Interview: George Pepper (Shift MS)
George Pepper was 22 when he was diagnosed with MS. In the first 15 months after his diagnosis George experienced seven relapses. Following this crash course in the condition, George created the social network Shift.ms to allow young MSers to connect with each other.
Shift.ms includes a forum which highlights the issues affecting young people with MS - including dating, sexuality, relationships, work and lifestyle. Shift.ms developed and launched the films Gallop and Belong to better convey the impact of a diagnosis with MS.
We spoke to George about the project.
Was it difficult to decide how to portray MS in the film?
Gallop is a story about one man being diagnosed with MS. MS is such a varied and complex illness, there is no ‘right’ way to portray it and we quickly came to the understanding that there was no way we could create a story which everyone could relate to.
Our main aim was to capture some of the emotions involved with diagnosis – the fear, uncertainty and the frustration of having your body do things you aren’t used to.
The symptoms shown in the film were based on our experiences and we worked closely with Mother, a creative agency, to ensure they were shown in a realistic way. There has been debate over Karen’s reaction to Dave’s diagnosis. It’s one reaction, based on our own experiences, and there were a number we could have chosen, but ultimately Gallop is a love story and we wanted to continue that narrative.
Of course how Dave and Karen both deal with living with MS day-to-day and the impact this might have on their relationship is another story …
What kind of a brief did you give to Mother [the creative agency who produced the film]?
It wasn’t really a case of briefing Mother and letting them get on with the film. The creative process involved a number of sessions with all of us in a room to determine what we wanted to achieve and the best way to create a film which we could be proud of.
We wanted to create an original and engaging film, moving away from a typical health film. We wanted to tell a story which would be appealing to both non-MSers and MSers. The narrative developed into a love story, which so many can relate to, but with the twists and turns MS can cause.
We were lucky to have a great team led by director Michael Pearce and a brilliant cast who worked closely with Cathy John to understand the condition and portray it in a convincing way.
Can you give us some background on the Gallop project?
We were approached 18 months ago by Novartis about collaborating on a project together.
We first wanted to understand more about their aims, why they felt Shift.ms was the right partner and how they felt the project could benefit the Shift.ms community.
We are very aware that working with a company from the industry is a sensitive area, but their responses were encouraging. They wanted to create innovative content that would be of value to the MS community.
It's really important to us that Shift.ms is independent – that is really important to us. The website was launched in 2009 to offer MSers something different. We are proud of the community, which with limited support has grown from a handful of MSers to several thousand.
As founders and trustees of Shift.ms, Freddie Yauner and I feel responsible for ensuring Shift.ms remains what it always has been – an independent, creative, user-led social network of MSers.
We sought advice on how to manage relationships with the pharmaceutical industry from two established charities, one within MS, and made some decisions.
- The Shift.ms community is sacred; we can’t have a partnership that interferes with that in any way. Any projects would have to be clearly separate from the core networking of our community.
- For us to work on a project, we would have to create content which genuinely benefits the MS community. We don’t want to take part in projects for the sake of it.
- Shift.ms would need complete autonomy throughout the project. Working with this industry can be awkward. We would have to lead the project throughout to ensure our creative integrity is maintained. Once this was agreed, we embarked on the project. Working on the Gallop project has been a really positive experience. In terms of continuing the experience, we feel there is a lot more to come from this story.