Putting his lifelong struggle with CF in the frame

Max McGuire’s coming-of-age film Foreverland shows life with cystic fibrosis is challenging and uplifting, reports Joe McNamee

Putting his lifelong struggle with CF in the frame

MAX McGuire’s English teacher thought it would be a good idea for the eight-year-old to write an article on Cystic Fibrosis (CF) for his class.

She meant well: perhaps if the other kids learned about CF, it might help them to better understand Max’s condition; why he was missing so often from school and why, when he was in school, he had to leave class every day to go to the nurse’s office for physio.

But the article also trafficked in harsh realities. Max was a happy child, brought up to believe he was just like any other kid, but, standing in front of his classmates, this little boy learned for the very first time he probably wouldn’t live past 30, the life expectancy at the time for a person with CF. That’s how Maxwell McGuire discovered he was different.

Foreverland is a road-trip/coming-of-age movie, directed by McGuire and starring Max Thieriot, Laurence Lebeouf and Demián Bichir (Oscar-nominated this year for A Better Life) with cameos by Juliette Lewis (also Oscar-nominated) and Thomas Dekker. A young man with CF, Will Rankin, heads off to a legendary Mexican healing shrine following the CF-related death of a friend, bringing both his friend’s sister and ashes along for the ride. McGuire is in Cork this week for the Irish premiere.

Following that fateful English class, a very angry eight-year-old Max confronted his parents: “I came home and accused my family of being liars,” he chuckles. Amazingly, they didn’t subsequently tear the dimwitted teacher limb from limb:

“It was dealt with internally,” he says, “basically, they said, you’re not average, but if you continue to take your therapies, you will live forever so …. And now, I’m 31 and there’s no end in sight at the moment, so maybe they were right — we’re not spring chickens any more in the CF world.”

McGuire was introduced to film by his father and uncle, frustrated film-makers themselves.

“I grew up around them writing,” he says, “they had a bunch of unproduced scripts. After the 90s independent film revolution they tried to make a movie but couldn’t, so they looked at me, aged 18, and said, ‘do you want to make a movie?’ So we bought a couple of books, I got a light meter and learned to use it. We got a federal grant, made a movie and it disappeared, just as it should have. A lesson in what not to do, I had a lot to learn. I spent the next ten years working on my craft, learning how to tell a story.”

Unsurprisingly, Foreverland is derived directly from McGuire’s personal experience.

“I had lost a peer to CF,” says McGuire, “and realised my sister [who also has CF] and I were the last surviving peers of the whole generation of people with CF we had grown up with. We’d joke about ‘who’s next’, but you start wondering, planning your own funeral, wondering if anyone will show up and all the classic thoughts a 25-year-old shouldn’t be having. Once I got over myself, I realised this might make an entertaining movie — as a young man wrapped up in his own impending death, I had forgotten to live.

“The subject may be perceived to be morbid but it’s an inspirational story about life. It’s a coming of age film about a 21-year-old, but it’s just as pertinent for a 65-year-old who realises he hasn’t lived the life he wanted to live. The template was the Wizard of Oz — you have to leave your backyard to realise everything you wanted was always right there.”

And how does McGuire feel now about his own mortality?

“I like to say I’m ‘post-Foreverland Will’,” he says. “I’m happy, enjoy life, family, friends and good times, I’m not caught up in the dark side. Yes, the thoughts creep up once in a while, of course, when you get sick, or a friend passes, but on the other hand, I’m here now and I can live my life while I’m here.”

Before shooting began, McGuire took to the gym to bulk up —with CF, it is usually very difficult to put on weight and dangerously easy to lose it. Overseeing a crew of up to 45 for 22 days of principal photography between Canada and Mexico would severely tax even the healthiest of individuals.

“I had to plot out my time and share it with my CF treatments,” says McGuire, “I was pretty rigorous about getting my eight hours sleep because I was sure I wouldn’t last the whole shoot without that recuperation time. So we might do a 12-hour shoot, I’d eat my dinner, do my mask therapy [daily nebuliser taken by all CF patients], take my pills and go to bed. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, if we were on a night shoot, I could go to bed at 6am. Principal photography is never easy for anybody, but there are obviously extra complications when you’re dealing with CF.”

McGuire’s father finally got to see the film a few weeks ago, at a premiere in his hometown of Ottawa. “Dad loved it, he was so proud,” says McGuire. “It’s tough material in concept, you think it’s going to be dark, but then you get in there and I’ve seen grown men cry like babies. I’ve seen blubbering. A lot of people don’t want to put themselves in front of that type of film but it’s really cathartic. It’s not crying as in ‘feel sorry for me’, but something that inspires you to — hopefully — re-evaluate what you’re doing, leading to a better life.”

Foreverland’s Irish premiere is at Christchurch at Triskel Arts Centre, Cork, tomorrow at 8pm and is a joint fundraiser for Cork University Hospital Charity and Irish CF charity Build4Life.

Joe Browne, who fundraises for both charities, says: “We are aiming to raise €1.5m for a new paediatric unit at CUH which will benefit all the children of Cork, not just children with CF.”

* Tickets: charitycuh@gmail.com or phone 021-4234529.

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