Shared from a Guest Post on Indiewire’s “Women in Hollywood”
By: Elissa Leonard
In 2012, I bought the life-story rights of a nurse who took on the medical establishment when she uncovered an epidemic of misdiagnoses. I had always wanted to produce a feature film, and I finally found a story I wanted to tell: that of Sally Pacholok. Think Erin Brockovich, but in the field of healthcare.
For years, patients had been coming into Sally Pacholok’s Michigan hospital with symptoms of and risk factors for vitamin B12 deficiency, but doctors would not test for it. Sally finally got fed up, and in 2005, she wrote her influential book “Could It Be B12? An Epidemic of Misdiagnoses.” I read Sally’s book in 2009 and took a camcorder to interview her, as well as patients and doctors around the country. Having met misdiagnosed patients (and having been one myself), I knew that public awareness could help people and save healthcare dollars. I also knew I had an audience for the film when I put my research for the screenplay on YouTube in 2013, and people began calling or writing to me saying that information helped them or their loved ones.
Left untreated, B12 deficiency causes neurological injuries that worsen over time. It can look just like autism-spectrum disorder in a growing child or Alzheimer’s disease in an older person. B12 deficiency causes a myriad of psychiatric disorders, ranging from fatigue and irritability to depression and psychosis. It causes neuropathy and tachycardia. It causes different problems in different people. It is more common than many doctors think. But it is preventable and treatable — if caught in time.
My writing partner Patrick Prentice and I worked out a story covering 15 years, leading up to Sally writing her book. She transforms from starry-eyed nursing student to world-renowned expert and author. And she falls in love! I entered the “whistle-blower/romance” screenplay into a few competitions and was pleased with the feedback. Naively, I thought, perhaps I could shop it around Hollywood and someone might buy it or co-produce it with me.
I had no thoughts of directing the film — that is, until I attended a Women in Film & Video Washington, D.C., event featuring Melissa Silverstein.
At the end of Melissa’s presentation about the dearth of women directors, a woman stood up and said, “Don’t die with your screenplay in your drawer. No one is going to pay you to make your first feature. You just have to do it. Mortgage the farm.” That was all it took. I went home determined to make the movie without Hollywood’s blessing or participation.
My first stop after deciding to produce and direct it myself was to meet with casting director Pat Moran. She raved about key crew she had just worked with on another project, so I called them. Cinematographer Nick Gardner, line producer Jeremy Morrison, and assistant director Dave Cross are a talented Baltimore team. These three were confident we could stay within the parameters of SAG’s “modified low budget” agreement, and with their expertise, we crewed up. I got ready to do local casting in March with Pat and to shoot in April/May 2014 with my new crew.
I got lucky casting the title role. One night, watching “The Americans” on FX, Annet Mahendru came on as Nina, the sultry Soviet spy. I turned to my husband and said she should be Sally. I Googled her manager, sent her a query, and by the end of that week, Annet and I were in discussions.
“Sally Pacholok” premiered at the Washington, D.C. Independent Film Festival on February 28th to a sold-out audience. We won Best Feature. On March 21, we will be at the LA Women’s International Film Festival, and in June we head to Miami for the 10th Anniversary Women’s International Film and Arts Festival. Each step of the way, I am learning what to do by just doing it. And by hiring good people!
My movie is a film for grownups, about a woman who has been saving lives by speaking the truth to the powerful. Sally Pacholok is David to healthcare’s Goliath. She is Galileo taking on The Church. Sally Pacholok is just one woman, but she has the truth on her side.
Elissa Leonard is the director, producer, and co-writer of “Sally Pacholok.” She is based out of Chevy Chase, Maryland. “Sally Pacholok” is her first feature film and debuted at the Washington, D.C. Independent Film Festival last month, winning the best feature award. It will next screen at the LA Women’s International Film Festival March 21 and in June at the Miami 10th Anniversary Women’s International Film and Arts Festival. To learn more about the film, visit Facebook and/or Twitter.
Watch the trailer at Vimeo.