Q&A: Joshua Seftel on Embracing the Unexpected in ‘The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano’

With the help of DNA tests, psychics, and prosthetic makeup, renowned photographer Phil Toledano imagines all of the possible ways his life will end. Catch Joshua Seftel’s THE MANY SAD FATES OF MR. TOLEDANO in the CRAFTED shorts program, screening alongside two other films about auteurs: CLAUDE LANZMANN: SPECTRES OF THE SHOAH and IT’S ME HILARY: THE MAN WHO DREW ELOISE.


photo: Stephen Maing


How do you describe THE MANY SAD FATES OF MR. TOLEDANO? What should audiences know going in?

Joshua Seftel: In THE MANY SAD FATES OF MR. TOLEDANO, Phil Toledano has become obsessed with his own demise. I follow as Toledano uses DNA tests, fortune tellers, and a prosthetic makeup artist to envision the many dark possibilities that might await him, including obesity, desolation, stroke, isolation, suicide, and violent death.

Over the course of three years, Toledano becomes dozens of characters and captures these bleak possibilities in a series of haunting photographs. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter sit on the sidelines, worried that this project will leave Toledano unable to ever imagine a positive future. While on this journey, Toledano’s obsession alters him and his family forever.

What drew you to this particular story? How did you come to meet Phil Toledano and decide to document his unusual project?

Joshua Seftel: Phil and I went to Tufts University together 25 years ago. In fact, we even took a film class together there. Over the years we stayed in touch but only saw each other once or twice a year. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time when we ran into each other a few months after my father passed away in 2009. Phil had also just lost his father and had documented his dad’s final years in a beautiful book of photographs entitled Days With My Father. When I asked Phil what was next, he said, “I want to know what’s going to happen to me… in the future.”

He explained that he had plans to have a DNA test and that he was going to start speaking with psychics and fortune tellers to gather many possible futures. Then he planned to hire a prosthetic makeup artist who would help him create these future “Phils” so that Phil could take portraits of himself. I asked Phil if I could film the project, and he agreed.

Mr Toledano 650 2

photo: Doron Gild

How long did the filmmaking process take, from beginning to end? Were there any “lightning­-strikes” moments, for better or for worse?

Joshua Seftel: When the project started, I think that neither Phil nor I imagined the process would stretch on for three long years. In the end, I was surprised and fascinated by the resulting photos and, maybe even more so, by the impact the project has had on Phil’s family and the way they view the future.

About a year into filming, I finally got to interview his wife Carla, who is very busy. (In fact, I had to join them on their vacation on Fire Island in order to get time with her.) It was in that moment that the story revealed itself. I learned that the project was causing tension between him and Carla—­something Phil had never shared with me—and there was a lot to explore from that point forward.

As a seasoned documentarian, do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Joshua Seftel: Listen to your gut when it comes to pursuing a project. Almost every film I’ve made, I’ve had someone smart advise me not to make that film. In most cases they were wrong, and I’m glad I listened to my own instinct. There are always reasons you can come up with for not making a film. Think more about the reasons you want to make the film.

What do you think Mr. Toledano’s quest has to teach us? What would you like HIFF audiences to take away from your film?

Joshua Seftel: I think that’s probably different for each person. For me, the film asks the questions: “How much should you dwell on the fact that you are going to die?” “Is it better to avoid those dark thoughts, or is it better to throw yourself into the depths of all the ways in which you could leave this world?” I don’t have the answer, but I think the film wades into these waters.

What are you most looking forward to at HIFF 2015?

Joshua Seftel: I’m excited to watch the audience reaction to the film. It’s always fun to see how that can vary depending on the crowd. Also excited to spend time in the Hamptons in the fall. Might squeeze in some time for apple picking!

THE MANY SAD FATES OF MR. TOLEDANO screens in the CRAFTED shorts program at HIFF 2015. Find tickets. Follow the film on Facebook.

joshua seftel

photo: Doron Gild

Joshua Seftel is a prolific documentary filmmaker for HBO, PBS and This American Life. His non-fiction films include LOST AND FOUND, TAKING ON THE KENNEDYS, ENNIS’ GIFT, THE HOME TEAM and the recent critical success, IT’S THE HARD KNOCK LIFE. Seftel is represented by CAA.