Making a Movie About Stillbirth

An interview with filmmaker Sean Hanish about Return to Zero

by Sarah Muthler
May 16, 2014

In 2005, filmmaker Sean Hanish and his wife Kiley lost their son Norbert to stillbirth. That experience led Sean to make the powerful film, Return to Zero airing this weekend on Lifetime.

I asked Sean to share his story about what it was like getting Hollywood to sign on to a story that has the antithesis of a Hollywood ending.

Sarah Muthler: Why did you decide to make Return to Zero?

Sean Hanish: After we went through the death of our son, my wife and I thought we were one in a million because nobody talks about stillbirth. We didn't talk about it to anyone, and no one brought it up with us. There were no films or shows or stories out there that I knew of about the loss of a stillborn child.

In a way, I didn't choose to make Return to Zero. It chose me. This was a story that has never been told and needed to be out in the world. Then, as I began writing it, my eyes were opened to the incredible number of people that this has happened to. But that only happened after I started writing the script.

SM: Was the industry receptive to a film about stillbirth?

SH: No. Not receptive at all. The "industry" has no interest in a film about this topic. Over the past five to seven years, studios have stopped making dramas because people have stopped going to the theater to see them. So to try to sell a drama – about a stillbirth no less – they didn’t think there was a market for it. They did respond to the script and many important people said that it was a "film worth making," but as one of my good friends says you can die of hope in this business. Nobody would take the risk.

So the biggest challenge was to secure financing. A significant portion of that came from my wife and me. Another half dozen courageous friends and family came aboard with nothing but blind faith on their side. Then the community stepped in and helped us finish the film. It's kind of a miracle that this film exists.

SM: What sort of emotions did you have as you went through the writing and production of this movie?

SH: It was dreadful. Reliving the most difficult scenes and moments of your life is not for the faint of heart. It was difficult to write, challenging to rehearse, heartbreaking to film, and emotional to edit. And then you watch it over and over and cry almost every time you see it. It's a draining process. Cathartic for sure, but I'm emotionally drained from it all.

SM: As someone who has experienced stillbirth and now writes about it, I find that I can only spend a few hours on the subject before I need a mental break. Did you and your wife ever feel that this project was too much to take on emotionally?

SH: For sure. Our lives often became consumed with the movie and everything that goes with it. But we also sensed that there was a movement surrounding the film, like a wave coming up behind you, and we felt that we were making a difference in the lives of so many parents who have lost children. We believed it was important, and at the end of the day worth the sacrifice, so you soldier on. 

SM: The film includes some of the most common, and least helpful, comments that people make about stillbirth: "Everything happens for a reason." and "This was God's plan." or "You’ll have another baby." I heard all of these after my daughter's death but was always too timid — and often too stunned — to respond. Did you worry that your friends and family might be offended by this portrayal?

SH: I don't think they'll be offended. I'm sure that some of them made these comments, but I hope that when they see them in a larger context, they will understand the meaning. But most importantly, I hope that they – and everyone who watches the film – will learn how to be empathic and what things are helpful to say to someone who's going through this type of loss.

SM: The film's tagline is "Three minus one equals zero." Would you talk about the meaning behind that?

SH: It means that you're already a family long before the actual birth of your child. I never knew this before Kiley was pregnant with our son Norbert. The three of us were a family – we bought a house in a good school district, decorated the room, everything one does when anticipating their first child. So there were three of us for quite a while. Then we lost the one child we had, but we didn't go back to two again. We went back to zero. We had to start over – with our relationship, with ourselves, with our worldview. So for us, three minus one did equal zero.

SM: What advice do you have for parents who have suffered a recent stillbirth? What did you do after losing your son that was most helpful in your healing?

SH: The advice I'd give is to reach out when you're ready. There's a community out there waiting to embrace you.

The most helpful thing I did was to make this film because through making it my wife and I became closer and talked about our loss in a new and loving way. Our son became a part of our living family, and our current children now know about him. It also was an opportunity to meet people in the loss community and that has been simply an amazing experience – these are people who we are so grateful to have in our lives.

SM: When you were writing the film, did want to reach people who had experienced a stillbirth or those who hadn't, or both?

At first I thought about those who had experienced a stillbirth a lot because I knew that I couldn't take any shortcuts as a writer. That drove me to get all the details, moments, emotions, and relationships as true and honest to our experience as possible. That was my north star.

Then once I felt like I had that dialed in, I thought about a wider audience because I knew that in order to break the taboo, to really break the silence, we'd need to reach a general audience as well. That's why the humor in the film is so important to the telling of the story. That's also why casting such amazing and well-known actors was critical. When we got lucky and cast Minnie Driver I knew a wider audience would watch.

SM: I watched this film with a box of tissues in my lap, and my face was swollen from crying by the end, so I was relieved to be alone. Are you hoping that people will watch "Return to Zero" in groups, or is it enough for us to watch it alone with a tub of ice cream and discuss it later?

SH: Grief is so personal and everyone is at a different stage in their journey, so I want people to watch it however they feel most supported. That could be alone, with their family, with a best friend, with mac and cheese, tissues, with ice cream and a glass of wine… or with none of that.

I simply want people to watch the film however they feel the most comforted. And they shouldn't feel like they have to talk about it afterward – but they should feel like they are welcome to. To facilitate that, we have created a discussion guide for people to go through their own experiences in comparison (or contrast) to the characters in the film. This is something that people can do on their own or they can share their experiences in a group.

We are also hosting a Google + Hangout with some amazing people from the community after the film on the 17th to walk through the discussion guide if people are interested in tuning in for that.


Sarah Muthler

Sarah Muthler

Sarah Muthler is a freelance writer and a mother of three. She blogs about parenting, loss, and life at Land of Abe.