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Real life finds way into reels

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Tom Russell

Tom Russell

PROVO — Tom Russell somberly finished his phone call and let the news sink in. His wife, Angie, who had been battling cancer, only had a few more days to live. Taking a moment to regain himself, he returned to the set where he was directing a movie.

That night, Russell, a Brigham Young University film professor, was directing a scene where a principal character accepts the loss of his wife to cancer and for the first time allows his heart to break. The cast and crew maintained an air of reverence as they realized what the scene meant for their vulnerable director.

Less than a week later, on July 5 at 1 a.m., Angie Russell died.

"Every time I see that scene in the movie it's moving to me, not just because of the content of it, but because I remember that crew," Tom Russell said. "There was a warmth and kindness and camaraderie and mutual respect. There were all the mistakes that happen on movies and then some, but just about everybody finished that film kind of grateful for the experience."

Russell insists he did not intend for "Mr. Dungbeetle," the movie he wrote and directed, to be so autobiographical. Around the time filming began, Angie Russell decided to stop her chemotherapy treatments. Before she told her husband she made him promise he would finish the movie.

"I see a lot of her in it," Russell said, "I see a lot of me in it."

Russell had written a movie called "Mental," a short film that explored the idea of what helping other people another requires.

"I thought, it's really interesting how people will tend to try to seek out that help or will try to kind of impose help instead of really listening and finding out where somebody is and going to them there," Russell said.

The same idea of helping others was maintained in the revised version of "Mental," now renamed "Mr. Dungbeetle," but when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, the script evolved to encompass the idea of facing and overcoming personal challenges.

"It's a frightening time, and it's a time that tries your faith. It's a time that kind of brings you out so that idea of facing and confronting fear was central to me," Russell said.

"Mr. Dungbeetle" is about five schizophrenic patients who escape from a low-security mental institution and the doctor who comes after them. Their leader, Phillip, has recently read about the dungbeetle, an insect worshiped by the Egyptians for its supposed selfless quality of shouldering others' burdens.

The idea behind that, Russell said, is if one is selfless and helps others shoulder difficult burdens, a re-birth or regeneration take place.

Under the direction of Phillip, each patient is given a "dung duty," a task they must accomplish. Each task correlates with each patient's specific fear, such as Don Clemente, a patient afraid of water, being in charge of the underwater maneuvers.

Once they face their fears they can be healed. Even the doctor sent to bring the group of runaways back from their mountain hideaway faces his fear and allows himself to grieve over the wife he lost to cancer.

"I watch it now and it actually takes on an additional meaning in kind of this idea that if we endure difficulties, if we go through things that don't make a whole lot of sense, that may even seem like pointless exercises and pain, that there's something on the other side that is hopeful," Russell said.

While the film is humorous, it takes a serious turn toward the end. Although there has been some interest by a few distributors, the fate of the film has not yet been decided.

Regardless of whether it is bought by a distributor or not, Clay McCaw said the film was supposed to be made. McCaw plays the part of a patient afraid of heights who's "dung duty" includes high-altitude karate and flying.

"It was a weird, special spirit from the beginning to the end of the film," he said.

The cast and crew for the film were made up of mostly students and teachers at BYU, where Russell has been a professor for six years. Many of them have worked on several movies, but many said their experience on the set of "Mr. Dungbeetle" was unusual.

"I think we experienced something special, and I'm glad to be a part of it," said Jeff Parkin, the film's producer and BYU film professor.

Of all the film's supporters, Russell said his wife was his motivating force and one of the largest advocates of finishing the film.

As a result, Parkin said there were many things that were "just so Angie," and the cast and crew refer to them as "Angie moments."

Angie's favorite line, and the theme of the movie, is "life is worth the scary parts," a theme Russell agrees with.

"When you love someone that much, you'd do it all again knowing that the pain is part of it and that the loss would be part of it, that life is worth the scary parts."

E-mail: jelder@desnews.com