Dying with Dignity

On Jan. 12, 1998, Ramón Sampedro took his own life. A quadriplegic for nearly three decades, Sampedro had vigorously fought for the right to die, but was frustrated again and again by the legal system in his native Spain. Finally, with the assistance of 11 trusted friends and associates, he took a lethal dose of cyanide, went into convulsions, and passed away.

Sampedro was a prominent symbol and spokesperson for the right-to-die movement, but his death may have drawn slight attention outside of his native country had he not insisted on videotaping it. A copy of the tape was sent to a Madrid television station, and an edited version was repeatedly broadcast on local news programs. Among the many stunned viewers was director Alejandro Amenábar, who was sufficiently inspired to bring Sampedro's life story to the screen for his latest film, "The Sea Inside."

In wasn't the first time Amenábar had heard of Sampedro, whom he first saw on television in the early 1990s. The director had just gained international recognition with "Open Your Eyes" and was considering his next project when Sampedro's story captured his attention.

"I asked myself, 'What would I want to do, if I was in his condition, with my life?'" he recalls. "By that time I was also interested in another story about a man who was kidnapped by ETA, the terrorist organization, and was in a very, very small cage for one year and a half. I really had nightmares with that story, when he was finally released. I guess there was something about being trapped that got my attention, and I could understand him somehow."

Intrigued, Amenábar sought out Sampedro's book, "Letters from Hell." "I was very impressed by what a good writer he was," says Amenábar. "His ideas about life and death were quite profound, and I immediately connected with that. Basically, he is not scared of facing death. He says it is a part of the process of life."

Sampedro was a young ship's mechanic in a small Spanish fishing village when he had the accident that changed his life. He had dived off a small cliff, but had misjudged the depth of the water and hit his head on the rocky floor. Paralyzed from the neck down, he was trapped in a cage from which there was no escape.

In a way, he was lucky. His family attended to his every need, and after he recovered he became a voracious reader. For a quadriplegic, he had a relatively high quality of life. Quick of mind and wit, he had a magnetic personality. Women were drawn to him, and he even entertained marriage proposals. He became involved with the Spanish right-to-die organization Death with Dignity, and became a published author.

Although he put on a brave face, Sampedro was still trapped. He was unable to take his own life due to his paralysis. Anyone who assisted him was vulnerable to prosecution by the legal system and, in heavily Catholic Spain, condemnation by the Church. Eventually he did enlist the aid of friends, each person executing one small step that in itself could not be considered illegal.

It was no accident that he waited as long as he did, however. He wasn't fighting to end his suffering as much as he was fighting for an ideal.

Amenábar's films are all explorations of death and different states of consciousness. Ironically, his debut film, "Thesis," was a murder mystery with a videotaped "snuff film" as a central plot device. "Open Your Eyes" (later remade by Cameron Crowe as "Vanilla Sky") concerned a man who was horribly disfigured in a car accident who goes to extreme measures to end his own suffering, while his first English-language film "The Others" dealt with the afterlife.

That film's star prodded Amenábar to make a drama for his next film. "I guess I wanted to do a drama from along time ago, and I actually remember Nicole Kidman telling me 'Your next movie should be a drama.'" says Amenábar. "Maybe I had this idea in my mind, but I hadn't developed it enough to talk about it."

Amenábar dug into the person beyond the poster-child persona, and was intrigued by what he discovered. "What we didn't know about him was his sense of humor," he says. "That was something that I found out afterwards when I met one of his friends and she told me that he would constantly mak[e] jokes, and how funny he was. Jokes about death, and jokes in order to disarm people in front of him, when he could tell that there was someone who was trying to ... I mean, when there was pity or mercy, he would immediately use a joke, in order to have a one-to-one conversation."

That sense of humor heavily influenced the performance of actor Javier Bardem, who had previously created complex, sensitive characters in "Before Night Falls" and "The Dancer Upstairs." However, Amenábar freely admits that he and co-writer Mateo Gill opted to de-emphasize the extreme psychological turmoil that Sampedro surely experienced in his condition and caused him to become an activist. "I don't think we can get to his deep, deep, deep desires," says Amenábar. "He said in a very reasonable way, and very relaxed: 'I want to cross the line.' I think we had to respect that. He was fighting for something. He had all of these people loving him, but that's what he wanted. I thought I had to respect that and let it go."

Telling Sampedro's story changed Amenábar's own outlook on life, and the possibility of what he would do if he were caged in the body of a quadriplegic. "The thing is now, if I was in his condition, I think [I] wouldn't want to die. I really think I wouldn't. But I can think of some other cases, examples, where I would want to die. Then I wouldn't want anyone to tell me what I should do with my life."

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