Director Justin Baldoni on “Clouds” Movie and the “Zach Effect”

Justin Baldoni at Clouds Choir 2019, a celebration where thousands gather at the Mall of America to sing Zach Sobiech's song, "Clouds."

When actor and director Justin Baldoni first met Zach Sobiech eight years ago, he was shooting a documentary series called “My Last Days” about people who were navigating the experience of living while dying. He had already shot all six planned episodes, but he just had a gut feeling he wanted to do a seventh. That’s when he stumbled across an article about a 17-year-old songwriter and his inspiring song, “Clouds.” Soon after, he was flying to Minnesota to capture Zach’s incredible rise to musical fame before his death in 2013.

“I put everything into that story,” Baldoni said. “We knew Zach was given only a few months to live, and we wanted to get his episode out into the world before he passed.”

Nearly eight years later, through a series of lucky breaks that have felt like more than coincidence, Baldoni is bringing Zach Sobiech’s story to life again through his movie, “Clouds,” out on Disney+ on October 16. Baldoni has started calling these coincidences, the little collisions of people’s lives that result in something bigger, “the Zach Effect.”

“I just think when you’re telling stories this sincerely, something magical happens,” Baldoni said.

For more about Zach, read: The True Story Behind “Clouds” and the Real Zach Sobiech

Zach’s College Essay

Any time someone involved in the making of “Clouds” hit a dead end, Baldoni’s advice was the same – “Talk to Zach.” So when screenplay writer Kara Holden was looking for inspiration about how to begin the film, she turned to Zach.

“She was trying to decide if we wanted narration at the beginning or not, so she sort of asked Zach, ‘Who do you want telling your story?’” Baldoni said. “And she told me that in her head, she heard his voice say, ‘me, dummy.’”

One of the darker days in Zach’s last year of life was the day a teacher assigned his class to write their college essay. Zach, knowing he likely wouldn’t live to see college, was devastated by the reminder that too soon, his friends’ lives would keep going without him. But Holden had a thought – what if he had written that essay? What would it say?

“She asked me that, and I said wait… he did write his college essay,” Baldoni said. “So we used little bits of it to inspire the narration of the movie. There are thousands of little experiences like this, where we get stuck and just ask Zach and the ‘Zach Effect’ finds a way for us to keep telling his story.”

The Metro Theater

Baldoni says he believes Zach also had a hand in finding the perfect location for one of the most pivotal scenes in “Clouds” – a theater where Zach performed his last concert.

“The venue for that scene was really important to me, it needed to be big,” Baldoni said. “The point of that scene is to allow Zach to see the huge crowd of all the people who loved him, and see how his music had spread, because the idea was that his music was rising so fast, if Zach had lived another two months, he could have played Madison Square Garden.”

But as the shooting day for the concert scenes came closer, Baldoni found that every suitable venue in Montreal, where “Clouds” was shot, was booked up. The crew was running out of time to find a location when Baldoni’s daughter, Maiya, said she wanted to go to a Wiggles concert – the Wiggles happened to be in Montreal the following week. Walking out of the Wiggles concert, Baldoni decided to ask if it happened to be available for the three days of shooting Zach’s concert scenes. It was booked for the whole month.

“But I asked my team if they could check again, and the next morning, they came in and their faces where white – they said the venue had called, and it had a cancellation for exactly the three days we needed it for,” Baldoni said. “I knew that had to be Zach, and I thought it was so sweet that he spoke through my daughter, because none of the rest of us were able to listen.”

For more behind-the-scenes fun facts, read: Behind the scenes of the Zach Sobiech movie, “Clouds”

Zach’s Friends and Family on the “Zach Effect”

Since Zach’s death in 2013, his family and friends remember little instances where Zach made his presence in their lives known. While some say they are a little skeptical of a kind of magical “Zach Effect,” they’ve all experienced coincidences that seem like more than coincidences. Members of Zach’s family say guitar picks feel like a sign from him, and they tend to find them in moments they particularly miss him.

Read our interview with Laura Sobiech in “Clouds: A Memoir” Q&A with Author Laura Sobiech

Mitch Kluesner, Zach’s friend: “I’m a pretty big skeptic of Zach magic/a “Zach Effect” as a metaphysical force, but I think coincidences are very powerful in the ways we interpret them, and the ways that they give us meaning. For me, coincidences happen a lot in the wake of losing someone, such as seeing their face for a split-second on random people passing by. Freshman year of college, this often happened with Zach's face while staring into the sea of strangers as I crossed the Washington Avenue Bridge on the University of Minnesota campus. After a few times of having this happen, I realized that it tended to happen on a spot on the bridge where I could see the exact same floor of the Children’s Hospital that Zach and I used to hang out on while he got chemo infusions. From that point on whenever I saw Zach's face in a stranger it felt like he was still there with me for just a little bit — even if it was all in my head.

Amy Adamle, Zach’s then-girlfriend: “There were a lot of little things, especially the year after he died. When I went to New York and started an internship at CNN, there was a big Vitamin Water billboard that said “up, up, up” (lyrics from “Clouds”) with clouds on it outside the building. It just felt like a nice little reminder, like thanks, Zach. This year, around the anniversary of his death, my mom was talking about getting signs from Zach, and I was thinking that’s not fair that you’re getting signs and I’m not! Then I remembered I had this old voicemail from him that had not worked since I got my new phone - it just said zero seconds, but it was still there. Something came over me and I hit play, and it played. I don’t know how to explain that, probably just some weird technology glitch, but it’s just what I needed.”

Sammy Brown, Zach’s friend and bandmate: “I finished “Purple Pink,” on the sixth anniversary of Zach’s death, and finishing it on that day felt really meaningful. The song is about wishing someone you lost would show up and hang out and just have dinner at your apartment or something like that – and it felt like Zach was guiding the process in a way I can’t really explain. I think the fact that it happened and means something to you, and that it has you remembering the person you lost and thinking about them, that’s enough.”

To read more about Sammy, Mitch and Amy’s experience supporting Zach, and now watching his life become a movie, read Zach Sobiech’s friends and then-girlfriend talk “Clouds” movie.

Donate to the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund

Treatments for osteosarcoma, the cancer that took Zach too soon, haven’t improved in decades. Zach wanted his legacy to change that. 100% of all donations to the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund go to research for better treatments for this deadly cancer.

Donate to Zach's Fund