SEATTLE _ When Dr. Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of
Washington, learned Helen Hunt was portraying her in an upcoming feature film,
she thought it must have been a joke.
A graduate student in King's lab stumbled across a description of the
movie-in-progress on the Internet last winter.
"The student came to me and said, ~You didn't tell me they were making a movie
about you!'" King said in an interview last week. "I said, ~Nobody's making a
movie about me.'"
She thought the student, kidding around, had set up the Web page herself.
But "Decoding Annie Parker" was indeed real.
The film is based on two concurrent stories of real-life women: Anne Parker
(played by Samantha Morton), a Toronto cancer survivor determined to understand
why cancer repeatedly struck the women in her family, and King's groundbreaking,
decades-long work at the University of California, Berkeley, to discover the
gene (BRCA1) that leads to increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
The film is screening at the Seattle International Film Festival as a benefit
for King's lab, where she and her students are currently developing accurate and
affordable testing for BRCA1, BRCA2 and other searching for other genes that
lead to breast or ovarian cancer.
Director Steven Bernstein, Parker, planned to meet for the first time at a
screening, though all have corresponded. Bernstein and Parker have appeared
together at several previous charitable screenings of the film.
"Annie Parker is, I think, iconic of many women that I've met in the course of
doing this work _ women who were stunned by what happened, devastated by what
happened, and responded not by giving up but by learning, by becoming involved,
by figuring out what had happened," King said.
The subject matter of "Decoding Annie Parker" is very much current and relevant:
Angelina Jolie's announcement several weeks ago that she carried a mutation in
the BRCA1 gene and underwent a preventive double mastectomy suddenly had
everyone talking about inherited breast cancer.
King characterized Jolie's editorial in The New York Times as "a beautiful piece
... really good, very clear, very accurate," but was careful to note that
Jolie's perspective, and Parker's, are "absolutely the correct perspective for
each of them," but that everyone's profile is different. Mutations in BRCA1 and
BRCA2 can be inherited from fathers as well as from mothers, so many women who
have the mutations in these genes have no family history of breast or ovarian
cancer. And she also said that "the vast, vast majority of women do not have
mutations in either of these genes."
Bernstein is currently seeking U.S. distribution for the film. A recent
screening at the Cannes Film Festival garnered much interest but no deal yet.
Bernstein is a longtime cinematographer who spent six years making "Decoding
Annie Parker," his directorial debut. Years ago, he thought of a unique idea for
its initial release: a "little altruistic window" before the movie's commercial
debut, in which it would share screening revenues with charities. "My investors
stay happy, and I, rather than giving the money to a distributor right away, get
to see that hopefully a few million dollars get to some cancer charities," he
said, noting that about 50 cities will host charitable screenings of the film.
After the film was completed earlier this year, Bernstein wrote to King and
invited her to view the film. The filmmaker said he worried he might have done
King "a bit of a disservice" but believed he would write a better script if he
did it "once removed" _ without meeting King or Parker. Bernstein wrote the
film, based on Parker's story, with his son, Adam Bernstein, and physician
Michael Moss, who advised on the story's medical issues.
"The science is important, but I can't tell you the science," Bernstein said.
"What I can tell you _ this is what I have observed happens to people in the
face of catastrophic illness, this is what happens to relationships ... That's
what I hoped to do with the film, and I thought I could only do that if I
stepped away from the science."
There are far fewer scenes of Hunt/King in the film than of Morton/Parker; the
story focuses on Annie, and how her long fight against cancer changes her.
King acknowledged that as a scientist she had "a few quibbles" with "Decoding
Annie Parker," and one large concern: the film's omission of Asian Americans in
its depiction of her Berkeley lab.
"The idea that one could carry out serious science in America without the
involvement of Asian Americans is just ludicrous," she said.
But she had high praise for Hunt, who'd clearly studied videos of King ("she's
got a bunch of mannerisms right!"), and found the film as a whole "beautifully
"The story is gripping," she said, "and it will have enormous appeal to women
who are concerned about breast cancer _ which is all of us."
(c)2013 The Seattle Times
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