“It’s unlike any project we’ve ever worked on,” says documentary filmmaker Ric Burns, who still sounds a little taken aback at how his latest project came to be. It all started with a late-night phone call in January 2015, when a friend called to ask Burns if he’d be interested in making a film with Dr. Oliver Sacks. The two had never met, but Burns says he jumped at the chance, not least because he knew that this was truly a one-off opportunity: Sacks had just received a diagnosis of metastasized cancer, and had only months left to live. (He died in August 2015.)
“It was an amazing moment in Oliver’s life in many ways,” recalls Burns. “He had just received this horrible news, this death sentence, but he had also just finished writing his memoir, this deep project of thinking about what his life meant to him.” So that’s how Burns and a small crew ended up filming Sacks in locations around New York, including in the doctor’s apartment on Horatio Street in the West Village. The process: they would settle back and listen as Sacks read from his books and articles, told stories and shared memories. “We filmed 60 hours in one week,” says Burns. “We were told he’d get tired, but we were in at 8am and out again at 8pm. We were the ones who were exhausted!”
Burns’ challenge now: to wrestle 80 hours of interviews of Sacks, his friends and family — along with additional archival materials supplied by the Oliver Sacks Foundation — into a meaningful film. Of course, that’s the type of jigsaw puzzle challenge the New York and Andy Warhol director relishes. “For us, the key to the film is the way we came in,” he says. “It’s a man at five minutes to midnight.” And yes, everyone in the room was in tears as Sacks read from the New York Times op ed announcing his cancer, the narration that concludes the clip above. “That was the last thing we filmed with him,” says Burns. “There was a kind of bravery and inner buoyancy that allowed him to really take it in, though even in that moment he said he still hadn’t.”
The clip from the as-yet-untitled Oliver Sacks biopic premieres on March 30 at 10 pm ET as part of TED Talks: Science and Wonder, the first of a three-part PBS series of one-hour television specials recorded at the Town Hall Theater in New York. See also Oliver Sacks’ TED Talk, What hallucination reveals about our minds, filmed at TED in Long Beach, California, in 2009.