PORTLAND, Maine — Filmmaker Reggie Groff was hired to do a simple thing. He just had to help film some interviews for a documentary, then go home and cash the check. That was all.
Only, it didn’t work out that way.
On the job, Groff was awed by a family’s courage, love and creativity in the face of unspeakable tragedy. He was so inspired, he decided to give the money back and work for free. Groff also agreed to take over the project, co-directing it and helping fundraise over $23,000 to see it through.
That was two and a half years ago. Now, the film, called “Brothers” is finally finished. It premieres tonight at Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland.
Terry and Suzan Norton originally hired Groff to help their son, Mike, make a short film about his little brother. Mike has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. He’s confined to a wheelchair and only has use of two of his fingers.
Mike’s little brother, JT, suffered from schizophrenia and took his own life in 2016.
Before he died, JT had been a standout hockey player and a skateboarder of local renown — probably with the skills to go pro. He was also Mike’s primary caregiver and inseparable companion as his disease progressed, robbing him of the use of his limbs.
Mike, now 32, envisioned a tribute film about his brother, one that shed light and awareness on schizophrenia. But Groff encouraged him to think bigger. He wanted to widen the film’s scope to the whole Norton family. He saw them not just dealing with the double tragedies of their sons’ illnesses — but also thriving with unbreakable love and commitment to each other.
Groff, 55, is a Portland native who grew up on Munjoy Hill. His love of film started at home. Groff’s father worked in local television and would bring home old movies from the station library.
While still a kid he’d chase ambulances and firetrucks around the city with a Bolex movie camera in his hand. He’d then give WCSH television news the footage. In return, they’d give him new film which Groff would use to make short horror movies with his friends.
Since growing up, Groff has made a living producing everything from kid shows on the cable channel Nickelodeon to infomercials to professional wrestling programs. “Brothers” is his second feature-length documentary.
Q: This movie started off just being about JT Norton?
A: Mike wanted to make a film to honor his brother. It was all interviewing skateboarders. It was a way for Mike to deal with his brother’s death. Once we shot the first batch of interviews, I’m like, “Wow, this is amazing. I want to do a film about the whole family.” So, I said, “I’m going to give your money back to you and we’ll raise the money and make this about the whole family.”
Q: What made you want to make it a story about the whole family?
A: Here he is, a kid with just two fingers, that he’s barely able to use, and he just completed a movie script about a person being chased by zombies in a wheelchair. He’s creating incredible art, doing logos, pins — nonstop. He’s actually been making mead with his mother. They just do things. His mom, Suzan, she tries to be his hands — [they’re] hitting death metal concerts together. And the dad, Terry, is working two jobs, trying to support the family as best he can. His concern is keeping the family together. He wants to make sure they survive as a family. And there’s grandparents and aunts, too, trying to fill in and help.
In a lot of ways [caring for Mike] is what’s kept the parents going forward [after JT’s death]. There’s this kind of sad perfection, how it all works together. They’re the exact family that’s needed with such a hard life like this — and a lot of the film is also really around mental illness and what the other son went through, and how they’ve dealt with it.
Q: I take it you’ve spent hundreds of hours shooting this film?
A: Yeah. We’ve shot about 50 interviews and dozens and dozens of events from birthdays to Michael getting tattoos.
Q: Now that it’s finished, what do you tell people the film is about?
A: It’s the story of how a family copes with — and rises above — tremendous loss and tremendous tragedy. [How they] embrace each day, being creative — helping others understand how to cope with mental illness and muscular dystrophy and suicide. How they educate other people as well as how they try to get by, day-to-day. It’s how they live with so much tragedy — and live well. They celebrate life, fully. I think that’s what it’s about.
Q: What do you hope people walk away from this film thinking about?
A: I think the average person, who doesn’t have as much tragedy to relate with [as the Nortons] will get that day-to-day problems need to be put in perspective. We all have things that give us stress and anxiety and make us have bad days or weeks or even years. They’re real. They’re not fake. But this film is a reminder that even with tremendous hardship, you can find ways to make your life valuable — and make good use of your time to create, live, find happiness where you can. And how to not let your hardships define you, but use them as a springboard to accomplish great things. It’s usually out of hardships that great art is created. I mean Mike and his family, they create to fight off pain.
Q: Not to put words in your mouth, but are you saying their own lives are great works of art?
A: Yeah. Definitely. I think so.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland is showing “Brothers” tonight, Wednesday, May 15th at 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. The 7 p.m. is already sold out but tickets are still available for the later show. On June 5, Sebago Brewing will host a screening of the film and unveil a special beer in honor of the occasion.