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Simon Chambers on Much Ado About Dying: Interview 

Director Simon Chambers and poster for the film Much Ado About Dying

We interview Much Ado About Dying director Simon Chambers on his deeply personal documentary centering on his time as a caregiver for his dying uncle. 

On a gloomy Saturday morning, we sat down to interview Simon Chambers via Zoom to discuss his introspective new documentary, Much Ado About Dying. The film aims to discuss the struggles of eldercare but lands in a far more profound place. Simon starts off his documentary with the intent to create a film about the traffic system in Delhi. He has moved to India, after feeling his life had become stagnant in London, with the hopes that this new and exhilarating place would give him a sense of direction. However, in the midst of making his new film, Simon begins to get repeated phone calls from his Uncle David, a retired Shakespearian actor, urging him to come back to London to look after him as David’s health is steadily on the decline. 

Simon agrees to return home to get his ailing Uncle’s health and living situation under control, but upon his return home, Simon falls into the role of the primary caregiver to his ever-so-eccentric Uncle David. Through his documentary, Chambers assesses the role of an elder caregiver (which he freely admits is one that typically falls onto women), the faulty government assistance programs put in place to care for the older generations and the emotions of dealing with a central figure in your life fade as they grow old. While Chambers uses his personal experience to tackle such universal feelings of hopelessness, the true light that shines throughout the film is his Uncle David and all that he teaches Simon during the four years he spends as his caregiver. 

As we spoke with Chambers about the making of his film, the conversation naturally progressed into the biggest life lessons he learned from his time spent with his dying uncle. Here’s what he told us about being thrown into the position of a primary caregiver, how David’s own life mirrored that of one of his favorite Shakespearian characters and the lessons that have lingered from his time with his uncle.

Simon Chambers on how the focus of his documentary went from the traffic problems in Delhi to his dying uncle in London

The film opens up on you in Delhi, while you were working on another project, but ultimately becomes about you taking care of your Uncle David. When did the focus of your film change?

Simon Chambers: I had never intended to make a film about my uncle. I was getting all these calls from him saying, “You’ve got to come back. I’m desperate, I need you.” while I was trying to make another film in Delhi. I had some friends that were going around to see Uncle David and they’d say, “No, he’s okay, he’s fine”. But then it got to a point where they said, “I think you’d better come back”. So I came back, thinking I’d just be looking after him for three to six months, that kind of thing. I’d sort him out, maybe find somewhere else for him to live or someone to look after him, then go back to India.

What happened was, it just carried on and on and on. I think, with a lot of people that care for a family member, you never know how long you’re going to have to look after them. Say Granny has a fall, and you decide she can move in with you for a little while. Then, 10 years later -this is what happened to my mum- you’re still looking after granny and your whole life has changed. So the answer is, I never had any intention whatsoever of coming back to look after him. But you know what, sometimes the things that you think you don’t want to do in your life are the best things that you can do in your life.

David Chambers waves in Simon Chambers' film Much Ado About Dying
Much Ado About Dying (First Run Features)

The documentary’s shift in focus must have made the filming experience far more personal for you as well. Why did you feel it was important to include how your film changed subjects?

S.C.: I suppose I wanted in the film to juxtapose this idea that here’s a white English guy making a film about something that’s going on in India:  it’s a bit like an ethnographic type of thing: I was looking at these other people, but I felt I couldn’t connect with them. I wanted to juxtapose that with the idea that then, suddenly, I was doing something that I was totally involved with, which is looking after my uncle. That’s why I start the film in India: it shows I had to give something up. On the face of it, it looks really good – like, “Oh, wow, you’re in India and you’re making movies, how cool is that!” and then you’re back home in London, and it’s raining the whole time, and you’ve got this cantankerous old man who’s saying, “I don’t like the honey you bought me!”.

In a way, you’re filming something that you’re completely involved in. So there’s no longer this kind of tube that you’re looking through, which is the camera: you’re no longer just looking at other people’s lives; you’re looking at your own life. Even though I don’t turn the camera on myself very often, the whole film was framed through my experience of caring for my uncle. It did give me this purpose in life, really, to care for somebody. 

Much Ado About Dying’s commentary on elder care 

Watching the film I had a secondhand frustration for you dealing with the UK healthcare system and all empty promises about care that was going to be administered to your uncle. I wanted to know how reliving these moments as you’re editing the film felt.

Simon Chambers: The thing is, in the UK it’s different to America, because we’ve got the residual bits of a social welfare state, which are meant to help with things like care for the elderly and health care. What I found was that it didn’t really work very well in practice. For example, when the doctor came around, because David couldn’t go to the doctor’s surgery, the doctor would come for 10 minutes, but it would be really difficult. The doctors  couldn’t find anywhere to park and then they’d say, “Well, what’s the matter with you, David?” and then David would start talking in his way, about all sorts of other things, and he wouldn’t get round to talking about, “Well, I can’t do this, I can’t do that, I’ve got pain here. I’ve got pain there”. Then they go, “Oh, God, the 10 minutes are up, I’ve got to rush off.”.

The problem is that, while many of those people that are working as nurses and doctors and they’re very good individually, the system doesn’t really work very well here. One case was in the film: there’s a whole thing about how David can’t go to the bathroom, and has trouble with that. At first I thought, “Oh, you’re just being lazy: you’re peeing into jam jars and leaving them for me to tidy up”. It wasn’t till the end of my time looking after him, which was four years later, when the doctor said, “Oh, he’s got prostate cancer and it spread through his body. There’s nothing we can do about it,” that I went, “Oh my lord, that’s why he couldn’t bend down and why he couldn’t put trousers on”.

Because, you know, he couldn’t bend down, but the doctors didn’t pick up on that: they never had time to pick up on that. It was also partly David’s fault, because he was always chit-chatting about “Romeo and Juliet” or something with a doctor instead of getting down to saying, “Okay, we’ve got 10 minutes, here’s my problem”. 

That time constraint must be so strenuous, but being the primary caregiver typically puts you in a state of constant stress.

S.C.: I’ve spoken to so many family carers now. In America, there’s millions of family carers, and they’re doing all this work without getting any money and having to fit it in with their jobs. Most of them are women, of course. So, you know, it takes a big toll on you. One is that you feel lonely doing it, because you don’t know that there are millions of other people going through the same thing, and you feel isolated. And you’re doing everything for the first time. There are no guidelines, and there’s no way you can look up and say, “okay, we should do this”, or “we should do that”. You take a day-to-day or week-to-week kind of coping mechanism.

It’s like a roller coaster ride, you just don’t know what’s going to happen next. You suddenly think, “Great, I’ve got everything sorted out”, and—this is what happened to me— “I’m going to go off to Wales to have a weekend by the sea,” and then you get a phone call from the police saying, “Oh, your uncle’s burned his house down, I think you’d better come back”. When I’ve talked to other carers, they say it’s exactly the same. You think you’ve sorted it out, then suddenly your life changes, and you have to fit in and move everything around, and change everything to try and accommodate.

Much Ado About Dying Review: Study on Life – Loud And Clear Reviews
Much Ado About Dying gives a spotlight to the unglamorous moments and unconditional love that comes from caring for our elders.

Simon Chambers on his Uncle David’s legacy and creating his final performance

It must be interesting making a film centering around an actor. There seemed to be an aspect of him wanting to perform, but also this aspect of you trying to capture this very real and very human experience he was going through that he maybe didn’t want to be captured.

How did you reconcile with creating a film about somebody who wants to perform, but at the same time, in his more vulnerable moments doesn’t really want to be seen?

Simon Chambers: We got on better when the camera was there. I had no intention of ever making this into a film. But when I was there, we got on better because it was playful. He was more playful with me, and I was more playful with him. Just doing a simple thing, like trying to put on a hearing aid, was like that. I’d buy a new hearing aid for him and then I’d be filming the moment when I gave it to him, and showed him how to use it: it was more fun because I was filming it. 

How did filming simple things to get along better transition into the film we get to see today? 

S.C.: Originally, we were going to try and make some kind of Shakespeare play. And I thought, this could be a great film, where we get his friends and they become characters in a Shakespeare play, and we do it in his kitchen, like a potted Kitchen-Sink version of King Lear. Then I became aware that his real life was quite like the story of King Lear, which is really just about what it’s like to get old, and all the things that come with old age. And so I filmed a lot of his everyday things, thinking of him as King Lear in his real life.

He was very much in control, though. I was talking to some other actors who knew him and they said, “Oh, he was an impossible person to work with,” because the director would say,” No, no, let’s do that again. Could you be a little bit more angry?” and then he’d say, “No, no, no, it’s not meant to be like that; it’s meant to be like this!” and then there’ll be a big argument. He was also like that with me. He’d say, “I don’t know why you’re filming. Put the camera down, Simon!”. I’d try to tell him that I thought this would be really good because “this is like real-life King Lear; you’re being a real King Lear here!” I wanted that to be very smooth, transitioning throughout the film back and forth between his real life and the King Lear lines that he was quoting in the play, so it’s like a documentary version of King Lear.

He just sort of put up with me filming the real-life stuff too, but he didn’t see what I was trying to do with the documentary aspect of it. He thought a lot of it was about him and his performance, but he was performing in his real-life stuff too. He’d sometimes say things he knew were funny, and he knew the camera was on. But the problem I had when I was editing was trying to select those moments that felt authentic and real, and not when he was actually “performing” his real day activities to the camera.

You say at one point that David feels the most alive in front of the camera. Do you feel like filming him and making this film was a way of preserving his life and keeping his legacy going on in a certain aspect?

S.C.:  Yes, I do. I mean, that was not the intention. But now, seeing that the film’s been successful, I actually realized that it is one of his legacies, really. When you make a film, you’re never quite sure how it’s going to land with an audience, and what I realized showing it to other audiences is how much they love his liveliness and his playfulness in everything that he does. Even if he is sometimes cantankerous, he’s incredibly playful. When I was editing the film, I thought, this is the thing that I’ve learned from him. I was too serious at the beginning of the film. I was a serious documentary filmmaker, making a film about the traffic in Delhi and how it relates to global warming, and all these kinds of documentary-type box-ticking things.

Uncle David smiles while taking a shower in Simon Chambers' film Much Ado About Dying
Uncle David in Much Ado About Dying (First Run Features)

Then actually hanging out with David, and watching the film, I realized he’s got something that a lot of actors have. It seems to me the purpose of an actor is really to reflect the world back onto the audience. Whether it’s on a stage or in a film, actors are showing us our fears, our hopes, our concerns; they’re playing out things that we’re concerned about in our everyday lives. They’re like a mirror reflecting the world back onto us. David did that so well, especially as he got older.

When he’s dying, he’s pretty much talking us through how he feels. I thought that’s such an actor’s gift to the world – saying, it is nothing you have to worry about. This is something we’re all gonna do, and it’s something that is okay. He also gave me this playful reminder to not take everything so seriously. If you think of your life as a story, suddenly, you’re not as anxious and stressed and worried, because you just think, “this has happened, I have a certain amount of agency. I can make a decision here or there, but it’s not worth pulling my hair out and getting all stressed and anxious about it, because there’s only a certain amount that you can do”. In his case, he knew he was on the way towards getting old and dying, so he tried to enjoy it and be as playful as possible about it. 

You’ve told David’s story through this film. One of the moments that really stuck with me is at the end of the film, where David recites the line “back into your lives” which stood as a really impactful way for him to exit the film. After making this film and going back into your life, what was the most impactful lesson you learned looking back on your time with David? 

S.C.: Well, the most important thing in life for me is kindness. The biggest regrets I have are those times when I haven’t been kind to somebody. David was a kind person. The other thing I learned is that being ambitious and trying to be a successful filmmaker doesn’t really matter, actually. It’s not that important to do that or to be this; the most important thing is to engage. I know, this is a cliché, but people say, “Oh, you’ll be much happier if you live in the present and don’t worry about the future in the past”. But that’s what David was saying at the end, really. Just live, enjoy as much as you can, get everything you can out of every moment and make the most of it. Life’s going to throw things at you that you don’t want it to throw at you, but you’ll get through those things. There’s a bit where David says, “When life’s good, it’s very, very good. When it’s bad, it’s horrid. So you get through the bad bits, and then there comes another good bit”. I know that this is not a philosophical breakthrough or anything, but there’s so much truth in that. 

At the end of the film, David quotes an Irish poet called Louis MacNeice. He says, “Glad to have sat under thunder and rain with you, and grateful too for sunlight on the garden”. In life, sometimes it’s thunder and rain, sometimes it’s sunshine. We’ve got to remember that it can’t always be great. People get cancer, people get ill, people have arguments, they fall out, they have divorces. You just have to remember that part of life is those moments of suffering. Life is not celebrating the suffering, but it’s just trying to embrace it and understand its place. Until you accept that, you’re always going to be unhappy, because you’re always going to think that that’s not fair. It’ll pass and things will get better. I suppose that that was his gift to me. And that’s what I got out of actually making the film.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Much Ado About Dying is now showing theatrically in New York (Film Forum) and will be released in Los Angeles on March 22, 2024, with more cities to come. In the UK, the film will be out in cinemas from May 3. Read our review of Much Ado About Dying.

Much Ado About Dying: Trailer (First Run Features)
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