Elizabeth Chomko on her Bittersweet & Beautiful Directorial Debut What They Had
Writer and first-time director Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had is a searingly personal film that still manages to make you laugh (a lot, actually) through your tears. The story centers on the irrevocable slide into dementia of Ruth (Blythe Danner) and her family’s attempts—conflicted, confused, and often at odds with one another—to figure out the best way to handle it.
The film opens with Ruth wandering, as if in a daydream, into a snowstorm at night with nothing but her nightgown and a coat, forcing the family to face the reality that the woman they’ve adored and leaned on now needs support. Ruth’s husband, Bert (Robert Forster) believes the best place for his wife is at home with him. Her adult children, daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank) and son Nick (Michael Shannon) have their own opinions of the best way to care for Ruth. Nick, who bristles at how Ruth’s always been the favorite child (and the fact that she moved away to California while he stayed put and kept an eye on their parents) wants to put Ruth in a “memory care” facility, while Bridget tries to face not only her mother’s decline but her fading marriage and her strained relationship with her college-aged daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga). Throughout the family’s bickering and Ruth’s weakening grip on lucidity, Chomko manages the hire-wire act of infusing this intergenerational family drama with just the right amount of pathos, warmth, humor, and heartbreak. Clearly comfortable working with actors (Chomko is an actress herself), the writer/director provides her remarkable cast with plenty of room to work.
We spoke to Chomko about her directorial debut, what gave rise to this bittersweet story, and what it was like to work with such fantastic performers on her first time in the director’s chair.
Let’s start with the script, which manages to deal with the profound sadness of dementia with warmth and humor. What was your writing process like?
It was a personal endeavor for me at the beginning. I wrote the first draft in like three days. It wasn’t about making a movie, it didn’t even occur to me then that I’d make this movie. I was really wrecked by what happened in my family, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 68, and my grandfather died about six or seven years into her diagnoses, right at the time she was really starting to forget, and it was just so hard. I wasn’t ready to let them go, and I couldn’t bear my family’s grief, my mother’s and her mother and my uncles. As the eldest grandchild, my instinct was to take this grief away and find a workaround. Also to some degree as a lapsed Catholic, that instinct was there to try and make meaning out of it. Having grown up with that spiritual backdrop, the order of the universe has to be out there, or else I don’t know what I’m doing here. I wrote it for my family for them to have some piece of memory, to not lose the love and laughter that we shared. And then over the course of time, it became something I decided I wanted to share. It became about making it not a docu-drama but dramatizing it over the course of those next two years in re-writing this 40 times.
There’s a really wonderful balance between pain and humor in your film—how did you manage that?
My family is always laughing. My mother’s side is from Chicago, and everyone teases with a lot of love. We just had a blast together. Part of the reason my grandmother’s diagnosis was so devastating was I thought we’d lose that. If anything it was funnier, because we knew what we stood to lose and we didn’t want to take our time together for granted. What else do you do but laugh? Because I think it’s like this thing when you’re laughing so loud the closer your heart is to breaking. That’s when you’re laughing the hardest. I always loved that feeling of laughter and tears together, that’s my favorite emotion, like Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias, and I only got that with my family. I always love movies that are inspired by something very specific in tone, and I wanted to walk that tightrope.
The rapport between Hilary and Michael’s character really crackles.
The reckoning was inspired by the power shift of the needing to parent your parent, the role reversal, the feeling of, ‘Suddenly now we need to call them out on the things we should have called them out on when were 17.’ Like with Nick and his frustrations in their butting heads because he’s trying to shift the power. I think all of that stuff developed over the course of these many drafts. Also, I struggle with some of the things that Hilary’s character struggles with, being a pleaser, not being forthright with my needs, it’s something I’m critical of myself about. So the Nick character is the other voice in my head calling me a liar, a chickenshit, the one asking, ‘Why are you making this so difficult, just tell them how you feel!’ I love writing dialogue, and I really loved the absurdity of life. Michael and Hilary just got it. Everybody did. We had no time to prepare, we had dinner the night before. That was the rehearsal. We had a 22-day shoot. They just got there and just immediately stepped into a family. It was amazing to behold.
Robert Forster is also so very good…
I always thought Robert was perfect, he just had the right morality, that Midwestern thing that’s about loyalty to your family, to your god, and to your parish, and that’s it. You don’t ask questions or get weird. I thought Robert embodied that, I saw him do that in The Descendants. And Michael, he’s really funny, you don’t really know that unless you’ve seen that movie when he played the pothead with Jonah Hill [The Night Before], and he has a huge heart. Hilary will say this is the most personal role she’s ever done—what a gift to have that kind of trust to develop that relationship with her. In many ways it’s like that, they were just perfectly cast for their roles, which made it easier.
And of course Blythe Danner, who had arguably the toughest role in the film. How did you help her prepare for playing a woman sliding into dementia?
She was very brave. She was a bit hesitant to come aboard because she really hadn’t had any exposure with someone struggling with memory loss. It’s very challenging to have these lines come out of nowhere, as an actor you need to know why you’re saying what you’re saying, so that was a real challenge for her and for me. To put my head into my grandmother’s head and ask why did she say this and where was it coming from? To psychoanalyze her and share that with Blythe was hard. She watched several videos of my grandmother and kind of manifested a lot of the physical things my grandmother had adopted with the disease, which gave her an anchor. She really got it. Ruth’s like this child-like ghost, while everyone’s sitting around her and talking about her. Blythe was so very brave. I just felt like I took it for granted, watching my grandmother lose her memory, because what are we without our memories? We’re just trying to make sense of this present moment so we’re not the crazy person in the room? It lends itself in the way so nicely to cinema, because I feel like making a movie is like making a memory, you can have that reunion with your dad or mom that you never got, or say the thing you wanted to say. You can change the story in some small way.
What They Had is in theaters today.
Featured image: Blythe Danner and Hilary Swank star as Ruth and Bridget Keller in WHAT THEY HAD, a Bleecker Street release. Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street