Television commercial director Sean Hanish had good reason to believe he was living the dream in July 2005. His career was on the rise as he had written, directed, and produced an ad campaign for supermodel Cindy Crawford's home furnishing line. At home, his wife was close to the due date for the birth of their first child. "The next time I see you you're going to be a daddy," Crawford told him after he presented the spots to her at her home.
"I felt pretty on top of the world that day," Hanish recalls. "And as I'm coming out of Cindy Crawford's driveway, my wife calls me." She gave him the devastating news that the son they were expecting was stillborn.
"Everything I knew up to that point kind of got leveled," he recalls. "You have a belief system. You think the world works a certain way. It's like an asteroid hitting your house. You're not prepared for it. We moved from the house that we bought to have our child. We moved out to this resort community in Santa Barbara to get our heads straight and frankly, stay together as a married couple."
Hanish's marriage survived. The process in getting past his grief included the making of his first independently produced film, Return to Zero, which premieres May 17 on Lifetime (8/7c). Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein star in the story of how the world of a prosperous, professional married couple is shattered by the stillbirth of their son.
"Minnie and Paul created characters that are a lot more interesting than my wife and I," Hanish says. But many of the grim details and uncomfortable situations the couple faces are directly out of his experience.
"There are questions from the doctor and the social worker that you never imagine being asked and one of them was 'do you want to take photos?'" Hanish says. "I could not believe it. We have a child that's still in my wife's body who is dead and you're asking me about cremation and burials and photographs? It was the most macabre I'd ever heard of. And then I said, 'OK we'll take a camera.' And we did. We took some photos. And one of the most cherished things that we have is this one photo that we have of our son."
During his research for the film, Hanish learned of a worldwide network of professional photographers that calls itself Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, which specializes in handling such photo assignments. It's one of several organizations related to stillbirths that have latched onto Return To Zero in the hope it will bring greater understanding to parents of stillborn children and perhaps some solace to those who have lived through such a tragedy.
"A lot of people started looking to us for leadership — we started to branch out and create a community of our own," says Hanish. A website (www.returntozerothemovie.com) was set up to organize local leaders to spread the word about the film. After 10 days, 2,500 from 32 countries had signed on. From there, 130,000 pledged to watch Return to Zero before Lifetime agreed to pick it up. The cable network will air premiere the film in the U.K. and Southeast Asia shortly after the U.S. debut. Return to Zero is also being offered to a limited number of stillbirth and neo-natal support groups and non-profit organizations for fundraisers.
So while Hanish's work on writing and directing the film has ended, he's prepared to become a spokesperson on an issue many find too wrenching to share. "I had friends tell me I was crazy — they said 'you shouldn't be doing this. You had a career doing commercials and now you're writing the saddest movie ever,'" he says.
But Hanish only answered to one person when he decided to pursue the project — his wife Kiley. "I asked her for permission," he says. "After going through something this horrible, I didn't want to drag her through the pain again. If she were to have said 'don't do it,' I honestly wouldn't have done it. But she was very supportive. She's an amazing woman. She's very private. But she's got a big heart and has a big picture view of the world and she got right away that this might be able to help some people. So she was on board. After I finished the first draft of the script I showed it to her. It reminded her of things that happened that she didn't remember. She remembered some things that I didn't remember and it all fit together. It was kind of crazy, but right after that we got pregnant with our son who is now two years old."