A New Documentary Celebrates the Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks

Filmmaker Dempsey Rice on what she learned from 10 years of interviewing the acclaimed neurologist and author.

Oliver Sacks at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2009. Photo: Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

His was one of the most influential and compassionate scientific minds of our time. In his 82 years, Oliver Sacks — neurologist and bestselling author, whom the New York Times called the “poet laureate of contemporary medicine” — left an indelible mark on the medical profession and the world at large. He introduced experts and lay readers alike to the realities of neurologic illnesses like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, Tourette’s, and Asperger’s syndrome, as well as more nebulous neurologic concepts like consciousness, memory, and hallucination. His case histories portrayed subjects with empathy and humanity; he was a pioneer of the concept of compassionate care, which promotes a view of patients as people rather than clusters of symptoms.

Filmmaker Dempsey Rice first encountered Sacks’s work in the early 1990s, while living in London; a roommate had placed The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat on the mantelpiece, and it caught her eye. Over the years, her fascination with Sacks grew — as did Sacks’s own public profile. He would publish 13 books during his lifetime, including Awakenings (1973), which was adapted into a feature film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams in 1990; the award-winning An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), which presents case studies of patients adapting to neurological illness, including the story of animal scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin; and the New York Times bestseller Musicophilia (2007), which explores the power music in the brain.

Rice first met Sacks in 2002, while producing a piece for the public radio show The Infinite Mind. She developed a friendship with one of his assistants, and began dropping hints. “I started saying that I would really love to interview Oliver for a film project — I just wanted to have more time with this amazing person,” she recalls. A year later, the opportunity arose: Sacks was invited to speak at an event but was unable to attend, so his assistant asked Rice to film a message from Sacks. At the same time, Rice would be welcome to interview him about whatever she liked. “I was like, ‘Heck yeah, I’ll do that!’” Rice says.

Animated sequence from The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks

That first interview, in 2003, grew into a decade-long series that spanned the breadth of Sacks’ medical expertise, neurologic explorations, and personal history. Rice still marvels at the sheer luck of being “the right person in the right place at the right time” to be granted such unprecedented access to Sacks’s life and work — and his inner workings.

Her final on-camera interview with Sacks was in 2013, though she didn’t know it would be their last. In 2014, Sacks was busy working on his autobiography, On the Move, and Rice expected to interview him again when he was finished. But in February 2015, Sacks announced that he had received a terminal cancer diagnosis. The uveal melanoma he’d first been diagnosed with in 2006 had spread, metastasizing to his liver. He died six months later.

Three years in the making, Rice’s new film, The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks, will compile a decade’s worth of interviews with Sacks, along with archival footage and audio and original animation, into a documentary that celebrates his life, work, and legacy. As she and her producer, Joanne Nerenberg, prepared to launch a Kickstarter campaign for the film, we spoke them about what it was like to interview Sacks for over a decade and plumb the depths of his exceptional mind.

— Rebecca Hiscott

From The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks

You interviewed Oliver Sacks over the course of 10 years. Did you and Oliver plan to create this long, ongoing interview project?

Dempsey Rice: No. I felt privileged to get whatever time with him I could; he was incredibly busy. Often he was willing to sit down if he’d just finished writing a book. In the midst of writing, he was not interested in sitting down and talking because he wanted to put all of his energy into actively writing the book. I think it’s similar to making a film or any other major creative endeavor — once you’re done, you feel that sense of, “Okay, now I have room in my head to have a conversation about this.” So I was really just showing up as allowed or as able rather than saying to him, “This is going to be a big project.”

Joanne Nerenberg: What was so great about the timing [of their interviews] was that Oliver would be fresh off the mastery of those subjects he had immersed himself in. It comes across in the interviews: Dempsey has captured an incredible range of subjects over time, from music in the brain to Parkinson’s to autism and Tourette’s. But she also captured Oliver over a range of different energies, and she was with him through his journey with cancer. There’s an incredible poignance in witnessing the transformation of a subject over time, and you really feel that he’s changing when you’re watching these interviews.

“There’s an incredible poignance in witnessing the transformation of a subject over time, and you really feel that he’s changing when you’re watching these interviews.”

It sounds like these interviews started out with whatever subject matter Oliver was immersed in at the time. Did they also become more personal?

Dempsey Rice: He was a very private person, but if you read his books or articles, he also infused himself into them. He is always a part of the story he’s telling. When he was talking to me, he loved to digress. That’s what he called them — his “digressions.” Everything reminded him of something else.

At the very beginning [of our interviews], we were talking about memory and amnesia in terms of case history in the brain, and he started talking about his own memories of World War II. He was a young boy in London during World War II, so he was sent out of the city because of the Blitz, like many children were. He was in the city for some of the war and out of the city for some of the war.

He’d recently been writing the book Uncle Tungsten, which is a memoir and includes World War II. He talked about having two very distinct memories of bombs dropping near his home in London. And what he realized was that only one of those memories was an actual memory of his. He had another really distinct memory of a bomb dropping, but he realized [later] that he was not actually present for it. He had been sent out of the city again, and what he thought was his own memory was actually from a letter that his older brother had written him about what had happened. But for many, many years, he felt like that was his own memory.

So as he’s talking to me about case histories of memory and amnesia and the very tricky nature of memory, he’s suddenly talking to me about his own tricky memory — and then he’s back to talking about case histories. There was a lot of overlap between his work and his life and his own experiences. They were distinct and not distinct.

From The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks

You’ve noted that Sacks wasn’t able to recognize faces and places or visualize anything in his mind. How did that affect the way he viewed the world?

Dempsey Rice: Oliver had prosopagnosia, which is face blindness. He could not remember faces. He described himself as having no ability to visualize anything in his own mind. If you think about your breakfast this morning, you might be able to call up a picture of what you had or the table where you sat. He said, “I cannot do that. I cannot visualize folding a napkin. I can’t visualize anything.”

He processed the world through words. He had such a verbal memory. When we would do interviews, [his longtime assistant] Kate Edgar was always around, and he’d say to Kate, “In XYZ book on page 362, I feel like there’s a passage about such-and-such.” And he’d be spot on.

Although he claimed he didn’t have a visual imagination, he was obsessed with 3D vision. His family had a stereoscope in the living room when he was a child. A stereoscope is basically a ViewMaster — you look inside two lenses at two images and your brain fuses them into one 3D image. Back in the Victorian era, stereoscopes were these huge boxes, and they were really popular. Oliver’s family had one of these when he was a kid, and he talked to me about how much he loved looking into it. He would sit there and stare into this thing and replace the slides and imagine himself in these visual landscapes.

Then, when he got cancer, he ended up blind in his right eye, and you need vision in two eyes to see in three dimensions. So he lost the ability of seeing in 3D, which was devastating for him. He was a member of the New York Stereoscopic Society — these are basically people who geek out over 3D vision — and he just loved it. When he went blind in one eye, he called the head of the group and told him that he felt like he had to resign his membership because he could no longer see in three dimensions. The president of the group said it was a really emotional phone call.

So vision was a theme throughout Oliver’s life, both personally and in terms of looking at case histories. He was really interested in all of these different aspects of seeing and not seeing.

Joanne Nerenberg: Which is a big jumping off point for the film. Dempsey’s choice to partially animate the film is to put to imagery Oliver’s very rich stories. It’s a play on the fact that he claimed he could not visualize anything in his mind’s eye, yet his words were filled with very rich visual imaginings. His mind was so active, jumping from personal anecdotes to patient case histories — it’s an incredible mind to listen to. So animating those stories brings them to life in a very beautiful way.

“His mind was so active, jumping from personal anecdotes to patient case histories — it’s an incredible mind to listen to.”

Could you talk a bit more about why animation is an important aspect of the film?

Dempsey Rice: Oliver used to talk about himself and people as being “animated” — obviously not in the drawing-pictures kind of way, but in terms of energy level. So it’s also a play on the duality of what “animated” means.

I also feel like animation can do a better job of immersing you into what he’s saying. There are times when he’s talking about ideas that aren’t tangible, for example when he’s talking about brain phenomena like synesthesia. Synesthesia is a fusion of the senses — for some people, different musical notes are fused with color, or sometimes it’s hearing and smelling or seeing and smelling. You’re experiencing two senses at the same time. For someone who doesn’t have synesthesia, that’s hard to imagine. But with animation, I can play with that fusion in a way that I can’t do with live action.

Animation also allows me to do stuff that speaks to the Oliver Sacks geek. For example, in the proof of concept video [above], he’s standing on the edge of a lake in his swimsuit, and in his reflection in the water you see him fully clothed with crutches, and there’s this white bull by him. If you’ve read his memoir A Leg to Stand On, you’ll know that he fell and broke his leg while hiking. He went around a corner and there was this massive white bull, and it scared the shit out of him. He took off running down a hill and he fell and broke his leg. So if you’re an Oliver Sacks geek and you know his work, you’re going to see that animated sequence and be like, “Wow, there’s the white bull and the broken leg!” But if you’re not, it doesn’t bother you that it’s there. So the film can work on different levels depending on your knowledge of his canon.

Are there any particular moments from this decade of interviews with Oliver Sacks that have stuck with you over the years?

Dempsey Rice: I feel like they all stick out for various reasons. There is one moment when I interviewed him about his cancer. He had ocular melanoma, this eye tumor, that eventually took the sight in his right eye and spread to his liver. He said to me, “I feel like I’ve made a deal with the cancer: you can have the eye, but you can’t have anything else.” That was in 2013. Two years later, the cancer was back, and it took his life. So that resonates with me, of course.

But it was really just everything about him. He was incredibly intelligent, incredibly serious, incredibly connected, incredibly compassionate, and also very boyish and really shy and really goofy in some ways. He had all of these little objects, samples of minerals and elements from the periodic table. He loved to pick up and smell the sulfur. Sulfur smells like rotten eggs! But I remember him picking up this hunk of sulfur and smelling it and saying, “I love the smell of sulfur.”

And he would wear these T-shirts, periodic table T-shirts and cuttlefish T-shirts and fern T-shirts, because he loved all these little things. He very rarely wore a tie, but if he was somewhere that he had to wear a tie, it would be a distinct tie, like one with ferns on it. It would never just be a brown tie. It was like he wanted to show that he was on Team Squid or Team Periodic Table or Team Fern. They were just his personal passions, but he loved them so much.

At what point in the process of making the film did you decide to bring the project to Kickstarter?

Dempsey Rice: It’s something Joanne and I have been talking about since almost the very beginning. We were part of the IFP Screen Forward Labs, which is dedicated to people who are working on series — because at the time we were thinking of making this a series — and there was a really great presentation by Dan Schoenbrun [an independent filmmaker, former member of the Kickstarter Film team, and current Kickstarter Creator-in-Residence]. At the time I was pretty intimidated by Kickstarter. But his presentation convinced us that the value of doing a Kickstarter is not just to raise funding, it’s also about the conversation and the community.

That was in 2016. Then, earlier this year, I was like, “You know what, it’s time.” I wanted to grab the bull by the horns and put the film out there as a Kickstarter to tell people it’s coming, to raise its profile, and bring in some money. We want to get the idea of the film out there. We want to build the community, and we want to start the conversation now.

Sequence from The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks

What do you hope people will take away from the film?

Dempsey Rice: At the most primary level, people are going to learn more about Oliver Sacks. People who don’t know about Oliver will learn about him, and people who know him will know more about him. Just expanding Oliver’s reach is a wonderful thing.

But I think the ultimate lessons of Oliver’s life, and what I hope are the ultimate lessons of the film, are about connection and curiosity and compassion. They’re about being open to other people. On one level it’s about being open to neural diversity in all of its forms; Oliver was at the forefront of that conversation, so I feel like [the film] can expand the worldview of neurodiversity. I hope people walk out thinking more about identity and our brains and our connection to other people.

“The ultimate lessons of Oliver’s life… are about connection and curiosity and compassion. They’re about being open to other people.”

Joanne Nerenberg: Oliver was sincerely interested in his patients and knowing what it was like to have autism, what was it like to have Tourette’s, what was it like to have synesthesia. He went beyond the conventional boundaries of the clinician: he wanted to know how a neurological disease was affecting the person’s life. He was really seeking union between himself and other people. I think that continues to be something we need and we don’t always have with doctors. [His work is] about mortality and, at the most profound level, how to be a human being.

When you watch this film and hear all of his different stories, there’s this cumulative effect as a viewer, like you are experiencing those things as well. This profound empathy starts to build and boundaries start to dissolve. As a life example, he is so incredibly inspiring.

Dempsey Rice: Hopefully the film embodies that example and helps people think about it. We’re living in this world where we’re so fractured. I’m a believer that films can be part of a larger conversation, and I hope that this film is part of a larger conversation about connection and conversation and understanding. That is the most powerful thing a film can do.

From The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks

The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks is live on Kickstarter until July 19, 2018.