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Jim Gilliam sits with his back board-stiff against the headrest of his bed, his legs dangling off the end. That's life when you're 6-foot-9. He has no hair, and he's about as white as they make white guys. He's not making a fashion statement, not trying to replace the lead singer of Midnight Oil. The breathing tube under his nose might have been your first clue.
Gilliam is the 28-year-old producer of Robert Greenwald's Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004), Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004), Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005), the just-released The Big Buy: Tom DeLay's Stolen Congress and, coming in mid-September, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers. Gilliam's worsening fibrosis—he has only 17 percent lung capacity—has forced him to work on the latest Greenwald projects from his parents' third-story condo overlooking Newport Harbor. He's awaiting a donor who can provide two healthy lungs.
A single lung donation is rare enough, but Gilliam not only needs a pair, he needs a pair that will fit his long, thin frame. Even then, the long-term survival rate for lung transplants isn't what it is for other organs because of the difficulty in delivering medication directly to the lungs. For other organs, an injection or pills do the trick; inhalers for lung transplants are still in the experimental stage.
Out of his earshot, Gilliam's friends concede that they fear the worst. But Gilliam seems upbeat. He sounds like an upper-respiratory specialist when he talks about what's ahead, touting the high-quality care he gets at UCLA ("an amazing place") and how much better the one- and five-year survival rates for lung recipients are there compared to other hospitals.
The hospital that brought Gilliam into life was Hoag Memorial, just west of his parents' condo. But as a kid, he bounced around the country while his business-exec dad changed jobs. His parents were fundamentalist Christians who home-schooled Gilliam. When they lived in North Carolina, Gilliam wanted to attend community college and then enter the University of North Carolina as a junior, but his folks had other ideas: they pulled up stakes; moved to Lynchburg, Virginia; enrolled Gilliam's little sister in Jerry Falwell's high school; and gave Gilliam, against his wishes, just one choice for college: Falwell's Liberty University.
"I couldn't support myself, and it was the only thing they'd pay for," he said. "It started out a little rough, but it ended up being a blessing."
A self-taught computer whiz, Gilliam "was given free reign" of Liberty's "crappy computer lab. It took me from playing with an individual computer to having whole bunches of computers. It was a great learning experience."
"Then I got cancer . . . "
In March 1996, Gilliam came down with a cold. His mother, Kathy, took her then-18-year-old son to a Lynchburg doctor who diagnosed bronchitis. But an X-ray detected a mass, and specialists arrived at a new diagnosis: a rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. As he was being treated with radiation and chemotherapy, Kathy fell ill. At first, doctors thought it was sympathy pains for her son, but it turned out to be a fast-moving cancer that took her life in August 1996. Four months after that, doctors informed young Gilliam he was cancer-free. Six months later, they told him he now had leukemia, which required more chemo, more radiation and a bone-marrow transplant.
Gilliam had left school amid the treatments and mourning. The college dropout, figuring he knew all there was to know about computers and the Internet—because, well, he did—wound up wowing the Lycos search-engine folks in Boston. He moved from there to LA and eCompanies, a venture-capital incubator for five different Internet companies; Gilliam ran the tech side of all of them.
"He was this really tall, big, gangly guy with a swath of red hair," says Ramin A. Bastani, head of one of those companies and now Gilliam's best friend. "We just hit it off. We were the youngest guys there, by far."
It would be hard enough not to miss a 6-foot-9 skinny white guy with a shock of red hair. But Gilliam also found other ways to draw attention.
"He just loved to dance in his chair," Bastani says. "Even if people were not watching, he'd be dancing in his chair. It was an amazing thing. It's sad, too, that he can't right now. But he'd do these chair dances and get all excited."
When it came to actual work, Bastani says Gilliam "understood technology better than anyone—how to make it functional and user-friendly. I appreciated it."
After a few months, Bastani left to form his own business. He's about to launch a new Internet real-estate company, and he has no problems leaning on his friend for advice. "He keeps abreast of everything and has all these ideas about business. He's the first person I go to. He's incredibly intelligent, articulate. He's the smartest guy I know."
Bastani, who describes himself as a socially liberal moderate Republican, witnessed Gilliam's move to progressive politics. "When the Bush administration came in, his frustration grew and grew," he says. "He really follows it. It's what he's passionate about."
Gilliam traces his leftward migration back to the day at Liberty he tried to defend creationism on an Internet forum: "I just got eviscerated." So he ignored what he'd been force-fed, investigated and eventually said to himself, "God, what an idiot I've been."
"I was not taught this stuff," he says. "It was amazing once I opened up and learned what the story was."
While at eCompanies, Gilliam continued nurturing his progressive political side.
"I never had the crazy college experience. I started reading and reading, and it showed me all the crazy stuff our president does. And I thought, 'Wait a second. This is important. Will I regret not having taken a stand doing what I could have done when I had the opportunity?'
"Even if it can't make a difference, you have to try. And it turns out you actually can make a difference."
His whole family eventually came over to his side politically, especially when his health worsened. "When something traumatic happens, it can be a wake-up call," he says.
The biggest wake-up call for Gilliam was 9/11. He left as chief technological officer at Business.com, an Internet business search engine, to "do something that was more meaningful." He began attending Democratic Party functions, "but that was just not happening." He moved over to MoveOn.org, attracted by their use of the Internet. Through MoveOn, he met a Hollywood producer who mentioned that Robert Greenwald "was looking for a tech guy. The next day, I was working on Uncovered."
"We'd already looked at 30 or 40 people, and then I was talking with someone who said they'd just met this guy at a MoveOn meet-up who'd be great," Greenwald says. "When Jim walked in—all 6-feet-9 of him—well, I'm 5-feet-6 and a half on a good day, and I have a general policy not to hire anyone taller than me. But when he walked in, that intelligence and commitment was apparent in the first second. I just knew he was somebody I needed to work with."
Asked what Gilliam brings to his Brave New Films company, Greenwald turns the question around: "What hasn't he brought to the table? He is an amazing warrior for truth and progressive values. He's just been a critical part of all of the movies. They wouldn't have happened in the way they happened if he were not working so incredibly hard and smart on the films themselves, the distribution of the films, all of that."
For Uncovered, Gilliam was primarily responsible for Internet research. For Outfoxed, he tracked down old video and continually taped Fox News. The Wal-Mart movie involved finding the "people stories" that personalize the mega-retailer's assorted misdeeds. For the upcoming Iraq for Sale, he's building a distribution network called Brave New Theaters, "The people-powered movie distributor."
Brave New Theaters cuts out theater chains and turns the living rooms of activists into movie houses. Gilliam says the "dirty little secret" about moviemaking is there is no way to make money showing films theatrically, that doing so is now just promotion for subsequent DVD sales, which is where films really make money.
Bastani believes Brave New Theaters has an added benefit: "It makes everyone a stakeholder. Jim understands that people who feel they're part of something become raging fans."
As evidence, he might point to the fact that Gilliam used only the Internet and Brave New Films' database of supporters to raise $350,000 for Brave New Theaters in one recent week.
"He just gets it," Bastani said. "His new model for how to raise money for movies is amazing."
That's not all that amazes him. Bastani and Gilliam were roommates when Jim's health got the best of him again. Killing the cancer is what's killing him now. The radical treatments scarred his lungs, leading to fibrosis. That forced Gilliam to move back in with his father, also named Jim, and stepmother, Maggie. They keep a blog on their son's medical condition. Doctors told him he needs new lungs in September 2005.
"The fact that he continues to do what he's passionate about is astounding," Bastani said. "I don't think there's an alternative for him. What else would he do? He's always doing. He's got an ability to make an impact through what he does. We see a lot of results from the movies he's done.
"It's baffling what he can still do. Sometimes, he can barely talk. His cough is not like a normal cough; he's really gasping for air."
"He's a warrior," Greenwald says in a New York accent that makes it sound like war-yuh. "If I e-mail him at 10 o'clock at night or 7 in the morning or Sunday afternoon, he responds immediately. He's got a great work ethic and a real intellectual curiosity to figure things out. What he's been doing, there are no models, no rules. You need a certain way of looking at things. He's not bound by 'this is the way it's always been done.'"
Jim Gilliam can sound like the slickest Hollywood producer when he seamlessly slides into a sales pitch for organ donations. Simply filling out the DMV form when you renew your driver's license and affixing the donor sticker to your license is apparently not enough. Gilliam urges potential donors to visit shareyourlife.org, join the national registry and make your loved ones aware of your intentions.
"Any donor can save eight lives," he says in a way that makes you think of eight total strangers and not the man you're looking at, the man in desperate need of two lungs.
During the time we talked, Gilliam complained only once about his health, and it was while he discussed his job. Looking over at what Bastani jokingly calls "Jim's command station"—a computer setup with three different flat-screen monitors seemingly affixed to one another atop a desk a few feet from his bed—Gilliam says that, given a choice, he's not sure he'd want to be doing so much computer programming for Brave New Theaters. "But I enjoy it, and it's led to a nice case of carpal tunnel."
"Carpal tunnel" hangs in the air a moment, almost hopefully, as if only that were the biggest problem facing Gilliam right now.