This is an interview with filmmaker Steven Cantor about the documentary No One Dies In Lily Dale. Located just south of Buffalo, tiny Lily Dale, NY, is home to the world's largest concentration of mediums, people who claim to be able to communicate with spirits of the deceased. Every year, thousands of visitors from all over the world flock to this quaint Victorian community to have their questions answered and grief assuaged. Directed by Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Steven Cantor (HBO's Devil's Playground), No One Dies In Lily Dale follows visitors on their emotional quests, chronicling their mysterious and deeply personal interactions with the town's unusual residents.
Question: How did you find out about Lily Dale?
Steven Cantor: I had heard about Lily Dale from an acquaintance and was intrigued. So, my partner and I decided to take a trip up there. It sounded cool - a town of psychics - so we flew to Buffalo for a day and skeptically but observationally went to see what was going on. We watched a few readings happen and watched these big group readings, which all take place around this stump in the middle of a field, and watched people - just one after another - be completely melted. Hair on the back of their necks standing up, and crying, and hugging - people come there with extreme needs and pain and longing and desire to figure out a way to move on with their lives and get past the pain that they're feeling. So it's really a place where people come for healing, and we saw a lot of people just transported to different places and they were, you know treated, I think, by connecting with deceased relatives.
Question: It sounds almost like an evangelist thing, where people are taken over. They go into this trance or something?
Steven Cantor: Sort of. Especially in the group readings - you're not expecting to get chosen and when you do get chosen - it's a very powerful experience for people; if the information that's conveyed is accurate - or even close to accurate - it's very transformative for people. So we saw people - just one after another - being melted and then we sort of went, "Ah hah, that's interesting," so we took a little step forward and got some readings ourselves, and both of us got very specific information in the readings. We were New York City skeptical, not believing in it, and got preposterously specific information.
Question: Had you been to see a medium before? Was that your first time?
Steven Cantor: That was my first time. That was my first trip; that was maybe three years ago. And so we left that town thinking, "God, anyone we ever tell about this is never going to believe us, but man there's something that's got to be done in that town."
Question: Now, while you were filming, did any of the mediums ever pick up anything surrounding you or your crew?
Steven Cantor: It was kind of strange, being in this small town that has not gotten a lot of attention with an HBO camera crew, because it felt like being queen of the prom or something. I was the most popular guy everywhere I went. I was "HBO guy." Everybody knew me, people I hadn't met knew my name, and so every medium wanted to do readings for me. All the time people were stopping me in the street, giving me little spot readings, and I didn't really have time to deal with the readings while we were making the film because I was so concentrated on getting to the next thing. We shot the whole film fairly quickly so there were multiple crews shooting at once, all on different stories as they were unfolding, and I was kind of running around trying to catch up with all the crews and make sure everything was going well. Towards the very end of the shoot I did get a reading from Anne Gheman, who is one of the mediums featured in the film and she was just-
Question: The Pink House?
Steven Cantor: Yeah, the Pink House. So the Pink House medium gave me a reading and she started naming. She was like, "Wow, there's people coming through. I guess no one in your family must believe in this because they're coming through so strongly for you," and then she was talking to them like, "Okay, ladies first - no, no, I'm sorry they want to come in couples." And she started naming couples, and every name she said was a great grandparent or great uncle - she was 11 for 11 with obscure Old Russian names - it was crazy.
Question: Oh wow, that's really cool!
Steven Cantor: Yeah, "Hannah and Yedda -- and Harry and Sally are coming through holding hands" - and those were my grandmother's parents. "Grandpa Fred is coming through with a pocket watch" and my father has a picture of his father Fred with a pocket watch...
Question: Now the hair on the back of my neck is standing up. So was that the most intense moment during shooting?
Steven Cantor: No, because that wasn't during shooting; that was my private time. The most intense things during shooting was seeing the people whose children were killed being reduced to tears.
Question: That moment with the Police Officer who lost his son...
Steven Cantor: Ron. He was really very touching to be around to everybody who met him or came into contact with him -- he really has a big heart with a lot of pain, and kind of wore it on his sleeve.
Question: So, Steven, have your views on mortality changed after this project?
Steven Cantor: I am increasingly a very much 'live in the present, deal with my day' type of person. I have a company and a bunch of different projects going on and a wife and a daughter. You know, I'm really sort of in "day-to-day" mode and not so much "huge life philosophical" mode for the last few years. I haven't really thought about it that much. But what I do think is, for people that do think about it a lot, it's a great way to order your life; to think you're just a spirit and you're in some sort of other dimension, and then you come down to inhabit a body and learn some lesson, go back to the spirit world - which is basically what they believe - you have new adventures, learn new lessons, then go back into the spirit world and your spirit always lives on. And your body is just what you inhabit for 60 or 80 years, if you're lucky, and then go back and do it again. I think it's an amazing way to order your life.
Question: There's something very comforting in that.
Steven Cantor: Yes. Super comforting. But I'm not totally sure I believe it, in spite of everything. I'm not sure how cognizant you are when you're a spirit - if that even happens at all. I'm still kind of busy with the kid and just day-to-day life, I don't really spend that much time thinking about it. I did not leave Lilydale completely convinced everything's real. There's a lot of sort of psychic babble. "Your son wants you to know that he's not in any pain and he wants to release you from any guilt that you might've felt in association with his passing."
Question: So they're getting answers that they're looking for? They're looking for those specific answers?
Steven Cantor: Yeah, that's what I've been telling people who ask what I think about it. It's the equivalent of being in the desert and being super thirsty, like you haven't had anything to drink for a week, and somebody is there with a glass of something. It could be a glass of mud, and you're going to drink it, and you'd be so happy to be drinking that mud. Or some people might have a glass of water, some people might have a beer, and some people might have a tiny little drop of something with more sand and you know there's definitely something going on in that town. I'm not exactly sure what that is, but 100 percent definitely there is no cheating. I mean, they can barely get their plumbing to work, there's no like Googling - looking people up, figuring out stuff before they do the readings, or anything like that - that I know for sure.
Question: Right so there's no cheating?
Steven Cantor: Definitely, positively no cheating. And they get information that's specific, correct, and they're genuinely getting it somehow - but they do give a lot of information that's not correct.
Question: They give a lot of information that is not correct?
Steven Cantor: Yes.
Question: Was that something that you found with your personal encounters?
Steven Cantor: It was very hit and miss for me. The same woman who was naming all my relatives - and you know when I called my father after the reading and named the relatives he couldn't believe it - she told me all kinds of things about my life and what was going to happen to me and what the mediums were saying and what I have in store, and most of it didn't come true.
Question: Or yet?
Steven Cantor: She said, "You are on the brink of making a very meaningful film, I think it's going to take place in Egypt, and maybe be around the pyramids, and it's going to be with a person named Merle Strip...Merle Strip?" I was like Meryl Streep? "Ah yes, it must be Meryl Streep! Yes, she's going to come to you with a project."
Question: You never know!
Steven Cantor: Eh, but it's a year later - this was supposed to happen last year.
Question: Maybe the time frame is off - you never know what's going to happen...
Steven Cantor: If that ever happens, if Meryl Streep ever calls me and goes, "I just got back from Egypt," I'm moving to Lilydale.