LAKELAND, Minn. — More than seven years after the world first met Zach Sobiech, the Lakeland teenager’s message, music and magic will soon appear on the big screen.
Production just wrapped in November on the Warner Brothers movie named after Sobiech’s signature song, “Clouds.”
The film follows the story of Zach, who was 18 years old when he died in May 2013 after a long battle with osteosarcoma, and after he recorded the song and video that has been viewed more than 14 million times and has raised more than $1.7 million for research into the rare bone cancer.
For the Sobiech family, the movie – which is scheduled to be released in late 2020 – marks another contribution to what the family together decided was their mission.
“An opportunity comes up, and you’re allowed to say, ‘yes or no,’” Rob Sobiech told KARE 11 while sitting on the couch with his wife Laura, in their Lakeland home.
“And with Zach’s help, we said yes, not knowing where this is all supposed to lead… but it’s an opportunity to help others and that’s hopefully what ends up going on here,” he said about the family’s decision to accept attention as a way to help others.
“If the point is to draw attention to childhood cancer and, in particular, osteosarcoma, then we’ll do it. And Zach was on board with that too,” Laura said.
The movie – directed by Justin Baldoni and starring Neve Campbell, Tom Everett Scott and up-and-comers, Sabrina Carpenter, Madison Iseman and Steffan Argus as Zach – certainly didn’t happen overnight. And according to the Sobiechs, it also didn’t happen without heartbreak, hope and the help of key friends along the way.
Back to the beginning
Zach’s journey into international acclaim began, devastatingly, with his own osteosarcoma diagnosis. In June 2012, doctors informed Zach and his family he had between six months and a year to live.
Zach set out to write “Clouds” and several other songs as a poetic farewell to his beloved friends and family.
“I didn’t think it would turn out to be as big as it did,” Rob said about the first time he heard “Clouds” on radio station KS95.
But Rob noted that the family – and especially, Zach – recognized the opportunity that came with the clicks, downloads and overall outreach: “I think he knew that the time you have here on earth is short. And it doesn’t matter necessarily when your end comes, but what do you do with the time you are given.”
It was a mission Zach accepted, his parents say, despite his own painful battle.
“What Zach went through, and what he was able to do with his life despite his pain, it was huge. He suffered so much, and so many of these kids do. But so many of them choose to help other people, and they want to be out there and doing things rather than just sitting and focusing on themselves,” Laura said.
And as people learned more about Zach, others stepped up to help carry his message forward, including Rainn Wilson’s YouTube channel, SoulPancake, which released a documentary about Sobiech in May 2013 that has itself been viewed more than 15 million times. What’s more, the documentary also connected the Sobiech family to a friend who would help shepherd the next steps.
Here comes Hollywood, with the help of a famous and devoted friend.
Justin Baldoni, an actor known for his starring role in Jane the Virgin, first met the Sobiech family as the director of the My Last Days documentary.
“He’s exactly what the show is about,” Baldoni told KARE 11’s Karla Hult about Zach, back when he was filming at the Sobiech home in February 2013.
“It’s about life. And the tagline is, you don’t have to find out you’re dying to start living,” he said.
Baldoni remained close to the Sobiech family through the rest of Zach’s life and beyond.
After Laura released her book: “Fly a Little Higher: How God Answered a Mom’s Small Prayer in a Big Way” in 2014, Baldoni wanted to start pitching a movie. The Sobiechs initially declined, but last year – and after a series of industry miracles – Baldoni got his wish.
“He feels very, very connected to Zach and responsible to him,” Laura said, adding, “We know that, and that’s why we’ve entrusted the story to him. And he’s committed to it. He gets the mission.”
According to the Sobiechs, it’s Baldoni who coined the phrase, “Zach magic,” referring to Zach’s role in making the movie possible.
“So that’s the Zach magic, it happens. It happens in the right time and the right place that it’s supposed to, and Justin really sees it now,” Laura said, adding, “That’s been the beauty, too, is people care for this story. And Justin especially has been such a great guardian of this story.”
From Lakeland to Montreal
Baldoni has involved the Sobiech family from the very beginning. Rob and Laura have both spent time with the actors who play them in the movie, and Laura also offered editorial and script contributions to particular scenes.
Even then, Laura and Rob realize Baldoni will need to exercise some artistic license to compress Zach’s story into an appropriate movie length.
The Sobiechs shared that the film, which has a budget of between $10-$12 million, is loosely based on Laura’s book and will prominently feature Zach’s devotion to his girlfriend, Amy Adamle, his family and his bandmates, including co-collaborator and lifelong friend, Sammy Brown.
Beyond providing inspiration for the movie’s plot, those central players also all traveled to Montreal to glimpse the production for themselves.
“So we had people come in from all over the place that were connected to all of our families in different ways. So Sammy’s and Amy’s family. So relatives and friends and family,” Laura said about the Sobiech crew of 70 that headed north in November to see the set and even play extras in the movie.
The Sobiechs rave about the kindness of the cast and more than 200 crew members who warmly welcomed the family and their guests during the intense production period.
And in case you’re wondering, Laura also describes Neve Campbell – who plays Laura – as, “Really nice. She’s thoughtful. She’s super classy. So, she’s like classy Laura. And I’m folksy Laura,” she said with a laugh.
The Sobiechs also noted the crew’s attention to detail: from a set design that precisely duplicated their Lakeland home’s basement, to the movie’s font that exactly replicated Zach’s handwriting from the “Clouds” lyrics, to a director’s chair with Zach’s name on it, to incorporating Zach’s own items: his clothes, his guitars, even, his crutches.
And that brings us to the inherently challenging part of this whole process: Laura and Rob have had to relive their son’s journey – the heartbreak and the hope – on film.
“The first time I saw [Argus] dress like Zach with the bald cap on, so he looks like he’s in chemo, he looked so much like Zach. It was really disorienting. I just sobbed,” Laura said.
She continued: “I think that was the first time I was sort of standing outside of the story and looking in. And it just hit me, ‘Oh, that’s Zach.’ And then I just really missed him. Because here he is animated again, and it’s like, ‘oh, that’s what it was like.’”
“This movie stuff has been,” Laura said, pausing before concluding her thought: “There’s just not, oddly enough, a playbook for that.”
“Part of this movie, that whole feeling kind of comes back to me about how I felt about letting him go,” Rob said.
But within the sacrifice of reliving those moments, the Sobiechs still see the beauty of the opportunity. They see the magic of their son. They see the chance to continue their family mission. And above all, they see the answer to prayer.
“I think as we’ve moved forward, as doors have opened and we’ve said yes, and we do this with a lot of prayer,” Laura said, adding, “And that’s been a big part of this journey too, not just sort of blindly walking through doors, but being very prayerful about it."
Click here to make a donation or learn more about the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund