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James Keach Interview: Famed Filmmaker Focuses on Unsung Heroes of Fight to Cure Alzheimer's

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Image attributed to James Keach

James Keach

Born December 7, 1947, in Savannah, Georgia, James Keach is an actor, writer, producer and filmmaker. He is the younger brother of actor Stacy Keach and the son of actor Stacy Keach, Sr. He has appeared in over 50 feature films and has produced and directed hundreds of hours of television. His most recent success was the award-winning documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, which showed the legendary singer’s unprecedented “Goodbye Tour” after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The film was nominated for an Academy Award and won three Grammy Awards.

Walk the Line, Augie and Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice are a few of his film projects, and he appeared in a several episode arc on Showtime’s award-winning Ray Donovan series. In Keach’s latest documentary, Turning Point, the acclaimed filmmaker takes us inside the quest for the first medication that could treat the underlying process of Alzheimer’s disease. Along the way, we meet the people behind these grand experiments, the scientists driven as much by personal conviction as professional innovation, and we discover why medical science is never easy, often unpredictable and potentially perilous.

"My aunt, my mother’s sister, had Alzheimer’s for 20 years. She got it when she was about 80 and lived to about 102. She was bedridden for 10 years. It wasn’t pretty."

Smashing Interviews Magazine: James, how are you coping during the pandemic?

James Keach: Well, how am I coping with everything right now? I’m coping fine. I’m doing a lot better than a lot of other people, so I’m very blessed.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: In Turning Point, you actually take the audience inside the quest to discover the first medication that could treat the underlying process of Alzheimer’s, a disease that most of us certainly think about as we age. How did you become involved in the film?

James Keach: Well, I made another movie called Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, and I didn’t know anything about Alzheimer’s when I started that. I was very resistant to do it. We made Walk the Line (the story of Johnny Cash) before that, and my friend, Julian Raymond, who was a producer of Glen’s last couple of albums, was also working with my son Johnny Keach. He came over to the studio, and my partner, Trevor Albert, was there.

Julian said, “Would you do a movie about Glen? He’s got Alzheimer’s.” I just went, “Oh, man, that sounds incredibly depressing.” Then he said, “Just meet him.” So eventually, Glen came over to the house. I said, “Glen, tell me about your Alzheimer’s.” He said, “I don’t got no Alzheimer’s. I got part-timers.” Then Glen looked over at his wife and said, “You know when a man finds a good thing, he finds a good woman. I found me a good thing.” I could see right there that Glen was very much in love with his wife and had a wonderful sense of humor.

My son walked across the living room before we actually started talking, and he had a guitar in his hand. Glen said, “Hey, you want me to show you something?” My son said, “Sure.” Glen showed him how to play and said, “Uncle Boo taught me this. If you practice this, you’ll be really good.” Then Johnny went into the bedroom, and when he came back out, Glen said it again, “Hey, you want me to show you something?”

Smashing Interviews Magazine: The memory loss from the disease.

James Keach: He had forgotten that he’d asked that five minutes before. They said it would only be five weeks. The five shows turned into 171 shows, two and a half years of filming and first seeing Glen with mild cognitive Alzheimer’s and then seeing him at the end of his life. At that point, I had met so many people with Alzheimer’s, so many people with “shame in the game,” as Glen would say.

Glen wanted the world to know what Alzheimer’s looked like. He was willing to show that to the world so that people understood what it was about and that it was very important not to have shame in the game because so often people who have it or members of their family don’t want other people to know or they’re embarrassed when they go out in public. That is how I got involved in the Alzheimer’s thing, and I became very passionate about it.

CNN and Eli Lilly were talking about doing a sponsorship, and one of the executive producers of Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, Nancy Lynn, had a good relationship with them and said, “Would you come up to Indianapolis and show the film?” I said, “Sure.” That was where Eli Lilly was headquartered. Like most people at the time, I’d been listening to all of the anti-pharma things, and I didn’t know what to think. I was sitting in a restaurant, and this young waitress came over and said, “What are y’all doing here?” I said, we’re going to show a film at Eli Lilly.” She said, “Oh, I love them.” I was very surprised and said, “You love the pharma company?” She said, “Yeah. They saved my grandmother’s life. She has diabetes. She’s my favorite person in the world.” So there was a shift that occurred with my perception of pharma.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: And you met the scientists at Eli Lilly?

James Keach: Research scientist Pat May was retiring, and it was his last day. There was also Ron DeMattos and Eric Siemers. Those were the lead scientists on the team in trying to find something that will work for Alzheimer’s. I said, “Do you guys have anything that works?” They said, “No.” I asked, “How long have you been working on it?” They answered, “About 30 years.” Pat had something that was very close. It was called Semagacestat, but in the middle of phase three clinical trials, his wife suddenly died. Then his father came down with Alzheimer’s, and the trial failed. I said, “How long did you work on that, Pat?” He said, “I worked on it for 30 years.” I said, “Is that par for the course for you guys?” He said, “Yeah. It’s really hard to develop a drug that gets through the blood-brain barrier. It’s a lot easier to develop other kinds of drugs.” I thought to myself, “Man, that would be like me working on a film for 30 years and nobody ever seeing it.” It was very moving to me.

Then I talked to the scientists about their own personal lives and their families. I talked to all the other people that had Alzheimer’s in their families, and I realized, “This is actually a very good movie.” You know, many people don’t like pharmaceutical companies, but because of what’s happening now with COVID-19, all of a sudden, they’re going, “Oh, we need these guys, and we need them bad.” So the scientists are the research heroes.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, they are, and the concept of telling the story from the scientists’ point of view was unique, very effective, and at times, so emotional.

James Keach: It was so moving to me the journey these people were on and how much passion they had for it. For me, as a filmmaker, it’s all about the emotional journey of the people you are looking at and how it affects me as an audience member. When I first started this, I couldn’t pronounce Semegacestat and Solanezumab. Now, after years of working with these folks, they trusted me being in the room when the results came out. Although it was tragic at that point, it was quite moving.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: How long did you work on Turning Point, James?

James Keach: We worked on the film off and on for six years.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: What did you learn over those six years that you did not previously know about Alzheimer’s disease, the scientists or the men and woman who are stricken with it?

James Keach: What you learn about the patients in this specific case is their willingness to be involved in clinical trials, their acceptance of what they have, that the families are not in denial, and the patients are wanting to make a difference in the world by wanting to donate their brains to science. That was wonderful in the film when the older woman with Alzheimer’s was asked if she would donate her brain to science. She said, “Of course, I would,” and her daughter sitting beside her was aghast.

Then you have the scientists who go to work every day knowing that this drug might not work. We’re going to lose everything in our life, our life included sooner or later. These guys go to work every day with the attitude of maybe today we’ll find it. So they have the optimism gene. Of course, it’s devastating when they don’t succeed, but they’re scientists. They know that when they discover something that doesn’t work, that rules out one more thing, and they can keep moving on.

To me, failure is not trying. This is what I tell my children. Failure is when you don’t try. So you learn a lot about your own work and your own feelings about when things don’t work out. You’ve got to keep going. The other thing I learned was that these people all have families just like me, and they’re touched by so many different things. Some people don’t know, so they say, “Oh, scientists and pharma are all part of the conspiracy.” No. They laugh when I ask, “Did you go into this for money?” They say, “If we were in it for money, James, we’d be on Wall Street. We’d be investors. No. We’re scientists.” They say that they went into that field to try and discover something that would change the world in some way or another that will make a difference in the lives and health of other people. So the nobility of what they do really struck me as well.

Then of course when you get Pat, the Alzheimer’s patient, and his wife, you see the caregiving and the love that she has for him. It is very moving. It was the same thing with Glen Campbell. You saw the love there, and not everybody is blessed to have that.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: So very true, and it takes an entire community from every walk of life and political persuasion to get this done.

James Keach: There’s a community of people that are all working together to try and do the right thing. That’s not partisan, you know. These are human problems. It’s not politics even though in Washington, the amount of money that they give to Alzheimer’s research should be more, especially since the disease is projected to triple in the next 30 years.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: It’s interesting that research scientists are conducting non-drug trials as well. Methods like light therapy, transcranial direct current stimulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation, acupuncture, electroconvulsive therapy and deep brain stimulation are being researched. Also lifestyle factors, education and psychotherapy for caregivers are being investigated.

James Keach: If they can address some of the systematic problems, if they can adjust people’s lives a little bit, it would make a huge difference. There’s so many aspects to it. All of the scientists have said to me that they feel like it’s not going to be just one drug that does it. It’s going to be a group of drugs in a cocktail similar to how they’ve been able to work with AIDS patients. They don’t have a cure for AIDS, but they have something that can manage it, and that, I think, is the real hope for Alzheimer’s: Can we manage this so that we ultimately pass away from something else and we keep our memory?

Smashing Interviews Magazine: In the beginning of the film, Johnny Cash sings “Ain’t No Grave.” Your relationship with Johnny and June goes back for many years to the film The Long Riders in 1980.

James Keach: Yes, it does. Johnny’s the godfather to our children. And, yeah (laughs). The Long Riders was one of Johnny’s favorite movies. He would call me “Jesse.” My brother, Stacy, and I were executive producers and writers, and I played Jesse James. Stacy played Frank.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Long Riders was a notable film because it featured four sets of actor brothers; you and Stacy, David, Keith and Robert Carradine, Dennis and Randy Quaid and Christopher and Nicholas Guest. Was that your idea?

James Keach: Yes. It was my brother’s and my idea. The thing is that there are scenes in that movie where we don’t have to say a word to each other. We just look at each other, and you can see the familial connection in our eyes. Stacy and I could understand each other without talking. It was one of the highlights of my career. I love my brother very, very much. I’m very proud of him.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Your dad was an actor, of course. I remember him on Get Smart, and he was also on the very first episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. So you grew up around the entertainment industry. Is that what influenced you and Stacy?

James Keach: (laughs) My father and mother did everything they could to get Stacy to go to law school and for me to be a doctor. My father did not want us to go into show business because he just thought the ups and downs of it were rough even when you’ve been blessed with success. It’s a hard life. Everybody perceives it as being really easy. It’s not. But it’s cool when you can do it.

I’m blessed when I can make movies I want to make. At this point in my career, I want to make movies that move the human spirit in some way or another that when you start watching the film, there’s something you didn’t know, and when you finish, you know it, and it’s changed your way of thinking just a little bit. It’s kind of cool.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: So these days you prefer to be behind the camera rather than in front of it?

James Keach: Oh, yeah. We’ve got another movie coming out called Linda and the Mockingbirds, the second one we’ve done about Linda Ronstadt. That will come out right after Turning Point, and it’s with Jackson Browne and Linda. I’m doing a movie about West Point. You know, a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do, and all that.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: What about a film on the real story of the coronavirus with facts, so that Americans will definitely know what’s true and not true?

James Keach: I am scared that there’s going to be a slew of those, so that they probably don’t need me to be involved. I’m sure they’re going to be coming from news networks who have a lot of B-Rolls. The cost of making documentaries, especially if you have archival documentaries, and the cost of all the news footage depends on what angle you want to tell. Unfortunately, I think that the news media right now is so divided. It’s political. If you want to do a true story, you’ve got to do the science story, and that will be an interesting one. Maybe it’ll be told by a British director or somebody who’s not part of this craziness that’s going on over here because you don’t know what to believe. All I know is that it kills people because I know people that have succumbed to it.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: My deepest sympathies. Do you have any family members who have died from Alzheimer’s?

James Keach: My aunt, my mother’s sister had Alzheimer’s for 20 years. She got it when she was about 80 and lived to about 102. She was bedridden for 10 years. It wasn’t pretty.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: So very sad. What are the main takeaways from Turning Point you want the audience to learn?

James Keach. I just hope that people can relate to the humanity of science and scientists and how these people are superheroes. They really are. Most of the guys in the Marvel comics start off as scientists. But these are the real guys, the men and women that dedicate their lives, and I was privileged to make the film.

At this point, I’m hoping to get my honorary Doctor’s degree having done a film about ALS, a woman with Parkinson’s, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me and Turning Point, which are both films on Alzheimer’s. It’s time to go blow some buildings up and make an action movie. I’m kidding, of course.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: But your dad did want you to become a doctor, so maybe your work in bringing awareness to those diseases can be a nod to him.

James Keach: You’re right. That’s true. It’s kind of like I’ve gone over to that side because I’ve spent so much time with scientists. The thing that you discover about them is that their passion and their dedication is just awesome. I didn’t want to make a pro-pharma film by any means. It talks about the costs of drugs and that some people can’t afford them. Some people don’t make $12,000 a year, which was so shocking to me when the Medicaid guy told me that.

I just think there’s so much disparity in our country. I’m an idealist, and I would like things to be a little bit more balanced. I would like to see Alzheimer’s and all diseases not be politicized. Let’s just let the scientists do their thing, and let’s support them.

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