Brett Marty’s Video About a Terminally Ill Facebook Engineer Determined to Master the Violin
March 27, 2018
The title card for “Finding Meaning in Music,” a video created for The New Yorker and directed by Brett Marty.
Sun’s wife, Karen Law, speaks to him quietly as he recovers from a seizure before the performance.
Sun's final performance “felt like a triumph for a really important year of his life,” says director Brett Marty.
Eric Sun was 32 years old and working as an engineering manager at Facebook when he was diagnosed with gioblastoma, a deadly brain cancer, in 2016. He decided to spend the months he had left studying the violin. He devoted himself to mastering a list of violin pieces by Bach, Mendelssohn and Paganini, and fulfilling his dream of performing with an orchestra.
“He had the means to fly around the world to do a bunch of experimental treatments but he opted not to. He chose to spend his last year trying to master the violin, and I think he kind of did,” says Brett Marty, who directed “Finding Meaning in Music,” a 9-minute video about Sun, created for The New Yorker. “He boiled his time down to what really mattered to him—and the people around him,” Marty says. “I felt a lot of tenderness and admiration for him.”
Unlike many cancer-related stories, “Finding Meaning in Music” shows no doctor’s visits, no moments of self-discovery, and ends with neither recovery nor death. Sun speaks openly about dying, and he and his wife, Karen Law, are matter-of-fact as they discuss their approach to addressing the problems ahead.
The video was posted on The New Yorker website in December, to coincide with the publication of an article about Sun by staff writer James B. Stewart. The video and the article follow very different narratives. Stewart’s piece traces Sun’s life and successful career, his longtime interest in music and his diagnosis. The video, however, focuses solely on Sun and Law’s life as they prepare for the next challenge they face: Making sure Sun is able to perform a complicated violin cadenza on stage in a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” put on by a local theater company.
Stewart was still working on his article in September 2017 when Soo-jeong Kang, executive producer for video at The New Yorker, decided she needed a director near Silicon Valley to shoot interviews with Sun and Law. “I want The New Yorker videos to expand the impact of the written stories. The digital space gives us that opportunity,” Kang explains. She also looks for videos that work as “stand-alones,” independent of a written piece. “I also want the stand-alone experiences to simultaneously feel like New Yorker content but have the stamp of our particular brand of storytelling.”
Marty, who is based in San Francisco, has worked as a photojournalist covering the last three presidential campaigns for FiveThirtyEight.com and other clients, and directed commercials. His 2016 short fiction film, Youth, about people aging in a society of perpetual youth, was shown in several film festivals. With his creative partner, Josh Izenberg, he co-founded Speculative Films, a production company that had previously worked with The New Yorker, among other clients.
When Kang called him to set up an interview with Sun, “It felt urgent,” Marty recalls. The original assignment was for a one-day shoot. Marty went to the couple’s home to interview them, accompanied by his assistant editor, Kee Heywood, who acted as sound engineer, and a cinematographer, who also helped with lights. When Marty arrived, he asked Sun to play the violin, and he played part of the “Fiddler” solo. “That seemed like a good way to get to know him,” Marty explains. During her interview, Law said that it was uncertain whether Sun would be able to make it to the final “Fiddler” performance, which was then a month away.
Marty wanted to shoot more. “There’s an arc to this story,” Marty told Kang. She agreed to let him continue, “and to put my heart and soul into it,” he says.
“Film has the potential to evoke very powerful emotions, and Eric Sun’s story did,” says Kang. “Once I assign the story, it’s important to give freedom to the filmmakers to craft a story that they believe in.”
To follow his subjects, Marty used a cinema verité style. “I’d run sound on a field mixer and move around—which makes it easier when trying to be a fly on the wall,” he says. Given the low budget, he had to call in favors from three different cinematographers, who shot with their own video cameras, which included a RED Dragon and RED Epic. “I think we shot in 4K, 6K and 8K” resolution, Marty says. To smooth the footage while they shot run-and-gun around subjects, they rigged their cameras to an Easyrig mount, achieving a look “between handheld and a Steadicam,” he says.
In October, Marty and a cinematographer recorded moments of the couple at home, talking together, playing the piano together. Marty says his goal was simply to observe, “to let the audience feel what it’s like to be there in those moments.” A documentary filmmaker’s first challenge is often to build rapport with subjects, but very early on, Law and Sun told Marty that they trusted him. “I think they’re very frank and incredibly brave people,” he says.
As Sun rehearsed diligently with the “Fiddler” orchestra, Marty and a cinematographer recorded his work. Sun’s teachers had once urged him to play with more passion. “Near the end of his life, it became very real for him,” Marty says, “so I wanted to focus on his face and the intensity of it during the rehearsal, and what those performances meant to him.”
A week later, he returned with a cinematographer to follow Sun through his last performance. Twice that day, Sun appeared ill—first when he arrived in the parking lot of the theater, then backstage. Later, Marty learned that Sun had suffered two seizures.
Marty wanted to capture some slow motion footage to heighten the tension as Sun, in costume, prepared for his stage moment. In a moment of fatigue or confusion, Sun walked the wrong way out of the theater; the stage manager pulled him back and sent him through the stage door. “Once the orchestra cued him, he was there in the moment and played flawlessly,” Marty says.
Throughout the performance, the cinematographer circled Sun on stage. At the end of the video, he finishes the piece, the camera is behind him as he faces the spotlight, then the screen cuts to black.
“When you see him finish his last piece, it was obviously bittersweet, but it felt like a triumph for a really important year of his life,” Marty says.
To edit the footage, he worked with editor Traci Loth, who is based in San Francisco. Kang and supervising producer Catherine Spangler reviewed the preliminary edit, and made suggestions for cuts to the piece, which ended up being 9 minutes and 30 seconds: They suggested condensing the back story about Sun’s illness, and paring down Law and Sun’s love story, which felt tangential to the story of the “Fiddler” performance.
Marty had initially used the interviews as voiceover, but with each edit, he cut back more and more of the explanatory audio. At one point, Law explains that Sun had asked: If she had known he would die so young, would she still have chosen to be with him? In an early edit, she gave her answer immediately. In the finished version, the voiceover pauses, while the couple plays a piano duet. After a few beats, viewers hear her answer: “All these moments I wouldn’t trade, even if I could have a few more decades in exchange.”
Marty says, “By having her answer come later, the audience gets to ask themselves the question: What would I do in that situation?” His observational style suits a story about a man determined to live each moment with mindfulness. The music heard throughout the piece was recorded live during filming.
“I think it’s pretty rewarding that Eric’s (and Karen’s) music is what guides us through the piece emotionally,” says Marty.
A title card at the end of the video explains that Sun died on Thanksgiving Day 2017. A few days before he died, friends gathered to celebrate Sun, and Marty was able to talk with him.
At one point in the video, Sun tells Marty, “I’m not going to be able to finish everything on my bucket list but living without regret, that’s been the most important thing.” Marty hopes the video emphasizes his resolve. “It was a tragic story to tell, but Eric and Karen always left us feeling inspired.”