The “Closing Night Film” of the 22nd Hamptons International Film Festival was the U.S. premiere of Wash Westmoreland’s and Richard Glatzer’s film Still Alice, starring Julianne Moore, who last night won the Golden Globe Award for her stunning lead performance. Including Moore’s best actress Golden Globe, Ask Alice has, so far, won 16 awards. (My Blogcritics review of Still Alice can be found by clicking this link.)
After the screening, Julianne Moore, director/writer Wash Westmoreland and producer Christine Vachon spoke with David Nugent the Artistic Director of the 22nd Hamptons Internation Film Festival. This segment of the lengthy Q. and A. highlights the evolution and challenges Julianne Moore and Wash Westmoreland faced making this amazing film about a linguistics professor who has Early-Onset Alzheimer’s. The film centers on Alice Howland and her family as she realizes what is happening to her and she reaches out for love and support from her family. Together they try to find solutions, staying close to one another as Alice gradually confronts the daily loss of beautiful memories, brilliant acumen, exceptional verbal skills and her very identity.
David Nugent (Artistic Director, 22nd Hamptons International Film Festival): How different an experience was making this film?
Julianne Moore: At the end of the day, the job is the same. You have to create people. You have a story to tell. You have constraints, you have problems and you just solve them. And that’s how I approached it honestly. I just felt like, you have to make this movie and Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer are a team. And one of them can talk and one cannot. And that’s how we did it.
Christine (Vachon), you produced one of my all time favorite films, Safe which also stars Julianne Moore in which she is suffering from an unnamed disease. How was it working with on this compared to that? In a certain way it has a similar subject matter. That was 20 years ago. Is that right?
Christine Vachon: It’s such a privilege that we have worked together and we are still working together and made Still Alice. And one of the things that I am honored by is that Safe is brought up as kind of a reference point. We are all entangled together. Todd Haynes (he directed Safe), is a close friend of all of ours so his work informs what we do and our work informs what he does. And it’s awesome to be able to be here. The thing about Safe, here’s a plug about the film…it’s about to come out as a Criterion Collection in December with lots of fantastic extras including an interview with Julianne and an interview with me and new stuff and old stuff. And one of the things that is extraordinary about that film is that when it did come out, people didn’t really see what it was. And it is one of those movies that has really stood the test of time in its own way…which goes to show that you don’t always know when a movie comes out if it will resonate.
Julianne, I’m curious. Had you read the book of Still Alice first or did you read the script first? How did that come together?
Julianne Moore: No I hadn’t read the book. I read the script first. Richard and Wash and I were talking about another project. We had a really wonderful meeting and we talked back and forth for a while and I said, “Nah, I don’t think that is for me.” And they said, “Well, we have something else.” And they sent me the script right away and I read it and I was like, Wow!” I literally said, “I’ll do this”…immediately. I was in Montauk. I said, “This, I’m going to do.” And then I went and bought the book and when I went to Barnes and Noble it was on the favorites table. And I thought, well, OK. This is like a wildly popular book. I was struck by the narrative right away and the strength of the story and the emotional impact. And I was really blown away by it and terribly frightened because it seemed like a huge undertaking and one that we couldn’t accomplish in like 90 minutes, like a short movie. But I felt privileged to have the offer, frankly.
So what is terrifying in a case like that. Is it capturing the character is it telling the story in 90 minutes?
Julianne Moore: Well, clearly, this is something that’s true; it’s a true story. This is a disease affecting so, so many people, so many individuals, so many families. So there’s a degree of it where you want to get it right as an actress and then there is a narrative issue where you want to be able to tell the story in 90 minutes and bring people into an entertainment. So there are a million obstacles. But at the base of it what was most interesting to me is about what Wash discussed with me in the beginning. He said that it’s about how you face this terrible disease and what is your essential self? You know, it’s asking who are we? Who are we behind our jobs and our clothes and our friendships and our relationships? Who are we at the very core of it? How do you get that right? I didn’t know how to do that. Lisa Genova in her novel kind of depicts it beautifully and she goes in, in, in with this character, but as an actor, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it, frankly.
You did it. (the audience applauds in approval and confirmation) Speaking of Lisa Genova who wrote the book, do you know if she has seen the film?
Wash Westmoreland: Lisa saw the film for the first time at the Toronto Film Festival and she was extremely happy which made us all extremely happy. And she was a complete supportive partner in the whole process. When you’re taking someone’s book and adapting it, there’s all kinds of things…it’s like going into a creative mine field because they have a certain idea of how things are meant to be. The film just has to be allowed to be something different…and at the same time it has to be faithful to the spirit of the book. When we sent off the first draft to Lisa, we were nervous. We didn’t know her. We didn’t know how she’d respond and she wrote back this rapturous email, “I’m so grateful to you for taking my vision further.” She has just been this incredible cheer leader. But we felt a responsibility to people who knew the book to embody the spirit of what’s written on the page. And I also feel like we had to make a film that allows Still Alice to become a cinematic experience. So I hope people who know the book get into the film because we wanted the correlation between the two to be very close.
Julianne was there any particular process for preparing for this role that you undertook?
Well, whenever you do something that’s based on the truth, you know when there’s research to be done…golly, I had so much help. I started with the Alzheimer’s Association. They sent me to Mount Sinai where I talked to researchers and they set me up with several women around the country who had been diagnosed with Early Onset and I went from there to the New York Alzheimer’s Association and support groups. I talked with people who had been recently diagnosed and talked to the people who worked with the families there and ended up in a long term care facility, so there’s always somewhere to go. And each person referred me to the next. And their generosity was extraordinary. I was in a long term care facility and I talked to a woman about her mom because I had been sitting near a window and the people were singing and doing workshop stuff and this woman told me that I should get away from the draft. She was a patient. She said, “Get out of the draft…it’s cold.” And the woman’s daughter was there; she was my age, and she said, “Oh, yeah. My mom worries about people catching cold.” And she talked about her experience with her mother. Everyone was very, very anxious to tell me their story, tell me what their personal experience was, as someone who was dealing with the disease, someone who had a parent, or friend, or whatever. The access I had was really unparalleled. The research I got was really extraordinary.
Questions from the audience, for Julianne: Have you had any personal experience with Alzheimer’s?
I haven’t, actually, with the exception of the people I met. It’s interesting. There is a woman I became very close to who lives in Minneapolis and was one of the very first people I talked to. She was diagnosed at 45 and I saw her on a Skype call. And she looks like me. She has red hair and she’s fair skinned and slender. I was like, “Sandy you could be a sister.” And she ended up consulting with me the entire film and had her 50 birthday on the set. She was on the set the day we did the Alzheimer’s Association speech. So in that sense I felt like I had a connection to someone with Alzheimers, but no, actually I didn’t.
(David Nugent interrupts) Tell them about the article in the New York Times that we were discussing.
There’s an article in the New York Times today that scientists have found a way to create an Alzheimer’s brain in gel. So they can kind of do a facsimile of what an actual brain with Alzheimer’s looks like and they can now test drugs within this so it’s a real breakthrough for treating Alzheimers, so that was exciting. (applause)
Audience Question: How did you find it when you didn’t speak toward the end of the film. What was the hardest part about not being there. I was impressed when you were quiet…changed from the way you were before
What is interesting for me as an actor, on the one hand it was, “Yeah I have no lines.” But what I observed was that the days I was the most exhausted were the days that I was in the decline of Alice’s life. But what I noticed when I went to observe people in the long term care facilities is the amount of energy it takes for someone to pay attention and to be present and to connect when they are suffering from this really difficult disease. It is extraordinary. I would see this in films with Alzheimer’s patients: how hard it is for them to concentrate, how hard it is for them to be present. I would even see it with people opening their eyes really wide. So the idea that someone is not present or zones out or goes away or goes somewhere else, I found not to be true at all. In fact what I saw was people working very, very hard to concentrate and to hold on to what they understood and to try to be as connected and as alive as possible. So those were the days that were the most exhausting and I was kind of surprised by it. There was a woman I met in a long term care facility who is 65. She was non verbal. I sat down next to her and talked to her about what was going on. She leaned toward me and she copied my expressions and if I gestured somewhere, she’d look over there and she was taking all her emotional and intellectual clues from what I was doing and she was trying very, very hard to stay connected to me. And I was really touched by it because you realize it’s not about people going away. It’s about people trying to stay present.
Audience question: How do you come down to such an emotional role like that? Is it a process. I can’t imagine being in your shoes playing a person with Alzheimers and then going home and moving on.
My children help. I have a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old. They don’t care what you’re doing. When you come home you just have to kind of get back to it. But that did help in a way. This is a movie about mortality and about who we are and what lives we’re living and who we’re connected to. So I have that experience all day long about what does it mean to be alive, what does it mean to feel things slipping away? When you go home, it’s like, this is what it means to be alive. I have my 16-year-old, he needs this. My 12-year old needs this and my husband needs this and I have to empty the dishwasher and the dogs have to go out in the yard. So all of that stuff actually brings it home because you’re like, “Well, that’s what it’s about.” And in a way that’s a gift.
Audience Question: I found the scene with the butterfly folder so incredibly moving. I was just curious how you approached it and how you felt as you were going through that…you know when you discovered it again.
Wash Westmoreland: I’ll just set it up by saying that that scene was so crucial in the structure of the movie, because the changes in Alice are very gradual. I think it’s not until you see that scene that you witness the true power of Julianne’s performance to understand how the changes are so dramatic over that period of time that we’ve been following that character. It’s Julie acting with herself…Alice in the past, Alice in the present. The scene really condenses and crystallizes so much about the changes happening in that character in so many ways and the loss that we see.
Julianne Moore: Yeah, it’s so interesting because what we find valuable in certain points in our lives is not necessarily what we’ll find valuable somewhere else. So Alice before she’s more declined believes that she is not going to want to live in this different state. And what you find later you see it with Alec and Ally, and Ally asks, “Do you still want to be here,” and she says “I’m not finished yet. She’s not done with her ice cream…it’s a beautiful metaphor…and she’s not finished yet either with her life. So why would that be any less valuable where she is now? What I loved about that was the juxtaposition. We have an assumption that there is only one way to be when in fact, there are many ways to be and they are all valuable.
Audience Question: Beautiful film. Do you see this film being shown in communities for fund raisers in helping Alzheimer’s research?
Julianne Moore: Yes, hopefully. We have a co-producer on the film who is very closely associated to the Alzheimer’s Association, and she is hoping to work with them to bring to communities in conjunction with the release of the film so that it’s seen regionally and that one of its core audiences is really supported. That’s the hope for it.
Wash Westmoreland: What the book gave us was this emotional template that’s so strong about how to get through one of the most difficult things that life can throw your way. And I think if people can see this movie in time and take strength from it… maybe they’re dealing with someone in their own family who has Alzheimer’s or another disease and the film inspires them to say, “I want to be Lydia (Alice’s daughter played by Kristen Stewart), I want to be that person whose there for that person,” then we’ve done our job as filmmakers and we’ve done our job with the film.
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