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Clouds Film Inspires All to Fly a Little Higher

Kimberly Carr - Digital Media Producer

During Zach Sobiech’s senior year in high school, he received the news that the cancer he had been living with, osteosarcoma, had spread. What happened in the following months was a series of brave actions that led to unknown rewards. A gifted musician, Zach and his best friend and songwriting partner Sammy immediately determined to follow their dreams in the time they had left together. Their song “Clouds” soon went viral, and Zach was able to watch as events began to unfold.

One could imagine that Zach might not realize the shape of how his life would touch others, but his mom Laura Sobiech knew differently. She is sure that the future had not only been mapped out by a divine Author, but that He actively connected everyone involved in the events that led to the making of the movie Clouds. Her memoir, Fly a Little Higher, along with Zach and Sammy’s song, caught the attention of news outlets and members of the creative community.

Clouds is not simply a posthumous tribute. Zach is still living – through the dedication of his mom Laura, his family and his friends, and the creative vision of filmmaker Justin Baldoni.

Starring Fin Argus as Zach, Sabrina Carpenter as Sammy, and Neve Campbell and Tom Everett Scott as Zach’s parents Laura and Rob, Clouds spins the tale of a heartfelt and, at times, gut-wrenching journey through love, grief, and chasing dreams.

I sat down and talked with Laura Sobiech and director Justin Baldoni recently to collect some of their thoughts about their filmmaking endeavor.

Laura, you were a guest on The 700 Club when your book Fly a Little Higher first came out in 2013. Even doing those first book interviews, did you have any inkling that it would bring you to this day?

Laura: Well…yes.

That’s awesome! How did you know?

Laura: Well, because I had Justin Baldoni working in the background and I knew that, even at that point, I knew he was passionate about this project. We talked about it a little bit, even before I wrote the book, even actually before we met. There were so many parts of this story that were so incredibly grace-filled that even like Sammy Brown's mom and I would talk. given how things unfolded with the enormity and unexpected twists and turns of the story and where it had already taken us, It just, it doesn't in a lot of ways it doesn’t surprise me at all. And I kind of expected that that might be where I've landed, but I never thought it would be Disney+. I think it got a lot bigger than any of us ever expected.

So then Justin, how did you first hear about Zach and Laura's book?

Justin: Well, I was shooting a documentary series called “My Last Days.” I had taken a break from acting. I actually left acting to kind of pursue my passion as a storyteller to just try to like touch people's hearts and shift perspective. And the show was me traveling the country and documenting the lives of incredible people, living with a chronic or a terminal illness. And I had shot six of the documentaries and I was looking for a seventh and I stumbled on I stumbled on the CNN article about the song. It was right as it was beginning to go viral. It was December of 2012. Oh my gosh. I was sick in Italy. I was feeling so sorry for myself, I was with my then girlfriend now wife and I randomly clicked on this news tab, which I had never done. And I heard the song 20 seconds of it.

It's hard to explain. But because we're talking about faith and God here, it was a deep knowing that this story was going to change my life and also the world. And I immediately reached out to Laura and we started talking and she allowed me into the family to come and tell Zach’s story as a part of the series. And I think we all just kinda fell in love. I mean, over the course of that experience. ‘Cause the show was intended to also be a healing experience. It wasn't just about exploiting these amazing people who were living with a terminal illness, it was about how can we also use this as an opportunity to heal?

I think a lot of healing happened for all of us. For me, I was there with my dad, for our family - for Laura's family, for Zach. And then when we left, it was almost like none of us wanted to leave – that I knew that there was something special here. So immediately I started talking with Laura and Zach even about – what else can we do? There's something bigger than this. And I didn't know what it was. I didn't have the vocabulary. I was making like $10,000 YouTube video documentaries. Like, I wasn't even in the place where I thought I could ever direct a big movie. So that wasn't even there. It was more like, what can we do next? How can I help? How can I be a part of this story to further the message? So when Laura wrote the book – tah-dah! I had reached out and asked if I could turn it into a movie and five and a half years later here we are.

Well, when you use the word therapeutic – I think everyone's touched by cancer, and it felt like I was at the greatest therapy session. By the end I was drained and just so elated at how wonderful life can be. There are so many character people who have very important, almost vignettes in the film. So many in your family, Laura. How intentional was it to give each person their own moment to show how they were going through and dealing with everything?

Laura: I love that question. You know, I think part of the cancer journey means that you have to sort of hyper-focus on one person and in a lot of ways neglect the others. And that becomes really difficult in family life, especially when you have children in the home.  Siblings – they're still struggling with the same things as siblings always do. Parents, we struggle. So it's a tricky balance. It was a real gift that I think Justin was very intentional in giving each of these people their moment. I've heard some people who've seen it, him that they experienced the same thing, just like this little sort of vignette of this is that perspective. That’s such a gift because those are voices that don't always get heard, but are also important in this journey because at some point we're all going to fall into one of those categories.

Justin, can you add to that? I mean, you're a part of the family at this point in the process.

Justin: I lost a lot of sleep over that actually. There's you only have so much real estate in a movie. And generally movies are not filled with this many characters where each character has their own arc. However, the movies I love the most are.  You have to tell the story of Zach and his cancer journey, right? And his journey overcoming and choosing to live. You have to tell the journey of Sammy and Zach, you have to tell journey of Amy and Zach. And of course center on the journey of Laura and Zach, but not forget the journey that Rob and Laura are on. We have to follow the journey of the music and having the music be parallel. And Zach's hero's journey, right? Starting the music with it being about covers and theng rowing to it being about him sharing his heart and his soul with the world.

You can't forget the siblings because the siblings are deeply impacted. You have the journey of Chris and Zach. And then of course, Allie and Sam and knowing what each of them individually went through, I think was so helpful for me because I couldn't forget it. The challenge was how do you do it in two scenes? Because that's really all you have. So it was helpful knowing that Sam was away at college, I had an excuse. It was helpful knowing the relationship and the dynamic between them, because even though it wasn't in the script, we're able to infuse it on the day. And giving Allie these little character idiosyncrasies that she has in real life that showed the love that she has with her brother through a little bit of teasing, and the same thing with Grace, but it was very challenging. So hearing that this is the response has been really overwhelming and exciting for me. We do forget about the rest of people in the story oftentimes, and it becomes about love the love story only. We have to fight to keep these things in. I hope that's what makes this movie at the end of the day, feel more human than the other films in this genre.

As a viewer, it was it was an easy transition to get to know them. It was quick, but it felt natural.

Justin: And we're all, and the other part of it is each of us are the viewer is at any point in some point in our lives, every single person. I've been Sammy, I've been the kid in high school that loved my best friend, but this wasn't the time. And that just didn't work. The difference was she wasn't dying. You know, we've all had and been one of the support systems. And I think to Laura's point, that's what makes it so important.

I know you both have very strong faith journeys. How has your faith transformed through this and where is it today?

Laura: I think part of the, having a child die is kind of like a masterclass in learning detachment, I think that's one of the things that I've really I learned through Zach. And I try to continue to build on that foundation of just, we can be so much freer in life and in serving God when we are detached from the things of the world. The ultimate detachment is to hand over a child. And that allows us to do all sorts of incredible things. We can step into situations that we never thought we could possibly do. For example, writing a book or standing in front of thousands of people speaking when I've never done that. You know, so things like that where we can just be very free from the things that hold us back.

Justin: I mean, Laura has been through the masterclass and also been a master teacher, which is also embedded in this film in a lot of ways. And when you read her book, it's just, how do you not fall in love with this person who's such a superhero? Laura and I, while we technically have different faiths, have had many conversations about how similar our faiths are. We’ve shared scripture back and forth. And talked about detachment, which is a central element. You know, with me as a Baháʼí and Laura as a Catholic, we both believe in God and the power that God has to transform us and to touch our lives. And both of us pray for detachment. Getting to be around somebody like Laura, getting to see how she operates, getting to see how she makes decisions and how prayerful she is has grounded me more in my faith.

And the other place that we both have connected deeply, I think is our strong belief in the afterlife and our deep belief that Zach is here, and I have the chills as I say that, but he's here. He is both with me and Laura at the same time, because there’s no time and space where he is and he's able to be everywhere, right? The central thing that this was actually to ask Zach for guidance, as well as asking God, but also ask Zach, because this is his story. He was going to tell it the way he wanted to tell it. Just like that Z appeared for Amy and Sammy. Zach has showed up time and time again, every single day. He really co-directed this movie with me. If anything has shown me and proved to me that there is an afterlife in unimaginable unexplainable ways, it is knowing Zach, knowing Laura, knowing the family – has deepened my personal faith and the belief that this is just the beginning of a long, long journey of our souls towards our creator.

Speaking of the ending, I just had one more thought. Zach’s story is still alive. It’s evolving. It's growing, it's changing. How did you decide how to end the film?

Justin: Well, again, most of these decisions have been Zach whispering in my ear. Honestly, most of the decisions I made in this movie were not rational by any means, but came with the deep knowing – and I had a similar one that Laura did –I just knew this was going to be something massive, even if I didn't know how it was going to get there. I couldn't explain it. I just knew I needed to be an instrument. That allowed me to be free because Zach was guiding the process. That's why I had Zach's. I had a director's chair on set the entire time with Zach's name on it that nobody was allowed to sit in because Zach was sitting in it. He never let me down. He always showed up, even if I wasn't listening.

And I felt that I should say something, somebody would come and give me the idea. 10 minutes later, I didn't. And that happened every day. So when it came to the ending of the movie, I knew that it had to be Zach. You can’t watch this movie and not see Zach and Laura and Sammy and their dynamic, and not hear them sing together. The very, very end of the movie came when we were about to finish and wrap up, when I realized it needed to end with Sammy’s voice. It was like I heard Zach tell me, ‘End it with her. She deserves it.’ So that's what we did. We ended with ‘Purple Pink,’ and Sammie's love letter ‘Goodbye Zach,’ which she wrote so beautifully on ironically, the anniversary of his passing.

Check out the trailer for Clouds below:

 

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