Clips, Hyperlocal

Filmmaker, Musician Duo Takes Miracle Real Life Story To Reel

When 59-year-old, award-winning Los Angles ad man, Dan Mountain, awakened in a sterile world, humming with the bleep of monitors and the soft purr of ventilators, he didn’t know if it was the year 1900 or 2099.

Had he been asleep for an unimaginable sweep of time, or had his eyes been shut just for the duration of a good night’s rest, he wondered, to the extent that he could. His vision, blurry; his thoughts, out of focus, by and by, he learned of what he was emerging from—a 21-day coma.

Today, more than four years after Mr. Mountain’s miraculous return to life, he says, “I’m a lot grateful for life now than I ever was before. It’s just too bad that it took something as life-altering as a stroke to make me feel this way”, he says, speaking from his home in Venice, California, in a speech that’s halting, yet resonating with optimism.

On a Post-it yellow summer day, in June 2003, Mr. Mountain was exercising when he was knocked down by a crippling stroke. By the time he was brought in to the U.C.L.A. emergency room, he’d suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. His neurosurgeon gave him a “zero chance of meaningful recovery.”

Still, on the plea of his wife of 13 years, Dorothy, his doctor agreed to perform a risky surgery. It wasn’t successful and Mr. Mountain slipped into a comatose condition.

When all hope of a revival faded, his family, reluctantly, agreed to pull him off life support. But shortly, thereafter, Mr. Mountain regained consciousness. He’d had a rebirth.

“I’d no cogent thoughts at the time. But the first words I spoke were that I loved my wife very much. It was a very good way to get back into life,” he says, looking back to his experience.

A few days after Mr. Mountain “woke up,” a longtime friend and singer-songwriter Marc Black—based in Katonah—flew out to Los Angeles to see him. He found him to be “tender” and “vulnerable,” as expected, but he also observed that he was “hopeful.”

Mr. Mountain has had an illustrious decades-long career as a creative director, working on prestigious corporate accounts like Perrier, Saturn, Hallmark, and Coca-Cola, among others.

“He was always a great writer. So, I encouraged him to write a bit about his experience, his ‘enlightenment’ as he calls it,” Mr. Black said.

Eight months after Mr. Mountain was discharged from the hospital, he began to write again. However, this time around, it wasn’t snazzy copy that gave products a larger-than-life appeal, but to pen words that were far more profound—about life itself and its magical moments.

With a still-unsteady-grip on his right hand, he started writing punctiliously on yellow, ruled sheets. And so began Mr. Mountain’s second remarkable journey—the first, of course, being the one from a vortex of eternal darkness where time and space warp to a universe of light and happiness.

Once again, Mr. Black traveled to the West Coast to witness for himself Mr. Mountain’s labor of love. So moved was he by the power of his poetry that he decided to put them to music.

“[Mr. Mountain’s] penmanship was beautiful,” says Mr. Black. For four days in a row, the duo immersed themselves in a creative venture that was also part therapeutic for Mr. Mountain.

They sat across the table from each other, with Mr. Mountain reading each of his poems, with short pauses and breaks into Mr. Black’s microphone. Struggling with aphasia, it was the rhythm of words, rather than their meaning, that first came back to Mr. Mountain.

“And I immediately turned each into a song. No song took longer than an hour to get the rough version recorded,” says Mr. Black. “We’d really planned to do nothing with it, but thought it’d just be a positive experience. We were encouraged to record it because it was liked by everyone we played for.”

So, Mr. Black put together a mini-band of such musical greats as Art Garfunkel (of the Simon and Garfunkel fame), John Sebastain (of the Lovin’ Spoonful band), Steve Gadd (drum god of the 1970s), and the Dixie Hummingbirds (the force behind the gospel quartet).

Its final product is the 13-song CD collection—“Stroke of Genius”—all of which were born out of Mr. Mountain’s poetry. Mr. Mountain’s profound lyrics and Mr. Black’s composition, in the Woodstock tradition, together, make for emotive music that tugs at the heart. In February 2006, it won a silver medal at the Park City Film Music Festival in Utah.

The album is also the title of an accompanying 51-minute documentary film directed and produced by Katonah filmmaker, Bahman Soltani, whose involvement in the project began after Mr. Black had completed his recordings for his CD.

“I liked what I heard and as a favor to a friend, I agreed to make an eight-minute E.P.K. [Electronic Press Kit] that featured the interviews of the musicians,” Mr. Soltani said.

But he hadn’t committed to developing it further, until he’d actually met with Mr. Mountain. Next, he caught a plane to Los Angeles to meet the subject of his movie—the first of a series of subsequent trips over the course of a whole year.

Struck by what he describes as Mr. Mountain’s “amazing personality and character,” he proceeded to transferring his story to celluloid.

The “non-fiction film,” as Mr. Soltani calls his work, isn’t a look at the clinical complexities of stroke, but celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the victory of mind over body.

“It’s about how a stroke survivor has taken the physical challenges he faces and turned them into something so positive,” Mr. Soltani said.

The project is entirely self-financed by him. Though he’s shelled out about $12,000 in hard cash, the total budget comes to a lot higher, given that he’s spent money on air-tickets, used his own equipment, and put in long hours, Mr. Soltani says. It’s been shown at the Sundance as well the Westchester film festivals.

On January 3, the Jacob Burns Film Center will have a screening of the “Stroke of Genius.” Prior to the film, Mr. Black will perform songs from his CD. The evening will end with a question-and-answer session with Mr. Soltani.


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