For full audio of our interview with Miranda, stream below.
Although she’s made over 20 films in her career, producer/director Miranda Bailey was not fully prepared for what she discovered while making her new film, The Pathological Optimist. Optimist delves into the personal life surrounding provocative scientist Andrew Wakefield, who claims to have uncovered a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Having lost his licence to practice medicine, Wakefield now spends much of his time sharing his findings in speaking engagements, sparking both controversy and passionate fandom wherever he goes. While she was unfamiliar with him prior to filming, Bailey was both surprised and intrigued at the fervour surrounding her subject.
“Around 2009/10], I’d kind of heard about this doctor in the UK who was on trial and everybody had a lot of opinions about vaccines. So, (my production partner) Marc [Lesser] and I went to take a look at it. So, we went to Chicago, to an [event] called the Personal Rights Rally and I didn’t know there was an issue with medical rights. There were all these different speakers… and Andrew Wakefield was kind of the headliner… and when, Andrew went on stage to talk, you could see the crowd get really excited and we were like ‘who’s this guy?’ Then, this friend of mine who’s a pretty big documentary filmmaker in New York said to me, “Miranda, if there’s a story here, it’s this guy.’ So, I reached out to him and asked if he would let us ask questions about the MMR scandal and he actually declined. So, we decided to do it anyways. We [thought we’d] have this movie called ‘Chasing Andrew Wakefield’ and we’d interview all these people that know him and show up to all these events. So, for about a year, we did that.”
“Then, in 2011, the British Medical Journal came out. By this time, Andrew knew who I was… When he ended up on CNN in a really, really poor interview with Anderson Cooper, Marc and I reached back out to him again and said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to get an interview?’ And he said yes. And he said yes, I think for his reasons which was, I think, to take action against the British Medical Journal and attempt to sue for defamation. That was why, he agreed to allow us because we’d be sort of following him in that journey. “
Following the highs and lows of Wakefield’s attempt at vindication, Bailey feels that the title communicates his seemingly hopeless endeavour in the most positive of terms.
“I love the title. Obviously, one, because he calls himself a pathological optimist—but he really is one,” she muses. “One of the things I love about this film, whether or not it had to do with vaccines or something else, I view it… kind of as a modern-day Sisyphean story. Here’s this guy, pushing the boulder up the hill, constantly rolling down on him, [but] the gods always punishing him for arrogance. And that’s really what this is. Sisyphus is a guy who feels like he’s eventually going to get that boulder up there and get to the other side and Andrew Wakefield feels that way… It was quite a roller coaster ride. We always thought, ‘ooh, maybe the tide will turn and maybe everything will change. Maybe he will get exonerated, which would be great for that film.’ But as you see over the course of the film, nothing happened.”
Of course, one of the most amazing aspects of the film is the response that Wakefield gets from parents who appreciate his work with an almost rabid fandom.
Says Bailey, “He really does have fans! While we were filming him, this friend of mind said, ‘Hey Miranda, you should film this guy! He’s a rock star! He’s a vaccine rock star!” The parents love him because they have experience with vaccine injury… and they have. These are not people that are lying about what happened to their child. They watched it happen. I interviewed many of them and met many of them. Not to say that vaccines cause autism because I think that’s later down the line from when the child has a bad reaction to the vaccine and I think there’s a lot of different fires about that. But, in terms of taking your child in to get vaccinated and having them get very sick from the vaccine? And possibly brain damage? This is really happening. And it’s happening to a very small amount of people. I’m not really sure of the number… but, if it happens to you, it’s very scary. And he’s someone that believes them and someone who says we have to listen to this mother. That, I think, is what built this adoration because these women have just been dismissed and also the media is quite cruel to them.”
With all this attention, one might wonder what Wakefield hopes to gain in the end. Based on what she has learned about him, Bailey believes that there are actually several potential outcomes that he may be seeking.
“He wants to be paid attention to, which I think is an important thing,” she thinks. “And also, from what I can tell about what he’s been saying is that he wants there to be a single measles vaccine option in our country… which I would like also. I think that that would be wonderful. I always love choices. I like being able to buy organic or non-organic oranges. Being able to have choices I think would be better for us. But yeah, I think that he probably wants to be proven right or that he was on the right track. I think that he probably wants acknowledgement that he was one of the first people to say that there was a connection… and was dismissed from that but now, it’s standard science. I think he wants to be taken seriously and not to be called a quack and all that stuff.”
Throughout the production of her film, Bailey was stunned by the brutal attacks on Wakefield and his fans by the media simply because they held a different view on the issue.
“It really grew in 2012, this fear,” Bailey recalls. “You could see that the media was kind of putting out all these scare stories about diseases coming back… When we were filming this, there was a whooping cough outbreak—and let me say that whooping cough has nothing to do with Andrew Wakefield and MMR—but, there was this whooping cough outbreak in California and the parents, the media and the internet were blaming unvaccinated people, even though the majority of the cases that started were from vaccinated people. And even though this study came out from [scientists] in UCLA saying ‘no, it’s a failure of the vaccine. It didn’t last as long as we thought it did. We think everyone should get another shot’… At the end of the day, it’s too expensive for a pharmaceutical company to do that so, they just added another vaccine onto the schedule and just get vaccinated. And I think that’s where I noticed that people were blaming unvaccinated people for outbreaks. I think there’s definitely you’re more protecting society if you are vaccinated but I feel like blaming this small group for spreading a disease even if they don’t have the disease is kind of a strange phenomenon that’s happening now. You can see it on the message boards and the media.”
Adding to the controversy is the fact that, after Bailey and her team had finished filming Wakefield for their doc, he developed his own film to discuss his findings on his own. Entitled Vaxxed, the film gained notoriety as having been selected and dropped from the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015.
“We stopped filming him and he went off and made a film of his own that we didn’t know about… I don’t think that Marc and I took it very seriously. We didn’t put this in the film because we thought, ‘oh, that’s boring to show someone else making a film’. It also happened pretty late in the filming. Even that, to try to make a film and get that into Tribeca. He was very excited. (I wasn’t but he was.) And then, it gets pulled. Can’t catch a break.”
Interestingly, the controversy over Wakefield’s views hasn’t only resigned itself to his work. While she found little opposition throughout the filmmaking process, Bailey has also witnessed this media bias firsthand after the film’s completion.
“I will let you know that I’ve made 23 films and never had a problem getting reviewed by the New York Times,” she says. “I’ve made some bad movies, okay? Never had a problem. The New York Times passed on reviewing this. Now, you can’t get an Oscar nomination if you don’t get reviewed by the New York Times. We went to New York. We had Andrew, me and do all the publicity that you’d do on any movie… and they all passed because they were too scared to deal with us. Also, after Vaxxed came out and people were calling the theatres and DeNiro pulled it from [Tribeca] that not a single festival other than the Manhattan festival and the Downtown LA… would take our movie. I like to think that we would have had a great documentary festival run or even mainstream festival run if there was not Vaxxed. Because I think it’s a clear character portray and it doesn’t say anything about vaccinating or not vaccinating or anything like that. It really is kind of the story of this man. And I think it would have been a lot more taken seriously as that instead of what it is now. The association with him, people don’t want to have to deal with the vitriole. Even right now, we’re having problems getting into some theatres. Crazy! When we do Q&A, there’s an audience but some theatres just don’t know if they want to deal with the phone calls and emails that they’re going to get because of this guy.”
What amazes Bailey the most is the obvious unfairness towards her work, especially as a result of the response to Wakefield’s own film, Vaxxed.
“I think we’re at a sad place artistically right now. This is not Vaxxed at all. Vaxxed is a totally different movie and I had nothing to do with that movie. I’m a legitimate filmmaker and this is a legitimate story and we are allowing Oliver Stone to tell the Putin story. Putin’s on HBO. So’s Castro. Making of a Murderer. OJ Simpson. Anthony Weiner. These are documentaries that are out there. It shouldn’t be any more controversial than this piece. and there’s a real double standard out there with a type of censorship that’s going on.”
In the end, Bailey insists that the soul of her film is focused in the lifestyle of a man in exile, as opposed to specific views on vaccinations themselves.
“What’s it like to be married to this guy? What’s it like to have your dad be one of the “most hated people in the world? What’s it like to look at yourself on the internet and see what people are writing about you? These are fascinating and interesting things. That’s what this movie’s about. That’s the world we’re looking into. Not whether or not you should use vaccines or even whether or not it’s [connected] to autism. That’s not what the movie’s about.”
The Pathological Optimist is available on VOD on Tuesday, November 14th.