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In August of 2017, I was contacted via email by a researcher from the United States, Hilary Ament. She was on contract with the producers and production crew of the movie First Mana biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Based on a biography written by James R. Hansen, the movie focuses less on the moon landing and more on Armstrong’s life and relationships and family. Armstrong is portrayed by Hollywood megastar Ryan Gosling, and his wife Janet by the cool beautiful Claire Foy.

One of the storylines, a moment which created a particular sad trajectory in the Armstrong family, was learning that their young daughter Karen had brain cancer. Ever the scientist, Armstrong worked feverishly to find a cure. The movie was set to include a scene where Karen would undergo treatment using the cobalt-60 machine, known as the cobalt ‘bomb.’ Originally developed and designed in Canada, the cobalt machine was the first deep-seated cancer radiation technology designed specifically for clinical application.

Hilary Ament’s email said: “the set designers are building a machine similar to this model, but are having a little bit of trouble understanding the order of the procedure itself, showing what should be on the control panel and dials, and maybe any notes doctors would take.”

Hilary found me via the University of Saskatchewan and the Western Development Museum, where the original Saskatchewan-built cobalt-60 machine is on display. Searching desperately for technical insight, she came to me.

I had been working intermittently on a biography of Saskatchewan physicist Sylvia Fedoruk (of ball, curling, and Lieutenant Governor fame) who had been a graduate student working on the original cobalt bomb project. Syl’s files, along with those of Harold Johns at the University of Saskatchewan Archives and Special Collections, were a treasure trove of information.

I sent a short description, taken from my in-progress manuscript on Sylvia Fedoruk, about cobalt-60 and how radiation works to fight cancer. I also sent along a description of the treatment room constructed at the University of Saskatchewan which housed the original cobalt-60 unit, along with schematics. The original room featured a ten inch thick glass window, where technicians would monitor the patient during radiation.

As well, I passed along descriptions of the way treatment technicians would design special padding or apparatus to hold a patient in place. For a young child like Karen, holding still was paramount, and the technicians would have worked with both Karen and her parents to make the little girl comfortable and at ease.

Of course, Karen would have been given multiple radiation doses, not just one, but a major Hollywood movie has time constraints. All of this work would go into just one scene.

Hilary Ament replied, “This is beyond what we had hoped for. The set designers are very happy with the research that we’ve collected, and are on a solid track now. Between reading the articles you sent, diagrams, and video we’ve been able to get a pretty good idea of how these operated! The scene is fairly short, so they’re thinking they have enough to go on…”

I was thrilled to help, even in this small way for a tiny scene. So of course when First Man hit our little Majestic Theatre in Biggar in the fall of 2018, I was in the audience, bright eyed and ready to see what it all looked like.

There’s nothing like watching a movie in a small, community-owned theatre in rural Saskatchewan. The Majestic is our local site for all things arts. Built in 1909 and rescued from oblivion, it hosts music festivals, live concerts, plays, dance festivals, and musicals, as well as movies on Friday and Saturday night, along with the popular Sunday afternoon matinee. Run by volunteers, it’s one of the focal points and gathering spaces for our community.

In the audience, scattered alongside and all around me, munching popcorn and slurping drinks, were friends, neighbors, and relatives. In the city, a movie experience is rather impersonal. Sure, the audience laughs together in all the right places, but we don’t necessarily know our neighbors or the ones who sold us the ticket or handed us the popcorn or took a quick bathroom break in the stall beside me before the opening credits.

In a small community theatre, the vibe is completely different. We don’t need a lot of previews or games on the screen. We’re busy chatting: do you have enough stuff for the raffle table at the hockey game? Are you hauling wheat this week? Can you curl for me next Wednesday night? Once a movie starts, you recognize the different audience laughs — brother in law Ryan, good friend Tina. We count how many people are there and celebrate a movie that’s going to make a profit. And lots of us have learned to clean up behind ourselves, taking garbage out on our way back through the lobby.

The night I went to see First Man, there were plenty of friends and relatives in the audience, many of whom knew about my encounter with Hollywood, and had almost as much anticipation shivering through them as I did. We could experience it together.

The cobalt-60 scene comes early in the movie, and I sat forward to watch every detail as it shimmered on screen. With Karen’s neck supported, her head exposed and her body gently strapped in place, she looked just as I had imagined. The Eldorado-style machine looked like a miniature version of the space-age rockets Armstrong was working on. The treatment room had no windows, with thick concrete walls lined with lead. Neil and his wife Janet watch from behind the thick glass window helplessly, overcome with hope that the treatment would succeed.

It was an amazing moment as a researcher. I had helped to shape the way a movie looked, the way the actors moved, the set design, and the whole feel of the scene. I was jubilant.

But Hollywood has a way of surprising you. My work, offered to Hilary Ament and to Universal Studios, had not just shaped the visuals. It had actually changed the script in the movie. My mouth dropped in shock at the next scene. In it, Neil Armstrong is on the telephone to the doctors at the hospital. He asks [and this is my memory, not a direct quote], Did you call Dr. Johns? Dr. Harold Johns? The doctor in Saskatchewan who invented the treatment? 

I couldn’t help it. Even though this is a scene of great pathos and sadness, learning that the much-hoped-for treatment didn’t work on his daughter, I was lifted right out of my seat, cheering. My poor husband was hushing and pulling me down, but others were just as jubilant: hey, they said Saskatchewan! Tears leaked out, both for the memory of a little girl full of sunshine whose life was cut short by cancer, and by my own personal victory: I had had an influence on a Hollywood movie script. A whole scene, then another, shaped by my research and insight. And Saskatchewan got a mention.

First Man is up for four Oscars at the 2019 Academy Awards, one of which is production design. I’ll be watching with delight, hoping for a win. After all, I do have a little bit of skin in this game.

I wish I could say that I found my name in the credits. Several of my friends and neighbors, and my brother and sister-in-law, went close to the screen (none of us are youthful) to try and find my name. Nothing. Nonetheless, I have the paper trail and the emails, and the movie scenes themselves to back up my story. Hollywood, if you’re listening, come again. Saskatchewan has a few more hidden stories for you. But next time, I’d like to be in the credits, please.

And yes, I’ll be watching it at The Majestic.

fedoruk.1

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