Matthew Heineman is a risk-taker. Having filmed in Mexico with criminal gangs and corrupt police — for the Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary “Cartel Land” — and putting himself in danger in war-torn Syria and Afghanistan (his most recent untitled film chronicles the end of the U.S. war), it was no surprise that the 38-year-old filmmaker would jump into documenting the Covid crisis.
The question is, when will audiences be ready to experience “The First Wave”? The movie finally premieres this week at the Hamptons International Film Festival, after a series of festival rejections that the lauded filmmaker was not expecting. He initially fought to get the film finished in time for Sundance 2021, and while he got praise from the festival, director Tabitha Jackson wasn’t ready to show it. Nor was Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, or the New York Film Festival. London and a dozen regional festivals will follow the Hamptons, along with Doc NYC.
Questions from his first narrative feature, the Rosamund Pike-starring “A Private War,” about the life of war correspondent Marie Colvin, haunted him. “I was exploring things in my own mind,” he said, about telling the story of Colvin, who died from an IED explosion in Syria in 2012. “Do we make a difference? Do these films, do those articles? Does anyone actually give a shit? Which is what plagued her and what plagues me. Will ‘The First Wave’ make a difference?”
Heineman knows the view of Covid he presents in his movie is upsetting. “I get upset,” he said. “I cry every time I watch the movie.” It’s a tough watch, no question — as well as cathartic, healing, and emotional. “Isn’t that exactly what films are supposed to do?” said Heineman, who previewed the film extensively around the country to upbeat response. “And especially with this film, I want people to reflect on their lives, especially their lives now, how we’ve changed, how society has changed.”
Heineman started discussing a film about Covid at Sundance 2020, when the scale of the plague about to fall upon the world was still unimaginable. He and his frequent collaborator Alex Gibney were both chasing the story, although they wound up attacking it in distinct ways. (Gibney’s “Totally Under Control” focused on the Trump administration’s early mishandling of the virus.) As the first cases hit the U.S. in March, Heineman said, “this is just something I have to do.”
With Gibney on the film as executive producer — “there were a lot of complicated things that we had to navigate” — they eventually rounded up backing from Participant, NatGeo, and distributor Neon. Dr. Don Berwick, a contact Heineman made on his 2012 film about U.S. health care, “Escape Fire,” helped to open the door at Northwell Health, which agreed to provide access to their largest hospital, Long Island Jewish Medical Center (LiJ) in Queens.
Logistics took a few weeks. The production set up an unused hospital conference room as a holding station where they kept their gear in their own corners, stripped down, and stepped into hospital scrubs. By the third week of March, New York City had become the epicenter of the national U.S. outbreak; hit hardest was the LIJ, with the most patients of any hospital in New York. No wonder it was hard to find cinematographers for the film. Eventually three men were willing to bear the risks alongside Heineman.
Inside the hospital they shot in rotating two-person crews: the director or a field producer and one cameraperson suited up with the same PPE used by the doctors and nurses at the hospital, each with one hard-to-get N95 mask to use for two weeks, covered by a surgical mask. “We didn’t have any special treatment,” said Heineman. “We didn’t have hazmat suits. We just did what they were doing. We were donning and doffing, we had to clean our gear every night. The process of [getting from] when we’d cut to when we’d like actually be relaxed took hours.”
Except they never did relax: at their hotel rooms away from loved ones (Heineman is single) they faced the same fear as everyone else. “It was terrible. I mean, scary,” he said. “You were living this thing that you were documenting. And it was as scary at home as it was in the hospital. It was like your brain could never ever cut off. And that was for months. Normally, you do a shootout in Mexico or in Afghanistan, there’s moments of adrenaline, and then your brain turns off. This was full on for a very, very long time.”
The filmmakers had no idea how long the shoot would last. “Naively, I thought it’s just gonna be two or three weeks or a month at the most,” Heineman said. “So we were just like, we have to shoot, shoot, shoot. So we’re shooting seven days a week, 12, 14, 16 hours a day in the hospital. Like, insane.” After six months, ultimately, “no one on my crew got sick. Which I’m proud of.”
At first, Heineman was casting the movie, looking for characters to follow. He needed a doctor or a nurse who could open up about their feelings. (Talking to patients was initially off limits.) “I didn’t want to just make this a horror movie with no characters,” he said. First-generation Haitian American Dr. Nathalie Dougé fit the bill: charming, candid, and expressive. And she allowed the filmmakers into her apartment. In May, she jumped into the Black Lives Matter protests, wearing a mask saying “I can’t breathe,” at a time when Dougé was fighting to keep her patients breathing.
“The trauma of the movie is it’s not just this enclosed world of the hospital but the rest of the world that can’t breathe,” said Carolyn Bernstein, Executive Vice President, Global Scripted Content and Documentary Films at NatGeo. “It is a document of our time. It couldn’t be more relevant, topical, and timely.”
“She just had this electric personality,” said Heineman. “You just know, it’s like a first date, I knew immediately that she would be amazing on camera. I had no idea of where the film would go, all the stuff that ultimately happened with BLM and George Floyd. At that point, I knew her as a doctor, and I knew that she had a wonderful personality that was endearing and she was really good with people and patients. People were terrified then, but they had a hard time articulating that terror, and she could.”
One of the challenges for the filmmakers was filming hospital patients on ventilators. All you could see was their eyes. “When you walk through like an ICU, you basically walk into a living morgue,” said Heineman. “it’s really scary.”
The movie focuses on two essential workers separated from their families and struggling to survive, incredibly weakened by the virus: NYPD cop Ahmed Ellis, whose heavy-lidded brown eyes never gave up the fight, and nurse Brussels Jabon, who had just given birth to a baby, still being cared for in a natal ward. Getting back to their families was by no means a given.
The hospital staffers rallied around these patients, rooting for them to make it, none more than physical therapist Karl Arabian, who after his night job as a deep sea fisherman came into the hospital to rally patients to get strong enough to leave their hospital beds.
Heineman shot some footage outside the hospital, visiting the patients’ families. Ellis’ wife Alexis let the filmmakers in: “To be able to film these dual realities,” said Heineman. “And that was obviously the other big tragedy of COVID: these people are suffering in the hospital alone, and [their families] are suffering at home alone. That was so hard to see, people were making life and death decisions on iPads. All of us were struck by how human beings came together in the moments of beauty and humanity. And as hard, terrifying, and awful as it all was, every night, I’m still going to bed with my heart full. It sounds super cheesy, but I was inspired every day.”
After six months of shooting and a frantic editing pace, Heineman was glad in the end that he had more time to refine the edit, instead of presenting the film at Sundance 2021. The title “The First Wave” helped Heineman to focus on the first four months. “The footage always tells you what to do, no matter how hard you push it,” he said. “And every time we kept cutting scenes past June, it just didn’t work. This is what the movie has to be. It has to be the portrait of New York for those four months. And this is what happens to our characters; there’s a very clear arc.”
While the filmmaker cut out his interviews with now-disgraced Governor Andrew Cuomo, his news conferences still provide an audio narration for the film. During those first four months, said Heineman, “he was one of the only voices of reason in the country, a voice of comfort for many people, when there’s so many unknowns and misinformation. The role that he plays is the role that he played. For all of us.”
More than a year and a half after filming began, Heineman is excited to present the film to the public at last — and he’ll bring some of the army of people who made the movie and the surviving characters onstage, many of them meeting each other for the first time, knowing there will be tears. “I hope that the world is ready for this movie,” he said, “that in some way, the film allows us to reflect on what we’ve been through, and how we’ve all changed as a society, as individuals. And to be part of the healing process as we try to look forward. And through the arcs of these four characters, there is that process of: life moves on. It doesn’t for some, it does for others. And, so I hope it’s more than just a COVID film.”
Along with his upcoming Afghanistan film in progress, Heineman co-directed with Matthew Hamachek the two-part HBO documentary “Tiger,” which debuted in January, about the rollercoaster career of golf star Tiger Woods. Not surprisingly, Heineman’s family is relieved when a project does not involve danger. “They’re ready for me to slow down,” he said. He’s talked to writer and documentarian Sebastian Junger (“Restrepo”), who lost his friend and collaborator Tim Hetherington to Libyan guns. “Everyone has their own red line. I’m just drawn to topics and ideas and people that are found in challenge. I’m trying to make films about ideas and things that people are living through or are talking about. But humanize that. Often these things are relegated to headlines or stats. One of the greatest tragedies of COVID is that people didn’t really see what was happening at hospitals.”
In order to survive the plague, many people had to push aside its horrors, including the overwhelming impact on people of color. “Either you were extremely impacted by it, and you died, or your family member died,” said Heineman, “or you really try to not ever engage. That’s the tragedy, that’s a real challenge. We really did disclose that people of color [were primarily impacted]. You didn’t have to be a lifelong epidemiologist to figure that out: you just walk into an ICU and look around. I saw that pretty clearly, quickly. I knew right away who was not there. Not a lot of people like me.”
The brave festival director who stepped up to show “The First Wave” at the Hamptons is David Nugent. “It’s up to the artist to help filter things and make sense of what happened,” he said on the phone. “People who have lived and died and fought for those of us who remain healthy, the therapist, doctor, and nurse, were all taking extraordinary risks at varying scales of pay to keep us safe. That is a story that needs to be told, and told well. This film was not casually done. Matt Heineman did an incredible job of telling those stories. Art should make people uncomfortable sometimes.”
Neon will release “The First Wave” in theaters later this year with a splashy big-theater premiere in New York City ahead of a broadcast premiere on National Geographic in 172 countries. “I’m not in the game of trying to convince people to play films that don’t feel right for their festival,” said Neon CEO Tom Quinn. “It’s an absolute necessity to be seen. Nothing should stand in its way. I cried. I was desperate to cry with someone else. [The movie] aptly delivers a catharsis and a recognition that we have to pull together, because there’s still work to do. Anyone who doesn’t want to participate in it, you don’t have to come. Matt has created something so unforgettable and necessary. If not now, when? If not this, what? It’s as simple as that.”