Interview with Greg DeHart and Irene Taylor Brodsky

HBO: Where did the idea for One Last Hug come from?

Greg DeHart: Actually, it started when my dad died when I was 9 years old. A friend of mine who I grew up with sent me an article about Camp Erin in Montana, thinking this would be a great documentary because of the experience that I went through. I immediately thought, Yes, this would be a great documentary. These camps were completely foreign to me, and I thought, Boy, I wish there was something like that when I was a kid. How many people are like me and don’t know that they’re out there? So that’s what got the ball rolling. It was a real personal experience.

HBO: Negotiating going to a camp like this seems dicey. How did you guys put together that deal?

Irene Taylor Brodsky: Obviously, this is a very sensitive topic. The fact that we got the initiation to come three days of their camp, for their entire camp, is really testament to Greg.

Greg DeHart: It was probably a lot easier than it sounds and probably a lot easier than I expected. The fact that I had that experience as a child, I used that angle. The biggest concern was: Can we expose this client-therapist relationship? Expose these kids and their issues on camera? The fact that I had gone through this as a child myself, that helped. At least that’s what they told me when it was all said and done. They were receptive to it because they want people to know about the camps. They were obviously very protective of the kids as well.

Irene Taylor Brodsky: It means the world to your film subjects when they know you are being sensitive to their needs. It speaks volumes when you’re willing to just sit down and have as many meetings as it takes to assure them that at the end of the day you have the best interests of the children at heart. You can’t forget the human factor here of sitting down and forging relationships with the people who are in charge of protecting these kids for three days. There were some parents who opted not to have their children filmed for the camp, and that was perfectly fine.

HBO: What were the particularities around filming and working with children?

Irene Taylor Brodsky: Well, I’ll tell you what I didn’t do. What I did not do with these kids was mince words. I used the words “dead,” “death,” “dying” — I didn’t use words like “gone,” “passed away,” “not here with us anymore.” I called a spade a spade, and that was because I had done research on this and talked with a number of grief counselors that work with children and that was a very determined philosophical approach that I brought to the way I spoke with these kids. That was something is a little counter-intuitive from what you might think — that you should be really sensitive with these children — but I was really encouraged to be as direct and, at the same time, very compassionate with them.

Greg DeHart: They understand that. Many of these kids have already been in grief counseling in smaller groups, so they kind of know the lingo. It’s also using your intuition. Am I okay shooting this right now? It’s a very human thing. That’s a big part of being a documentary filmmaker — you have to understand the human dynamic.

HBO: Did you get any idea of what motivated parents to let their children participate in the documentary?

Greg DeHart: I think there were different reasons — some of them were just ambiguous to it all, they were fine with it. Others thought it would be a good opportunity to spread the word. A lot of them just put their trust in the Moyer Foundation and Our House supporting this. When I called the Moyer Foundation — there are more than 40 camps across the country — they immediately thought of doing it in Los Angeles. Cameras are ubiquitous in the culture here, there’s a certain acceptance here. That played into it a little bit for us, as well. The Los Angeles culture helped us get over a lot of that, as well.

HBO: What preconceived notions of yours changed after doing this project? What surprised you?

Greg DeHart: For me, by far the most surprising things was how open the kids were with the cameras rolling. You always worry about how much the camera is going to affect a scene, but my sense was that these children were just going about it. They were so unaffected and so open. To see these kids talking about grief the way that they did was surprising. For me, when I went through it as a young boy, I didn’t talk about it — it was taboo.

Irene Taylor Brodsky: I’ll mention something you don’t see really too much in the film. I didn’t realize how much the counselors get out of their volunteering at this camp. Because we decided to make this a short film, we didn’t have the opportunity to explore that whole realm of grief, which is what happens to the human beings that are trying to care for these children. They’re playing a very particular role because they’re not the parent. It was very clear to me at night when the lights went off and when the camp was over how much these volunteers would pay, if they could, to come to this camp every year. They get a lot out of it, too.

HBO: Documentaries vary in length, but One Last Hug is very short. Why?

Irene Taylor Brodsky: To be honest, it’s difficult material and there was some question of how much an audience can take of this. It’s difficult material, it’s difficult. I applaud the viewer that will sit down for 35 minutes and watch this film, and I think the viewer will find that it’s not nearly as difficult as they thought it would be.

HBO: How did you guys personally react to being in such an emotionally charged atmosphere?

Greg DeHart: For myself, it was extremely personal. When we were interviewing Ben, I remember sitting there interviewing him and thinking, I feel like I’m talking to myself because I had experienced it. For me, this whole thing was very personal and very cathartic and very inspiring. I felt very inspired by these kids in how they were dealing with it head on and talking with us.

Irene Taylor Brodsky: I thought a lot about my kids sitting in that hot seat. If my kids were in that hot seat, if I was no longer alive, how would my kids be coping? That often guided how I talked to these kids — just the kind of language that you might use with your own kids. As a filmmaker, I would hope that I would treat them with as much care as I would my own kids.