On Tour: Waynesboro, VA

24 Feb wayne

February 21, 2017 | HILLEMAN: A Perilous Quest to Save the World’s Children | Waynesboro, VA

The arts community that has convened to restore the Wayne Theater in Waynesboro, VA is impressive.  Not only have they lovingly and impeccably brought this historic building back to life, but by doing so it seems they have revived a local passion in the arts.  It’s a Tuesday evening and I’m taken by the shear number of volunteers helping in the lobby.  The people I meet and the conviction with which they carry out their well-defined roles, from grant writers to administrators to technical personnel to volunteers, are impressive, all engaged and all seeking to make each event the best it can be.


I must admit, the turnout for our film is a little disappointing, but right before the movie begins a gaggle of people file in and find their seats: it’s the volunteers.  This intimate crowd proceeds to laugh, or gasp, or fall silent at all the right times.  When the credits finally roll the questions are many and the discussion lively.  It’s fun and engaging and from a filmmaker’s point of view it couldn’t be better.  I’d rather have the film resonate with a small crowd than fall flat in a packed house.   And as we wind the evening down someone says, “Next time we’ll do things differently and get more people here.”  I think to myself, you’re doing just fine, Waynesboro.  A few more volunteers and you’ll have a packed house!

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker, Donald Mitchell

On Tour: Germantown, MD

24 Feb brphoto

February 19, 2017 | HILLEMAN: A Perilous Quest to Save the World’s Children | Germantown, MD


Artistic rendering of the surface of a human dendritic cell illustrating sheet-like processes that fold back onto the membrane surface, from Dr. Sriram Subramaniam’s lab at NIH – National Institutes of Health

Germantown, Maryland sits close to where Maurice Hilleman lived with his young family while working at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in the late 1940s and 50s.  Having come from E.R. Squibb & Sons right out of graduate school, the government institution offered the perfect hybrid environment for young Hilleman.  It had resources enough to allow him to follow vaccine candidates to their full development, and it provided him the freedom to pursue basic science challenges of his choosing, as long as they were relevant to the needs of the military and its troops.

Just down the road, in Bethesda, MD, the NIH (National Institutes of Health) buzzes with the constant hum of scientific discovery.  In the process of making HILLEMAN, I became aware of Dr. Sriram Subramaniam’s lab at NIH because of our desire to create 3D animations that could help relay the scientific story behind Dr. Hilleman’s many vaccines.  We determined to work with XVIVO in Wethersfield, CT because they had proven to be in a class of their own when it came to scientific animation.  And Dr. Subramaniam’s lab, with its team of scientific sleuths, had revealed rare insights about the structure of many immune cells and the pathogens they combat.  Their work offered inspiration by allowing us to view, with amazing detail, the shape of these tiny heroes and villains.

How did they do this? — By using IA-SEM (ion-abrasion scanning electron microscopy) and other high resolution electron microscopy to reveal the 3-dimensional structure of agents involved in the immune system’s battle against infectious disease.  The process is pretty cool; freeze or fix a microscopic specimen, grind away a super-thin layer by shooting an ion beam at it, then take a photograph with an electron microscope.  Next step: grind away another super-thin layer and take another photo.  Repeat.  And keep repeating until you grind through the entire specimen.  Finally, combine the many two-dimensional photos, one on top of the next, inside a computer program to reveal a 3-dimensional representation of the specimen’s structure.  It’s like a 3D MRI for the super small.  With Black Rock being so close to NIH, I’m honored to have Dr. Subramaniam join us for today’s screening of HILLEMAN.


Director, Donald Mitchell & Dr. Sriram Subramaniam

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker, Donald Mitchell


On Tour: Brookville, NY

24 Feb

February 16, 2017 | HILLEMAN: A Perilous Quest to Save the World’s Children | Brookville, NY

Resolve to be always beginning—to be a beginner!

–Rainer Maria Rilke

The Tilles Center at Long Island University seats more than 2,000, by far the largest venue on the tour thus far.  With both a College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences and a School of Nursing I’m expecting that in the Q&A after HILLEMAN screens I’ll have to field a variety of questions about science or diseases, and I get a few of those.  But what surprises me are the couple of students that seem interested more in the filmmaking side.  “How did you come to choose this subject?”  “How did you approach the editing process?”  “Was the story written out first or did it evolve?”

Along with providing answers, the questions get me questioning, and I come to learn that one of these curious students is toying with making a film herself, and not a film about just anything, but about a loved one who is in the midst of battling disease.  It’s a documentary that started as a way for her to deal with a difficult situation and now she’s trying to figure out how to deal with telling the story of that difficult situation.  She’s faced with the unknown; of how her story will end, or how it will begin, or how it will even come together because she’s still in the midst of discovering what the story is truly about.

I’m hard pressed to offer comfort other than to say that she’s in an enviable position, that of being a true documentarian, which is to say that at this moment she can simply let her camera roll and see what it reveals.  The prospect is no doubt a scary one for it requires that she trust in the process of discovery and creativity.  And yet, it’s like being a beginner in anything; it can be uncomfortable, even daunting, but if you embrace it you’re suddenly free to ask any question and at liberty to make any mistake.  And that’s a freedom too often ignored in our haste to find experience.

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker, Donald Mitchell

On Tour: Wilmington, DE

24 Feb photo-judy-hickman

February 15, 2017 | HILLEMAN: A Perilous Quest to Save the World’s Children | Wilmington, DE

It brings to mind another such piece of forgotten technology: the iron lung.  That noble invention that once sustained young lives as they struggled to overcome the ravages of poliovirus…

The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware dates back to the late 1700s when it began as a Hotel.  It would take more than a century to transform the building into a 2,000-seat theater, showing movies from huge 35mm spools of film.  As I step off the elevator I find myself literally faced with a monstrous projector, taller than me.  It’s the kind of thing that grabs you by the curiosity and forces you to consider just how far we’ve come.


Photo: Judy Hickman

You can’t help but be in awe of its shear size and fleeting purpose, and yet you realize it will never again serve the purpose for which it was built.  Not because it has been replaced by a better version of itself, but because the reason for its existence has been eliminated.  With the disappearance of film, the machine has been rendered unnecessary, utterly obsolete.


Photo: CDC/GHO/Mary Hiplertshauser

It brings to mind another such piece of forgotten technology: the iron lung.  That noble invention that once sustained young lives as they struggled to overcome the ravages of poliovirus, today occupies a similar corner in the halls of our oldest hospitals, reminding us of a scourge that has all but been eliminated.  As 2017 begins, we stand on the verge of eradication of polio, which would make it the second killer eliminated through vaccination.  Truly amazing just how far we’ve come…!

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker, Donald Mitchell

On Tour: West Long Branch, NJ

24 Feb monmouth-photo

February 13, 2017 | HILLEMAN: A Perilous Quest to Save the World’s Children | West Long Branch, NJ

A bitter wind cuts through the campus as I arrive for tonight’s screening at Monmouth University.  So the crowd that turns out at Pollak Theatre is small if engaged.  I’m joined on stage after the screening by Dean Janet Mahoney, Dr. Kathy Maloney, and Dr. Rose Knapp, all holding impressive credentials as educators and healthcare providers alike, each acutely aware of the impact vaccination has had, and continues to have, on human health.  Before I even arrive on campus, Dean Mahoney notes that she “was one of those young students standing in line receiving the polio vaccine in the sugar cube” in an era just after polio had run rampant through our summers taking young lives and limbs with it.

The audience discussion revolves largely around the many vaccines Dr. Hilleman worked on, those he might have developed could he have continued research through retirement, and those that are most important to college student populations today.  There are questions about safety, about necessity.  “If we’re not seeing these diseases anymore, why do we need the vaccines?”


From left, Donald Mitchell, Dr. Kathy Maloney, Dr. Rose Knapp, Dean Janet Mahoney. Photo credit, Tina Colella Photography

Dr. Maloney addresses the question with a sobering story from her own experience.  Recently, a student she knew had contracted meningitis, a potentially lethal infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord.  The student had had her meningitis vaccine when she was in her early teens, but hadn’t yet received the booster dose recommended around the time one enters college.  Within a very short time the infection claimed her young life.  Just like that, she had fallen victim to a deadly infection, an infection that could have been avoided with the prick of a needle.  The room falls silent.

We regain our composure when an older gentleman in the audience remembers his own experience of getting a vaccine that left a scar on his upper arm.  Dr. Knapp nods, “Smallpox.”  “Is that still given?” the man asks.  She shakes her head.  “We don’t have to give that vaccine any more because it wiped out the disease.  Smallpox is gone from the face of the earth.”  The statement recalls Dean Mahoney’s sugar cube, and how we now stand on the verge of eradicating polio from the face of the earth, an accomplishment that would retire yet another vaccine once and for all.

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker, Donald Mitchell

On Tour: Blue Bell, PA

24 Feb mccc-photo

February 8, 2017 | HILLEMAN: A Perilous Quest to Save the World’s Children | Blue Bell, PA

When I walked on stage for today’s screening of HILLEMAN at Mongomery County Community College in Blue Bell, PA, I immediately spotted Dr. Robert Weibel in the second row.  I hadn’t seen him in person for over a decade, when I interviewed him as a precursor to our current film.  And yet I’ve been looking at him a lot over the past couple of years as he played a consistent, if somewhat unpopular role during the editing of the film.


Donald Rayne Mitchell and Dr. Robert Weibel, Photo courtesy of Brent H. Woods, Montgomery County Community College

You see, Dr. Weibel worked for many years with Maurice Hilleman and the great Joseph Stokes, M.D. at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he coordinated the clinical trials that put Hilleman’s many vaccines to the test.  Over the course of his lifetime, Dr. Weibel administered countless injections to a steady stream of brave kids combating a multitude of childhood diseases.  So it’s no wonder that every time he is seen in our movie he’s jabbing someone with a needle; whether it’s a less than enthusiastic youngster, Dr. Hilleman himself, or even Hilleman’s daughter, Kirsten, as she received the mumps vaccine named after her older sister, Jeryl Lynn, from whom the vaccine strain was originally isolated.

One of my favorite anecdotes from the talk-back came from a discussion about the role of regulation in Hilleman’s career.  In the film, we tell the almost unbelievable story of how Hilleman, in the days before stringent biological oversight, was able to get a military vaccine project up and running in just 30 days to protect troops serving overseas in WWII.  Hilleman muses that in today’s regulatory climate such an effort would take upwards of 30 years!  Likewise, Dr. Weibel shared a similar anecdote, noting that the paperwork required of a patient participating in a vaccine trial today amounts to what many would consider a short novel.  But in those early days, when they were testing vaccines in the Philadelphia suburbs, the consent a parent was required to give amounted to a single 3×5 card with a couple simply written sentences.   We’ve come a long way!

I think most would agree that times have changed for the better, even if our patience and writer’s cramp may suggest otherwise.  To think that without the countless, courageous parents, the Dr. Weibel’s of the world, and the great vaccine researchers like Hilleman himself, we might still be faced with that multitude of childhood diseases…

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker, Donald Mitchell

On Tour: Lancaster, PA

9 Feb

February 7, 2017 | HILLEMAN: A Perilous Quest to Save the World’s Children | Lancaster, PA

The crowd at Millersville University’s Ware Center tonight represents much of the diversity that Lancaster, PA has to offer: students, faculty, physicians, nurses, artists, scientists, even family (both my own and, believe it or not, several of Maurice Hilleman’s as well!), all curious to know more about the man and his work, many willing to share their observations and anecdotes.

One healthcare professional noted that in the context of today’s celebrity-driven American culture, she was struck by Hilleman’s integrity and focus on others.  If there’s one thing that stands out about the man, it’s that the career he chose was one of not only great personal and professional risk, but of societal risk as well — human lives were always at stake, and not just any lives; young lives, children.

In response to the question of whether Hilleman may have lost sleep over the life-and-death environment he inhabited day in and day out, his sister-in-law (who honored the event with her presence) revealed that it wasn’t likely, given that he rarely slept more than 4 hours a night anyway, due to his unstoppable work ethic.

Dr. Alan Peterson (one of our distinguished panelists along with Dr. George McSherry, and Dr. Mary Lou Mortimer) noted that the Lancaster region has a rich history in vaccine development dating back to the 1882 establishment of The Lancaster County Vaccine Farms in Marietta, PA.  Early smallpox vaccine was produced there and known for its excellence and quality.  The facility remained in production for many years, eventually being purchased by the pharmaceutical firm of Wyeth in the 20th century and continues today to function as a vaccine formulation and packaging facility for GlaxoSmithKline, Inc.

Post provided by On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker, Donald Mitchell


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