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Q&A with Gary Roma

(Globe Photo / Wiqan Ang)

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, Gary Roma sat in his therapist's office pondering a conundrum of human behavior: Why is it so hard to do what's good for us?

For instance, Roma knew that flossing his teeth might add years to his life, and yet most nights he failed to crack the Glide container. He had covered his apartment with Post-it notes. On some he issued commands to himself ("floss!") and on others he pleaded ("floss - pretty please"). Each note would work for a day or two, but then became so much wallpaper; Roma had to plant another Post-it or balance a floss container on top of his alarm clock as a reminder. This had gone on for years. His apartment had filled with notes and little tombstone-shaped boxes.

"If I can't even get myself to floss, what's the use of trying to tackle the bigger issues?" he asked his therapist.

"Let's try to look at this problem together in a more creative way," the therapist suggested. Roma had already produced several short documentaries, so for the rest of the session the two men dreamed up ideas for a "floss movie." Of course, Roma had no intention of shooting an actual film about dental floss. Rather, he looked on the brainstorming session as the therapist's way to help him change.

Then Roma got home and - just for the hell of it - sat down at his computer to Google the word "floss." First he discovered that an inmate had used dental floss in a daring escape from a West Virginia prison. Then he stumbled across the lyrics to Frank Zappa's "Montana," in which the singer spins a fantasy about a dental-floss farm. It was at this point that Roma suspected that he had stumbled across a great idea.

The result is a new film called "Hanging by a Thread," which Roma has been showing around town in its rough-cut form. He hopes to debut the film at the Museum of Fine Arts next year.

IDEAS: How did people react when you told them you wanted to include them in a documentary about floss?

ROMA: Most of the people I contacted were intrigued and responded positively. For instance, I wrote a letter to Gail Zappa [Frank Zappa's widow] and she loved the idea so much that she called me and we spoke at length about the film. She said she would set up for me an interview with Frank's dentist!

Unfortunately, the first prison story I found on Google didn't work out. I'd read about an inmate who busted from a maximum-security facility in West Virginia using a rope he'd woven from dental floss. When I spoke to the warden, he was embarrassed about the incident, especially because of the way the inmate had hidden the floss from guards: by wrapping it around his testicles. So the warden refused to grant me access to the prison.

But as it turned out several other prisons had experienced breakouts that involved dental floss. In the end, I was granted full access to a prison in Green Bay, Wis., where an inmate had managed to weave a 30-foot ladder out of floss. He and his buddy used it to get over the wall.

IDEAS: Why do you think people fail to floss, especially now that studies have shown good dental hygiene can stave off heart disease and stroke?

ROMA: Gum disease is insidious - it has no symptoms in its early stages. So you need to floss in order to cure the disease that you don't know you have. The slow onset allows people to ignore what's happening to their bodies. It's similar to smoking. A lot fewer people would indulge in cigarettes if it took days instead of decades to get lung cancer.

One of the dentists I interviewed for my film talked about the "primal resistance" to flossing. The mouth is a source of pleasure - we suckle as infants, we eat chocolate, we kiss. But now we're being asked to place a foreign object underneath the gum tissue and people see this on some level as a psychological violation.

IDEAS: For this movie, you filmed in a town called Flossmoor, Ill., which might be considered the Lourdes of dental hygiene. What other interesting places did you visit?

ROMA: In doing research for my film online, I found maps that listed a town called "Floss" in Arkansas. Later, I learned this town had ceased to exist almost 100 years ago, yet it still showed up on topographical maps.

During a visit to a dental floss factory in Tulsa, Okla., I decided to drive a couple hours east to visit this place formerly known as Floss. As I drove down narrow dirt roads and plowed through a creek to reach the heart of Floss, I experienced an incredible moment when true events were wilder than anything I could have imagined. This was similar to the time when I happened to be filming at a zoo, and a monkey picked a thread off a piece of rope and began flossing right in front of me.

Anyway, in the Arkansas town, I found a metal gate at the head of a long driveway that read, "Cove Creek Skeet and Philosophical Society."

I drove down the driveway and as I got out of the car, the owner, Blake Campbell, said I was lucky he didn't shoot me for trespassing on his property - especially when he found out I was a Yankee! I quickly explained the reason for my visit and he knew exactly what I was talking about. He told me stories about the family who lived on his property when it was part of a little town called Floss. He also explained his gate. He said he and his friends would sit around, drink beer, and philosophize as they shot skeet.

IDEAS: Tell me about how you plan to market this movie. Will you be taking it to dental conferences?

ROMA: I premiered a previous documentary "Puss in Books" [about cats that live in libraries] at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and I hope to do the same with my dental-floss film.

Also, I'd like to have a special guest be part of the premiere. Eight years ago, I became a Big Brother to a boy named Brian Cowe. One of the reasons we were matched is that Brian knew (when he was 8 years old!) that he wanted to be a filmmaker. Over the years, we've spent a lot of our time together working on Brian's films. My hope is to have Brian premiere some of his films at the MFA when I premiere my floss film. I'd like to have a series of screenings to benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay.

Also, the Massachusetts Dental Association has expressed interest in screening a clip from the film at the Yankee Dental Congress in Boston in January.

IDEAS: Do you now floss every day?

ROMA: Religiously. It's no longer something that I resist or that I need to try to remember to do. Floss happens.

Pagan Kennedy is the author of nine books, most recently "The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution."

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