Hand by Brett Harvey does everything you want in a short film. The compelling doc is quirky, honest, and informative. It is witty, as well as touching and engaging. And it takes a personal experience that can connect to a wider audience and raise national conversations. Dare we say, Hand packs a punch.
The film’s solo star is Brett’s left hand. It’s the one with the tremors. The one that alerted him to his early-onset Parkinson’s disease.
Brett’s diagnosis came through in the maelstrom of the final days of pre-production for his latest feature, A Long Way Back.
“When I was diagnosed, it was almost too big to process,” he says. “I had to put it to one side as much as possible.”
The feature was made and Brett let his thoughts settle before having something to say about the disease, his diagnosis and what he does. The film was a collection of his thoughts and feelings to mark a milestone in his journey with the disease.
“It was collecting together all the confusing thoughts over a two-year process and trying to find some clarity in it,” he says. “I put myself in the mind of when I was diagnosed, what would I have wanted to hear?”
Brett had started collecting little bits of footage and thinking about how to piece them together visually, but the cathartic moment came when he sat down to write the script.
“I didn’t write it as a traditional script – I wrote it more like a short story,” he says. “That was the make or break moment. And it all came out in one sitting. It was almost like auto writing – my fingers couldn’t keep up with my thoughts.
“The big challenge with it from a writing and directing point of view – aside from it being terribly, painfully personal – was how do you end on a note of optimism? And releasing it has been very cathartic, especially those first few days.
The response to the film has been ‘genuinely overwhelming’ says Brett, who on the day of release had to back off from social media, such was the emotion. “There were a lot of people saying, this is me. You’re telling my story,” he says.
Making a film based on Parkinson’s starring the filmmaker’s left hand did have its technical difficulties.
“I got very good at estimating focal distances with lenses,” says Brett, but there was a lot of trial and error and re-doing scenes.
“The whole reason for the film to be around my hand was so, effectively, I didn’t have to be in it – it was just my hand, so I could have more objectivity.”
Another smart move was making sure he didn’t film it all in one day. Instead, Brett spread out the shooting to capture different lighting qualities, different atmospheres and different weather to avoid it feeling ‘samey’.
It was the three-dimensional chess of holding something in front of the camera that was the difficulty for Brett, with the jelly scene being one of the most challenging.
Hand was released in conjunction with Parkinson’s Awareness Week, and Brett is submitting it to science and rare disease film festivals. But it hasn’t only made an impact with the sciencey community. He’s had some great feedback saying that it was informative, and he sent the film to Parkinson’s UK to check.
“I’ve put a cheeky disclaimer in the credit saying it’s best guesses based on the information available. I am not an expert on Parkinson’s, so I wanted to be very clear that this was my experience – this was my Parkinson’s that we’re talking about.”
The feature Brett made after receiving his diagnosis is Long Way Back. When we spoke, it was being sent out to festivals.
“Because of everything that’s been going on, we don’t know when we’ll have our festival premiere. I can’t wait to get in front of an audience,” he says. For Brett, the big thing about making the features is watching with an audience. “The audience will normally tell me why I’ve made it.”
In fact, when we were chatting, Long Way Back was the last film Brett had seen at the cinema. But without an audience. He’d checked the grade at a special screening at the Plaza in Truro. Shot in 2019, the film was 95% complete going into lockdown.
Long Way Back is a drama about a father and daughter who have an estranged relationship. She’s leaving university upcountry and he’s the only person that could pick her up and drive her home. It is a journey from Liverpool to Cornwall. Neither of them is in a particular hurry to get to the destination.
“I really wanted to make a road movie,” says Brett. “UK road movies are actually quite difficult to do because the country is so small you can effectively drive anywhere in a day or so.”
“I was diagnosed at the precipice of the most stressful point in the film’s production,” says Brett, when locations were falling through every day. “It was an interesting time – Parkinson’s was definitely having an effect on me whilst I was making the film.”
Is Parkinson’s affecting the way you approach filmmaking, we ask Brett.
“It’s making me rethink how I would approach the next one,” he says.”You always want more time to make a film. But I think we’d have to really carefully schedule the next one.
“This one did take its toll. In much the same way that it takes a toll on everybody, because they are tremendously hard, intensive periods of work.”
Brett continues: “They’re always going to be hard to make because it’s so hard to get funding.
“All the stuff that I learned on Weekend Retreat directly went into how I approached Brown Willie. Brown Willie was such a specific way to make a film.
“Directing is a muscle, you’ve got to exercise it. And I feel like part of the reason for making Hand was that I felt I had to make something because, like everybody else, I’ve had a year of feeling unproductive. Hand was just as much born out of wanting to create something.”
Long Way Back grew from a personal experience, but far less intense than Hand.
“I dropped out of university, way back when, and my dad picked me up,” says Brett. They didn’t have an estranged relationship, but it was a quiet journey back to Cornwall.
“I remember at the time thinking, ‘Oh, this would make a good setting for a film’.”
Cut to 2016 and the wrapping up of Brown Willy.
“I was so happy with how Brown Willy had turned out. I wanted to make a drama next and this idea popped back in my head. So I started developing it,” he says. One of the changes was turning the relationship from a father and son to a father and daughter because he felt that put more distance between them.
“I’ve been making films for long enough now that I know if I have an idea, and I keep thinking about it, that’s the idea to develop,” says Brett. That and pitching it to his brother and production company partner Simon. “He’ll either go ‘oh yeah, there’s something good in that’, or he’ll go, ‘nah, I don’t know what you talking about,'” says Brett.
The idea for Brown Willy came from going to lots of stag dos with old school friends.
“Regardless of what anybody was doing in their life, the social group reverted back to how the social group worked in school,” says Brett. “I wanted to ask the question of ‘ do we ever really change?’ And I wanted to make something on Bodmin Moor.
With Long Way Back Brett Harvey was desperate to film in Wookey Hole.
“I think it’s a great location and would look great on camera, and there are a couple of other key destinations,” says Brett.
‘Nearly Home Trees’
“Anybody who drives into Cornwall, you have to drive past this really distinctive ring of trees that are up on the hill. And the funny thing is, in my family we used to call them the ‘Nearly Home Trees’. Turns out that’s what everybody calls them. I really wanted to get those trees in because there’s such an iconic image.”
When we ask ‘what’s the role of the filmmaker or artists in society?’, Brett says: “I think Roger Ebert said cinema is a machine for empathy. As a filmmaker storyteller, you can show a completely different world and lifestyle. You can take an audience and show them a film that has seemingly nothing to do with them but you can still connect on a human level.
“There’s something about being so specific it’s universal. And it’s an escape – escapism is a very, very important thing. “
Hand is available to watch now. And keep your eyes open for Long Way Back
Brett Harvey talkes to Radio 4’s The Film Programme about How I Made a Film with Parkinson’s