Q&A: Reframing Death (and Life) with Justin Baldoni
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
EOL: Give us the inside scoop on your work in the end-of-life space.
Director Justin Baldoni: I started a documentary series called My Last Days in 2012, where I left acting and traveled the country looking for amazing individuals who were living with a chronic or a terminal illness. I wanted to show everyone watching that this could happen to them, that all of us are actually dying. The question is: how are we all living our last days?
I thought if we could show everyone that we're all dying, we could get rid of the stigma around having a chronic or terminal illness. If we could put people into the head space and heart space of what it's like, then maybe we could influence the way people choose to live.
The question is: how are we all living our last days?
Throughout the entire experience, I had this belief that it's not until you find out you're dying that you truly change your behavior. Something happens, at least all the experiences I've had with friends, where when there are no other options, you see the world differently. It’s like taking the pill and waking up in the Matrix. You're suddenly like, "Oh, wait a second."
What if we didn't have to wait for that moment when there are no other options? That was the premise of the show My Last Days. I met incredible people, who will forever be tattooed on my body and in my heart. They have influenced the way I live.
Baldoni: My last movie, Five Feet Apart, was influenced by a dear friend who was like a little sister, Claire Wineland. Before she died at age 21, she did a lot of work advocating for people with cystic fibrosis, and people who lived with chronic and terminal illnesses. She really wanted to impact the healthcare system, to help doctors see things differently. I'm so proud of the work she did.
Then there was Zach Sobiech, who I made CLOUDS about. After he passed away, I asked his mom Laura, who wrote this gorgeous book called Fly a Little Higher, if I could turn the book into a movie. It took about five and a half years, and we finally got the movie made.
Photo credit: Mike Rominski/Courtesy of Wayfarer
EOL: How have your Baha’i beliefs impacted your mission and work?
Baldoni: All of this work was influenced by my belief in the Baha'i faith and ideas of what it means to live and what it means to die. Specifically, My Last Days was inspired by a quote which says, "I have made death a messenger of joy for thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?”
... In over seven years of the show, there have been about 25 documentaries about individuals with terminal or chronic illness, and there's so much joy.
My idea was, how do I get people to reframe the idea of death and find joy in it? That was the backbone of what that show is, and what CLOUDS and Five Feet Apart are. Where does joy lie in all of that, because in over seven years of the show, there have been about 25 documentaries about individuals with terminal or chronic illness, and there's so much joy.
I have a lot of thoughts and spiritual ideas about where we get that, but essentially, it was combining death and joy into a conversation, which doesn't normally happen. For me, as someone who is afraid of death, mostly because I have so many things that I love and am attached to, it's also an exercise for me. Every time I do a story, or make a movie, or meet someone like Zach, it helps me balance my lower and higher nature and find a little bit of peace.