By Jessica Ullian
Two things got Mike Carr through chemotherapy at age 12: his family and John Wayne.
Carr (COM’04) was in eighth grade when he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, an invasive bone cancer. Doctors told him he was lucky, since the disease had been detected early. But he would need a year of chemotherapy and then reconstructive surgery on his left leg, where the tumor was growing. The hours in the hospital hooked up to machines seemed interminable. His parents sat beside him whenever they could; his sister would visit and try to make him laugh. And when his family couldn’t distract him, the cowboys could.
“I would watch cowboy movies in the hospital to forget about where I was,” says Carr, a recent graduate of the College of Communication’s film program. “Movies were something so magical to me when I was sick. I was able to go someplace else.”
Nine years later, Carr is cancer-free and eager to share his story in the short film The Cowboy — which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in, working with friends and family members in his free time and using the skills he learned in COM Associate Professor John Kelly’s film courses.
The Cowboy was produced in 2003 and has already won acclaim: it was a finalist in the 2004 Dover Film Festival in Delaware and was selected in November for an excellence award from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The recognition, however welcome, is an unexpected bonus for Carr, who says that he simply wanted to share his experience and thank his family.
“It was as much for my parents and the people who were so supportive of me as for anyone else,” he says. “If I never get a chance to make another movie, this will be enough.”
The Cowboy is about Mark, played by Carr, a teenage cancer patient who is told that he is not expected to live for more than 30 days. As his parents, sister, and girlfriend struggle with the news, Mark ponders what he would like to do with his remaining time. Discovering a small ranch near his home in suburban New Jersey, he realizes he wants to be a cowboy and decides that he will pursue the dream for the rest of his life, however long it may be.
“He doesn’t want to be remembered as the cancer patient,” Carr explains. “He wants to be remembered as something mythic. It’s not about him literally getting on a horse and riding around; it’s about him embodying the spirit of the Old West instead of someone wasting away with 30 days left to live.”
Carr wrote most of the script in one night in 2002, visualizing a cast of friends and a location near his parents’ New Jersey home. Encouraged by his family, he asked his uncle, a producer with CBS in Philadelphia, for production help. Their initial budget estimates, however, were fairly discouraging — neither Carr nor his parents had $10,000 to spare.
“He said, ‘Where am I gonna get this money?’” says his mother, Diane. “And we said, ‘We don’t have it, so you’re going to have to figure out what to do.’ That was kind of the catalyst.”
Carr started writing letters to cancer foundations asking for funding, and the Tomorrows Children’s Fund, based in Hackensack, N.J., responded immediately. “Now we had all the elements together,” Carr says. “And so it just came time to actually do it.”
The Cowboy was filmed over a three-day period in June 2003, with a crew comprised of professionals from Philadelphia, students from BU, and Carr’s family. They began at 6 a.m. on a Friday, and finished at 10 p.m. on Sunday. Carr, in homage to his favorite Western movies, modeled his style after the director John Ford. “I read about how Ford did just one or two takes,” he says. “That’s what we did, because we didn’t have time and we didn’t have film.”
It was an emotional experience for many of those involved — everyone knew that Carr was a cancer survivor, and reliving the experience was at times difficult for his friends and family. And even those who initially had little connection to the story were affected when they learned of the reason behind Carr’s casting choices — every actor but one had survived cancer as well.
“The production staff didn’t know they were cancer survivors until the last day,” Diane Carr says. “When they found out, two of the guys burst out crying. They couldn’t believe it.”
The film was also a learning experience for Carr and his friends from BU — none of them had ever worked on a movie before, but they took their cues from books and the professional crew members. “When you’re on location and faced with time constraints, you quickly learn what needs to get done and where you stand,” says Lior Reuveni (COM’05), an assistant producer. “Even if a certain task is not part of what you would normally do, helping out is important, and you figure it out.”
They also discovered that making a film and viewing the final product can be two very different experiences. “When I finally got to see the whole movie put together, I was amazed,” says Laura Miranda-Browne (CAS’05), who coordinated the makeup for the film. “I knew it was going to be good, but I don’t think I was really prepared. I watched it alone and cried alone, then called Mike to tell him what an amazing job he did.”
The reactions of his friends and family — “that last line makes me choke up now,” says his mother — proved to Carr that in true Old-West style, he had fought to accomplish his goals and had won. Having achieved that, he has returned to New Jersey to think about his next step, feeling confident and a bit like a cowboy himself.
“It was great just to be there, and to know that I’m in complete control of what I’m doing,” he says. “It was the best three days of my life.”