“Sister Cities” director Sean Hanish on life, death, ceremony and forgiveness

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Hanish, behind the scenes on “Sister Cities”

In the compelling new film, Sister Cities, directed by Sean Hanish based on the award-winning play by Colette Freedman, we meet four adult sisters reuniting after their aging mother’s supposed suicide. However, questions soon arise about the mechanics of the suicide and the movie becomes about much more than reconnecting with estranged family. It becomes (spoiler alert!) about assisted suicide and a terminal patient’s right to die. I live in Colorado where the “End of Life Options Act” is on the 2016 ballot and so I reached out to talk with Hanish about his movie, what he learned by spending almost a year inside this question, and how the experience has helped to shape his own opinion about the choices we have and don’t have as we reach the time to transition into whatever is next.

Q: Your previous movie, Return to Zero, explores a couple’s reemergence into the world after the stillbirth of their child. Sister Cities deals with assisted suicide. Why the heavy topics?

Hanish:  I swear, my next movie will be a romantic comedy! No, the first movie came from my own experience. And with Sister Cities, the baby boomers are now in their 70s and 80s and this is a question we’re all going to be faced with – at what point in your life do the negatives outweigh the positives in such a major way that you’re done with it? What the film does is humanize it – you have a really strong, really independent woman and now she’s going to die the way she wants to die.

Q: It sounds like this “mother” character expresses your personal opinion about assisted suicide.

Hanish: It’s such a grey area. I have my own opinion that certainly comes through in the movie, but I love that the film has another character that articulates another point of view. I think that inside every person who has confronted this question are about four different points of view and what we tried to do is embody these viewpoints in our characters in a way that lets each speak passionately – it’s a dialogue that usually takes place inside a single person now taking place on screen among four people.

Q: Did directing this film force you to look in a new way at your own end of life?

Hanish: You know, these two movies – Return to Zero and Sister Cities – aren’t that dissimilar. The first is about when life begins and this one is about when life ends. Sister Cities is about when “life” stops being “life” – I don’t mean the heartbeat or the ability to swallow your food. I think there’s a line when Mary, the mother, says, “I don’t want to breathe through a tube in my neck and be fed through a tube in my stomach.” That to her, and to many people, isn’t living. It’s sustaining the biological function of the physical body long after the spirit has been diminished.

Q: In that case – when the soul has in many ways left the body – you see it as a patient’s right to choose the time of their biological passing?

Hanish: Look, we had an ALS advisor on set for this movie – Anthony Carbajal, who has been a leader in the ALS community – and I was a little nervous giving him the script because I didn’t want him to think that we were advocating that people with ALS kill themselves. But he was totally upfront with the topic and said it’s a big discussion in their community and that people come down on both sides. It comes down to an individual decision. Some people want to stick around as long as possible – his mother has ALS, too, and for the last 10 years, Anthony has had to help physically carry her. Then there are people in this community who are like, “Hey man, as soon as I can’t breathe on my own, I’m out.”

Q: Are there any absolutes, any truths you come to from the experience?

Hanish: Sure. I want people to know that this option is best communicated with their family. The thing I learned is that it’s hard on everybody. The thing that the adult daughter, Austin, is asked to do in this specific situation is incredibly traumatic for Austin. If you’re considering this option, there are ways to go about it, a real ceremony to it. It’s a personal decision, but an entire family or community feels the effects. I think especially for the children, they need closure.

Q: What are you hearing about these questions from people who have seen the film?

Hanish: The reaction I’ve gotten the most to the movie is people really want to call their mothers. People want to talk to their older family members. They want to say goodbye or hello in the right way. I’ve been waiting for my mom to call and say, “Hey! You know, I watched you movie and wanted you to know that in a couple years…”

Q: Has working on these two films influenced your beliefs? About life and death or about the soul and the body?

Hanish: Maybe because I’m not quite sure what I believe, I’ve found ways for characters to talk about these things in ways that are much deeper and more nuanced that I could on my own. It’s good to work with a playwright like Colette who thinks so beautifully about these issues! It’s essential to my own understanding to see great actors dive into these difficult questions.

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Sister Cities premiered September 17th on Lifetime where it is available on-demand and will be coming to Netflix in October

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