What Is A Life? Previewing HBO’s documentary film “Daniel”
You know the type. There always seems to be that one person who has a camera or a phone in their hand, documenting everything and everyone around them. Daniel Northcott was one of those guys. He received his first camera at age seven and filmed himself for the next 22 years. But what made him different was his genuine ability to connect with total strangers. What made him special was his desire to travel around the world and experience new cultures. What makes this documentary so memorable is his passion for life and for connection in the face of his terminal illness.
I had the chance to speak with Daniel’s sister Erin Northcott, who finished the film he started. Not only did we discuss why Daniel wanted to travel and what it meant to him, but we also touched on what it took to get this film finished and what she hopes people take away from it.
TV GOODNESS: I found this film profoundly moving, especially since we see your deep connection with your brother. When did you two start to talk about traveling the world and did you always want to do it together?
Erin Northcott: “We grew up with a mom that had grown up all over the world. Her father was in the British Army. Her younger brother was born in Egypt and she’d lived in various places in Africa and Asia and Hong Kong. So she would talk about the world a lot. But as a family, we never had the means to see it. I think the farthest we made it as a family was Hawaii.
It started to really come up as I was finishing college and [Daniel] was finishing high school. I was in Los Angeles. Even though we’re Canadians and we’re from Vancouver, there was this excitement about me going to school in LA.
Dan and I started these midnight phone calls. They were expensive because back then it was long distance bills. I was a college student and working as a nanny after school. These bills were high. They were like $400 a month and we could not pay them. [Laughs.] We were mostly playing each other music and talking about the lyrics, and we were talking about seeing the world.”
Photo Credit: HBO
“I think we missed each other, even though as teenagers we’d started to go our separate ways. There was a real missing there. And the big question was, ‘How are we gonna afford this?’ When he graduated, he moved in with me in LA for one year. He worked as a driver for an actress and I was working as a part-time nanny. We couldn’t save much, but we saved a hundred dollars a month.
It was just enough to get a one-way ticket to Taiwan. We really had to buy in because once we got there, we hated it. In the beginning, we had really bad culture shock. My mom was smart enough to say, ‘No, I’m not going to pay for a ticket for you to come home. You guys have to stick it out there.’ And I’m so glad we did. Then we started to see the world.”
TV GOODNESS: I love that you included at least one moment in the film where you’re frustrated that Dan is filming you. How often was that camera in his hand and what was it like for you knowing he wanted to document everything?
Erin Northcott: “We have an incredible editor, Jon Connor. Him finding these pieces of me actually looking happy on camera was probably a hard find. I was one of those people who was very nervous on camera and didn’t like being filmed and would often be a bit difficult. So that one shot is very real, very, very common.
[Daniel] was so into film and I really wasn’t. It wasn’t really a part of my realm. And we were siblings, so I was just naturally annoyed by him a lot, of course.”
TV GOODNESS: Dan seemed to have so much curiosity and interest in strangers. How important was it to you to show us those connections he made?
Erin Northcott: “Yes. That stood out. As [you] go through his footage, that’s what people really start to see. [Dan] could connect on a really deep level very quickly with anyone in the world, beyond language. And I think we can all do that, but we don’t realize it.
So again, I have to credit the team that I worked with, Neighborhood Films. They always went back to the heart. They were always looking for the heart and soul. Daniel is the connector, is the person that sees everyone and everything as interconnected. I mean, that’s what he was really learning through making this film. He really felt like the earth is the temple, like our earth and all these people and animals and everything in it. He just saw it. The more he moved through it, the more connected he became and the more he was sure that we’re not at all separate.”
Photo Credit: HBO
TV GOODNESS: This turned into a very different kind of documentary after he’s diagnosed. As a viewer, I’m so glad he continued filming. Was there a time when he considered putting the camera down?
Erin Northcott: “I actually asked him to put the camera down. Near the very end of his life, he agreed to do it. I think the last two months of his life, he didn’t film. He continued to record audio, which you’ll hear in the film, but he agreed to let the camera go.
As much as it was this incredible gift he was giving the world, it was something that was between us sometimes. I just really wanted to be with him and I wanted him to be with us.
He was a very present human as we see in the film, but the camera’s there and sometimes you can feel it. I was ready to just face him. We were all praying for a miracle. It was not that we had totally given up yet, but we knew that there was a pretty high possibility that these were our last couple of months. I begged him to please put it away and he finally did agree.”
TV GOODNESS: I don’t know if it’s superstition or the supernatural or something else, but Dan taking that stone from the cave seemed to change the course of his life. Can you talk about that?
Erin Northcott: “This is such an interesting aspect in the film. We all take something different out of this film, that aspect of him removing a sacred object against warning.”
Photo Credit: HBO
“When I went back to that area and spoke to the Mayan people there, they were very familiar with these objects. You’ll find out in the film what it actually is and how sacred it is. They said when you take something like that and you haven’t been given permission — and the guide clearly doesn’t give permission when they’re in the cave — that is when bad things happen and are attached to it. If you’re given permission and there is a ceremony around it, good things can come of these same objects. So, it’s really hard to know how much of this goes energetically into somebody, how much of this is just psychological. He believed it.
There are other reasons that people get sick. Obviously there’s a lot of environmental concerns. For me, it will always remain a mystery. I will not say that this is the reason that my brother got leukemia and ultimately passed away from it. I will never know. But it is certainly very interesting to watch him go through all the different thoughts.
He was also writing his story, his film, and he kept writing himself out of it. That’s also an aspect in the story. He kept writing himself as somebody who dies in the end and he’d been doing that for many years. He knew that he needed to write himself a twist ending.
He was in love with tragic, romantic film. So this just was all a part of a great story in some ways to him. It became really hard to say, ‘This is the story and this is the reality.’ They all started to intermesh, which was his theory. Everything’s interconnected.”
TV GOODNESS: I know you talked a little bit about this, but 1,475 hours of footage seems incredibly daunting. Can you talk about what it took to finish this film both emotionally and physically?
Erin Northcott: “It took an amazing team. That is the truth. There is no way that that was going to happen without our editor Jon Connor. I mean, when I first spoke to him, he did not sound afraid. That fear had lived in me for a long time. How would I ever go through all this footage? I felt totally overwhelmed by it. I felt like it was almost more of a burden than a gift. He just didn’t see it that way. He said he loves going through this kind of stuff. He just had such magical attitude about it. That’s how it got done.
He was very well supported by Neighborhood Films and by the rest of our team, like Hyperobject and HBO. These people all play an incredible role in terms of the creation and in terms of the support. It’s teamwork that made this possible a hundred percent.”
TV GOODNESS: What do you think Dan would want people to take away from his film, and what do you hope people take away?
Erin Northcott: “Everyone will get something different out of this. Some people get really into the aspect of taking a sacred object and can energy attach to you. Some people will see Dan’s relationship with his mother and me and his friends and family and say, ‘I want that. I want to mend relationships or [be] deep in relationships.’ Some people will see him traveling and connecting with people.
When he is traveling, he’s not just a tourist, he’s not just there to see it for a minute and be in and out. He’s there to really feel into the land and the earth and the people. So, I think traveling with a deeper intention connected to our travels could emerge.
What I hope is all of that. I really want whatever’s meant for each individual viewer to come through and to hold them. Because I’ve seen people want to make various adjustments. Or they’re inspired. It’s thrilling to know that my brother’s having that reach at this point.”
Photo Credit: HBO
TV GOODNESS: Towards the end of the film Dan says something like, “Don’t feel sorry for me.” I didn’t. I felt that he knew what he wanted to do with his life and he did it. I am so grateful we got to see that in this film because so many people don’t know what they want, just fumble through life. But it feels like he found his purpose and he did it.
Erin Northcott: “Yeah, you got it. It often makes me ponder, ‘What is a life?” He died at 29 and there’s a lot of tragedy around that for me. But maybe for him, that was enough. He really accomplished what he wanted to because he certainly felt quite complete when he died.”
Edited for space and content.
Daniel premiered at 9 pm ET/PT Wednesday, December 20th on HBO and is streaming on Max.
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