LOS ANGELES -- The assignment was a daunting one: Make a TV special that presents five short dramas about breast cancer and isn't a total downer.
Jennifer Aniston couldn't resist the challenge.
The 42-year-old actress had already decided to devote a year to producing and directing when she learned about "Five." Just over a year later, the film is set to premiere Monday on Lifetime, and Aniston is pinching herself over the whole thing.
"It was a very nerve-wracking thing to think OK, we're going to tell five short stories about breast cancer that are poignant, that are informative, that are moving and that are funny somehow," she said.
"Five" stars Patricia Clarkson, Rosario Dawson, Tony Shalhoub, Jeffrey Tambor and Jeanne Tripplehorn, among others, and features an equally all-star roster of directors that includes Aniston, Demi Moore and Alicia Keys in her directorial debut.
Aniston said she was "way more involved in this than any other thing I had my name on" and is beyond delighted with the results.
"I'm proud of it. I'm honored that we were able to be such a part of it and I just can't wait for people to see it," she said. "Making a film that's special is wonderful, but when it's actually dealing with a cause and dealing with something that attention needs to be paid to, that's just something that fills you in such a way that it's indescribable."
After signing on as executive producers, the first order of business for Aniston and her production partner was to come up with the various stories and a format for telling them. Aniston called up "Friends" co-creator Marta Kauffman, who conceived of a story arc comprising five short films, each focusing on one woman facing a breast cancer diagnosis.
"I call it a film in five films," Kauffman said. "I wanted them deeply interconnected and to feel like it was all one."
The result is five standalone fictional films with recurring characters, settings and themes. The multi-story format is ideal for exploring the impact breast cancer has on women, their families and their relationships, Kauffman said, because there are so many stories to tell.
"You can't tell one story and have it reach as many women, and on the other hand, you don't want too many because, in many ways, there is a universality to the experience," she said. "We took different aspects of the experience – what it does to your sexuality, how feeling like you're going to die helps you live, how it can heal a family – because the bottom line is it's an experience that women go through, and there needs to be something that holds it together... And it's always fun to think of a new way to tell stories."
"Five" opens with Moore's short film, which tells the story of Charlotte (Ginnifer Goodwin) and her young daughter, Pearl. It is 1969, and as the extended family watches the historic moon landing on TV, little Pearl wants to know why her mother is lying alone in bed and her father is smoking nonstop on the porch.
The second film, directed by Aniston, shows Pearl (Tripplehorn) has grown up to become an oncologist. One of her patients is Mia (Clarkson), whose breast cancer diagnosis two years earlier inspired her to spend all her money, give away all her belongings and hold a mock funeral. Then she learns her disease is in remission.
"I just loved the idea of this woman being told that she has a death sentence and she finally decides to start living her life because she's been given a death sentence, and then she's given another chance," Aniston said. "The theme of it just really spoke to me, about living in the moment and just being aware, and also hope about how things can change."
Pearl is also treating Lili (Dawson), a high-powered professional reluctant to compromise her independence and let her family support her through her cancer treatment. Keys, who directed the installment, said she was drawn to Lili's story because "she was more in my age range. I understood her dynamic and I understood her being a strong woman who has to carry everything on her shoulders."
The musician said she "fell in love with the entire process of directing" and plans to do it again, citing Barbra Streisand among her inspirations.
The fourth film is about Cheyanne (Lyndsy Fonseca), a 26-year-old exotic dancer whose livelihood and marriage are threatened by her breast cancer diagnosis and resulting double mastectomy.
Veteran filmmaker Penelope Spheeris directed the piece, and she said "it was the best shooting experience, filming experience, I have ever had."
"I had never worked on a show where all the people in control were women," she said. "Everybody was doing it for the right reasons and egos weren't getting in the way."
"Monster" writer-director Patty Jenkins closes "Five" with the story of Pearl's own diagnosis.
"To sum up the whole thing and try to punctuate it is something that I always love to do," Jenkins said.
The final film shows the oncologist becoming the patient and eventually joining the survivors, which include her previous patients Mia, Lili and Cheyanne.
Aniston called the film "a beautiful study" and hopes it finds an audience beyond typical Lifetime viewers.
"I think kids should watch it, husbands, boyfriends, everybody," she said. "And what you want them to take away from it is information, hope, inspiration, having been entertained and having that moment of going, `Oh God, I've got to go get this test. Today.' What are we waiting for?"