A former Portland pediatrician and health care administrator, whose first produced script became a critically acclaimed motion picture, is living the dream of every weekend screenwriter. But Csaba Mera's overnight success story with Here Awhile was actually years in the making.
Over a decade ago, the well-connected Hollywood production-acquisitions executive who championed Mera's initial screenplay about a troubled inner-city teen fell ill and died just after they had begun shopping it around.
For his second effort—a story depicting the struggles of homeless sisters—Mera partnered with a local indie production company that ended up declaring bankruptcy a few weeks before filming was scheduled to start.
In 2017, Mera worked tirelessly to adapt the memoir of a female death row investigator only to learn her agents had other plans for the property.
"That was my third strike," he laughs. "At that point, you'd think this mad Hungarian would just give up, but nooo!"
Instead, Mera drew inspiration from an acquaintance who'd developed colon cancer at a young age and wished to explore Oregon's state-sanctioned, end-of-life alternatives.
"Driven by frustration, I pounded out a new script in 10 days, sent that off to [Here Awhile director/co-writer] Tim [True], and he reached out to a casting director," Mera says. "The timeline was absolutely ridiculous. In mid-December, there wasn't a word written, but we finished shooting by August. It was crazy. All along, I kept thinking, 'When is somebody going to kill this thing?'"
To be sure, production schedules are more easily streamlined once a bona fide star signs on, and Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect, Perfect Harmony, True Blood) immediately expressed an interest in portraying the lead role of a terminal cancer patient reconciling with her estranged brother (The Expanse's Steven Strait) and unexpectedly bonding with his Asperger's-diagnosed neighbor (Brooklyn 99's Joe Lo Truglio).
"It was a bit of a casting hack," True explains. "Once we realized that some real talent might come on board, even though we couldn't offer anything financially, our strategy was giving opportunities to actors primarily known for their comedic talent. I just knew Anna had this wonderful range within her. Steven Strait, this great leading man, comes from Syfy television to join our little film, and Joe Lo Truglio has the biggest heart ever. We were able to move them with the writing and trust them with roles they weren't really playing up until this film, but we had faith. Great acting is great acting."
Although the emotional depth of Mera's screenplay doubtlessly attracted some of the industry's bigger names, he'd also structured the story in such a way that it could be made with a minimal budget. Aside from brief trips to the woods and the coast, almost every scene takes place at a Northeast Alberta Street Victorian—home to Strait's character.
"Shooting the film in Portland was an automatic decision because Portland's such an important character within the film," says producer Deborah Lee Smith. "The Death With Dignity Act is specific to Oregon, and we wanted to make sure we stayed true to that. [Although] they both live in L.A. now, Csaba and Tim have a very strong connection to Oregon. They really wanted to ensure the characters and the story were as accurate as possible."
Emerging as an audience favorite and critical darling during an abbreviated run through the festival circuit last winter, Here Awhile won the Omaha Film Festival's Best Feature award, drew crowds to three separate screenings at the Napa Valley Film Festival, and inspired Portland Film Festival judges so much that they introduced a category, Best New Director, to honor True.
Shortly before the pandemic effectively pushed all new releases that weren't postponed to Video on Demand, the filmmakers had scheduled a limited theatrical run at independent venues in New York, Los Angeles and Portland, where the patient rights advocacy group Compassion & Choices was set to lead a discussion following the local premiere.
By focusing on the distinct travails of such finely etched characters, Here Awhile never feels politicized, but the film's creators are all too aware that physician-assisted suicide remains a divisive issue in many parts of the country.
"We never felt any pushback," True says, "but we've been to festivals where it was clear some audience members held a different opinion. One thing this film does not do is push an agenda. We just tell one person's story in a way that isn't preachy. Our desire certainly isn't to change anybody's mind, but maybe we could set the table for people to be able to talk about the end of their lives in a way that's not so scary. That's what's really powerful about this story. We create space for the conversation."
SEE IT: Here Awhile streams on Amazon Prime, Google Play and YouTube.