It was a classic love story. Jonathan Hicks and Robyn Young (now Hicks) met each other nine years ago in film school. Jonathan was pursuing filmmaking, and Robyn was studying acting at the time.
They instantly connected because of their love for Southern literature and art.
“I was writing stories, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was writing them for her,” Jonathan Hicks said.
After film school, they moved to New York, hated it and then moved back to Georgia, eventually landing in Serenbe. Through their production company, Boy Meets Girl Productions, they made their first film together, “Picture Show.”
During the editing of “Picture Show,” however, Jonathan Hicks started feeling pain.
Eventually, through a misdiagnosis of testicular cancer, the doctors found that it was lung cancer.
That diagnosis has changed their entire lives, and the diagnosis launched a process of rediscovery for Jonathan Hicks.
“The moment I became diagnosed, I ceased to be the human being that I once was,” he said. “I completely changed.”
A filmmaker embarking on rediscovery can only mean one thing: make a movie about the experience.
So, Robyn and Jonathan Hicks made “Nirvana: a short film about lung cancer.”
“Nirvana was the result of the nine years of us being together,” Jonathan Hicks said. “It wasn’t just the cancer. It was us looking at ourselves and our relationship and figuring everything out after that.”
Jonathan Hicks wrote and directed the film. Robyn Hicks produced, but she also played the lead role of a woman diagnosed with lung cancer, essentially taking on Jonathan Hicks’ own struggle with the illness.
“When we were in early stages of pre-production,” said Robyn Hicks. “I knew so deeply what I had been through as a caregiver that I was afraid to step into the role of what he was feeling.”
Robyn and Jonathan Hicks aren’t Buddhists, but the idea of nirvana permeates throughout the film and represents Jonathan Hicks’ goal with his internal struggle with cancer. “Nirvana was the title, nirvana was the goal, nirvana was where I wanted us to be in the end,” he said.
Along with expressing Jonathan Hicks’ experience with lung cancer, another goal was to re-invent the illness film. “Nirvana” focuses on the internal conversations that Jonathan says aren’t usually expressed in art and illness films.
Jonathan Hicks calls the film visual poetry. He wanted to show the sense of disconnect that diagnosed people feel. “The moment you get diagnosed, you stop being a part of the normal world,” he said.
Instead of being bound by traditional narrative filmmaking, Jonathan Hicks tried to open himself to each moment in the filmmaking process. They had a script, but instead of using it, they shot the film spontaneously.
For example, Jonathan Hicks purposely didn’t see sets beforehand. Instead, he arrived that filming day and decided how to use the set based on his emotional response to the space in the moment. He also applied this technique to editing.
“I forgot the script,” said Jonathan Hicks. “I just let myself feel each moment as it was occurring.”
“I wanted to find a way for me to make movies and live life moment to moment,” he said. “For me, I succeeded. For me, I found a personal state of being on set that I’ve lived out ever since.”