After all, he had already made a trip to Georgia to shoot his Last Movie. It featured his friend Jerry Payne, a Macon-area butterfly expert and folk artist who had also conducted pioneering research about how insects break down dead bodies.
It all seemed related somehow — returning to nature as life ends, through the lens of Tom and Jerry’s lifelong friendship.
But then Tom’s death sentence was lifted.
It turned out Tom’s doctor had misdiagnosed the remains of a bad case of pneumonia. There was no cancer. The end was not near.
The trouble with a new lease on life is that you have to figure out how to live it.
Like any good art, Tom’s film had taken on its own life, too. But Tom couldn’t see where it was headed.
“When you make a movie like this, it’s contemplative. There are a lot of strange themes, and to try to bring them all together was an interesting and difficult thing to do,” said Tom, who has spent his career making films about folklore and cultural documentaries, often funded through the National Endowment for the Arts.
“You sort of worry about it and dream on it. There’s something that goes on in your subconscious, especially when you feel kind of desperate about it: What am I going to do with this stuff?”
Tom took several years to decide that instead of being about his own death, the film was actually about his friend Jerry’s life.
Tom’s film includes a segment with Jerry and one of his siblings setting a game trap as they were taught when they were kids. Trapping and finding wild plants and herbs was a key source of food for the family. It also provided Jerry with some of his first bones to study. He still has row upon row of animal skulls, from beavers to tiny bats.
“You do with what you got,” Jerry says in the film, often speaking with his eyes closed