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Bar fight, traumatic brain injury inspire a book and an indie film

Kelly Thiebaud and Shannon Brown star in “Every 21 Seconds,” a film based on Brian Sweeney’s book about rehabilitation challenges and living with a traumatic brain injury. Filming of the movie, which is being shot in and around Will County, is expected to wrap next month.

In 1992, Brian Sweeney was at a bar with friends when a fight broke out. The brawl didn’t involve Sweeney or his pals. They decided to leave anyway. That should have been the end of it. But the person causing the commotion was booted out behind them and — armed with brass knuckles — decided to take out his rage on the back of Brian’s head, knocking him to the pavement and putting him in a coma.

Sweeney would later write about the event and its aftermath in the non-fiction book "Every 21 Seconds," which is being turned into a film about his rehabilitation challenges and what it means to live long term with a traumatic brain injury, or TBI.

A small-budget indie shooting in and around Will County — including Sweeney’s actual home in Mokena, which he shares with his wife Mary Beth — it stars Shannon Brown as Brian and Jim O’Heir ("Parks and Recreation") as one of his doctors. Filming began earlier this month.

"When we were invited to work on this project, we were told the money was there for the film," said director Kuba Luczkiewicz. That initial financing fell through "but at the end of the day it was a good thing because it gave us two more years to do better research on the issue. We joined numerous Facebook groups of TBI survivors and their families and we shot videos of TBI survivors as part of our preparation for the film."

That led to some changes in the script. "The original script didn’t include one of the characters, a Marine veteran. The story is based on Brian’s book, but for cinematic purposes we added a sidekick, who is based on a real person, Jon Jans. We met him while we were doing research on TBI. One of the biggest groups suffering from TBI are military veterans."

There are a range of cognitive, behavioral and physical symptoms that can emerge as the result of a traumatic brain injury. Trouble with balance. Feelings of rage. Speech impairments. Difficulty thinking. "TBI is the kind of injury where you will never get back to who you were before the accident," Luczkiewicz said. "In Brian’s case, you would have to spend some time with him to see the symptoms."

The hidden nature of the condition presents yet another complication. "Jans, the veteran, told me that many of his friends — also veterans — have said they would rather have lost a limb than have a TBI, because if you’re arm is gone people will see that you’re disabled. But with a TBI, nobody can see that you’re disabled. If you’re at the cash register at the grocery store and you can’t count the money or have trouble communicating with the cashier, people don’t understand, they think you’re on drugs."

Luczkiewicz sees "Every 21 Seconds" as counterpoint to 1991’s "Regarding Henry" starring Harrison Ford as a high-powered attorney whose callous personality undergoes a radical change after suffering a traumatic brain injury.

"He plays a cold, calculated man who becomes sweet and childlike after the injury, and if you ask any TBI survivor or their families, they will tell you this is completely unlike real life. It’s the reverse of what actually happens. So having this film being made independently, this give us a lot of freedom to tell the story right."

Memory is Sweeney’s primary challenge. "He’s an executive producer on the film and when I communicate with him, I have to make sure that I’m sending him a text message," Luczkiewicz said. "If I’m talking to him about things associated with the production, like props or whatever, I have to make sure that it’s not a phone call, that I send him a text. Because when I tell him about something, it’s very likely that he will forget. Or he’ll call me back and say, ‘Hey, we spoke yesterday, I can’t remember what you were asking for.’"

The film follows not only the ups and downs of Sweeney’s rehabilitation after the injury, but the effect it has on his wife and their life together as a family.

"For me as a director it’s a big advantage to have (the real Sweeneys) present on the set. Brian can see, on the monitor, the scene as it’s happening and I can get some feedback from him and take it into consideration or not. But it’s great for me to have some feedback about behavior, reactions, things like that."

The movie builds to a moment of drama. Will Sweeney testify against his attacker? He’s reluctant because he doesn’t remember that night.

"The biggest challenge for me and Shannon Brown, who plays Brian, is finding the best possible way to not overdo it in terms of acting," Luczkiewicz said. "To keep the emotions on an internal level. This is a difficult role. You’re playing a person with such elaborate emotional issues, and we both have to be careful not to turn it into a mockery. It’s a very thin line for an actor to make sure his portrayal is as honest as possible. That you don’t see the technique but see a real emotion."

Filming is set to wrap June 4.

For more information about the film go to www.every21seconds.com

Twitter @Nina_metz

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