If you’re a Frotcast listener you already know the gist of this story, but for everyone else, the background is this: Our original podcast co-founder, Ben Kaplan, has been sick with cancer for the past few years. It started out as a testicle lump, went away and came back a few times; he lost a testicle first, then a kidney, his gall bladder, and part of his colon (he wrote about part of his journey). Ultimately, none of it worked. The cancer entered the terminal stage and he left the hospital to start hospice care a few weeks ago.
Ben, whom you may also remember as the really buff guy who had a flex-off with a bodybuilding Juggalo in our Gathering of the Juggalos documentary, Whoop Dreams (1:23 of this trailer) — which, like the podcast itself, was mostly his idea — is happy to be out of hospitals forever, despite what that means. I always felt, and still feel, weird writing about his illness. For a lot of reasons, but especially because I don’t want to turn Ben into some “tragic cancer guy,” where everything he is and has done in his life gets subsumed by the last crappy chapter. No one wants that. He’s just a dude, who managed to live an incredibly full life, until he got some really shitty luck.
The best thing about hospice care is that you can say your goodbyes and tell a person what they mean to you and how grateful you’ve been to know them while they’re still around to hear it. The worst thing is… pretty much everything else. But above all, the sense that you can’t really do anything to help. Should I visit? Should I leave him alone because he’s tired? When can I come? When would he want visitors? Should I spare him the burden of figuring out the logistics and just go? Or should I save him from feeling like he has to entertain me and just not go? Should I try to help him stay positive or just nod and listen? Make jokes to distract him or deal with the pain head on? Everything becomes fraught (to borrow a homonym). Every seemingly good option comes with a potential downside. It’s fucked. There’s no way to know what to do and doing nothing is even worse.
A month or so back, Ben’s brother, who moved back into their mother’s house to take care of Ben, told me that one thing Ben did want for certain was to see Blade Runner 2049. Again, if you were a Frotcast listener, you’d know Ben liked blockbuster sci-fi the most out of all of us, to the point that that he’d willingly endure a new Transformers movie unironically. So he was pumped about the new Blade Runner. Of course, he couldn’t make it to a theater in his current state, and likely won’t live long enough for the Blu-Ray release. He has a tumor that’s producing fluid, which fills up his abdomen and can’t be drained. It will eventually suffocate him.
Ben getting to see a movie seemed like small comfort, but at least it was a thing we could do. Or try to, anyway. Finding a version of the film he could actually watch from his bed turned out to be a unique problem. It required reaching someone at the studio with enough power to even approve that kind of decision, and I didn’t know who that was or how to do that.
I sent as many emails as I could, probably ruining many people’s days with depressing cancer stories in the process. There was no way around that. Fairly quickly I exhausted my studio contacts. In every case, people seemed receptive at first and then I’d hit dead ends. One avenue culminated in an offer, from an email account labeled simply “CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS,” to give Ben the original Blade Runner final cut on Blu-Ray. I tried hard not to be offended by this, by what was, ultimately, an offer of a free gift from a person (well, an entity, anyway) who didn’t have to give it, and did it solely out of some reserve of caring and kindness. I try hard not to be one of those people who makes my problems everyone else’s, but the impersonality of it all stuck in my craw. Still, I understood it. People didn’t know what to do, so they didn’t do things (or did the wrong things). That’s how people are. That’s how I was.
After a few weeks of this, all the while knowing I only had a limited time in which to get this done (which is to say Ben only had a limited time), I remembered that our friend (and frequent Frotcast guest) Justin Halpern works with Warner Bros.
Justin put us in touch with a producer he knew who had co-produced Blade Runner 2049, Steve Wegner at Alcon Entertainment. Things immediately seemed promising when Wegner emailed me back right away asking for more information, rather than doing what most of the other people did — not respond, or say they were forwarding me along to someone else who they didn’t name. (Maybe I shouldn’t have been so cautious about not ruining people’s days? Appealed more openly to their emotions? Maybe I should’ve called more? I still don’t know).
I’ll admit that I didn’t know exactly what getting a playable version of the movie to a house in Mountain View would entail, and probably other people at the studio didn’t either, which is why I couldn’t make any headway. I just knew it seemed like something we should be able to make happen. Wegner not only knew what it would take, but was undeterred by the logistics, and was just as determined to make it happen, even though in his case he was doing it for a complete stranger.
I don’t know what all strings Wegner had to pull, but in the end, someone from Alcon actually had to fly out to Mountain View, with a Blu-Ray copy of the movie in hand, to present Ben with the film in person. That turned out to be Rachel Alterman, who flew all the way up with the screener and dropped it off at Ben’s, where he had two days to watch and return it. (The level of security seemed a little over the top, but then maybe that’s why you can’t find a bootleg version of Blade Runner 2049 online.)
“It’s weird to say, but I wasn’t sure I would ever get to see it in my life, and it was a dream come true (implanted dream?) to get to see it,” Ben told me. “I give it a solid A rating.”
“Blade Runner means a lot to me as well,” Wegner wrote to me in an email. “I saw it in a theatre when I was 13 years old and a few years later I wrote a term paper on it film at USC. The idea that I got to come full circle and work on the sequel is incredible. The power of film is an amazing thing. It’s not saving lives, but it touches people in a variety of ways. This is why we had to make sure Ben saw the film.”
Of course, for me it wasn’t really about the film. It was about making me feel like I was actually doing something to help my friend. Sometimes that makes all the difference.
For the record, I never promised Wegner or anyone else that I would cover this. I wasn’t even sure if Ben would let me, and I debated if I should. The weirdest part of being a non-fiction writer is the pressure to monetize any good idea or cathartic interaction, to sell out your friends and family. But in the end I felt like Steve Wegner and Rachel Alterman and Alcon Entertainment deserved to be recognized and singled out for praise (it turns out Wegner’s next movie is actually based on the true story of a 12-year-old with terminal cancer, with Taraji P. Henson attached).
It’s easy to think of movie studios as vastly impersonal conglomerates, and all companies as quasi-automated entities incapable of making concessions to human dignity. Press four to speak to human. Even in this case, that was 95 percent of my experience — before I found Steve.
That’s why it truly stands out when it goes the right way. When humans recognize the humanity of other humans, and put forth the energy to make someone’s day a little bit better, even if they don’t know them. It doesn’t matter if what they did was easy or if it was hard. It seems like it was kind of hard, but that’s not really the point. The point is that they took the time to care, and that they realized it was important. They made me feel like I wasn’t just bellowing into a void. That will always be a big deal to me.