If Farewell to Hollywood is a difficult film to watch, it's an even harder one to look away from. Seventeen year-old instigator, star and co-director Reggie Nicholson has been battling cancer for a year at the start of production. Aside from the chemotherapy that leaves her bald and vomiting into trash bins, it's tempting to describe her as a typical teenager. And she is. Struggling to forge her identity. Aching for independence. Clashing with her parents. In other ways, she's preternaturally mature. An obsessive movie fan, Nicholson has a mission: to make a feature film. Then she met Henry Corra.
In 2010, the 55 year-old filmmaker was screening "The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan," a documentary about an American soldier who vanished in Southeast Asia, at a Washington, D.C. festival. "We were all back in the hotel," Corra says. "I saw Reggie and her mom across the lobby and I thought Reggie was some kind of German model. I was going to go over and find out what movie she was in. Very sweetly and frankly, they told me her whole story. Her mom asked me first and Reggie followed: 'Reggie's dream is to make a feature film. Would you like to work with her?'"
A protégé of legendary documentarians the Maysles brothers (probably best known for "Grey Gardens") Corra specializes in a type of unvarnished nonfiction filmmaking sometime dubbed "living cinema." He was initially hesitant about working with Reggie. "I explained that there's only a certain kind very personal filmmaking that I'm capable of doing," he says. "She was shaking her head yes, yes, yes. I thought this is an amazing story, but I was also terrified." Their cross-country collaboration -- Reggie was living with her family in the Long Beach area while Corra is based in New York -- began a few weeks later.
"Farewell to Hollywood," which Nicholson and Corra co-directed, is a memoir of disintegration, not merely of Nicholson's physical body but of her family. Her parents, who initially support the movie, begin to resent it and are convinced Corra is sleeping with their daughter (he's not). At various points they forbid Nicholson to continue with the project, threaten to cut off her health insurance and kick her out. Upon turning 18, Nicholson moves out and into a South Pasadena bungalow where Corra becomes not just her creative collaborator, but her caretaker too. It's all captured on film, including the conflict caused by the presence of the camera in their lives.
"The idea of someone so young dying was unfathomably scary to me," Corra says. "I started this by saying that I was terrified. One of the self-imposed rules I've always had as a filmmaker is to try to choose subjects that are going to be life-changing for me, for the subjects and hopefully for the audience."
The result is part video diary, part family portrait and part fairytale, defying nearly every trope of the "disease documentary" subgenre, whether tragic or triumphant. It's also a study in how poorly humans can behave during a crisis. "Reggie is almost like the Yoda at the center of the movie," Corra says. "All of us who love her, friends and family, are just grappling with this terrible anxiety and fear and panic and behaving as humans would in that situation." It's a testament to Corra's approach that even though "Farewell to Hollywood" is so intimate it feels like we're staring at the pores of the Nicholson family through a microscope, the film has empathy for all of its characters.
Nicholson and Corra spent two years filming, amassing 400 hours of footage. Nicholson was equipped with a camcorder and could document her own experiences while Corra and his producer would fly in periodically to shoot segments. Framed by the text messages exchanged between Corra and Nicholson the film is also seeded with clips from Nicholson's favorite movies. "Early on, Reggie came up with the idea that it was going to vacillate between the movies inside her head and the brutal realities of her daily life so that people would get an inside out picture of her. I thought that was brilliant," Corra says. Look closely and you'll catch snippets of "Apocalypse Now," "Batman," "Pulp Fiction" and "The Piano," among others.
The conflict between Nicholson and her parents gives the film its tension and narrative thrust but "Farewell to Hollywood" is as much the story of a teenager emerging into an all too brief adulthood. Hellbent on maturing and finding her identity, Nicholson was, as Corra says, "coming-of-age in hyper-drive."
It's not hard to guess how the film ends. There's no magic potion or fairy godmother for Nicholson. There's just chemotherapy, which proves to be ineffective. There's the support of her friends and members of her church, which is crucial. And there's the documentary, which may not offer salvation but at least allows Nicholson to fulfill some of her promise. Throughout production Corra worked with editor Kimberley Hassett and they were able to screen a three-hour cut of the movie for Nicholson, seven days before she died.
"I don't know if [the film] taught me anything about life and death, but it taught me how to honor a commitment and care for someone in a way that I never had before in my life," Corra says. "I'm not going to say I'm not afraid to die, that would be arrogant. But I'm going to say that Reggie taught me so much about how important death is to life, how alive you are the closer you are to death and how dying can be a beautiful and graceful thing albeit with suffering and pain."
"Farewell to Hollywood" will screen on Wednesday, February 25 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, and opens at the Noho 7 in L.A. on March 13.