‘What They Had’ resonates on deeply personal level

Blythe Danner and Hilary Swank appear in What They Had by Elizabeth Chomko, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Bleecker Street. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

What They Had, starring Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner and Robert Forster premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and has continued on the festival circuit over the last year. The film is Elizabeth Chomko’s debut as both writer and director, giving viewers an extraordinarily powerful and emotional, yet humorous, look at how a family is affected by dementia. Both Chomko and Forster were in Chicago for the Chicago International Film Festival’s screening, occurring just days before the film’s theatrical release. I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with Forster, a seasoned acting veteran and Chomko, a new writer and director, about the making of the film and its importance in today’s world.

The film resonated, perhaps a bit too personally with me, as the main character, Bridget (Hilary Swank) traverses from L.A. to Chicago as her brother, the immediate emergency contact for their aging parents, beckons her home when Mom (Blythe Danner) wanders out of the house and cannot be found. Having traveled back and forth to New York state from Chicago on a regular basis to help my older brother who was the immediate local contact for my parents and my mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, there was an uncanny connection to the film. Finding the similarities, one can deduce, signifies that there are so many others in this same situation. 

The film, Chomko relayed, was inspired by her own grandparents and, as she said, “…My grandfather wouldn’t [my grandmother] her go.”  She continued to describe the caregiving and challenges within the family dynamics that make it even more difficult. “Every stage of life is a coming-of-age.  It was a personal thing and years of development.”

Creating an insightful and realistic script also came from Chomko’s ability to listen to friends and family members who have experienced this cognitive disease. “Their stories would help inform the writing decisions as it developed,” she recalled. “It seems like it’s something a lot of families have to deal with, that parenting your parent element and with a sibling.”

As a first-time writer and director, Chomko shared that out of approximately 7,500 scripts in competition for the Academy Award’s Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, she had won.  And thanks to a producer who was a part of that jury, he was now backing her script. With that endorsement and Hilary Swank coming on board as the lead actress, the rest of the talented cast readily followed. Michael Shannon would play Bridget’s brother, Nick and Blythe Danner and Robert Forster, the parents.  

Forster, who has a powerfully important role in the film as he attempts to care for his wife who suffers from dementia, must balance his needs with letting his adult children understand things from his perspective. Forster understandably takes great pride in this role, but credits everything to Chomko and her script. He also is impressed by the message this film delivers as he stated, “It reminds us of life’s true duty which is to care for others. Everything we do, what we do for a living and what we do to amuse ourselves are superfluous to the job of life which is caring for others.”

The immediate success of the film at festivals across North America is still sinking in as Chomko said, “I’m pinching myself at every corner!  This is the coolest thing ever [and] beyond my wildest dreams to have such an incredible group of performers to commit so wholeheartedly to it and give it this kind of love.”  She continued, “I had written it from this place of love and it [became] this really beautiful thing.”

The film is set in Chomko’s hometown of Chicago, although she left the Windy City at the age of 14 to live in Northern California. She said, “It was that homecoming I never had…I really wanted to capture the love of my hometown and the love of my memories…” Forster, a native of Rochester, NY, loved being in Chicago, remarking, “Chicago was a character in this movie, the accents, and … some of the foul language that I grew up with.”  

Forster and Chomko jovially bantered about who dropped what F-bomb and when and why the film is R-rated. She then turned on a more serious note to talk about her hopes for the film after the dust has settled on the theatrical run. She said, “In some ways maybe [it’s] a cautionary tale … or maybe it has an application in starting those dialogues earlier and what the potential ramifications are because it’s hard to be angry with a sick person.”

Chomko hasn’t found any hurdles that are any different because she’s a female in the writer’s or director’s chair, but as she said, “…you can’t look at the numbers and say things are not harder for gals who pursue this path.”  She continued, “I think a lot of bias is unconscious [and] it’s about everybody taking a risk, ourselves included, even our own biases unconsciously about ourselves and what we’re capable of.”

Forster concurred, but concluded that in this case, “…quality wins out.” In fact, given the roles he has had that garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Jackie Brown and being directed by legendary directors such Alexander Payne and  Quentin Tarantino, What They Had as he said, “was a capper of a career of a 5threeyear career so far.” Now that’s high praise.

What They Had opens in select theaters Friday, October 19.  

© Pamela Powell (10/19/18) FF2 Media

Blythe Danner, Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Elizabeth Chomko, and Taissa Farmiga at an event for What They Had (2018). Photo by Tommaso Boddi – © 2018 Getty Images

Photos: What They Had (IMDb)

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New York native film critic and film critic Pamela Powell now resides near Chicago, interviewing screenwriters and directors of big blockbusters and independent gems as an Associate for FF2 Media. With a graduate degree from Northwestern in Speech-Language Pathology, she has tailored her writing, observational, and evaluative skills to encompass all aspects of film. With a focus on women in film, Pamela also gravitates toward films that are eye-opening, educational, and entertaining with the hopes of making this world a better place. 
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