Gerry Graf directs Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito in a funny ad for a serious issue
Hollywood veterans Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito became friends more than 50 years ago, over a joint they shared in 1967 as young actors and pot heads staring out over the Long Island Sound. Today, they’re chatting over Zoom about end-of-life planning, in a spot written directed by creative veteran Gerry Graf.
The new ad, produced out of M ss ng P eces, plays out the now-familiar scenario of a video catchup between friends. The two discuss the joys and miseries of being locked up at home. DeVito loves ordering in, while Douglas gripes about the government legalizing the “imprisonment” of parents—and not allowing social visits from the kids.
The conversation gets slightly serious when DeVito brings up a mysterious acronym, “POLST.” Douglas has no clue about it, so his pal fills him in: “It’s a medical thing … It’s the best way for the medical staff to know your wishes, how you want to be treated at the end.”
The spot ends noting that “Michael and Danny are healthy and don’t need a POLST form,” but that those who are seriously ill do.
Produced for nonprofit Goals of Care Coalition New Jersey, the ad is meant to increase awareness about a key issue for those who are elderly or suffering from serious medical conditions—the importance of defining what their healthcare providers should do in case they face a health crisis. POLST, or “Practitioner Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment,” is a medical order that allows medical staff to give patients the care and support they want—and not the things they don’t want—when faced with emergencies or as end of life approaches.
“During COVID time when it’s hitting older people the hardest, it’s a reminder to have documentation when you go into the hospital,” says Graf. “I called my mom who used to be a nurse and some of her friends in their 70s and 80s and very few knew what a POLST form was, so it just seemed like a very good way to help people.”
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, the GOCCNJ saw firsthand the importance of POLST. The organization says that not enough New Jersey residents have documented their final wishes, and as a result New Jersey patients near end of life receive more aggressive medical care than those in any other state. Moreover, often the high-intensity treatment they receive is not what they would have opted for and brings heavy burden to their families.
The project began when John S. Johnson, founder and chairman of the Harmony Institute and one of the co-founders at Buzzfeed, approached M ss ng P eces co-founder Ari Kuschnir to help get word out about GOCCNJ’s push for POLST. Johnson is also friends with Dr. David Barile, one of the key architects in designing New Jerseys POLST form.
In April, Kuschnir, who had been collaborating on a potential series project with Graf, approached him to work on that project. Bringing Douglas and DeVito in was serendipity. Johnson already had a connection to Douglas, and for the actor, it was a no-brainer to bring in his longtime buddy.
Graf wrote the script with both actors’ experience in mind. “Knowing especially that Danny likes to wing it a bit, I wrote up an outline for them to follow to make sure it’s entertaining, but so that the important facts would come through,” he says.
The shoot, done virtually over Zoom, lasted about 30-45 minutes and went relatively smoothly, save for one bit.
“We did enough takes to get the coverage I wanted, but there was one line I wrote that Danny kept ad-libbing over—'I have to go sanitize my sanitizer,’” Graf says. “He would just say a different joke. I said to him, ‘I think we have almost everything, but Danny, can you just please read the line as scripted?’”
At that point Graf says Devito looked straight into the camera and addressed him, “Oooh! The writer wants his words read because he worked so hard on them and they’re perfect!”
He ended up delivering the line—and it made the final cut.
“The writer did work very hard on them in his bed in Vermont,” Graf laughs.
As for a potential future in the director’s chair, Kuschnir says that Graf has what it takes. “I’ve now spent 15 years around directors and you know when people know how to work with actors and when they don’t. He’s such a pro. He was strategizing ways to get from Michael and Danny what he needed, which is a quintessential director trait.”
As for Graf’s thoughts on if he’d make the leap, “The actual shoot is fun, but you have to wake up early and go to location scouts,” he says “That’s too much of a pain in the ass. But if you ask any director I’ve worked with, I stand right next to them and I’m not quiet on the set. I’ve learned from the best.”