An estimated 20 veterans die by suicide every day. Annually, more first responders die by suicide than in the line of duty.These are numbers that reflect the terrible psychological cost that our society’s heroes must bear. Unfortunately, traditional approaches to mental health are just not working for these communities.A new and innovative approach is desperately needed.
Enter Boulder Crest Foundation, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization focused on ensuring that military, veterans and first responders can live great lives in the aftermath of trauma. BCF seeks to transform the way that our society thinks, feels, and acts when it comes to notions of mental health and struggle. With that in mind, it avoids the term post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Rather, the organization’s mission is to facilitate PTG — Post Traumatic Growth — through transformative programs, world-class training and education initiatives, research, and advocacy.
Having previously worked with Neymarc Visuals on the Clio award-winning film On Duty, Boulder Crest Foundation wanted to make an even greater impact on suicide prevention with a new production: Reborn.
The data show that police, veterans and first responders tend to suffer in silence. They’re not sure where to go for help or mental health resources, and even inquiring about such things can come with a negative stigma. Their professional culture largely ignores or glosses over the effects of traumatic events.
Reborn tells the story of a policewoman who is on the brink. A person suffering under the weight of events that most of us can only imagine. Someone dealing with an enormous moment-to-moment struggle in a bubble of isolation.
We begin at what may be the end: the edge of a precipice. She stares out from the roof of a building where she contemplates her own demise.
The Challenge: Matching the caliber of Boulder Crest Foundation’s non-profit program with high caliber storytelling and production value to effectively impact its target audiences.
In the world of film production, “non-profit marketing” usually means “low-budget.” But from the very first production meeting, BCF was bold in their marketing strategy, willing to go the extra mile financially with an understanding that what they could achieve with this film could be unique in the non-profit world. That meant they needed quality storytelling that would actually make an impact on their audience — eliciting emotion and, more importantly, driving action — across stakeholders, potential donors, and especially trauma survivors who might see the film and make the important choice to seek help.
Neymarc Visuals’s previous film for BCF, On Duty, featured a veteran trapped in the memories and uniform of a past war who is finally able to break free to rejoin his family. For Reborn, BCF founder Ken Falke wanted to enlarge the scope to include others who suffered from traumatic experiences, specifically the many first-responders (law-enforcement, emergency medical services) who face sometimes overwhelming situations as part of their job description.
But how to accurately portray this trauma? Directors the Neymarc brothers needed to be honest to reality and truthful in their portrayal, perhaps brutally so. But they also needed to respect the subject by handling it with every ounce of care possible. By examining the true lived experience of a brave individual placed in extraordinary danger and its ongoing aftermath, they faced an enormous responsibility. Quite literally, they were telling a story of people’s real lives — and, potentially, deaths.
Neymarc Visuals developed this film based on real-life examples of police, veterans and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) who experienced traumatic events in the line of duty. Through hours of research, they worked with a variety of law enforcement organizations from local to federal levels, including the NY Police Department, NYPD Emergency Service Unit (ESU), LAPD Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) and Homeland Security, delving deeply into the sort of trauma our protagonist had experienced and how it should be framed.
It had to be broad and inclusive so the effects portrayed would span supposed “lesser” traumas that are yet harmful to mental health. It had to be relevant to people who might be going through the effects of trauma at that very moment. And above all, it had to be absolutely authentic in its portrayal. The audience would immediately reject any hint of falseness, schmaltz or pathos.
The target demographic is Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs), EMTs, first-responders: the people who put their lives at risk for a living. The margin for error was nil. Neymarc Visuals had to be respectful of our hero’s depiction while yet conveying the deep harm that trauma can create, and the path to empowerment available through Boulder Crest Foundation.
Neymarc considered more “common” traumatic events like car crashes or domestic violence calls, but ultimately chose to portray a school shooting. Despite the controversies that might arise from depicting such a horrific event, it felt appropriate on multiple levels, starting with the impact that a shooting would create across every level of first responder, from EMTs to LEOs. On a larger level, the idea of a school shooting resonates with just about anyone who’s seen these tragedies unfold across our nation on TV. Sadly, they are so ubiquitous that they’ve become part of the fabric of American culture.
Doing the groundwork for this project was arduous. Opening the delicate conversations that needed to happen always involved a certain heaviness and risk.
Said Andrew Neymarc, “Taking on the responsibility of representing this topic through the safety and distance of a film set, we had to be conscious that, for the first responders involved, this is a very real experience that is fundamental to who they are and what they do every day.”
For their previous BCF film, On Duty, Neymarc Visuals cast an actual active-duty soldier. From the incredible success of that experience, they wanted to follow up by casting a real police officer for their protagonist in the Reborn film. But the role required significant performances under incredibly tight timeframes across a story that spanned nine days of shooting. They couldn’t escape the reality that only a highly skilled actress could handle the position.
Thanks to casting director Liz Lewis (Hair, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dreamgirls), they discovered the remarkable talent Janice Theard (Imogen). A brilliant, strong, captivating actress — but one who yet needed preparation to inhabit the persona of a law enforcement officer. The physicality of the role would be important: how she held and fired a weapon, how she handled a walkie-talkie, her general physicality, “officer presence” and understanding of the uniform.
To help prepare the lead, the Neymarc brothers scheduled hours of rehearsals. They invited Janice to a shooting range so she could safely experience handling and firing a weapon for the first time, and brokered meetings so she could immerse herself with actual law enforcement officials. Thanks to an NYPD consultant, Janice was given the opportunity to meet one of the only women to ever hold the prestigious post of NYPD Emergency Service Unit Officer. She was extremely accommodating in helping Janice and the directors with understanding the variety of factors involved in portraying female law enforcement officers accurately. Neymarc also had actual EMS personnel on set, as well as a variety of veterans and first responders who assisted with performances and scene depictions.
Starting with how the audience should feel at the end of the film, the Neymarc brothers made all their directorial decisions through reverse engineering, using every element at their disposal to evoke a response that would build to that ending. Each scene’s emotional arc, our protagonist’s development over time, ultimately built upon itself to inspire the audience with a feeling of hope and perseverance.
One of the core tenets of the Boulder Crest Foundation is a belief that trauma does not produce victims who are powerless. So the brothers explicitly designed their film to portray our hero overcoming her trauma and not letting herself be defined by it. Though they needed to show the negative consequences of denying trauma and its ongoing effects, they strived to illustrate the protagonist’s agency — the fact that she is able to not only acknowledge her trauma but to grow past it. There is life waiting for her beyond her hardships and that life is filled with purpose. Her trauma will not keep her from fulfilling relationships with her friends, engaging with joy, and a caring partnership.
Each morning during production, the Neymarcs gathered their crew to remind them what was at stake and to keep their motivation sharp. In turn, the crew honored the production by going above and beyond: for just one example, first assistant director Florian Gunzenhauser and producer Sarah Verstraete managed two “company moves” to film three intensive scenes across three different locations in a single day, a Herculean task that few could accomplish.
“Our entire crew pushed the boundaries of what we could achieve in a production day,” says Sarah. “We woke up at 3am to capture natural lighting. We worked efficiently and diligently under adverse weather conditions. At one point, we shot in the pouring rain despite thousands of dollars’ worth of camera equipment. We understood this film would have a very real purpose.”
Camera Operator Dan Brauchly carried an 80-pound setup for extraordinary amounts of time. Elias Tejada, the 1st assistant camera, and the grip and electric team of Nate Airey (Virginia unit) and Bizz DeCrenza (NY unit) adapted to spontaneous methods of shooting amid constantly changing conditions, including weather, intense emotional scenes and unpredictable animals on set. Last but not least, Janice Theard’s work ethic prior to set and her ability to repeatedly perform intense emotional performances were astonishing to everyone involved.
Neymarc Visuals worked closely with their BCF client for consultations: Carrie Nelson, Stephen Haller, Adrienne Freeland and Matt Ryan were instrumental in providing information and supporting the directors during the production. Both teams thrived on deep collaboration — despite the continuous intensity and demands of the shoots, mutual support yielded exponential results for the film.
With rooftops, horses, dogs, prop firearms and children, each day was a laundry list of volatile production elements that could go sideways at any moment. Just one example: a newly introduced New York law restricting the use of certain prop firearms went into effect shortly before production started, requiring our prop-master and armorer to implement new strategies, diligent communication and training, all of which varied across the two other states in which we were shooting.
Handling each scenario as it came, Producers Sarah Verstraete and Darren Goldberg (The Art of War, The Art of Getting By, The Brass Teapot) and Emily Chin prepared the table for success by anticipating pitfalls and providing the brothers with all the resources they needed to achieve their vision.
As director and director of photography, Remy Neymarc captured successful scenes on extremely spontaneous sets. “I spent more time in prep doing research on naturalistic cinematography, studying what I wanted to incorporate in this film versus what I didn’t from documentary filmmaking,” he says. “This helped me determine what my preferred lenses would be and plan for the most effective camera stabilization strategies.”
In a mid-production reminder of the gravity of the task at hand, director Andrew Neymarc found himself scouting school locations on the day after the Covenant School shooting in Nashville, Tennessee. “This ongoing mixture of brutal reality and the reality of our production left our crew emotionally vulnerable and perhaps even more deeply connected to the work at hand,” he says. “I felt a constant sense of responsibility to the production and our audience.”
By the end of production, the crew were dumbstruck by the sheer quantity of footage they’d collected. Where a “normal” commercial spot usually ends with five or six terrabytes of visuals, they had amassed 18TB on nine hard drives. Between filming therapy horses and scared children, they needed to keep the cameras rolling almost constantly to capture all the right moments.
The enormity of the production demanded that the post workflow between editing (by Robi Michael), color (by Phil Choe) and sound (David Leaver) occupy its own dedicated pipeline. They first edited to the directors’ original storyboards but seeing the quality of all the extra footage led the brothers to push for something longer and richer. Across many long nights (and multiple time-zones), the post-production team pulled together to explore options, ultimately crafting a long-form cut that enchanted the client, receiving the founder’s and the CEO’s blessing to become the official version.
The Neymarcs were extremely gratified by the reaction to the picture-locked piece when the production reached out to two of their music composition idols, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory of Everything, Sicario, Arrival) whose management team agreed to offer use of his celebrated The Candlelight Vigil track from the Denis Villeneuve film Prisoners. And New Jersey native composer Zack Hemsey (Equalizer, Inception, Game of Thrones), who instructed his management team to provide the use of his renown track The Way used in Sam Mendes’ film 1917 at no charge. Both of these evocative scores enrich Reborn beyond measure and both directors were ecstatic when they heard the news.
This was the Neymarcs’ most challenging project to date. Its nature was subtle and complex. Its topic was sensitive and timely. Its subjects are living, breathing entities who would interact with the film in ways that could only be imagined. The number of unknowns was only excelled by the ambition of the shotlist, the number of locations the team chose, the variety of scenarios they shot.
“It was also our most rewarding project by far,” says Andrew. “A great sense of purpose carried us and our entire crew along with it. We are heartened and humbled to be able to use our storytelling skills for a good cause.”
Their fervent hope is to repeat an experience that their BCF client had with their first Clio award-winning film, On Duty. Shortly after its release, the organization shared a message it received, redacted and edited for confidentiality:
A veteran shared that he was planning to kill himself when he happened to see the On Duty commercial on social media. He was so struck by it that he stopped his plans and decided to contact Boulder Crest instead.
In the words of one of BCF’s counselors, “That piece is not just award-winning, it’s life-saving.”
Reborn is screening at Boulder Crest Foundation’s annual event on September 13 and scheduled to release online on September 14, 2023 and marks the launch of Boulder Crest Foundation’s new Struggle Well Experience program. The first Posttraumatic Growth-based program built exclusively for first responders, by first responders.
For more information visit: https://bouldercrest.org/program/struggle-well/
Client: Boulder Crest Foundation
Featuring: Janice Anne Theard, Nick Capman, Kira Novikova, Katie Kohler, Heidi Gilette, Adrienne Freeland, Barbara Zablocky
Writers & Directors: The Neymarc Brothers
Producer: Sarah Verstraete
Associate Producer: Emily Chin
Executive Producers: Ken Falke, Darren Goldberg & Josh Goldberg
Associate Producers: Emily Chin & Jillian Sczesnak
Casting Director: Liz Lewis
Additional Casting: Sarah Verstraete
Editor: Robi Michael
Online Editor: Halie Laviano
Sound Editor: David Leaver
VFX by: Neymarc Visuals
VFX Artist: Michael Tan
Music by: Zach Hemsey & Johann Johannsson
Color Grading Artist: Phil Choe
1st AC: Florian Gunzenhauser
2nd AC: Harrisson Monico
Cam OP: Dan Brauchli
1st AC: Elias Tejada
2nd AC: Martel Berry
Drone Operator: Demian Neufeld
Camera PAs: Alexis Aguila & Tommy Espinal
Sound Operator: Niko Zasimczuk
Gaffer: Bizz Decrenza
Key Grip: Keve Huggins
Grip: Erik Somwaru
Production Designer: Amanda Crout
Art Assitant: Cynthia Dunston
Art PAs: Julian Sky & Florimond Bossard
Hair & Make-up: Morgan Paradis
Stunt Coordinator: Jae Greene
PAs: Ugo Angeletti, Camille Legally, Erica Moon, Andres Quiceno, Emily Jasani, Dannie Giglevitch, Theo Schneider, Arthur Comier, Curtis Dorval, Steele Hamme
1st AD: Emily Roos
2nd AD: Harrison Monico
Cam OP: Dan Brauchli
Additional Cam OP & 1st AC: Elias Tejada
2nd AC/DIT: Martel Berry
3rd AC: Seth Herzog
Drone Operator: Brandon Habuda
Sound Operator: Ivan Basauri
Gaffer: Nathan Airey
Best Boy: Lauren Scott
Key Grip: Andrew Alfonsi
Grip: Skylar Carr
Hair & Make-up: Joan Jones
PAs: Victor Massue, Ugo Angeletti, Ari Veach, Ian Wilson, Ashely Stevenson