Arts·Pandemic Diaries

How my son and I are surviving isolation by working on movies together at home

Actor James Sanders and his son Max are channelling the stress of the pandemic into creativity.

Actor James Sanders and his son Max are channelling the stress of the pandemic into creativity

James Sanders and his son Max. (James Sanders)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

When faced with adversity, I have always been good at adapting. My parents separated when I was young; I broke my neck when I was 20; I lost a sibling in tragic circumstances shortly after I got married; I nearly died from kidney failure after the birth of our son; and, most recently, I navigated the delicate balancing act of consciously uncoupling a 20-year relationship with my wife. So to discover myself as a single, out-of-work, quadriplegic father homeschooling my eight-year-old son, Max, during a global pandemic, I thought, "Hey, no problem. I got this."

Yeah...right.

Max is a very bright and articulate kid. He loves the people at his school, but feels confined in the classroom. Ironically, he felt he had more freedom when the COVID-19 distancing restrictions kicked in because he could stay at home and do his own thing.

But the novelty quickly wore off. With unstructured days, Max succumbed to TV marathons and I spiralled down the Google News rabbit hole. We both became angry, frustrated, lost, and scared. We desperately needed a plan. So we made a to-do list of daily activities that we thought would be good for our physical and mental health, and we called it our survival guide. When we adhered to the structure, we would get rewards.

James Sanders and his son Max. (James Sanders)

We allowed ourselves one hour of television per day, and Max was in for a big surprise: a new Apple TV+ series called Home Before Dark was just released, and I had a recurring role in it! Max was super stoked to see his daddy on TV, and he was even more interested in how everything was done. He read all the scripts and he was hooked.

He hijacked my computer and started drafting scenes for a movie about an elevator company run by cats. His passion was rapidly developing and I thought, "Wow, we've got to make a movie together." But it seemed impossible for us to gain momentum or energy as Max shuttled between his two homes, each time uncertain if we would be able to pick up where we left off.

I remembered being an artist-in-residence last year teaching moviemaking to kindergarten and grade one students in three Vancouver elementary schools, including Max's. I remember Max being really proud of me teaching in his former grade one class. In being a father to him, he has helped me understand how to relate to kids that age and given me great feedback on the projects I led that empowered the kids to be themselves and speak from the heart. I learned that children are not only our future but what keeps us present, in the moment, and honest. Then it all clicked.

The next time I saw Max, I pulled out our daily survival guide and I invited him to develop it into a script with me.

James Sanders and his son Max. (James Sanders)

We did test shots of all the scenes so he could follow the process from the page to the screen. We shot it on an old iPhone held in a plastic toy tripod that Max got from a buddy on his birthday. We focused on art and technology, and "home learning" started happening. We kept to our routines and the new rituals of our time, but I was still horribly depressed. Every night at 7pm, when Max was with me, we would cheer for our healthcare and frontline workers; when I was alone, I would just idly clap and sometimes cry.

And I wasn't alone in my sadness. After experiencing the cliffhanger at the end of the Home Before Dark TV series, Max began sobbing. I watched him release a month of fears and anxieties from being isolated and apart from family and friends. I told him how proud I was that he was able to talk through his tears and share his feelings with me. To feel his trust and comfort with me holding the space is something I'll never forget.

This is the space that artists fight so hard to get to. The vulnerable space. The creative space. Now we were in it, and this was our time to work. But it was taking so long that I thought a vaccine would come before we finished and the project would become irrelevant.

Throughout this time, I was also directing an online show with musicians, actors, dancers, and writers to celebrate a new book written by Al Etmanski called The Power of Disability. We had 15 artists and technicians in multiple cities. As I was drafting the programming, I saw that there could be space for Max. So I offered him the gig. He accepted, and we had what every artist needs to succeed: a deadline.

James Sanders during the Power of Disability live-stream. (James Sanders)

We re-wrote and re-shot everything, sometimes in very long sessions where it took borderline tears for me to remember that my collaborator was only eight years old. The production values were raw, but we had something important to say. We committed ourselves to kindness and creativity, and made the goal of sharing this with others as a gift. It became our sole focus and we challenged each other to keep making discoveries. It was exhausting, and we were both very relieved when our final scene was in the can. And most importantly, we were finally out of our funk.

On the day of the Power of Disability concert, Max and his mother set up a monitor in his bedroom so they could watch the show that I was hosting out of my new makeshift living room TV studio. Everything went smoothly and Max was beaming when he introduced our film to a live Zoom audience. They loved it. Max and I had shared a golden moment, and we celebrated that night with a family dinner of burgers, fries, and milkshakes — delivered, of course.

The next day, I posted the video to my Facebook page to share with our family and friends. By the end of the day I had over 500 views, and the post had been shared widely; in just a couple of days, the numbers went from hundreds to thousands.

We were overjoyed with the feedback and the knowledge that we were really moving people in a meaningful way. It was an incredible ride to go on with my son — a creative journey that resulted in warming the hearts of many. Before this, I could not have imagined that my greatest reward was yet to come.

At bedtime, we talked about the role of the artist to create stories that evoke an emotional response. A catharsis. A release. Knowing that stories help define us, help us make sense of the world around us, help us move through difficult times — times like we're in right now. As Max was falling asleep, he uttered soft and beautifully articulated words: "Oh, Daddy, my heart feels so warm right now. So good. It feels like I was meant to do this." That's because you are, Max. We all are.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

James Robert Howard Sanders has worked as an actor, writer, director, and producer for both the stage and screen. Quadriplegic from a spinal cord injury that occurred partway through his theatre training, James has focused his career on creating and producing authentic representations of disability. James is the founding Artistic Director of Realwheels Theatre. Currently, James plays "Mr. Sipple" on the new Apple TV+ series Home Before Dark. James desperately needs to build his social media following and he shamelessly asks you to like his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his YouTube channel – all @JamesRHSanders.

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