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Film Therapy: From caretaking to moviemaking, how one family has been using art to cope

  • Rio Contrada, talks with his father, Fred Contrada, before a session of boxing at at DopaFit: Parkinson's Movement Center, in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rio Contrada plays around with his father, Fred Contrada, while the two wait for a session to start of boxing and exercise at DopaFit: Parkinson’s Movement Center in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rio Contrada with his father, Fred Contrada, during a session of boxing and exercise at DopaFit: Parkinson’s Movement Center in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rio Contrada with his father Fred Contrada, as the two wait for a session to start of boxing and exercise at DopaFit: Parkinson’s Movement Center in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rio Contrada with his father, Fred Contrada, during a session of boxing and exercise at DopaFit: Parkinson’s Movement Center in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rio Contrada with his father, Fred Contrada, during a session of boxing and exercise at DopaFit: Parkinson’s Movement Center in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rio Contrada with his father, Fred Contrada, during a session of boxing and exercise at DopaFit: Parkinson’s Movement Center in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rio Contrada, with his father, Fred Contrada, during a session of boxing and exercise at DopaFit: Parkinson’s Movement Center in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rio Contrada, with his father, Fred Contrada, during a session of boxing and exercise at DopaFit: Parkinson’s Movement Center, in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rio Contrada with his father, Fred Contrada, during a session of boxing and exercise at DopaFit: Parkinson’s Movement Center in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rio Contrada with his father, Fred Contrada, during a session of boxing and exercise at DopaFit: Parkinson’s Movement Center in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A scene from a preview of “Time to Go,” starring Lisa Abend, Jack Schrader and John Hadden. Courtesy Rio Contrada

  • Courtesy Rio Contrada

  • Courtesy Rio Contrada

  • Above, Joan and Fred Contrada in 2013. Courtesy Rio Contrada

  • Courtesy Rio Contrada

  • Courtesy Rio Contrada

  • A picture of Rio Contrada, Amanda Contrada, Joan Axelrod-Contrada and Fred Contrada in Fred’s room at The Atrium in Agawam. In the background, Joan listens as Fred plays guitar. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Fred Contrada and his son, Rio Contrada, in Fred’s room at The Atrium in Agawam. Rio asks Fred if he wants to read one of his columns during a visit on Fred’s birthday. Rio and his mother, Joan Axelrod-Contrada, were there to take him out to lunch. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rio Contrada talks to his father, Fred, as he plays guitar.   GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joan Axelrod-Contrada and Rio Contrada look over pictures with Fred Contrada.



For the Gazette/Hampshire Life
Friday, May 04, 2018

According to his son, Rio, Fred Contrada lived his young life “in the mold of Kerouac.” From Alaska to New Orleans, the former reporter worked odd jobs around the country while writing novels and making friends throughout his travels. Now, Rio Contrada, age 27, is making a film about his father called “Time to Go.”

Written and directed by Rio, the movie centers around the character of “Jack,” a man in his 60s who has been diagnosed with a degenerative neurological condition, and it flashes back to Jack as a younger man, reflecting on his life and his desire to strike out on his own. It’s a character Rio wrote based on the real-life story of his father, Fred, a longtime reporter for Springfield’s The Republican (he worked there for about 30 years), who was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) in 2016.

Throughout the script, Jack is driven by an urge to flee and have adventures, Rio said on a recent afternoon at Haymarket Café in Northampton:  “It’s a personality trait that my Dad has had for as long as I was alive and much longer than that. He’s still trying to get up and go about and do things, even if his feet won’t carry him anymore.”

Fred Contrada, who is now 66, was originally diagnosed with a concussion after a bicycle accident two years ago. Since then, his diagnosis has changed multiple times (which is not uncommon for people with degenerative neurological conditions, Rio notes). Currently, doctors believe that Fred has PSP, a rare brain disorder that affects walking and balance, as well as cognitive functions.

In the film, the role of Fred is played by seasoned actor John Hadden, who made accuracy a priority when it came to playing someone with a degenerative illness. “It’s about studying the character from every angle,” he said. “Eventually, something just kind of gives in. You can slip in, like putting on a glove.”

Hadden relates to Rio — he had his own experience taking care of an ill father. “I had spent my father’s last two weeks with him and brought him home from the hospital,” Hadden said. “I had a real intimate experience of a formerly powerful man who was nearing the end. Not that Rio’s dad is nearing the end, but there was something similar about seeing a person crash, in a way.”

Casting for “Time to Go” was not an easy process. When actors were auditioning for roles — in addition to Jack, key characters include Lynn and Eva, based on Rio’s mother, Joan Axelrod-Contrada, and his older sister, Amanda — he provided source material such as interviews with his father and videos of his mother and sister to help them prepare. In the end, it was emotional authenticity that won out over physical or other similarities to the real-life subjects. “Good actors can pull from their own experiences,” Rio said. “The actors that I’ve chosen all have experienced, in some way or another, these feelings.” 

This rings true to Rio’s mother, Joan, who is a writer herself. (Her books include children’s titles like “This Or That Animal Debate: A Rip-Roaring Game of Either/Or Questions” and “Ghoulish Ghost Stories.”) While she was not in the room for auditions for her film-self, she lent actresses vying for the role a flower fascinator that she often wears in her hair to get a good feel for the part. “I really like the actress who’s playing me,” said Joan about Lisa Abend, a veteran actor who has thrown herself into the character, even sitting in with Joan during her support group meetings. “I’m learning ways to be more of me through her.”

Joan is a close collaborator with Rio on “Time to Go,” describing the film as a “ray of sunshine in their lives.” In addition to managing Rio and helping with publicity, she is opening up her house in Northampton as the prime location for filming when production starts this month. While the script does take creative license, “Every moment is really true to life,” Rio said, and laughed. “I even wrote a sex scene between my parents. I affectionately call it, ‘the failed hand-job scene.’ ”

When Joan read that scene in the script, Rio says now, she couldn’t help but wonder if he’d overheard something — she later approached him about it. “I’m obviously not there watching my parents have sex,” Rio said. “But, you know, I do have an imagination — unfortunately — as a writer. My friends make fun of me a little bit for it, but it’s something that has to happen.”

After all, it’s part of Rio’s goal as a filmmaker to create authentic characters. “I care about writing characters that can’t really speak for themselves, characters that you don’t often see on the screen,” Rio said. “You watch TV, you watch movies, and everyone is 18 to 35. Every love scene that you see is between two outrageously attractive people having passionate sex. I wanted to write a love scene that if you’re 66 and have been married for 35 years, you can relate to it and see some part of yourself onscreen.”

Just as sex is a part of life, so is mortality, and Rio also wants to give voice to people who are too often overlooked, both on film and in real life. “I’ve met a lot of people now that have degenerative illnesses in my dad’s classes and in the nursing homes and assisted-living facility, and I know, from my perspective, it’s hard to meet somebody who has Alzheimer’s or dementia and give them the attention they deserve,” Rio said. (His father has moved around and is now living in an assisted-living facility in Agawam.) “But if you actually took the time and thought about it, every one of those people was a vibrant person at some point.”

Rio also hopes to draw attention to an impending crisis within the American healthcare system, with baby boomers living longer but not always healthier lives than their predecessors.

“We were in a nursing home where, overnight, there were 44 residents and one aid on staff to take care of all of them. So, I can only imagine what that’s going to be like maybe five years from now,” Rio said. “I want to put something onscreen that makes people start to question their future plans, our country’s future plans, our healthcare system’s future plans, and our ability to provide humane care for everybody that needs it.” 

The script also takes on the question of what it’s like to be a caretaker for someone with a degenerative illness. “Caregivers need to take care of themselves, and sometimes, as a caregiver, you can lose sight of how demanding the job is and how much you’re not taking care of yourself,” said Joan, who took care of Fred immediately following his accident.

Around that time, Rio was working on a reality show in Los Angeles. (A few years before, he’d graduated from Emerson College in Boston, where he studied film.) Upon hearing of his dad’s initial injury on the bike, Rio moved back to western Massachusetts to help out. “I knew if I just stayed in California and worked my job and didn’t come back and spend time with my family, I would regret it,” he said.

Today, Joan and Rio do their best to keep Fred active, engaged and surrounded by the familiar when they see him — they visit him almost every day and do familiar activities ranging from coloring in color-by-number books to throwing a ball around. Rio and his dad also attend a boxing class for people with Parkinson’s at the Eastworks Building in Easthampton.

And Joan has her own special bond with Fred, Rio added: “My mom does this thing where she used to say ‘I love you,’ and he’d say ‘I love you,’ and she’d go ‘a little bit or a lot?’ and he’d say, all the way.’ ” And so now, she repeats that with him all the time.” The family also passes around his book of past newspaper columns, reading passages aloud to each other to keep him engaged while reminiscing. 

Each of the Contradas has their own way of coping while caretaking. Joan says that, since she was a teenager, writing has always been a way for to her get outside herself. She’s currently writing a nonfiction book about shipwrecks with Fred as her research assistant. “I felt like caregiving was like being on a ship that was sinking,” Joan recently said. “My husband kept getting worse and worse and worse, and it was like the ship was always springing a leak, and Rio and I were always bailing furiously to get the water out of the ship, but we couldn’t ever get all the water out, so the ship kept sinking.”

Caretaking, she added, “puts a lot of strain on the relationships in your family. It brought out the tensions between [Rio] and his sister, the tensions between him and me, and that’s bound to happen when you’re in such a stressful situation.”  

 According to Rio, his older sister Amanda was not initially pleased with the script’s portrayal of her. “[My sister] is depicted as somewhat the black sheep in the script,” he said. “She read it and gave me some feedback, and I think it helped us clear the air a little bit in how we felt about our family and how we felt about each other.” 

“I’ve certainly had moments of catharsis where I start writing and I start to cry just writing the script,” he continued.

For the past couple of years, “Time to Go” has allowed Rio to cope with anxiety and emotional distress, he noted, but it also has been a way for him to relive some happy childhood memories of his father.

“He was a really fun dad. He taught me how to camp, play guitar, ride a bike — like most dads do. He was also a natural storyteller,” Rio said.

“He would tell a lot of funny stories about his days in journalism. And, well, I have a scene in the movie that’s kind of like that. It’s kind of a way to reconnect.”

Filming for “Time to Go” will begin at the end of May, and a music and poetry fundraiser will be held at Cafe Evolution in Florence on Sunday, May 6 from 6-9 p.m. To donate to the film’s fund visit indiegogo.com/projects/time-to-go-kids#/