The Elephant In The Room is a film on Amazon Prime directed by Allen Freeman (Dean LeCrone vs. the Mutants of Comic-Con) and starring Niko Vitacco (Prom Knight) as a nurse with an unusual way of treating patients based on true stories of the world of palliative care.
Based on City of Hope nurse Bonnie Freeman’s true stories, The Elephant In The Room is a dramedy following a team of doctors and nurses caring for people facing their final days. Michael (Niko Vitacco) is a nurse who adds humor and compassion to his toolkit for dealing with patients. Michael’s approach is out of the norm, and it’s put to the test when he meets Cooper, played by Craig Callo, who doesn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
PopAxiom spoke with Niko Vitacco, Tamir Gedalia, and William Dale about bringing Bonnie Freeman’s life to the big screen.
City Of Hope
Executive producer William Dale isn’t a movie guy. He’s the Chair in Supportive Care Medicine at the City of Hope. He worked closely with Bonnie Freeman and learned of her stories early on.
“Making the film was certainly easy for me since Bonnie Freeman did all the hard work,” William jokes. “She did a remarkable job of translating the experiences. Niko and Tamir took Bonnie’s vision and turned it into entertainment.”
Admittedly, William says, “I don’t like medical dramas and comedy very much because of the lack of realism.” He adds, “I have a soft spot for SCRUBS because they captured a couple of the real issues that go on.”
Getting the City of Hope to agree to become a film set was tricky. “We have a patient-family resource center that’s under my department. That was made available as a staging place,” William explains, “We got some approvals from the hospital to use it when essentially very few other people were around. There were caveats to that too.”
In the end, William says, “The hospital is thrilled with the way it all came out.”
Road To Hope
Niko and Tamir are both filmmakers, but their road into showbiz came via different routes.
Niko: “As a kid, I loved to tell stories. I knew at a young age that I wanted to be an actor. I’d done commercials, stage, and short films. This was my first lead in a feature. Because I was so involved during production, I was given the opportunity by Tamir, our director Allen, and writer Bonnie to take on a producer role.”
Tamir: “Back in Israel, I used to be an accountant. At some point, I started to follow my dreams of being a filmmaker. I left my job and career and moved to LA. I started volunteering on any production; short films, student films, videos, and commercials. Step-by-step, I started gaining experience and started my own production company. I started to produce commercials and videos. The Elephant In The Room is my first feature.”
How did Elephant In The Room come on everyone’s radar?
Niko: “It’s kind of a weird story. My wife knew Bonnie’s daughter (Ana) when my wife lived in Michigan. Ana reached out to my wife and asked if I’d be interested in auditioning because they just lost their lead actor. I was a little skeptical. Everyone claims to be a writer, and there’s a lot of bad material out there. Nevertheless, I said I’d be happy to read the script. Truthfully, I didn’t think I’d make it through the first ten pages. But it didn’t happen. Once I started reading the script, I couldn’t put it down. I laughed, I cried, I knew I was hooked.”
Tamir: “I got to know Allen through a friend. I knew his wife had a script, and she’s trying to make it into a film. As Niko said, we see a lot of bad material. So, that was my attitude, but I got the script, and I liked it. I thought it was different.”
Tamir admits, “We didn’t know how we were going to start, but Bonnie’s passion made me believe we would make the movie.”
William: “Bonnie worked at supportive care right next door to me. She came to me with the story early on. Niko came in and bribed me with a ball. We’re both from the southside of Chicago, and he gave me a White Sox World Series ball in the hopes that I would help more with the film. I went to my finance and risk-averse wife and said, ‘We don’t need that kitchen redesign, can we just do this film instead?'”
The Elephant In The Room is a character-driven drama that centers around Michael. How did becoming Michael happen for Niko?
Niko: “On the day of our table read, when I first met Bonnie, she told me that Michael was her alter-ego. Like Bonnie, Michael has a very unconventional approach to his patients. He values both humor and compassion. She wanted it to be clear that although Michael’s antics were over-the-top, it was only a dramatized representation of who he was. Michael is larger than life. But it was important to show the human connection with his patients and how he sees them for who they are, not where they are going to end up.”
The Elephant In The Room deals with a heavy topic with the kind of touch that has weight and levity. What’s a moment while filming that Niko will hold onto?
Niko: “I think a difficult scene that was tough for me was a scene in a stairwell. I knew how important this moment was for Bonnie. Before filming, she told me that she never got a chance to say goodbye to the real patient. So, writing this was her way of doing it, so I tried to give everything in the scene.”
“During the scene, the director let the camera roll a little bit longer,” Niko explains, “and I ad-libbed out loud ‘I love him so much.’ When the director called cut, Bonnie ran over to me with tears in her eyes and hugged me and said, ‘I never got a chance to say that out loud. Thank you.”
“Of course, the producer cut it out of the film,” Niko laughs.
Tamir: “It was the editor who did that.”
Selling The Elephant
The Elephant In The Room is a dramedy about some very weighty issues. How do they sell the film to a random person on the street?
Tamir: “It’s about a nurse in palliative care who treats terminally ill patients in unorthodox ways. He meets a tough patient and tries to get into his heart, and together they go on a journey through life and death. In the last year, I added one more sentence: ‘You will laugh, you will cry.'”
William: When I tell people it’s about palliative care, but it’s not all gloom and doom, people say, ‘You’re kidding.”
Niko: “Death doesn’t have to be dark and frightening if we talk about it. Without sounding lame, our film shows the delicate role that humor should play in this line of work.”
Who inspires Niko and Tamir as filmmakers?
Niko: “For me, two main actors stand out. Such polar opposites. Robert DeNiro, who I’ve grown up loving and watching and almost see as a father figure. He’s able to tell so much of a story with a blank face. I’ve always wanted to be more like that in my work. The other person would be Will Ferrell. He commits himself so much, regardless of how stupid the character is, he immerses himself. That commitment makes it real and brings it to life. As goofy as this sounds, my dogs inspire me a lot. They teach me to live in the present and live creatively with an open mind.”
Tamir: My favorite director who inspires me is Stanley Kubrick. I love films that every time you watch them, you find another more profound meaning. Each one of his movies you need to watch more than once. In general, I’m inspired by true stories and human stories.”
Though William isn’t a dedicated filmmaker, he admires one actor in particular. “I love Robin Williams. He’s my favorite actor. He loved doing medical characters. I loved Awakenings.”
What’s a dream project for Niko and Tamir?
Niko: “I’ve always loved The Lost Boys. It could be a great series. That would be incredible. As a teenager growing up, it gave me a sense of swagger.”
Tamir: “I would love to do our movie as a series with the same premise. Every episode would feature a different patient with different takes on life.”
The Elephant In The Room is out on Amazon Prime. So, what’s next from the filmmakers?
Niko: “A bunch of things are in the mix. The pandemic’s slowed things down, but it’s helped me re-focus on where I want my career to go. I finished a rewrite on a screenplay.”
Tamir: “I’m in the development of a series based on a true story about the Mossad’s most extraordinary operation that changed the way the world sees Israel.”
Is The Elephant In The Room on your Amazon Prime watch list?
Thanks to Niko Vitacco, Tamir Gedalia, William Dale, and Lumos PR
for making this interview possible.
Read more interviews from Ruben R. Diaz on PopAxiom!