Jonathan Cavendish on why he created polio movie Breathe

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Movie producer Jonathan Cavendish tells the story of his parents in new movie ‘Breathe’

By Hank Sartin

For producer Jonathan Cavendish, the new film “Breathe” was not just another project. It was a chance to honor his amazing parents. 

The film tells the true story of Jonathan’s father, Robin Cavendish, who, in the 1950s, was stricken with polio at age 28 but went on to live a rich life of adventure and advocacy despite being paralyzed and requiring a respirator. 

A British film producer with some great successes to his credit (“Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”), Cavendish decided that the story of his parents would make a good movie. 

Jonathan Cavendish, left, Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy and Andy Serkis on the set of “Breathe.”

In 1958, after he contracted polio, Robin Cavendish was first told by doctors that, in his paralyzed state, he would live perhaps three months. Then he was told that he would spend whatever time he had in a hospital bed. Instead, he left the hospital to live at home, helped develop a wheelchair with a respirator so he could leave the house, traveled with his wife, Diana, and son, and lived for 36 more years. 

“My father’s mantra was quality of life,” explains Jonathan Cavendish. “What he sought for himself and for others was quality of life. He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn’t think that was as good a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life.”

To tackle this project, Cavendish chose his collaborators wisely. He reached out to William Nicholson, who had written the screenplays for “Gladiator” and “Nell,” and the film adaptation of his play “Shadowlands.” 

He told Nicholson the story of his parents and asked if he would be interested in writing it. 

“He’s a very good writer and therefore a very expensive writer, so to pay him upfront would have required bringing in third-party financing,” recalls Cavendish. “He said, ‘I’d love to write that, but on one condition. That is that you don’t pay me until and unless the film happens,’ because he didn’t want anyone else to own or control the film other than myself and my mother.”

For the next seven years, the two met once or twice a year as their busy schedules allowed, with Nicholson revising and Cavendish giving feedback based on his experience developing scripts as well as his intimate knowledge of the subject. 

Eventually, Cavendish took the script to his friend and colleague Andy Serkis, the actor noted for his work in motion-capture performance (Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films, Caesar in the recent “Planet of the Apes” films), with whom Cavendish had formed the Imaginarium Studios, which specializes in motion-capture filmmaking. 

Cavendish knew that Serkis was interested in directing. And Serkis had a personal connection to disability issues; his mother worked with disabled children, and his sister has multiple sclerosis. 

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Serkis read the script and suggested that one important element of the story was being underplayed: The Cavendishes were truly pioneers. Perhaps because he had lived the story, Cavendish hadn’t realized the extent to which his parents achieved a series of breakthroughs for people with severe disability. 

“Andy pointed out to me that nobody had ever done this before; nobody had ever lived outside the hospital with that degree of disability,” recalls Cavendish. “And he pointed out the influence and legacy that my parents’ work had. They were both so modest that until we started doing the research on that aspect, we hadn’t realized the extraordinary effect that his legacy had on so many people all over England and all over Europe.”

In approaching the story of his parents, Cavendish knew there were potential traps on all sides. 

“I wanted to be very careful because, obviously, it was very important to not mess it up. Films are very difficult to get right. I didn’t want to make a hagiography. I didn’t want to overstate anything. Most disability stories are a bit depressing, and I wanted to make the film because I felt that my parents’ story wasn’t depressing, it was rather the opposite.”

 Once the film was finished, Cavendish had to face the one viewer he cared most about: his mother Diana, now in her eighties. Fortunately, she quite liked the film, and her only criticism was of a hat actress Claire Foy, who plays Diana, wears in one scene. The real Diana noted that she would not have worn a hat like that. She was otherwise very moved and touched.

The film captures the spirit of adventure that informed Robin and Diana’s marriage. Robin didn’t want to be confined to living out his life indoors, and so, working with the noted inventor/engineer Teddy Hall (most famous for debunking the Piltdown Man hoax), he developed a wheelchair with a respirator run on a battery. That meant he could get out of the house, and it wasn’t long before the family took the next step, equipping a van so they could travel with the wheelchair. In the early 1960s, this was highly unusual. 

One particularly memorable sequence in the film shows the family vacationing in Spain, where a blown fuse threatens disaster. Robin, Diana, their son, Jonathan, and Diana’s brother David have gone to Spain for a holiday in their specially outfitted van with the respirator-equipped wheelchair. 

David accidentally shorts out the electrical system of the machine and the van. The whole party is stranded on a scenic stretch of country road and must use a hand pump to keep Robin alive. 

David rushes to the nearest town to call their inventor friend Hall, the only person who can repair the apparatus. 

For 36 hours, waiting for Hall to come from England, they keep a roadside vigil that turns into an impromptu party, with the locals coming to meet them. The village priest stops by to bless them, people bring food, and some musicians even bring their guitars and play. Then, a plane and a taxi ride later, the inventor shows up and gets things running again to collective cheers. It sounds like pure Hollywood hokum.

But, like much of the movie, it really happened. “In reality, we broke down on a roundabout outside Barcelona. So we’ve taken a bit of license in having a more beautiful location,” explains Cavendish. “But my poor old uncle did plug my father’s chair into the wrong socket. There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt. So we really had to sit there for 36 hours hand-pumping.” The locals really did come out to meet them, the local priest really said a blessing, and there really were guitars and pies.

“I remember it really well, because I was probably about eight or nine, and when it came to my turn, my mother said, ‘For goodness’ sake don’t fall asleep, because if you do you’ll kill your father.’ I can remember that pretty well,” he says with a laugh. “The Spanish people we met were quite frightened of my father and his machine. But he put them at ease, as he did with everyone.”

Cavendish sees the film as a love story, but he knows that it also has an important message about people with disabilities. 

“The thing that’s interesting about our modern attitude to disability, which is still confused, is that most disabled people want to be treated exactly like everyone else, but they also want the playing field to be level. They need help. They need society to get its act together in terms of access and travel and resources and all of that. Every disabled person I know wants to work, and almost every disabled person I know can work. Society hasn’t delivered yet to disabled people, but it’s better than it was. It’s really the normalization of disability that’s beginning to happen in a very good way.”