked on other projects before. We knew we had similar sensibilities on things. So, as he first started, he’d been filming with Jack on and off over, their entire friendship. But things accelerated in the last couple of years. When the pandemic hit, Bradley said ‘I think I’m ready to turn it into the film that we’ve talked about.’ From there, we just started collaborating. A lot of documentary filmmaking is fitting hours and hours of footage into a 70 minute story. You’re trying to decide the essential building blocks to tell a captivating story that would engage, cry, and laugh.
How is working on a documentary where the filmmaker and the subject have such a close relationship different from what you’ve worked on?
I think that there are two big differences. In some ways, when you have such a deep relationship, you get a lot more access. In documentary filmmaking, there’s often this phrase called ‘trust building,’ and you must build trust over time. Whereas, with this one, the trust was there right from the beginning. So you get a chance to jump in the deep end and go a bit deeper than you normally would. The part where it becomes more challenging, of course, is just in the editing room because you have folks on the film that care about the character, and it’s a challenge to separate yourself from making a film and telling Jack’s story. There’s just an overabundance of things that you want to share because this person was special to you.
How do you think this one stands apart from other medical documentaries?
It’s a more personal story, but also just by the nature of who Jack was in the sense that he just loved the absurd. I think that Jack, in some ways, is an anomaly, right? Most people in these situations don’t have the time to reflect, think, and live under the shadow of death. So, through it, we’re really seeing what life is about, whereas, so often in these other films, it’s all about the horrid sickness.
Have you seen how this documentary affected the people that were close to Jack?
We’ve been screening the film at festivals around the country for the last nine months or so, and we’ve got a chance to share it with friends and family of Jack and folks that were close to him. But, seeing the film has been very cathartic for some of the subjects. I think many people didn’t quite understand Jack’s decision to end his life at the time, or maybe felt contradictory emotions. But being able to see the film, I think they were able to see things that they didn’t always necessarily see with Jack.
How did you keep the documentary from being so sad that you couldn’t watch it?
It’s a fine line, and I think I would answer it in several ways. We knew going into the film that it’s gonna be this deep subject, and I think we even had the challenge of figuring out if this a film that people are going to want to watch because it’s not the sort of film that I would normally gravitate towards. This is one of the reasons why film festivals are so great. People start to turn out and watch the film, word of mouth becomes so strong that you can get people over the hump. Then, once you get people in the theater, you have to deliver on what you’re promising. But I think when you’re able to see it through his eyes, I think it makes the pain and the sadness less, just by the nature of his buoyant personality. But then, of course, I think it makes it more emotionally wrenching at the end because you’ve been traveling on this journey through him. So, he was just the perfect surrogate for being able to tell this upside-down story.
How has working on this documentary changed your outlook on filmmaking?
I’ve made a lot of documentaries over the years and I usually stayed away from more personal stories. Mainly because I didn’t want to put myself in the film, but it made me see personal documentaries in a different way. So often in personal documentaries, it’s very much me, me, me, through the lens of the filmmaker, and I like that there were two lenses here. I mean, it’s a buddy film in some way, right? Jack is trying to bring Brad along for the ride, and Brad, like, I don’t know if I wanna go on this. So, those dueling perspectives made me appreciate personal documentaries more. The other thing that has evolved out of making this film is how important it is to talk about dying and death while we’re healthy. Too often, these discussions happen when something unexpected happens or something horrible, but I think a more open and honest discussion about it probably helps make the transition easier.
Why are you excited to come back to Kansas City and show Jack Has a Plan in KCFFI?
On its own, the KC Film Festival International is great. There’s something to say about a festival that’s been able to stick around for 20-plus years. I’ve traveled the road at many different film festivals over the years, and what the KC FilmFest does is just special. Then there’s a bonus for me because I actually grew up in Independence and lived in Kansas City before going off to college. I’ve been lucky enough that even in the early years of this festival, I was making films around Kansas City, they programmed my films, and they were my first film festival experience. I’ve attended hundreds of film festivals around the world, but it all started off with the KC FilmFest. I’ve been blessed enough that they’ve liked my documentary, and I’ve been able to bring them back each time. Much of my films reflect my identity and how Kansas City shaped me. It’s neat to bring these films back, close that loop, and take questions from people that are a part of where I grew up and have different ways of thinking than other places.
What is it like traveling to all of these film festivals?
I think this is going to be the 37th festival for us. When you’re an independent filmmaker, you have to be a road warrior, like a band starting up. So, it’s neat to bring it back to Kansas City in that way. We’ll continue to screen at film festivals nationwide through the rest of the year before a legal broadcast and digital distribution. The thing that’s just really neat about film festivals, in general, is that you spend a couple of years in a dark room editing these films, then it’s nice to get back out in the world and have conversations with people instead of just the conversation in your head or the conversation with the film’s team.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
I’d encourage folks, whether they come to see Jack Has a Plan or another film at KCFFI, there are lots of great films there, and it’s a perfect sampler platter. If you dip into the theater, you’re sure to be surprised. It’s just a neat way to discover lots of different voices and films being made out there.