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Shining a light on a private end to life

The film 'The Event' deals with terminally ill patients who gather with friends and family before suicide.

October 01, 2003|David Ehrenstein | Special to The Times

"Our story is set in New York, but the impetus for writing it came from something that happened in L.A.," says Tim Marback, co-scripter of "The Event," director Thom Fitzgerald's new drama about AIDS and assisted suicide. "It goes back to 1995 when [then-district attorney] Gil Garcetti indicted that guy Keith Green in the death of his partner, James Northcutt. Northcutt was in the advanced stages of AIDS and hooked up a hose to his car to inhale the carbon monoxide fumes. Green said 'I don't want to be a part of this,' so Northcutt said, 'Leave, goodbye.' But when Green's walking away the hose falls out. All he does is stick it back in and leave and they indicted him for first-degree murder."

"With that simple act of putting the hose back on," Marback's writing partner Steven Hillyer notes, "they kicked him out of his house, and froze his bank account. He eventually won and they dropped the charges."

"But it got us thinking about something that happened to us in 1993," Marback says. "We had a very close friend who we used to see all of the time, and he sort of disappeared for a few weeks. Finally he phoned and said, 'I've got to come over and talk to you guys.' He told us that he had participated in an 'event.' It was essentially he and seven other people helping their friend who was dying of AIDS at the time, die.

"The guy had made the decision," Hillyer continues, "that he didn't want to wait until the very end. So over the course of a couple of days his friends all said their goodbyes, they celebrated his life in a very modest way, and they helped him go."

As directed by Fitzgerald (who collaborated with Marback and Hillyer on the final script), "The Event" approaches its real-life inspiration from an oblique angle. It's a police procedural-styled drama about a young assistant district attorney (Parker Posey) investigating the suspicious passing of a young musician (Don McKellar). She pieces together the truth from interviews with the deceased's mother (Olympia Dukakis), sister (Sarah Polley), his health care caseworker and close friend (Brent Carver), and a drag performer (Rejeanne Cournoyer) who led the party, which, minus the suicide itself, was videotaped for posterity. The 1993 "event" that inspired the film wasn't recorded, however, Marbeck says.

"We got to meet the people who participated, and understand how much love it took for them to do what they did. It was very, very illegal, very dangerous what they were doing. You couldn't get Internet drugs back then the way you can now. You had to go to pharmacies. And we found out how these sorts of things have become a rather well-kept secret in the gay community. 'Events' have been going on for some time now. No one talks about it."

Well, not entirely. The first "event" to make it before the cameras in fictional form was in "It's My Party," Randal Kleiser's 1996 Los Angeles-set drama about precisely such a gathering, which at the time had no name attached to it.

" 'It's My Party' was about a time early on in the epidemic," the writer-director recalls, "before there were any drug cocktails or any hope. I'd heard about several cases of this sort of thing going on, and my story was kind of a composite." But the "event" Fitzgerald's film is derived from proceeds from very contemporary circumstance: long-term HIV-positive men who have hit the wall with the treatments of protease inhibitor "cocktails" and newly infected people who are having no success with established drug treatments.

"There were a couple of friends I had who were determined that they were going to take themselves out, and had farewell parties that I attended," Olympia Dukakis recalls. "They did not, fortunately, do what happens in the movie -- do it at the party. Most recently I had a friend who had been on the cocktail and it had stopped working. It had turned around and was poisoning him. He had told me he was planning on doing it. And I said, 'Well, let me know a week before you do it -- give me a call and wherever I am, I'll come and see you.' So we had a party and a week or so later he did it. That's been my experience. I've not assisted with it or been in attendance with it. But I certainly have known that that was the intention. This also happens in the straight community, you know -- people with terminal illnesses deciding they've come to the end. It's a way of having control over things that the illness has taken away."

"In my experience a lot of people will tell me 'When I get to ... ' and they'll draw a line in the sand," observes Dr. Elizabeth Getter, who has been working with AIDS patients in New York for many years and consulted with the writers on aspects of the script. "The truth is that most people when they get to that point want to redraw the line. The thing is for the person to be able to say, 'I have this control.'

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