It may not be past Halloween yet, but we probably already have the holiday family tearjerker of the year. In January of this year, writer-director Elizabeth Chomko (a playwright and actress) premiered her family drama What They Had to Sundance Film Festival audiences. The film focuses on the toll Alzheimer’s disease can have on a family when Ruth’s (Blyth Danner) illness causes her to wander off in a blizzard. Fearing for her safety, son Nick (Michael Shannon) asks his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) to return home to convince their father Burt (Robert Forster) to place her in a nursing home. With a gifted cast of actors (including Taissa Farmiga), first-time writer-director Chomko shows herself to have a confident hand behind the camera, infusing her film with both universal themes and very specific details to create an affecting and heartfelt film.
Lesley Coffin: I grew up near Chicago, so I recognized some of the locations. Are you originally from that area? What made you decide to set the film there?
Elizabeth Chomko: I was born in Chicago, but after my first birthday moved to Minnesota and then to Hinsdale, outside of Chicago. But my grandparents lived in Oak Park their whole lives and I spent a lot of time with them there.
Lesley Coffin: Were your grandparents the inspiration for this story? Are they inspiration for the characters of Ruth and Burt?
Elizabeth Chomko: They were, the movie is inspired by their love affair and relationship. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and my grandfather cared for her. And like the family in the film, their struggle had an impact on all of us and brought us together.
Lesley Coffin: I definitely connected to the film because of my own grandparents relationship, there were a lot of similarities. And I was always touched that my grandfather had to take on the role of caretaker in their marriage when they got older. I think it’s especially interesting to see people who had been in marriages at a time when there were very traditional gender roles evolve when they get older. Was that domestic, caretaker role a new experience for your grandfather when grandmother got sick?
Elizabeth Chomko: It was, my grandfather took on a tremendous amount of domestic duties. He cooked for her, did her laundry, cleaned the house. He put her health first, he always made sure she had her medications. The scene in the film when he asks Bridget to give her a shower was something my grandfather asked me to do when I visited. And it struck me in that moment that every other day, he has to do that for his wife. And he just took on that role of caregiver, a role he hadn’t taken on in their marriage before. My grandmother was a working woman, she was a geriatric nurse. And her working outside the home, at that time, left a hole in their family regarding the domestic duties that fell on their oldest daughter. And I feel like that is one of the results of second wave feminism we don’t talk about enough. Women were told to put on their power suits and work like a man, but that left their daughters to fill in for their mothers. The notion of men sharing those responsibilities, or being the ones to stay home, wasn’t part of the national conversation. There were good intentions, but we didn’t foresee all the ramifications of two parents entering the workforce, leaving their daughters to fill their mother’s big shoes.
Lesley Coffin: Is that idea of the feminist waves the reason you choose to have three female generations represented in the family?
Elizabeth Chomko: Definitely. To me, I knew I’d tell this story through the eyes of these three women. I think the experience of being female, the collective experience of being female and women’s roles, changes every generation, especially since the 1950s.
Lesley Coffin: You decided to set it literally starting on Christmas and ending on New Year’s, that’s when the majority of the film takes place. And it feels like such dichotomy to set such a sad story during that week. Why choose that time of year?
Elizabeth Chomko: Well, when I first started writing it I wanted to make sure this film had the best chance of getting made. I wanted to make the smartest choices I could. I wanted to make sure it was inexpensive enough, so I set it in one primary location. I felt that setting it during the holidays could help it find an audience. But after making those decisions, I started writing it and realized that there is a suspension of magic throughout the film. And the way we look back on our memories are a little more magical during that time of year. It felt like telling this story during that week would allow me to get away with more magic and put forth the ideas throughout the film that family is about something greater than ourselves. So I felt it would be important to have that running throughout the film.
Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask you about the casting of Robert Forster and Michael Shannon, two men in Hollywood who are kind of known for their strong masculine energy. How did you choose them for the roles of Burt and Nicky? What were you looking for in those characters?
Elizabeth Chomko: I definitely wanted the character Burt to have that feeling of being an old school patriarch, and someone with a military background. To serve as a counterpoint to the femininity throughout the film. I wanted to draw on the distinctions between the generations and what happened to both genders throughout the generations and the changing morality of marriage. Bridget looks at her daughters and the opportunities they have feels so different from the opportunities she had, even though the opportunities she had are so different from the opportunities her mother had. I really wanted Robert’s character to represent that old school version of masculinity. And Nicky is a different kind of man, comes from a different generation, but I think you can sense that they’re men cut from the same cloth. Very similar types.
And as actors, Robert and Michael are just incredible. I’ve loved Robert as an actor for years, you could have made an entire film about his character in Jackie Brown and been happy. And I feel like he does the same thing in this film, he creates this sense that there’s so much history and life surrounding his character. And Michael’s this gift of an actor to every film he makes. And I think Robert and Michael really liked working off one another.
Lesley Coffin: Did you do a lot of research on Alzheimer’s? Did you ask Blythe to do any research for the role?
Elizabeth Chomko: My grandmother was an administrator in nursing homes, the residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia. And I’d volunteer there on weekends, hanging out and talking with these people. And I loved talking to them, either hearing what they could remember or seeing how they could totally live in the present. And I never wanted Ruth to feel like a woman who’s just defined by her disease. The medical information I remembered from her diagnosis but did some research and read some books on the subject. I remembered that when Nick tells his father to stop telling her she’s sick and asking her not to forget him, I knew that behavior will increases their anxiety. There was one book that advised families to just go with what they think. If she thinks her daughter’s her sister, go with it. Blythe came into project with very little time to plan and her schedule was limited, so she gave me this gift of just having tremendous faith in me. And I always wanted Blythe, she reminded me of my grandmother. They have the same buoyancy and lightness of spirit, almost a childlike quality. That’s the quality my grandmother had, and she was even more childlike after she got sick. And she’s also such a present actress, she just lives in the moment and goes with it.
Lesley Coffin: Did you include elements about your grandparent’s marriage to round out the characters and this whole life we’re only seeing a part of?
Elizabeth Chomko: I culled a lot from my memories of my grandparents. My grandfather didn’t have a lot of patience for her disease, he’d get frustrated with her. And Robert was uncomfortable acting like that, the conventional wisdom is to just care for them and coddle them because you feel bad for what they’re going through. But that just wasn’t the way they were. Before she got sick, my grandmother would have slapped him silly if he’d coddled her. And he felt like tough love was the answer, he wanted her to fight the disease, he didn’t want to lose her to this thing.
Lesley Coffin: One of the aspects of this film that I think will resonate with a lot of people is the question of what role adult children should have in terms of making decisions for their parents, especially when one is still cognitive enough to make decisions for themselves. Just the power of attorney discussion is a heated one for families. And while you give three perspectives, you seemed to be careful not to take any sides. What points did you want to bring to the larger discussion with this film?
Elizabeth Chomko: Well, I think it’s so important to see where each of the characters are coming from. Bridget doesn’t live nearby, she doesn’t see how dark things can and will get. Nick is there all the time, getting calls about her wandering around at night and having to pick up the pieces when things happen. He’s living this stressful life, thinking of how things are just going to keep getting worse for them and for him. And Burt can’t acknowledge the crisis this is, he doesn’t want to give into the disease and he doesn’t want to acknowledge that they’ve reached an age where they’ve lost their agency. Hearing his children say, “Wouldn’t she be better off where she can be treated 24/7” doesn’t make sense because he’s really trying to take care of her in the home they shared. It’s an impossible situation they’re in, and it was just important to stress that there’s no antagonist in this film, except time. They’re all trying to deal with this crisis we’re all going to face and there are no shortcuts.
(C) Lesley Coffin (10/22/18) FF2 Media
Photos: What They Had (IMDb)