By Amy Forman
SWAMPSCOTT — Film student Scott Powell was looking for a way to get some valuable film experience when he applied to be an intern last summer for local filmmaker Patrick O’Brien. It turned out that Powell, of Swampscott, learned something even more precious by working as an assistant to O’Brien, who has spent ten years making an autobiographical documentary about living with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and is currently a resident in the Leonard Florence Center for Living in Chelsea.
“It taught me to appreciate what I have,” said Powell, a sophomore at the Savannah College of Art and Design studying film and TV. “When you look at a guy like Patrick, who has ALS, and he still is the happiest guy in the room, it really rubs off on you. He is someone who can stay positive, no matter how bad things seem. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, and Patrick is living proof of that.”
O’Brien’s film, “Transfatty Lives,” will have its world premiere at the TriBeca Film Festival in New York on April 16, with additional showings through April 23. It also has been accepted to the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto later this month.
“Transfatty Lives” — so named because O’Brien, a DJ and filmmaker, is known by the name of “Transfatty” for his love of donuts and other junk food snacks — is O’Brien’s personal reflections since being diagnosed, including falling in love and having a child. The humorous and poignant viewpoint documentary examines what it is like to live when you know you are going to die.
Powell, a Swampscott High graduate, was enthusiastic about his opportunity to work on the last stage of the project with a team of producers, editors, sound designers and composers on the weekends last summer.
“There were so many moving parts,” explained Powell, adding that O’Brien was only able to communicate with his eyes through a special device attached to his computer. “He would tell me what to do and I would carry it out.”
By the end of the summer, Powell was also able to participate in shooting the final scenes at the Leonard Florence Center. Powell hopes to be a film editor, but appreciates the production experience, including learning what it is like to finish up a film and get it ready for a festival. At school, even while busy playing lacrosse this spring, the 20-year-old is working on a short film about a semi-pro baseball player whose life is altered by steroids.
Powell stays in touch with O’Brien when home visiting his parents, Amy and Robert Powell. On his last visit over Thanksgiving, he brought O’Brien a shot glass decorated with a Georgia peach since, as Powell joyfully recounted, he can still imbibe through his feeding tube. O’Brien’s severe limitations make any travel complicated and costly; he is now raising funds to allow him to attend the film festivals.
“Patrick has the worst disease that you could have, but he has this really positive outlook on it and on life,” Powell said. “When you watch the film, you can really understand … and really see that he is making the best of the situation. It is powerful because he takes this negative thing and makes it into something positive.”