Filmmaker Melissa Bortayn did not miss a single day on the set of her directorial debut – Ginger – despite being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer just weeks before the start of production.
The film, which Melissa co-directs with her husband Jimmy, brings an honest portrayal of her own experience as a young woman with breast cancer to the big screen. It follows the story of Ginger Mathis (played by Susan Gordan), a 23 year old college graduate who is struggling to navigate the trials of adulthood when a breast cancer diagnosis turns her life upside down.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Melissa to talk about the decision to make Ginger, showing strength on set, giving hope to others with cancer, and much more.
Q: This is obviously a very personal story. When did the idea to make a film out of your personal experience come about?
A: The idea for the film was born from my desire to see my experience on-screen. The first hospital I went to for treatment had little to no resources for young adults, and I never had exposure to anything close to a community with other people my age. Being bald and sick at 23 years old was extremely isolating. I wanted to take it upon myself to create something for people who felt alone, just like I did.
We waited, however, to make the film until I was older, better equipped emotionally to handle the retelling of my diagnosis and treatment, and honestly better at filmmaking.
Q: Finding yourself in your 20s can be hard enough without a devastating cancer diagnosis. Can you talk about Ginger’s journey in the film and her search for identity when she loses her red hair?
A: It’s never “just hair.” Anyone who has lost their hair due to illness knows this. As a redhead, my hair was part of my earliest identity. My parents loved my hair, my family and friends loved my hair, and so growing up, I learned to love it. As I became my own person, my very vibrant red hair was the first thing to gain me a compliment, it helped break the ice in conversation, it gave me an added boost of confidence when I started dating. When people started to assure me that it would grow back, I wasn’t comforted because I wasn’t losing my hair, I was losing a part of myself.
Having a vision of who you are and how you look in your mind and having a very hairless, very pale, very sick stranger stare back at you in the mirror is one way to decimate your sense of identity, and we wanted to make sure that this was carefully handled in the movie because I know first-hand how traumatizing it is.
We broke Ginger and shaved her head for anyone who has had to live through that awful 20 minutes, and then we help her find her power and her voice because we want people to know that even though the darkness feels suffocating and unending, there is light at the end the tunnel if they just keep going.
Q: You made the film with your co-director and husband Jimmy. How did the two of you meet and did you connect over your love of filmmaking?
A: Jimmy and I met in film school. We actually had our first film production project together. It’s funny, I remember taking charge. Ha, I didn’t let him have the camera and instead forced him to act. We stayed friends through our undergraduate career, and that closeness developed into a romance that has seen us through starting a film production company, our own awesome wedding, graduate degrees, other countries, and the most grueling health challenges.
Our love of film brought us together, but our love for each other is how we built our lives. The fact that we are both filmmakers and we happened to fall in love is dumb luck, but I have to give us credit for recognizing the good we found in each other and holding on like hell through everything life has thrown at us.
Q: How important was it to have each other as support – both creatively and emotionally – during the making of this film?
A: Having Jimmy to lean on through production was something I couldn’t have existed without. Sometimes, to our detriment, we let the boundaries of work and our personal lives blur a little too much, but during production, that was actually my lifeline.
The film took so much dedication and work and time for so long, that we decided together to go all in to make it happen. At the start of the project, we didn’t know if it would play in festivals, we couldn’t dream that it’d be screening all over the country, but when you trust someone wholeheartedly, it’s easy to take these big risks and then let the current of life take you where it will.
Jimmy and I trusted each other to be good spouses and good directors, and we knew that at the end of the long work day or bad treatment day that we’d always be there for each other. That has made all the difference.
Q: Despite being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer just weeks before the start of production, you refused to miss a single day on set during extreme summer heat. How important for you was it to be present at all times and to show such incredible strength?
A: Being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer weeks before production started was not how we planned to make this movie. Filming a low budget independent project all over the city was going to be hard enough without the added stress of a terminal diagnosis and the immediate start of treatment. But I couldn’t not do it.
We had spent months revising the script, finding locations, and casting, and the thought of saying no to all of it because it was going to be challenging felt hypocritical in a way. So much of how I lived through the first two cancer diagnoses was hard, and casting all of our hard work aside seemed like too big a regret to bear.
Once we decided to move forward with production, I think I was fueled by pure adrenaline. You can’t get tired if you don’t stop, and I survived that summer by telling myself I could rest when we wrapped. I also didn’t know at the time that I’d be a source of strength on set. That kind of hindsight is only valuable after the hard work is over. I showed up every day because it was my job, and it wasn’t until later that I realized people saw it differently.
I think that’s a good lesson in chasing your dreams. You might be in the process of making something really remarkable, but you can’t do that until you wrap day 18, scene 85, shot 6. Those little, seemingly unimportant moments of perseverance will add up if you just don’t quit.
Q: Susan Gordon plays the lead role of Ginger. How did you work with her to understand this personal story and the intense emotional struggle Ginger faces at such a young age?
A: Susan is a force of an actress. Collaborating with her was truly a dream. We started with rehearsals so we could get the feel for scenes, and her creativity and instincts helped shape some unbelievable performances.
I also had to learn how to be very open and very vulnerable when I had to try to describe what staring down your own mortality really means. She was the first person I talked about dying with besides my husband because I needed her to understand my experience of living with cancer. We spent a lot of time alone together. She came to chemo with me.
Cancer is impossible to try to explain because it is so different for everyone, but we spent a summer building something that comes close, and I’m so proud of what we did together.
Q: The cast also includes Debra Rodkin, Meghan Flood and Frankie Weschler. What creative atmosphere did you try to foster on set?
A: Working with Debra, Meghan, and Frankie was also such a rewarding experience. To let them get creative on set, we would often let the improv actors improvise.
As an editor, this was my worst nightmare, and we learned so much about when and how to let improv happen on camera, but one of our favorite scenes in the film was born this way. It’s a pivotal, emotional moment between mother and daughter, and without giving too much away, I’ll say that Debra felt that her connection to Susan might feel more real if we added a shared experience, and the end result gave everyone on set goosebumps.
Our entire cast is endlessly talented, and I am in awe of them every time I see the film.
Q: The film was recently picked up by Cow Lamp Films. What are your hopes for the film and the impact it can have?
A: I want this film to do for others what I so desperately needed when I was a newly diagnosed, petrified 23 year old. As I got older, even now during my life with cancer, when I read or see something that resonates with me, I know that somewhere in the universe someone else is experiencing the same thing.
By sharing this story, I hope other people see themselves onscreen and feel even a little less alone. Cow Lamp can reach the people we can’t and this new partnership is so exciting.
Q: I’m sure this film will be a source of strength and comfort to many people, but what has this very personal filmmaking experience brought to your life?
A: Making the film was difficult. It’s so hard to try to write, edit, and direct these very real and sometimes very traumatic personal experiences, but the rewards have been worth all of the hard days and the risk of putting my heart onscreen. Tearful cancer patients and survivors, grateful spouses and partners and friends have all come into our circle to tell us what the film has meant to them, and most filmmakers only dream of having that kind of impact.
The community that Ginger has built is no longer mine, it belongs to a bigger audience, but that is the ultimate gift. I can only hope that our next project is as rewarding.
Q: I also understand you are in pre-production for a follow up to ‘Ginger’. Can you reveal anything yet?
A: As of now, the follow up is everything we wanted to say, but for the sake of the story, just couldn’t fit. Especially now, living such an abbreviated life, when I watch the film I think I wish we were brave enough to talk about cancer and sex, and I ask what would happen if we gave our main character terminal cancer. There’s so much development in the works, but what we are hoping to achieve is an even funnier and even more adult version of the first Ginger.