Inside a Stirring New Mini-Doc About Medical Marijuana for Kids With Epilepsy

Ryan Durr on the making of 'Chasing Hope'

Sometimes, chasing hope pays off in the most amazing ways.

Just ask Ryan Durr, associate creative director in the Dallas office of ad agency Team One, and his wife Lisa, who struggled mightily to find an effective treatment for their young son Owen's rare epilepsy disorder.

After trying half a dozen medications over three years with scant success, "we feared our options were exhausted—until we tried medical marijuana," Durr says.

Once the Texas Compassionate Use Act passed in 2015, some patients, including Owen, experienced extended, even dramatic relief from their symptoms thanks to CBD oil. But that improvement came with a heavy price tag, as treatment can approach $1,000 per month, depending on the severity of the condition.

"The cost is incredibly prohibitive for many of the people that need it. We want to help change that," says Durr.

So, he teamed up with documentary and commercial director Justin Wilson to make a 13-minute film, "Chasing Hope," designed to raise awareness and funds. The mini-doc dropped online Wednesday. It profiles six Texas families, including the Durrs, who use legally prescribed cannabis to treat their kids' epilepsy and related conditions.

"Chasing Hope" fuses journalism and advocacy. Its gripping interviews tug at the heartstrings as they educate viewers about the power of cannabis to transform lives. Parents discuss their rough times in stark terms, explaining how their situations improved as their kids broke free of epilepsy's grip. In some cases, for the first time, these youngsters became their true selves—unique personalities no longer caged by quirks of biology.

All of them made impressive strides, none more so than teenage Julia, who ranks among the film's most memorable subjects. In a stirring sequence, we watch her address the Texas House Public Health Committee about her experience with medical marijuana.

"Before CBD oil, I had 200 seizures per day," Julia tells lawmakers, choking back tears. "After CBD oil, and thanks to that, I'm one year seizure free. And I was able to this December get my driver's license. This was unbelievable to me." What's more, she gained acceptance to Texas A&M, a goal that just a few years earlier seemed utterly unattainable.

"We originally didn't know Julia was going to be there testifying that day," says Durr, best known in the ad world for campaigns on behalf of Geico, Lexus and Lego. "We went with the intent to film some of the House committee hearing as b-roll for the film. It was such a serendipitous moment to run into her and capture that incredible speech on camera. I was sitting next to Julia's mother and it was so moving. Not a dry eye in the house."

Durr produced the film after winning $25,000 and Team One's creative assistance in the agency's annual "Launch an Idea" competition for projects designed to improve the community.

"We invested in this film because we know the cannabis industry is in a transitional stage, and needs creative problem solving more than ever," says Team One chief creative officer Chris Graves. "It's been interesting to see how much of the conversation in this space has shifted to health and wellness, but there's more work to do, and we want to play a part in continuing to reshape the dialogue and dispel stigmas." 

Despite evolving viewpoints, medical marijuana remains something of a taboo subject, particularly in conservative states such as Texas. In "Chasing Hope," some of the parents lament that they had to contend with disapproval from their friends and neighbors for purchasing legal cannabis to help their kids.

Below, Durr discusses making the film and his goals moving forward.

How'd you choose the subjects?

Ryan Durr: As you can imagine, the epilepsy community is pretty tightly knit, so we first looked for subjects within that group—friends, friends of friends, doctor's recommendations. Compassionate Cultivation, at the time Texas's first and only medical marijuana dispensary, also offered some patient-families who had expressed an interest in sharing their stories. After an initial outreach, we had a list of about 25-30 potential subjects. I had a preliminary phone call with each one of them to talk about life with epilepsy, and their experience using medical cannabis. Then we narrowed it down to the final subjects featured in the film. We wanted to show a range of families, from their medical conditions to the obstacles and challenges they faced using medical-grade CBD oil.

Did they all agree readily, or did they take some convincing?

Most families were more than willing to share their stories. But yes, a few were hesitant to go on camera and talk about something which, to be honest, is still frowned upon in a conservative state like Texas. Being a parent of a child with epilepsy, I can absolutely relate. We were very considerate to not push anyone to do or say anything they weren't comfortable revealing.  

What's your No. 1 goal for the film?

There's still a negative perception regarding medical cannabis. But when you say CBD oil, it doesn't always register as the same thing. When my son started taking medical-grade cannabis oil, a lot of friends and family said things like, "CBD, yeah, I got a bottle from Whole Foods once." And it's like, no, this is different. We wanted to make "Chasing Hope" for people like that. We wanted to help clear up some of the misinformation and show what it's really like for families living with epilepsy who are trying to use medical cannabis as a treatment.

And more importantly, we wanted people to see the challenges and restrictions holding patients back from receiving treatment. Texas is a conservative state that believes in small government. Citizens don't want governmental powers getting in the way of an individual's rights. Whether you believe in medical cannabis or not, I think most Texans agree that cost and political regulations shouldn't impede someone's health or treatment plan.  

Why a mini-doc? Is long-form preferable?

While our intention was to create a five-minute doc, we knew as soon as we started editing that it needed to be longer to properly tell the stories of all these families. The film comes in just under 14 minutes, which is enough time to tell our story but isn't some daunting 60-minute documentary that requires a commitment to watch. I think the magic of a mini-doc film is that people can watch it wherever and whenever. It's 14 minutes. You can watch that on your phone while you're waiting for the oven to preheat. You can watch it on your computer in between work meetings. It's extremely accessible. And because the subject matter is so intimate and potentially divisive, being online allows the audience to let their guard down a little and maybe be more receptive to the message.

You're mainly sharing it on a dedicated website, yes?

We originally had other plans for releasing "Chasing Hope," but of course, Covid-19 hit and everything was put on hold. We were sitting on this finished film, waiting to see if things would get better, and I started getting calls from people who knew about the film, asking if it was out, if we had raised any money for patients in need. We decided we couldn't wait any longer. This message is too important. There are people having trouble affording their oil, especially now. We decided to pivot and release it for free online.

How long did it take to make?

This was made over the course of 2019. It took somewhere around six months—maybe more—but because it was a passion project for everyone involved, it was done in little bursts here and there. For example, in the middle of production, a bill unexpectedly came up to expand the Texas Compassionate Use Act. It was going to include other conditions for medical cannabis like ALS, cancer and autism. It was a big deal. The director, Justin Wilson, and I were like, "We have to film that." So, the day of the hearing, I woke up at 4 a.m. and drove from Dallas to Austin to meet Justin at the state capitol so we could film this House committee meeting at 8 a.m. The entire production was moments like that, where this passion and scrappiness came together.    

Can you talk about the filmmaking process?

To say this film was done on a shoestring budget is an understatement. From the filming and editing to the coloring and music—the original composition was done by friends at a music house, Shindig—"Chasing Hope" was a passion project for everyone. The director, the DP, editors, myself, we all did this in our free time.

The project started as an idea I pitched during an internal competition at my ad agency, Team One. Every year, employees are invited to submit an idea that gives back to the community. My son Owen has a rare type of epilepsy, and our family has been on this never-ending journey trying to find the best treatment. After he was approved to take medical cannabis oil and we started experiencing some of the obstacles other families were dealing with, my wife and I were like, "There has to be something we can do to help." We pitched the idea to make this mini-doc and raise money to help patients struggling to afford their CBD.

How'd you pick the director?

As soon as we won the competition and the film was greenlit, I knew I wanted Justin Wilson to direct. He and I ran in the same circles growing up around Dallas, and our paths crossed again with our careers in advertising and video production. I called him with this two-page pitch deck and immediately he said, "I want to do this." From there, it was this small and scrappy, talented production crew Justin assembled, and we were off to the races—filming interviews whenever we were all available. A bulk of them were done over two or three days in Austin. We filmed the rest here and there on weekends. As I mentioned, a bill to expand the Texas Compassionate Use Program popped up unexpectedly during production, which was amazing, but we had to pivot quickly to include that storyline in the film.

As you made the film, what surprised you most? What did you learn?

We walked into the homes of five families and saw the most intimate aspect of their lives. In those few hours with them, we witnessed just a sliver of what they are living with. These are things the vast majority of us can't even begin to imagine. Yet all the families we interviewed shared a similar perspective. No matter what they were dealing with, no matter the level of disability of their child, every one of these families said, "We consider ourselves lucky because we've seen families who have it way worse." And that level of perspective blew me away. It humbled me, because even though my son has epilepsy, he's pretty high functioning. You look at him and you can't tell he has a complex neurological disorder. To be with these other families and hearing that perspective allowed me to appreciate the things I have.

How did it feel putting your own family in the film?

We didn't intend to. I wanted to stay behind the camera, interviewing the families, focused on telling the story. It was Justin and the director of photography, Philip Sheldon, who persuaded us to share our story. I'm glad they did.

Owen is 8 now and doing really well. He's still taking medical-grade CBD oil, but because Owen's medical conditions are complex, he needs to be treated with additional pharmaceuticals. We are fortunate to have access to medical-grade CBD and believe it has played an integral role in helping control his seizures. Owen had his first seizure in 2015, shortly after his third birthday. Until then, he was a completely healthy child. We were blindsided. It has been an all-encompassing journey since then, trying to nail down a precise diagnosis and control his epilepsy.

Can you talk a bit more about your personal struggle?

I couldn't even tell you the number of pharmaceuticals we've tried over the years. In 2017, we moved back to Texas for my job at Team One, and it was my wife who learned about the Compassionate Use Act, which legalized medical cannabis for Texans with intractable epilepsy. She did a tremendous amount of research into low-THC CBD oil and epilepsy and made a convincing case to our son's neurologist. Going through that entire process, having to deal with all the regulations, having to pay almost $300 a month for the oil, with no help from insurance, inspired "Chasing Hope."

You have to understand, families like us who are using this medicine owe thousands and thousands of dollars every year to hospitals and insurance companies. To tack on an additional $300-$1,000 a month for a bottle of oil, that's pretty significant. A lot of families have to make really tough decisions every month: Do we not pay our electric bill or do we walk away from this potential treatment? That's not right. I don't want any patients or families having to make decisions like that. That's why we made "Chasing Hope." This project may not be able to help everyone. But if the film can bring attention to what's going on with medical cannabis in Texas, if we can change a few minds, if we can raise enough money to help just a few financially insecure patients, this project will be a success.   

CREDITS

Team One
Writer: Ryan Durr
Asst. Producer: Ben Allison
Content Producer: Leah Bohl
Art Direction: Jim Darling

Charlie Uniform Tango
Director: Justin Wilson
Editors: Justin Wilson & Evan Linton
Post Producer: Keith Munley
Director of Photography: Philip Sheldon
Steadicam Operator: Jared Deer
AC: Nico Paprota, Scott Clark
Audio Recording: Tiago De Silva
Additional Camera: Lan Freeman
Audio Mixer: Jake Kluge
Colorist: Artie Pena
Editor Assistant: Katie Allison

Music: Shindig

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David Gianatasio
David Gianatasio is senior editor at Clio Awards.

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