Film Producer Shares Personal Pandemic Story: From Surviving Cancer to Opening an Art Gallery

Eva Daniels
Filippo Bamberghi

March marks one year after the world came to a grinding halt amid a global pandemic. It's not an anniversary Eva Maria Daniels needed to have on her calendar as her life drastically changed 12 months ago for another reason.

The film producer, whose credits include the upcoming Joe Bell starring Mark Wahlberg, Hold the Dark starring Jeffrey Wright, and End of Sentence with John Hawkes and Logan Lerman, was diagnosed with stage three cancer. A year later, the Iceland-born Daniels is opening up for the first time about the diagnosis, the treatment that led to being cancer-free and how the experience pushed her to fulfill a longtime dream of infusing her life with more art, more joy and a way to spend more time with her young child.

She's accomplishing that by a new art gallery in Switzerland that honors her roots. Opened March 18 and called Diller Daniels, the space is dedicated to the work of Icelandic artists as a tribute to her home country. The inaugural exhibition, "Life in a Day," features abstract artists Sigtryggur Berg and Steingrimur Gauti and is reflective of the creative spirit of her home country. "We have this pure DNA of freedom where we can do anything because we know we’ll get away with it. It’s a special island with no limits, no boxes to fit into, wild parties, no audience, no rules to follow, and I love all that. It inspires me every day."

Why did you decide to open your own space?

I've been thinking about how much I can share, what I can share, and I decided to give the raw, honest answer. I've spent most of my career in film and I'm really proud of that, but a year ago, in March of 2020, I was diagnosed with cancer. It had spread to my lymph nodes and I was labeled stage three. It was a crazy, life-changing event. I've been calling myself a New Yorker since 2007 and I've always put New York first. Ever since moving there, I've never been able to think about the idea of leaving. When I was diagnosed, I was so lucky to be able to get treatment in London. This was the time when everything was closing down so it was even hard to get access to hospitals because of COVID. It took few weeks to find the origin and figure out what the treatment would be. I had treatment through May and June, and I've been cancer-free since August. I did not lose my hair which was the silver lining.

I'm so sorry. What has it been like to battle cancer in the middle of a pandemic?

In some ways, it was kind of lucky because I was able to get treatment. Nobody was allowed into that specific hospital except cancer patients. I was fortunate to be able to have access and not have to be treated in a crowded, busy hospital. But, during the process, the only thing I could think about is how do I bring joy into this process? During my career in film, I collected art, on a slow pace. It had always given me so much joy. When I was living in L.A., I was going to try to combine film and art, and I even hosted a few art shows in California in the past with some actors that I was working with. During treatment, I returned to that question of how to incorporate more joy. Even though film development is the greatest thing ever, it can be slow and painful. I also have a 3-year-old son, and I thought, "How do I bring him into my work life and spend more time with him?"

To work with Icelandic artists became such a no-brainer because it allowed me to connect with my roots again. I haven't lived there since I was 22, and it would give my son the opportunity of connecting with those roots and growing up with that community. When I finished treatment as I was still waiting on the results, we went to Iceland for a two-week break for my recovery. While there, I wanted to meet an artist that I found on Instagram. I was so in love with his work. We were able to go visit his studio. I brought my son and he has a daughter around the same age. It made me so happy being in a studio and seeing my son in that environment. He helped me pick one piece that we could buy and he became the first artist for the show in the new gallery.

What it is about Icelandic art that speaks to you beyond the fact that you're from there?

There’s an incredibly rich culture in Iceland. It’s a tiny rock smack in between Europe and the East Coast but there are countless world-class artists doing interesting work. The reasons are perhaps too complex for me to understand but I think there’s a lot of inspiration to be had from the long dark winters, the never-ending light in summer, the cultural isolation, having no art critics, the landscape, and then of course very few people hence very few collectors. You’re lucky if you can sell a piece to your uncle and that takes the pressure off having to please the mainstream.  I think the absence of old money is influential as well. Icelanders admire artists and those who work hard for what they have; there’s very little respect for material wealth because we never had it. We have this pure DNA where we can do anything because we know we’ll get away with it. It’s a special island with no limits, no boxes to fit into, wild parties, no audience, no rules to follow — I love all that. It inspires me every day.

I hear that you're set up just outside of Zurich, in a town near there?

It's in the hills, just outside — 20 minutes by car to downtown Zurich. It's a small town, Wollerau, which nobody knows. My husband was born here and grew up here, and his mom lives five minutes away. It was just such a no-brainer. Given it's a five-minute walk from his mom's place, she's able to help out with our son and it gives him the opportunity to have her nearby. My husband can get to work here easily. It's been very difficult to leave New York, I'm not going to lie, but, at the same time, it's a huge opportunity to be based here, work with Icelandic artists and still do my film business from home. Also, we have more space here and I love to cook, so it's this opportunity for me to kind of combine all those different worlds.

When did you first fall in love with art?

I would say all the way back to when I was a kid. Also, I got to know the arts [well] when I was married to a gallerist in my early twenties. He was the first to exhibit Banksy in Europe and that was really my first experience in the gallery world at that level. I learned so much from him, but I knew I had to make it on my own terms. From there, art and film became two mediums that I wanted to master in terms of creating new worlds; escapism at its finest. I love the idea of being able to combine those two worlds.

How will you move forward with both of these businesses?

I'm going to continue with my film business from here. I have three active developments, currently. You never know in development how long it will take. I have a project that could be very hot this week but it will not be in two weeks. It is such a random [experience]. There is also the excitement of that unknown. I'm going to continue with my developments from here...and then I'm going to try and do three to four shows every year with the Icelandic artists in the space. I can still nurture my film development projects and also give my artists the attention that they deserve with promotion and with our work here. I will continue cooking, which I love. I've been trying to master some Japanese cooking lately. It gives me so much joy. I love doing a series of dinner parties where I can cook for people, give them a taste of what I've been experimenting with and then take them through a show or potentially do some movie nights. Connecting these three worlds through the space. It doesn't all have to be separate.

What a life and community you're building there...

Now I just need vaccines for everyone, so people can come visit.

Exactly. I wanted to ask about Joe Bell. What's the latest with that film's release plan?

We're still waiting on the date. Solstice has been such incredible partners on the film and they've committed to a wide theatrical release. ... Given that opportunity and the potential to honor Jadin and Joe's memory, we do want to wait and see when that could be possible. The latest is that in early summer, most Americans that want to can be vaccinated. So, we're hoping for a fall release.

Interview edited for length and clarity.