Sam Simon Documentarian Justin Baldoni Pays Tribute to the Late Philanthropist

"It was so important to tell his story and to honor him," the director and 'Jane the Virgin' star tells THR.
Wayfarer Entertainment
Justin Baldoni and Sam Simon

Sam Simon's story is coming to Fusion, and it's being told by Jane The Virgin star Justin Baldoni.

Rebel with a Cause: The Sam Simon Story, directed by Baldoni, aims to offer an emotional and thoughtful deep dive into The Simpsons' writer and producer's battle with terminal cancer and his devotion to animal rights even while losing that battle — and it will premiere just one week after Simon's March 8 death.

In 2013 Simon told The Hollywood Reporter that he didn't know how much money he had given away to charitable causes but that he was "vowing" to give away his entire fortune: "I have more money than I'm interested in spending. Everyone in my family is taken care of. And I enjoy this."

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Simon set up a foundation bearing his name (the Sam Simon Foundation) to help hungry dogs, as well as hungry people. He also contributed greatly to PETA, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and Mercy for Animals. In addition to animal rights, Simon was passionate about Save The Children and Feeding Families.

Around the same time Simon made that vow, Baldoni was working on the documentary series My Last Days from SoulPancake and his own production company Wayfarer Entertainment, diving deeply into the lives of those who were given mere months to live and exploring all of the good they chose to do with that limited time. The two men had never met, but they had more in common than they could have known.

"I’ve always been so curious about death. With my personal beliefs as a Bahá’í, we believe that birth and death are very similar and that we’re here on this Earth to develop all of the things we can’t see," Baldoni tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Like, in the womb we’re developing our arms and our legs and our eyes, and we needed all of those things, but we had no idea that we’re developing them. And then we’re born, and we need all of those things. So, what we’re doing here in this life is very similar to what we were doing in the womb in that we’re being prepared for somewhere else."

"One of the things I noticed is that people really change when they realize their expiration date is coming, and they know what it is. Most of us don’t: we just hope we can live as long as we can and do as much good as we can. I was fascinated by that change, and I thought, “If I could show people who are living amazing lives knowing they only have months to live, maybe it would change the way the rest of us live."

When My Last Days started becoming successful online, Baldoni and his company received a number of inquiries for similar projects. Fusion approached them and asked them to take on the then untitled Sam Simon project.

"At the time I wasn’t as familiar with him as I wish I would have been, but I did some quick research on him, and I realized, 'Oh my God, this is an amazing human being, and I jumped at the chance,'" Baldoni adds. "It was so important to tell his story and to honor him. He was kind of known as someone who was very opinionated, but underneath all of that is a guy who was a pretty amazing human being who really, really dedicated his life to helping the world in very specific ways. And that was the story we wanted to focus on. We're dealing with someone's life. It's not just a project to me."

THR spoke with Baldoni shortly after news of Simon's death to learn more about the project and his desire to preserve Simon's legacy.

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You got to know Sam a little bit through your research on him, but how much more did you learn from him once you were actually working together on this documentary, and what kind of impact did he have on you?

The guy was, first of all, brilliant! He submitted a spec script to Taxi and by [24] became a showrunner. We’re talking about somebody with an intellect far beyond mine, and what he was able to do, and how he transformed The Simpsons and really didn’t get the credit for it, what he was able to bring to everything that he touched blew my mind! But then, the real story for me were the things he was doing that no one knew about. A lot of The Simpsons writers didn’t even know Sam was off saving the world for animals. I found that fascinating. In early interviews he told me that he didn’t have a bucket list because he did everything that he wanted to do. it was just how he lived; he was ferocious. After he left The Simpsons he became a boxing manager for one point and managed the heavyweight champion of the world. Everything he did, he did with passion and tenacity. Then, going even deeper into Sam’s story, the fact that he has remained friends with all of his exes, and his best friend in the entire world was Jennifer Tilly, who he was married to, that was another thing that blew my mind. That’s an example of love being truly unconditional.

What do you feel you learned most from Sam that is also a part of the message of Rebel with a Cause?

To never, ever, ever give up. And that can be applied to every area of my life but specifically things that I believe in. I really saw a man fight for these things that he believed in. He didn’t sit around and do nothing or wait. And what I learned from Sam is you have to go and actually do it; you can’t wait around for somebody else [to do it for you]. And it isn’t about money. Sam was helping animals long before he was Sam Simon. He lived what he believed; his thing was making the world better and having rights for animals, and every area of his life reflected that. That’s something that I have respect for, and that’s a man I have respect for. I think that’s inspiring and fascinating, and I’m surprised he didn’t get more attention, but I don’t think it would have mattered: he would have done it until the day he died. And he did.

What was the directing process like for such an emotional story?

To be very honest, it was a very tricky road. When you’re dealing with somebody who is dying, they’re going through a lot of pain, so there are a lot of physical things that are happening, and there are a lot of medications. And [Sam] was a far more accomplished filmmaker and director than I am. For me, I wanted to allow the creative process to happen and let him know that I’m here to be a service to him. It got tricky because he did get really sick, and there was a lot of outside situations that were affecting the filming at one point or another. But we kept pushing through, and we had an incredible team.

You mentioned he was known for being opinionated; what kind of feedback did you receive as you were working together?

He saw some early versions of [Rebel with a Cause], and he made a joke; he said, “If Roger Ebert were alive to see my doc, he’d think my cancer doc was better." That was all the Wayfarer team needed to hear. We knew he liked it! But there was one section [where] we animated Sam because we wanted to pay homage to Sam, Mr. Animator! So we took a set of interviews that he loved from the Marc Maron podcast, and we animated all of those interviews, so Sam is actually a cartoon, and I was so excited for him to see it. And we finally finished it, and we sent it to him Monday morning, and he had already passed away. He got to see most of the doc, but he never got to see the animation. I’m fighting back tears hoping he would be proud of it.

Tonally, how did you and Sam work together to balance all of the elements of Sam's life: his work, his passion, and his illness, with the lightness you have talked about bringing to the subject?

Bringing light to a very dark issue is what we take pride in at Wayfarer. And you have a guy like Sam, who literally speaks in comedy bits. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen! He talked in one-liners because that’s the way his brain world. So whenever he’s on-camera, you have an amazing line every couple of minutes, and he always brings it back to the comedy. So if we go to a dark place, we’re immediately brought back up because Sam makes a joke. All I had to do was to create enough space to ask a question and wait for that one-liner to happen and capture it.

Sam's story is inspirational, and perhaps a bit aspirational, too.

I wanted people to see that Sam, yes he had millions and millions and millions of dollars and was able to do a lot of things that a lot of us can’t do because of that money and the way he approached saving animals, but to me what made it more powerful was that he was doing it while he was extremely weak and extremely sick. While he was going through chemo, while he was waking up and puking and being really sick and had a few scares, he was also going and trying to save the lives of these animals, and both of them were as important as the other to him. I wanted to make a piece that would make people want to get up and do something. Look, if animals are not your thing– if homeless people and feeding people are not your thing– maybe your thing is the planet; maybe your thing is human rights and fighting for people in other countries or sex trafficking. Whatever your passion is, I wanted this documentary to inspire people to go find that thing and then go do something about it. Because we’re seeing Sam do something about it.

So many more people will know about Sam's legacy now, thanks to the documentary. What did you and he want the statement or message from the piece to be?

His fight for animal rights needed to be as important as his fight for life; the two things had to go hand in hand. He wanted people to watch this and get involved with the organizations that he cared about– PETA, Mercy for Animals, the Sam Simon Foundation. He’s got a truck that goes around Los Angeles that gives free vet care to low income families with animals. He’s got an organization that feeds 400 families a day, you know? And the way he set it up is that these organizations will be funded so long as The Simpsons keeps making money, which will probably happen forever, which is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Wayfarer is built on the idea that we can actually make a huge difference by creating entertainment and television and digital and branded content with a message. It doesn’t always have to be really, really inspiring or really earnest. We call it chocolate-covered broccoli. We’re trying to make a difference by creating content that is fun and powerful and upsetting but that has a message that starts deeper than that. I want to just take notice and remember that this was a guy who lived an amazing life, and he’s got friends and family that are going through a very difficult time and are mourning the loss of somebody who’s a huge light. And I just want to bring it back to focusing on the void that is left in the world by Sam’s passing. I hope there are people who will watch this and take a stand and try to step into his shoes and try to make a difference in the areas he cared about.

Rebel with a Cause: The Sam Simon Story airs on Fusion on March 15th at 8 p.m.

Twitter: @danielletbd