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Directing cancer film was rewarding experience for Buffalo native

Steven Bernstein isn’t a household Hollywood name, but he’s built a successful career behind the camera as cinematographer for dozens of films since leaving Buffalo.

It’s an eclectic list that ranges from “Monster,” the award-winning film about a serial killer, to “Like Water for Chocolate,” the popular celebration of the joys of food and love, to “Scary Movie 2,” a not-so-memorable sequel in the horror parody franchise.

Monday, he was back in the city for the first time in more than 30 years to talk about his new film, “Decoding Annie Parker.”

The movie, which stars Helen Hunt and Samantha Morton, interweaves the stories of two women – Dr. Mary Claire King, the geneticist whose research led to the discovery of the BRCA cancer genes, and Annie Parker, a Toronto woman who battled cancer, lost her sister and mother to the disease, and suspected a family connection before researchers pinpointed the genetic link.

This is Bernstein’s first directing effort, and he returned to Western New York before the film’s nationwide release as part of multi-city screenings to raise funds for cancer charities.

“This is not a science documentary,” Bernstein said during a visit to Roswell Park Cancer Institute. “It’s about two people who persevere for years in different ways. They found interior strength in the face of obstacles.”

An estimated 178,480 women in the United States will be diagnosed this year and 40,460 will die from invasive breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. About 5 percent to 10 percent of cases are linked to mutations in genes – most commonly genes known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Women who have these gene mutations have up to an 80 percent chance of getting breast cancer.

People might remember the editorial that appeared in May in the New York Times titled “My Medical Choice” by actress Angelina Jolie, who came out publicly as a carrier of the BRCA1 gene and reported that she had undergone a prophylactic nipple-sparing mastectomy.

King, now a professor of genome sciences and medicine at the University of Washington, began studying the genetics of families in the 1970s to learn whether breast cancer may be hereditary. At the time, scientists were skeptical about the concept.

After years of work, she and her colleagues determined in 1990 that there was a gene responsible for different inherited breast and ovarian cancers. The finding led others to identify the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in the mid-1990s. Those discoveries, in turn, allowed women to be tested and receive procedures to avoid cancer.

“It is important to educate people about these mutations because those who carry the BRCA1 or 2 gene do have options available to manage their risk,” said Dr. Ermelinda Bonaccio, director of the Mammography Center and assistant professor at Roswell Park.

During the same period, Annie Parker lost her sister and mother to breast cancer. She developed breast cancer and then ovarian cancer, and underwent many surgeries. The film depicts how she suspected a family link and was determined to survive despite the odds and to convince others that there was a connection.

“This is a story about the human condition that I found inspirational,” said Bernstein, who studied philosophy and English literature at Cambridge University in England after graduating from Amherst High School.

The movie was five years in the making, starting when Bernstein and his producer came across a script about Parker by Dr. Michael Moss. Bernstein and his son, Adam, collaborated with Moss on a new version that introduced the story of King’s scientific work.

Bernstein, 58, spent his early career making music videos and commercials. He also is the author of “Film Production,” a popular textbook on film-making. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1990s.

He said he was at a point in his major movie career where he was being encouraged to direct, and the transition seemed a natural change, even though he is taking on the role with an intimate knowledge of its downside.

“Directing a movie takes seven years of your life. It can be abject misery, and most films don’t turn out,” he said.

But directing also offered the sort of professional challenge and gratification he sought.

“Los Angeles is full of unbridled ambition. You buy things you don’t need and take jobs you don’t want,” Bernstein said. “I am at an age at which you want to do things that matter, and there was a remarkable amount of satisfaction from doing this film.”

“Decoding Annie Parker” started as a small film that Bernstein scratched and clawed to get financed and made. He ended up filming it in California after the production received a tax incentive. Along the way, the intertwined cancer stories began to gain attention in Los Angeles and attract such big stars as Hunt to the project.

“They responded to the script,” Bernstein said.

The special screening of “Decoding Annie Parker” will take place from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday at the Dipson Theatre in Amherst. Proceeds will be split between the Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry at Roswell Park and BRCA Gene Awareness Inc., said Tara Yates, spokeswoman for the cancer center.

A $50 ticket includes admission and a panel discussion that includes Bernstein, Parker and cancer specialists. A $100 ticket also gives patrons entry into a VIP reception. Visit for more information.

Bernstein said he has visited 31 cities worldwide and raised more than $500,000 for cancer charities as part of an altruistic effort related to the film that also builds momentum prior to its commercial opening. He has requests from 81 other cities, but is unsure he will be able to accommodate all of them.

“I’ve already traveled 89,000 miles,” he said.