When Dr. Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of Washington, learned Helen Hunt was portraying her in an upcoming feature film, she thought it must be a joke.
A graduate student in King’s lab stumbled across a description of the movie-in-progress on the Internet last winter. “The student came to me and said, ‘You didn’t tell me they were making a movie about you!’ ” King remembered in an interview last week. “I said, ‘Nobody’s making a movie about me.’ ” She thought the student, kidding around, had set up the Web page herself.
“Decoding Annie Parker” was indeed real. The film is based on two concurrent stories of real-life women: Anne Parker (played by Samantha Morton), a Toronto cancer survivor determined to understand why cancer repeatedly struck the women in her family, and King’s groundbreaking, decades-long work at the University of California, Berkeley, to discover the gene (BRCA1) that leads to increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The film screens this week at the Seattle International Film Festival as a benefit for King’s lab, currently developing accurate and affordable testing for BRCA1, BRCA2 and other genes that lead to breast or ovarian cancer.
Director Steven Bernstein, Parker, and King will all appear at the two screenings — marking the first time the three have met, though all have corresponded, and Bernstein and Parker have appeared together at several previous charitable screenings of the film.
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“Annie Parker is, I think, iconic of many women that I’ve met in the course of doing this work — women who were stunned by what happened, devastated by what happened, and responded not by giving up but by learning, by becoming involved, by figuring out what had happened,” King said.
The subject matter of “Decoding Annie Parker” is very much of the moment: Angelina Jolie’s announcement several weeks ago that she carried a mutation in the BRCA1 gene and underwent a preventive double mastectomy suddenly had everyone talking about inherited breast cancer.
King characterized Jolie’s editorial in The New York Times as “a beautiful piece … really good, very clear, very accurate,” but was careful to note that Jolie’s perspective, and Parker’s, are “absolutely the correct perspective for each of them” but that everyone’s profile is different. Mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 can be inherited from fathers as well as from mothers, so many women who have the mutations in these genes have no family history of breast or ovarian cancer. And she notes that “the vast, vast majority of women do not have mutations in either of these genes.”
Bernstein is currently seeking U.S. distribution for the film. A recent screening at Cannes garnered much interest but no deal yet. Bernstein is a longtime cinematographer who spent six years making “Decoding Annie Parker,” his directorial debut. Years ago, he thought of a unique idea for its initial release: a “little altruistic window” before the movie’s commercial debut, in which it would share screening revenues with charities. “My investors stay happy, and I, rather than giving the money to a distributor right away, get to see that hopefully a few million dollars get to some cancer charities,” he said, noting that about 50 cities will host charitable screenings of the film.
After the film was completed earlier this year, Bernstein wrote to King and invited her to view the film. The filmmaker said he worried he might have done King “a bit of a disservice” but believed he would write a better script if he did it “once removed” — without meeting King or Parker. Bernstein wrote the film, based on Parker’s story, with his son, Adam Bernstein, and physician Michael Moss, who advised on the story’s medical issues.
“The science is important, but I can’t tell you the science,” Bernstein said. “What I can tell you — this is what I have observed happens to people in the face of catastrophic illness, this is what happens to relationships … That’s what I hoped to do with the film, and I thought I could only do that if I stepped away from the science.”
There are far fewer scenes of Hunt/King in the film than of Morton/Parker; the story focuses on Annie, and how her long fight against cancer changes her.
King acknowledged that as a scientist she had “a few quibbles” with “Decoding Annie Parker,” and one large concern: the film’s omission of Asian Americans in its depiction of her Berkeley lab. “The idea that one could carry out serious science in America without the involvement of Asian Americans is just ludicrous,” she said. But she had high praise for Hunt, who’d clearly studied videos of King (“she’s got a bunch of mannerisms right!”), and found the film as a whole “beautifully acted.”
“The story is gripping,” she said, “and it will have enormous appeal to women who are concerned about breast cancer — which is all of us.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org