If you knew that your life here on earth would be short, how would you live it? Would you try to control every aspect of it to avoid the suffering and pain you knew was coming? Would you become angry, embittered, and push people away? Or would you try to make the most of it? These questions are at the heart of Five Feet Apart, starring Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson as two kids with cystic fibrosis (CF) who fall in love. The film is actor (Jane the Virgin) and filmmaker ( My Last Days) Justin Baldoni’s feature film debut.
Baldoni, a member of the Baha’i faith recently took some time to speak with me about the movie, his passion to transform Hollywood through his media company, Wayfarer Entertainment, and matters of life and death.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Juliet Vedral, Sojourners: Tell me about the movie. It seems to tackle life and death. Can you tell me more about that theme and why you're telling these kinds of stories?
Justin Baldoni: I think that for me I'm just inspired by, in many ways, the journey of the soul and why we're alive in the first place and what we're supposed to do here and how fate plays into that and how we live our lives. Do we live our lives for ourselves? ... How are we used as tools in this world with billions and billions of us running around in this age and this time when the focus is on ourselves and the amplification of our egos instead of the suppression of our egos ... I want to create shows and content that help us remember our shared humanity. You know one of the Arabic words for humans is insan, which means “they who forget.” And if you think about it, it's such a beautiful way of understanding humanity. We forget all the time that we were created by something. We forget that maybe there is a God. We forget our purpose. We forget our pain. We forget our joy. We're constantly forgetting and I really believe that media, films, TV, content like this can help us remember … Because that's where the magic is, when you can remember him. Remember God, remember your purpose, remember why you're alive, remember to live life on purpose … I believe that what greater reminder to live is there than the reminder that we won't be
It causes you to live life on purpose and it holds a mirror to your life and it forces you to ask the question, if you only have a certain amount of time on this planet what are you spending your time doing? … Like we explore in the movie, what if the next life, heaven is just an inch away? What if it's colored us and with us right now and we just can't see it? What if it's like a baby in the womb and just on the other side of the womb is this entire universe that was here the entire time but we didn't have the eyes and the ears developed enough to see it yet? Maybe the things that we're supposed to develop on this life are the things you can't see? Our spiritual quality … these are all themes that I think about all the time that I wanted to infuse into this film in a kind of indiscreet subversive way without distracting from the commercial love story.
Vedral: How has your faith informed your work? You've talked a little bit about it but I see — beyond Five Feet Apart and with Wayfarer — in general the work that you're doing and I find that so interesting. I know readers of Sojourners, which is where this is going to be published, will be interested in how your faith has informed your work.
Baldoni: By the way, I almost named Wayfarer Sojourn.
Vedral: Oh wow.
Baldoni: There's a book in the Baha'i faith — which is my faith — that explores the journey of the soul called The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys. And it's basically a response to a mystic Sufi poem. And Wayfarer comes from that but so does the idea of the journey of the soul through all of these valleys of love and God. And so funny story, I almost called the company Sojourn. So, I love your name.
But how does it inform our work? I was raised in the Baha'i faith and the idea is that our lives are not our own, that we are here to know and to love God and to use ourselves as a tool to effectively make a difference in the world, to do His work. Our time here is short and it's up to us to spend it either in obsession with ourselves and feeding the body or in nourishing and feeding the soul. And I believe that we all have a gift and we all have a purpose and we all have a reason that we were created and all of us were created unique. We all have an opportunity to contribute to the betterment of mankind in a unique way, and some of us maybe do it in a bigger scale.
Maybe the way that I'm doing it is in a bigger way but that doesn't make it any more meaningful than somebody who's doing it a smaller way. Whether it be a janitor or a nurse or a bus driver, I think we all have an opportunity to take our occupations and have those occupations be used as a form of service. And so for me, I'm a filmmaker and I'm a content creator and an actor and it's my job to figure out how I can use my specific gifts to impact and contribute to the world. … And that's what we do at Wayfarer. We tell stories that we believe will help us remember our shared humanity, that will help us become — and want to be, and aspire to be — better people at a time where there's so much content that's created, I think unconsciously, to make us feel better about being worse people. … I'm on a personal mission, a journey to play a small part in transforming the culture of Hollywood, in the process of making films and telling stories to show that we can be a kind human and tell stories that inspire and make us want us to be better, and also have commercial success.
Vedral: So, what inspired you to make a film about kids with cystic fibrosis?
Baldoni: About seven years ago, I quit acting to basically find myself … I just felt like I wasn't being useful or contributing in the way that I talked about and I was focused so much on my own success and becoming an actor and whether or not I was working and I was so focused on money and I just wasn't happy. And I actually went to the Baha'i gardens in Israel and I had a moment where I just got on my knees and I asked God why I was alive, and to show me my purpose and to use me in any way that I was supposed to be used to make a difference in the world, whether that was through acting or directing or success or fame or not. I was completely detached and I just asked to be used as a tool for the betterment of the world so that one day when I'm called home I can look back at my life and see that I was useful. And through that journey I came back home and I created My Last Days, which was a documentary series where I traveled the country for a few years and told the stories of amazing individuals that had chronic and terminal illnesses. My belief was that in telling those stories it could help us remember our own and help shine a mirror on how we're spending our own time. Because so many of these individuals that I was spending time with were living rich, full lives with a far shorter amount of time than anyone that I know. And if they could do it, why can't we?
Through that process, I met a young woman named Claire Wineland and I told her story in the second season of My Last Days and she was the first person I've ever met with CF. And she was then the one who told me that two people with CF can't touch.
Baldoni: She became like a little sister to me and we became very close and I hired her to consult on the movie and we developed the script together. She spent hours and hours and hours with the writers sharing stories and describing things in the hospital and was a huge part of why it feels so grounded and sincere. And I just felt the calling to tell a story in a day and age where we're just so focused on the material and so distracted by instant gratification and on-demand culture. In a day and age where people quit relationships before they even start, and marriages end because of trivial things. There can be a story here that reminded us that in many cases love is worth fighting for and that love can look like so many different things. And for young people to see the healthy example of what intimacy can look like without physical touch. And innocence and all the different things that are portrayed in this movie, I just thought that it was the right time and so we went for it.