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, Still 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.
This article first appeared on Blogcritics.
Still Alice received its U.S. Premiere as the “Closing Night Film” at the 22nd Hamptons International Film Festival on October 13, 2014. Since then the film, starring Julianne Moore in an incredible performance and directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, has gone on to win 16 awards, for Moore’s complex, challenging and heartfelt work. In the film’s first award for the New Year Moore won the Golden Globe 2015 for Best Performance of an Actress, Drama this past Sunday. The indie film will receive a wider release on January 16.
January is a noted award month and Moore after winning the Golden Globe will most likely during the January and February ceremonies take home a few more awards for which she has been nominated. The more prestigious nominations include the BAFTA 2015 Best Actress award, the SAG award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, the Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead, the London Critics Circle Film Awards 2015 for Actress of the Year, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress. There are other nominations with ceremonies in the subsequent months, including the Oscars, but the Academy Award nominations have not been announced yet. The Las Vegas odds are listed and the likelihood of Moore being nominated for an Oscar is high.
The accolades are well deserved because Julianne Moore is the centerpiece of Still Alice. Her performance is perfection as Alice Howland, a beautiful, accomplished and happily married linguistics professor who apparently “has it all,” until she notices that during speeches and at conferences, words seem to slip by her and remain just out of reach, hanging in the air somewhere. For a linguistics professor this is a chilling irony and when Alice notices that more of her ability to stringing words and phrases together fades to oblivion the alarms sound.
One turning point occurs on a typical workout. At the beginning of her run she is complacent and thoughtful and energetic, but in a split second, the familiar place and knowledge of what she is doing there vanishes. She stops, panicked; the setting is unfamiliar though she has been jogging on this path weekly for years. She recognizes nothing.
It is at this point that the reality of what is happening to Alice lands with full force in her soul. Moore registers this still point and our hearts break for her. How this superb actress conveys the terror and sense of being lost in a once known place and time is completely truthful and in the moment. We are with her, gripped by fright as we see Alice’s realization that this “vanishing” of one moment of known reality into the unfamiliar and unknown is a momentous symbol of what is happening to her. It is as if a dark cloak is being drawn over her once brilliant mind to extinguish all of its pulsating light.
When Alice tells her husband Dr. John Howland (a believable and loving Alec Baldwin) that she has Alzheimer’s, we are as incredulous as he is, because she is in the prime of her life and has “miles to go before she sleeps.” Except she doesn’t. She is one of a growing number of Americans swept up in Early Onset Alzheimer’s, a disease entity which steals one’s memory and identity. It happens in a relatively short period of time, there is no known cure and it happens cruelly, forcefully and without mercy. How the family responds to the situation, the film reveals, can make all the difference in the world.
Basing their film on the novel of the same title by Lisa Genova, writers/directors Westmoreland and Glatzer made the decision to sharpen the focus on Alice so as to peel back how she confronts her condition head on with the help and support of her family. Westmoreland’s and Glatzer’s amazing viewpoint is uplifting, real and human. They have managed to keep this serious, depressing situation eminently watchable because Alice’s interactions with her family are loving and caring. Alice’s intelligence and honesty in accepting the situation even as she struggles against it with every ounce of her being is revelatory because she has not “gone away,” as the assumption often is about Alzheimer’s patients. Though Alice loses her formal speech patterns, she relates on other levels and is constantly reaching out to family to remain with them in the existential present. Yes, the past is increasingly blurred and the future cannot be conceived, but the present is the vitality that is still Alice.
The fine ensemble cast playing immediate family including husband (Alec Baldwin) and daughters Anna (Kate Bosworth), Lydia (Kristen Stewart), and son Tom (Hunter Parrish) provide a look into the responses family members take as Alice’s decline gradually increases and then appears to speed up. We understand that family’s reactions are choices they make. They could have responded differently, but it is how they deal with the situation that makes Alice’s condition all the more poignant. As a primary theme, Westmoreland and Glatzer have emphasized that the interlocking support of family helping each other is vital to sustain the relationship with a loved one with Alzheimer’s for as long as possible. Together Moore and the directors teach us that the individual with Alzheimer’s is always who they are, despite their experiencing a daily creeping mortality; their personhood and life force courageously attempts to assert itself despite all odds.
This film is an incredible accomplishment by Moore, the directors and the cast. Considering the growing awareness of this noxious disease (Seth Rogen recently appeared before Congress discussing his wife’s mother who has Alzheimer’s) and the increasing numbers of individuals forecast to come down with Alzheimer’s in the decades ahead, the film reveals a blueprint of expectation. It is a reminder to all of us that who we are and how we live out our lives or help family who may contract Alzheimer’s doesn’t have to be tragic. It can be hopeful and uplifting.
This post first appeared on Blogcritics.
Acclaimed singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke emotionally climbed the mountains of the moon and plummeted to the depths of the abyss after she brought her mother to an apartment in NYC so she could care for her the last two years of her mom’s life. Her mom, published poet Darren Stone, had Alzheimer’s.
As Stone’s identity withered toward invisibility, a multiplicity of beings, characteristic of Alzheimer’s patients, emerged as she physically and mentally recreated herself with each new day. The disease took eminent domain of her mind and body parcel by parcel.
Jonatha and her mom accepted the challenge. They enacted their “greatest show on earth.” It was an all-encompassing adventure filled with drama and comedy, the mundane villains of aging (painful arthritis) and their comedic sidekicks (constipation from pain killers). Their surreal vision and dramatic courage helped pass the time as they worked through obstacles. And somehow together, they “got it all down.” Theirs was performance art which provided the raw material for a show which Jonatha Brooke would perform a year after her mom died.
By the time Stone left this plane, Brooke was ready. Mother and daughter had experienced the sublime end game in all of its beauty and beastliness. Brooke would learn to extirpate the horror of their most intimate and personal moments and keep the humor, longing, love and ethereality. By linking snippets of remembered conversation, exact quotes, and bits of her mom’s poems in a heady mix of narration and song, Brooke symbolizes the finest rhythms of those last two years. These snatches of life, brought to the stage in the one-woman musical My Mother Has Four Noses, are a precious human revelation.
One cannot witness this production, directed by Jeremy B. Cohen, and remain untouched. Brooke’s work helps us recognize and appreciate the poetic rhythms in our own lives and the lives of those dearest to us. She has dug deep into her own empathy to distill the highlights of their mother-daughter love relationship. The potion she creates is readily drinkable and the unique, bittersweet taste lingers. We are better for her gently shaking our consciousness, reminding us that our bodies are mortal. We, too, will one day have to answer the hard questions about who we are and whether we are happy about what we have made ourselves into. We, too, will enact our finality alone or in a drama with others. In her remarkable endeavor, Brooke’s artistry is heartfelt and powerful and there is much you will take away to contemplate.
In Brooke’s seminal song “Are You Getting This Down,” the opening number, she reflects how she and her mom came to deal with fleshly mortality through spiritual and electric currents of love, joy and endurance. Brooke settles on shaping the bulk of the production around a motif that streams through both of their lives: her mother’s religious beliefs as a Christian Scientist. In the earlier years it was the bane of their relationship, a major point of disagreement. Jonatha never believed, while her mother remained a staunch follower of the religion which eschews medical interventions.
That refusal is the boulder which shatters Darren Stone again and again and sends her careening to Brooke for help in the crisis created by failing to seek out doctors. Brooke uses the crisis and Christian Science as an overarching metaphor in the production: the salvation which brings no salvation. For example, her mother resorted to the science of prayer in the community of Christian Scientists as she struggled against cancer. When the cancer ate away most of her face, she decided she wanted to survive and elicited Jonatha’s help. The intensive surgeries resulted in multiple reconstructions and prosthetics. Her mom’s life was saved, but her nose was sacrificed during the battle. Hence the title of the production. Indeed, Darren Stone had four noses, as both she and her daughter joked, one for each season.
During the course of the musical we learn of Darren Stone’s artistic bent as a writer, poet and clown: she used the clown makeup to hide the unsightly cancer. In the mother’s incredible portrait, we see the vibrant picture of the daughter. By the end of the production Darren Stone and Jonatha Brooke merge into one. It is not a coincidence that Jonatha takes a poem her mother wrote in 1950 and adds stanzas that she fashions into “Mom’s Song,” the last song of the performance. The song’s completion is a symbol of resolution. Theirs is a love that requires no atonement for unresolved regrets, but finishes with a “tear and a smile” flourish. It is how Jonatha Brooke is able to nightly perform herself and her mother with joy and poignance and humor.
How does one deal before, during and after taking care of someone who as they daily die before you is a confluence of contradiction: loving and recalcitrant, lucid and foggy, cooperative and fearfully resistant, funny and tragic, a “character,” who enters a daily new normal, someone who wants to die to avoid the pain, yet hold on and live with every ounce of fading strength? How indeed? If we receive the artistry of what Jonatha Brooke offers with her instrumental and vocal expertise and power of storytelling, we have the answer in a near-divine and indomitable love that flows between the lovers out into the audiences’ hearts.
My Mother Has Four Noses is produced by Patrick Rains. Musical Director, Guitar: Ben Butler. Cello: Anja Wood. Orchestrations by Jonatha Brooke and Ben Butler. The production will run at The Duke on 42nd Street until May 4.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.