An Interview With Director Patrick ‘TransFatty’ O’Brien
Patrick O’Brien—also known as “TransFatty”—made a film documenting one of the world’s deadliest diseases (ALS). The film’s called “TransFatty Lives,” a 10-year project. Why? Because he himself suffers from this disease, and is still with us.
One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Jelly Donut
He got his nickname working as a New York performance artist/deejay. I knew guys like Patrick in college: slightly Falstaffian (good-looking but carrying a few too many pounds), longish hair, beard, more than a little exhibitionistic, snarky-hilarious, and always seriously dialed into whatever was happening on campus of an underground nature with a geek edge.
It’s like a tribe or an archetype almost; call it the TransFatty Tribe. There exist various species within the TransFatty family: the Dungeons & Dragons TransFatty, Dead-head TransFatty, Renaissance Faire TransFatty, Offensive-tackle TransFatty, and so forth.
The TransFatty tribe member tends to be wildly creative, from hysterical bathroom graffiti to campus deejaying, from Ultimate Frisbee to avante-garde bands. And they have a deep devotion to weed. And donuts. It’s a sure bet that chubby, bearded, donut-and-weed-worshipping, super-snarky film director Kevin Smith (aka “Silent Bob”), is a card-carrying member of the TransFatty club.
In His Prime
So imagine you’re a happenin’ young dude, an SVA film grad, underground filmmaker, Internet celebrity, with tons of energy, super-funny, living your bliss … and then one day your foot starts shaking. Doesn’t stop. It’s Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gherig’s Disease). Deadly. Fatal. No cure for it.
What would you, yourself, do? Bribe a nurse to hire a hit man? Get wheeled up to the hospital roof, and rolled off, in the bed? If you were of the TransFatty Tribe, you might be delighted by the concept of a 10-story falling, bedpan explosion.
But ultimately you wouldn’t choose that for yourself, because—being a hardcore filmmaker—you’d want to witness the actual bedpan explosion and film it. You wouldn’t be able to have your cake and eat it too.
A guy like Patrick has too much humor and joie de vivre to take such a roof-escape fantasy too terribly seriously. In his film “TransFatty Lives,” he virtually sails through all the bad news with his positivity, humor, sense of mischief, and dedication to his family—intact. It’s kind of a superhuman feat. It’s a lesson for us all to learn from. Talk about “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” In the face of this titanic disease, O’Brien is definitely the Unsinkable TransFatty.
The following interview was conducted through email, as Patrick, at this advanced stage of ALS, can only communicate with his support group via one eye.
Epoch Times: What made you want to be a filmmaker and storyteller? When did you know?
Patrick O’Brien: It started with sound-recording on cassette tapes. In D.C., when I grew up, there was a shock-jock named Greaseman, who I liked. He did skits and sound effects, which I would record and imitate. Then, when my dad remarried, he got a camcorder—that camera changed my life. Also, early on, my mom would do funny voices of different characters. That was very influential. We loved “M*A*S*H. ”
Epoch Times: Steven Spielberg says young filmmakers fall into two categories: They either 1) follow their friends around with a camera, or 2) blow up toy trains and film that. Which one were you?
O’Brien: Hmm … I definitely was a pyro early on. And I definitely used my friends in my early films. I guess a combination of the two.
Epoch Times: What was the most significant thing you learned in film school?
O’Brien: Don’t smoke grass in the hallways.
Epoch Times: What was the significant thing you learned out in the world, actually making films on your own?
O’Brien: Every shot matters.
Epoch Times: Clearly, everything in this film was challenging. What would you say were the greatest challenges?
O’Brien: The greatest challenge was to never give up on the film. To stay alive to shoot another day; to see this film through. To keep looking for new angles. At one point I had Lou Gehrig appear on screen as a zombie. To keep a sense of humor and have fun. But in terms of the greatest challenge, it was the edit. Lasse Järvi and Doug Pray, out on the West Coast, edited 10 years of footage into a beautiful story. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Epoch Times: What surprised you during the making of this film?
O’Brien: Free small fries from Wendy’s.
Epoch Times: What’s the most fun part of the creative process for you, in writing, directing, and filmmaking?
O’Brien: I guess the “making it up as you go” part. Is that directing?
Epoch Times: What do you want audiences to learn and think about?
O’Brien: The feedback we are getting is interesting. Across the spectrum, our audience—everybody from 15-year-old girls to presidential candidate Chris Christie—talk about being moved and inspired by the story. And they find it funny too, which is something I really wanted.
Epoch Times: Where do you draw the strength from, to keep going?
O’Brien: From my 8-year-old son, Sean.
‘Enlightenment by Shotgun’
In the film, “enlightenment by shotgun” is how O’Brien’s therapist describes the descent into the abyss of this disease. However, as O’Brien just said, right there, he is less concerned about such esoteric concepts and explains that the whole film project is really a letter to his baby boy, Sean.
However, slowly but surely, the awareness of the nature of his journey begins to sound very much like the realizations of sages who discern that on an advanced level, things are the reverse of how they appear in our earthly day-to-day lives. Exactly how when you stare at red and then close your eyes, you see green.
And so, instead of taking the entirely understandable victim viewpoint of being jailed in the inert flesh pile that is his locked-down body, ALS transforms, in his mind, into “a beautiful disease.” Beautiful in terms of its soul-transforming potential.
He notes that his outer, physical suffering is “inversely proportionate to my inward journey”—a staggering statement. And yet such views are not uncommon among those shouldering terminal diseases. How often have you heard of someone claiming that if they had to do it all over again, they wouldn’t have it any other way—due to the wealth of wisdom accumulated through suffering?
Eastern schools of thought maintain that the only reason for human existence is to burn accumulated karma through pain, and that the bitterest suffering, from a higher perspective, is therefore the most precious. In light of that—O’Brien’s therapist was right: Patrick hit the suffering jackpot. Karma is considered “heavy.” You burn it off through suffering—you get lighter. Enlightenment.
The film is far from depressing. It will give you hope, through the exceptional courage and resiliency on display by an exceptional filmmaker being his own lab rat and subject matter.
Talk about a life’s work. Talk about a labor of love. Patrick Sean O’Brien gifts his son, Sean Patrick O’Brien, the wherewithal to witness a father’s devotion to be there, no matter what the cost. The film’s poster reads: “As ALS kills … TransFatty Lives.” TranFatty’s living is a gift to us all.