Annie Parker lost her mother to cancer at the age of 13. Years later, in 1974, her older sister, Joanie, would be diagnosed with breast cancer. Parker would lose her too. And then, like clockwork, she was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Unlike her loved ones, Parker would beat breast cancer, and eventually, she’d beat two other forms of cancer as well. And that was the story that cinematographer Steven Bernstein wanted to tell in his directorial debut.
After working on 2003’s Monster, Bernstein went looking for another true story when he was contacted about a book manuscript that Annie Parker had submitted about her life. He quickly approached Annie Parker about the possibility of a film, and she was in. “My world was so turned upside down since the age of 13 with cancer that I was really hoping that, either through a book or now this opportunity of a film, that I could get this information out to so many people about being tested and certainly getting awareness and education out to the whole world,” Parker said.
Bernstein then got to work on re-writing the script. Using Parker’s book manuscript as the foundation for the story, Bernstein started building what would become Decoding Annie Parker. And although the film claims to be “loosely based” on Parker’s life, she will admit that much of the core message is true. “I had a fixation over 40 years with cancer. I was introduced to cancer for the first time when I lost my mother and I was only 13, so a lot of the struggles that you see in the movie were true, for me to understand why cancer was hitting my family and what this cancer was, it just couldn’t be down to bad luck,” she said.
The film splits time between Parker’s (played by Samantha Morton) story of how her fixation on cancer affected her personal life, and the story of Dr. King (played by Helen Hunt), the doctor responsible for finding the genetic link in breast cancer. In real life, Parker didn’t hear of King’s work until the 1990s but was able to meet the woman she called her “hero” at last year’s Seattle Film Festival. Having now beaten cancer three times, Dr. King was fascinated to hear Parker’s medical story. However, Parker claims that this film is about more than just her. “It’s not just about my story,” she said. “It’s also about so many women.”
Cancer story aside, Parker is the first to bring up the fact that the most talked-about scene in the film is Aaron Paul working on his rock star moves in front of a mirror, and rightfully so. Paul plays Parker’s husband in the film, and as she put it, it’s very different from Paul’s work as Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad. Despite also being involved in some very heavy, emotional scenes, Paul worked to bring comedy to the film, something Bernstein really focused on adding. “Steve once said, ‘I can’t make this film as tragic as your life. It’s not going to get people to come to theaters,’” Parker said.
But tragedy doesn’t prevail. The film ends with the discovery of the BRCA-1 gene, which proved that breast cancer had a genetic link. It was the discovery that validated Parker’s lifelong obsession, and it’s the biggest thing that she hopes viewers take away from what she considers an “uplifting” film. “Start the dialogue. Let doctors know that you have a history of breast cancer in your family,” she said, before referencing the courageous ways that Angelina Jolie has dealt with having the gene in her family. ” I feel I’m kind of Angelina Jolie of 30 years ago,” she said with a laugh. And for her, that means, “Never give up hope.”
Decoding Annie Parker hits theaters and VOD today, May 2.