Filmmaker Hernán Barangan has set out to change Hollywood’s perception of serious illness through his television writing. As a leukemia survivor diagnosed in his teens, Barangan says Hollywood has “a habit of taking our most intimate and life-shattering experiences and perspectives and reducing them to serve as plot points or cardboard stereotypes. That all changes when we are the ones telling our stories.”
As one of NBCU LAUNCH’s selected writers in their competitive TV Writers Program, Barangan beat out 2,100 other applicants. His writing employs a satisfyingly efficient tone, covering the nuances of life with cancer in staccato sentences with openers such as: “I was 15 years old. Just got my driver’s permit. Just asked a girl on a date. Just discovered The Clash. Just diagnosed with leukemia.” From installation film to documentary, the multimedia filmmaker has fully delved into his passion for writing. He shares over email that he writes all day until he realizes he should be eating dinner: “It’s a job and I treat it like one.”
There is also childhood cancer survivor representation in “Saturday Night Live” veteran Vanessa Bayer and Broadway star Ashley Park, two stars who dealt with a leukemia diagnosis in their teens and sought out show business in adulthood, but screenwriters of similar backgrounds are lesser known. As serious illness and disability often beget and overlap, Barangan advocates for more disabled creatives in Hollywood. He previously told KCET, the “perspective that you gain as a young person who has faced death — it sticks with you as long as you ask it to. Over the years, for me, it has evolved into a pretty unique understanding of the world.”
Through his documentary “Cancer Rebellion” (produced by English rock singer Roger Daltrey of The Who), Barangan traveled across the U.S., meeting hundreds of young cancer patients. Forming what essentially became a road trip film, Barangan showcased that cancer does not discriminate based on age. Film Threat noted that the documentary successfully upends the idea that cancer is “a distant problem that affects either movie characters (think ‘The Fault in Our Stars’) or abnormal people.”
The Stories That Come From Diagnosis
Before his documentary or the micro-docs that came before it, Barangan attempted to write a fiction iteration of two teens who meet in a hospital (bringing to mind the YA book and digital adaptation “Zac & Mia”). “When I got to the end of that first draft, I started thinking…what do I really know about this subject? I only knew what I had gone through, because I’d never met anybody else who’d also been diagnosed around my age. So, I decided to go out and meet some of them — and it absolutely opened my world up.”
Along with “Cancer Rebellion,” the San Francisco denizen recently brought his life experiences to the Apple TV+ original series “Life By Ella,” a family drama that follows a young girl determined to live life to the fullest after completing chemotherapy. Barangan shares, “I love to build stories around real human emotions, sprinkled with some genre as the cherry on top.”
When writing for The ASCO Post, an oncology-focused newspaper, Barangan revealed that “the only activity I was able to do during my convalescence was watch old movies, and I fell in love with the history of cinema and filmmaking.” Barangan studied filmmaking in college before working on commercials and music videos — “anything to get away from the reality of cancer” at the time. This past escapism contrasts with Barangan’s “Life By Ella” episode, the penultimate “Prison or Palace” in the season. Barangan’s writing gives the show’s young actors plenty of moving and joyful material to work with about living in the moment, complete with daydreaming about Paris and playing pranks on nurses.
Prior to his acceptance into the highly selective TV Writers Program, Barangan won the Tribeca X Award at the namesake festival for his virtual reality piece on ballet dancer and metastatic breast cancer survivor Maggie Kurdika called “The 100%.” The 2019 immersive short retold how the incurable diagnosis derailed the young ballerina’s career with the Joffrey Concert Group in a harrowing and inspiring depiction.
Daily Rituals and Inspirations
When sitting down to write, Barangan prefers to start with one “super-long concept document” that he has utilized for years, along with his daily green tea. For inspiration, he often turns to “Chan is Missing” by Wayne Wang. “This was the first time I saw a neighborhood I knew onscreen, Chinatown in San Francisco. It made me feel like I could also make films someday. [The] street-level style and the noir mystery set among the real people of the community still influences the way I write.”
In the meantime, the Filipino and Salvadoran American writer-director shared that he is developing a project titled “Southside Odyssey” with producer Steven-Charles Jaffe set in Prohibition-era Tong Wars period.
Nearly half of NBC TV Writers Program cohort are AAPI, including Barangan, William Yu, and Emman Sadorra. Over a period of eight months, the cohort will participate in personal branding sessions, weekly workshops that hone their writing skills, and mock showrunner meetings. Through the program, they will develop an original pilot with the direction of NBCUniversal executives. They will develop an original pilot with the direction of NBCUniversal executives. Follow NBCUniversal LAUNCH on Instagram @nbculaunch for more updates on their diverse pool of talent.
NBCU LAUNCH contains the DEI efforts for NBCUniversal’s television portfolio, aiming to “produce authentic and compelling content with a focus on giving talented diverse content creators, at any place in their career, access to meaningful opportunities in television.” Follow NBCUniversal LAUNCH on Instagram @nbculaunch for more updates on their diverse pool of talent.
Cover credit: Tony Oberstar
Last modified: November 22, 2022