Interview with director Simon Chambers for MUCH ADO ABOUT DYING

Filmmaker Simon Chambers was working away in India when he was called home to London to look after his uncle David. Here, he turns on his camera and documents David’s life as the former actor approaches the end of life. He finds a lot of chaos and clutter in David’s home given that he never leaves the house, but also finds him in good spirits. David is something of a character who quotes King Lear on an almost daily basis but never actually got to play the character. As Simon observes his uncle, he learns more about him and his refreshingly different attitude to death…

We caught up with director Simon Chambers to learn more about his new documentary, arriving in Irish cinemas on May 10th

 Your film is an often laugh-out-loud and deeply moving account of the five years that you reluctantly became the carer for your exuberant and entertaining Uncle David. But when did you decide that you were going to start filming the experience and turn it into a feature length film?
I had absolutely no intention of ever making this into a film. Despite friends saying that Uncle David was a very funny and inspiring character, I thought that a film about a nephew looking after an old uncle could never be a block-buster movie. And it was the last thing I wanted to do. At first I was a very reluctant carer, I just wanted to get to David’s house, give him his shopping, cut his toenails and then shoot off to work. It was Uncle David who insisted that I bring my camera. I quickly realised that having been an actor, he was never happier than when he felt like he was performing in some way. Actors seem to come alive when they are performing. And so I ended up with all this footage.


The film has already won a clutch of international awards at festivals and has played at cinemas in New York and Los Angeles, and yet it was made without any budget. How did you manage to pull that off?
I had all this footage which had not cost me anything to film. One day I showed it to an old friend of mine David Rane, who is a producer who runs Soilsiú Films from Donegal, and he loved the footage and insisted that we make it into a film. He thought the footage was like a documentary version of the cult Richard E Grant film “Withnail and I”.  Although all the action in the film takes place in London, the film was mostly made in Ireland and everyone who worked on the film did it because they loved the project so much.


Your uncle is definitely very entertaining, but the camera also records some incredibly touching and personal moments between you and him. How did you manage to film such moving scenes at the same time as being his carer?
The time I spent with David was 80% care work – like sorting out doctors appointments, fixing his crumbling house, buying food, cleaning, and 20% filming. Occasionally I would get a chance to film a few moments. I think that it’s because I never had any intention of making a film that the moments I recorded do become piercingly personal and intimate. Because they are not self-conscious. I have always been fascinated by the way that men are represented on screen and in culture, and when I watched it back,  I realised that I had recorded something very different to the usual representations – something much more complex and contradictory and full of emotion and feeling – where you love each other and never tell each other, and you also sometimes loathe each other and wish each other were dead!


There is a moment in the film after a very dramatic and calamitous event where you say in your voice-over that you wish your uncle had died. It’s shocking but also seems brutally honest.
I really struggled about whether to leave that line in the film. When you are looking after an older relative and things are going badly then it seems quite natural to me to occasionally think that you wish they weren’t alive anymore so that you can get on with your own life. It’s a horrible thing to admit to yourself, but I wanted the film to be brutally honest, and I checked with other family carers to see if they felt the same, and they did. I wanted the film to reflect the experience of being a carer in the most honest way possible so that other carers would watch the film and feel a sense of relief and catharsis that someone was finally telling their story. It’s not that you don’t love the relative anymore, it’s just that after three years of looking after someone you lose all your reserves of energy and resilience and all sorts of thoughts go through your head.


Watching the film it seems as though the experience that you had looking after your uncle touched on so many of the issues of being a family carer: refusing to go into a care home, hoarding, grooming and giving money away, loneliness – and yet it is all done with humour and a lightness of touch.
When I was caring for uncle David it became apparent very quickly that there are not many films or stories about being a carer, and yet in Ireland alone there are over half a million unpaid family carers who are undervalued in our society, juggling paid work and other family responsibilities. Most of them are women of course. I wanted this film to acknowledge that work and to shine a light on the experience. It seems to me that caring for people is one of the most important things you can do with your life. It can also be hugely rewarding, and I hope I get that across in the film.


No matter what happens to Uncle David (and some very calamitous events are recorded in the film) he seems to have an incredibly upbeat attitude towards life and death. At one point he tells his elderly friend that “Dying is like going on a wonderful holiday, without the bother of having to pack”. Was he really this upbeat in real life?
Without spoiling the film for the audience, there are some very extreme things that happen to him and me in the film. I was surprised when David lost all his possessions and told me that for the first time in his life he felt liberated. Then when he is near to death he says that he feels a kind of bliss because he finally understands his life in a way that he never could when he was living it. If an actor’s job is to reflect our lives back at us through stories – making us think about our hopes, our fears and our values – then David gives the audience an absolute gift when he virtually talks us through what it is like to be on the verge of dying. I hope this is a beautiful scene in the film rather than being maudlin.


It is very beautiful and moving. Did going through David’s death with him change your own attitude to your own mortality?
It did in a way. I think that part of the reason that we fear death so much now is that we have become alienated from it. It is no longer seen as an integral part of life, but more like a failing. It used to be that in many different cultures a dead relatives body would be laid out in the family home during a wake and children would ofen be running around the corpse. Of course this still happens in Ireland, but in many cultures this has changed and death is now more invisible, and so it’s easy for us to fear what we do not know.


You are going to be touring around the UK and Ireland with the film and doing Q&As after many of the screenings. Do you find that the audiences react in the same way to the film?
The response to the film has so far been positive, probably because Uncle David is such an inspiring and entertaining character and the film is definitely very funny. The action is also quite fast paced and has the feel of a fiction film rather than a documentary. This is because I have wanted to focus on the emotional story rather than the way that many documentaries give you information and facts. There are always lots of family carers who come up after the film and want to talk about their own experiences, and I love it that the film is a catalyst for these people to get things off their chest that they might have been holding in for years.


Much Ado About Dying is in cinemas May 10th