By Lyndsie M. Baker
HAND of San Francisco
When we learned that our daughter, Zéjah Grace, had died in-utero a
day before her due date, we were absolutely devastated, in a place of
complete despair and very lost in our own darkness. My husband and I moved through our grief
processes separately, and although we were able to welcome a healthy baby
boy into the world the following year, our marriage ultimately did not survive.
The movie “Return to Zero” is based on a true story about
stillbirth and the way a previously successful couple copes with the
tragedy of losing their unborn child. Much like many families who
have endured similar losses, their lives and relationship are forever
altered. “Return to Zero” is a story of grief, despair and loss, but
also one of healing, surviving and learning how to love again. Sean
Hanish, an award-winning writer, director and producer, created
the film to break through the silence surrounding stillbirth and has
become a beacon of light to the millions in search of answers,
understanding and healing. Join me as I talk with Sean about his
motivation for creating the film and the lessons he’s learned along
LB: In your mind, is the purpose of this film more about
educating the public about the frequency and impact of
stillbirth or for providing grieving families transparency about
the experience/validation or both?
SH: Both. I think this film does a good job educating the public
while still “entertaining” and engaging the audience in the story.
The facts surrounding stillbirth aren’t typically known by people
outside of the “baby-loss” community. Many people who have seen
the film have been fascinated by what they’ve learned while
watching the film. As regards “validation” — yes, I think it’s
important to feel that you’re not the only one who has ever
experienced this type of loss. At first, so many of us feel like we’re
on an island — that we’re the only people that this has ever
happened to. By making a film about this topic, hopefully it will be
in the public consciousness that this can, and unfortunately, does
LB: What do you hope will change from creating this
SH: The goal of making RETURN TO ZERO all along has
been to break the silence that surrounds stillbirth, to help
people who have been through it (or unfortunately will go
through it) and help their family and friends understand what
they’re going through. The ripple effects of losing a child are
powerful and devastating not only to the couple but to their
family, friends and community. Currently, there are online
support groups and hundreds of thousands of parents who
have lost children but our society doesn’t have a reference
point regarding how to discuss this taboo topic. I believe this
film can be the vehicle that can drive and provoke that
LB: Has there been any focus on the siblings of the children
who were stillborn? Have you received any insight on
how to talk to current children or future children about
the sibling they never got to meet?
SH: The film does not deal with how a child’s death affects
his or her siblings. I do know that this film has opened up the
topic of discussion about our son’s death with our daughter,
who was born 14 months after him. She now tells many
people that she is the second child and her older brother’s
name is Norbert. It’s very special and validating to hear that.
I think talking about him also makes her a little less afraid of
discussing death which is such a taboo topic in our culture.
LB: Have you experienced any surprises since beginning
this project/during the making of this film?
SH: Yes! I think the biggest surprise is the community we
have discovered through social media. I had no idea there was
such a robust community surrounding stillbirth and neonatal
loss. They have been incredible advocates of our project. We
have a robust Facebook community (with nearly 10,000 likes
already!) where people can get daily updates, view pictures
from the set, share inspirational pictures and stories. It’s
helped turn our film, which has a strong issue component to it,
into a grassroots movement. I certainly think that social media
is going to be one of the most important aspects to making
“Return to Zero” a success.
The part I enjoy most about social media is the direct
interaction with the audience. Previously, filmmakers could
only get this interaction after screenings, but now we can interact
with people who are passionate about our projects
before, during and after filming – not to mention after they
actually see the film in theaters or at home!
To date, 2,500 people have volunteered to serve as Local
Leaders for the film in their communities which means
helping to bring the film to their local theaters and spread the word about the film to their friends and family. They have reached out to their families and friends
and nearly 120,000 people have pledged to see this film in theaters when it opens in 2014. We are currently out to film festivals where we will debut in the coming months.
LB: What was the most difficult/challenging part of making this film?
SH: It always seems like the part you’re currently experiencing is the most challenging! But the
two that pop into my mind right now are writing and then directing the personal sequence about
finding out that our son had died in-utero, meeting with the doctor and then delivering our son.
Most of the dialog and the situations, those really happened to us—and have happened to so many
people, but they’ve never been put on film before. I dreaded writing those scenes so I saved them for last. And then shooting them? I dreaded going to set those days. I did not want to relive those moments but I had to — somebody had to in order to tell this story. It is the honor of a lifetime to make this film, but it did not come without some very dark and difficult days during the making of it.
LB: How has making this movie transformed you and your family?
SH: Being in the middle of this journey, this is difficult to answer. It has brought my family closer. It has brought my wife and I closer. But as far as personal transformation, I think the biggest thing I have gotten out of this experience is to trust my instincts as an artist and as a human being. When I wrote “Return to Zero” I thought, “I’m writing a film that no one will ever see.” That’s the truth. I wrote it because I had to write it—it was pouring out of me. And there was a freedom in not worrying about what other people thought and knowing that I was doing something that was important to me. The fascinating thing is that once I put it out there people responded to it! It was the best received script I had ever written. Then amazing actors became interested. Then financiers. Then we discovered a community who literally paid for post-production on the film! And now more and more people keep spreading the word about the film with Local Leaders and the Pledge Drive… it’s
astounding. And all I go back to was I wanted to tell the truth—to use the talents I have to make a film that I thought no one would ever see. The most personal is truly the most universal. It’s astonishing to watch people respond to the film and even the idea of the film and burst into tears.
LB: What are the gifts you have received from doing this work?
SH: Above all else, the biggest gifts I have received are the friendships I have made through
making the movie as well as in the baby-loss community. These are people I truly believe I will
know my entire life—they are like family to me now.
LB: Why is NOW the time to share this story?
SH: I think the world is ready for it. It’s just a gut instinct I have. There are very few “taboo” subjects in our culture and this is one of them. The passion that this community has for breaking the silence and finally changing how the world views this type of loss, well, it’s like sitting on a powder keg. When people see this film they are going to be blown away. And I’m not just talking about the performances which are phenomenal and the storytelling which I am incredibly proud of, but people are going to be blown away by the number of people that come out of the woodwork to tell their story. Friends, neighbors, mothers, fathers, grandmothers—this type of loss has touched so many and they are just waiting for an opportunity to be asked about it. So many people want to be asked the question “How many children do you have?” and be able to give an honest answer.