The fact that it just seemed so implausible that I would ever be able to make this film…allowed me to have a freedom with writing, the freedom that I’d always had, that no one was ever watching.
After the end credits of writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s debut feature film, What They Had, there is a very simple dedication—To Pat and Cliff—and a black-and-white photo of a young couple, well-dressed, smiling, happy. It is a fitting coda for a film that is a labor of love, a deeply personal expression of one person’s experience of family, memory, loss, and love.
Chomko’s background both as an actress and a playwright is evident, resulting in a film featuring strong performances, realistic dialogue, and heartfelt characterizations to tell the story of a family in crisis. Bridget (Hilary Swank) and Nick (Michael Shannon) are the adult children of Burt (Robert Forster) and Ruth (Blythe Danner). In the middle of the night, they receive an urgent phone call. Their mother, suffering from dementia, has wandered away from home and disappeared in a snowstorm. Bridget and her college-age daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), return to Chicago from California, where Nick has long been their parents’ sole support system. While Ruth is quickly found, it is clear her living situation is untenable. Bridget and Nick attempt to convince a reluctant Burt to move Ruth to a memory care facility. The family spends several strained days over the Christmas holiday confronting their past, their future, and each other.
Chomko’s grandmother is the direct inspiration for Ruth. While she had written plays in the past, the story of her own family told her it wanted to be a movie. She wanted to create a permanent document to deal with her grief and to address the fleeting issues of memory.
Chomko spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the long process of creating a fictional screenplay inspired by real-life experiences; what impact the film has had on her family; and how even in the darkest moments, a family can find connection through humor.
Most first-time feature films don’t look like this. They don’t have this caliber of cast, this beautiful cinematography, or incredible production design. So with this being your first film, where did you come from? And how did you get this made?
Before I wrote this screenplay, I was an actor and a playwright. I had been wanting to write something about memory loss and my grandmother’s journey with memory loss and my family’s journey with her. After my grandfather died, it felt very much like I had found this story that I wanted to do that with. And because it was really inspired by memory and what I had learned through observing my grandmother was that memory is precious, and it’s fleeting, and it’s unreliable no matter whether you have a degenerative brain disease. So I wanted to capture this in a way that would be permanent, so a film was the answer. So I wrote the script.
I didn’t expect to make it, and that’s not what I was writing it for. I was writing it from a very personal place, inspired by the denial part of grief, where you’re trying to find some workaround for having to let go. I wrote it for that and for my family and the generational grief that we all felt, wanting to somehow fix that. So I wrote the script and then rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it. Because I was an actor, I had some connections with other people in the film community, and I shared it with them, and they passed it around, and I was invited to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. And the script won the Nicholl Fellowship and that really opened up everything. Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa became our producers. Albert had been on the Nicholl committee and that enabled the script to start being passed around with the agencies and Hilary came on board first. She’s an amazing actress that people want to work with, so that sort of helped shape the rest of the cast and brought in [cinematographer] Roberto Schaefer.
Even though you’d written plays, you didn’t think of this as one?
No, I didn’t. It just told me that it was a film. I had played with some screenwriting prior to this, not with any seriousness. I was always a writer who wrote just for the joy of writing. It was something that I really kind of leaned on as a teenager and through the rest of my life. I wrote to understand and to figure things out. It was always a very private endeavor. But with this, I just felt like it was supposed to be a film. I wanted something that was permanent.
Was this the first screenplay you completed? And that you saw as potentially a real film?
It was really the first screenplay that I completed and worked through and did multiple drafts of and really had intention with to make it the best that I could possibly make it. And thinking of it as a director, I never considered giving it away to another director. So I really tried to write in a way I—I knew I was going to have a hard time getting it funded, so really trying to keep it contained and mine the most out of the resources I knew would be [limited].
How did the script develop through your experience at the Sundance Lab?
The Sundance Lab was very helpful. I would say it’s a very overwhelming process. You’re there five days or whatever, and you have six meetings with six different incredible heroes that are all incredibly experienced and have done beautiful cinematic work. And they all have different approaches and different ideas so that was both very inspiring and very confusing. The most helpful thing I got out of that lab was learning to hone the gut instincts about listening to your vision and the need for that. Everybody’s notes are wonderful, but only you really know the film that you’re making and which are in line with that. The mentorship was wonderful and the push to thinking about it more cinematically came from that lab, but that was probably the biggest thing, finding that compass, that barometer for which ideas are good ones.
Did you get six competing perspectives on your work?
Oh yeah. Yeah [laughs]. I mean there were some consistencies, of course, and those were definitely the notes that you want to take, but it was definitely both six different approaches to the mentorship and ideas or visions of a screenplay and a film.
Since it was inspired by your family, did you share it with any family members as you worked on the script, to get their input or insight?
I did, yeah, I shared it with my mother. The first draft, which was a mistake, because in hindsight, that first draft was a mess and I don’t think it’s ever easy to see something that feels reflective of the journey that you’ve just gone on. So there was a little bit of a challenge with that. But my mom is really an amazing person and has very strong emotional intelligence. So after that initial—after ripping off that band-aid—she really became a wonderful sounding board and read many drafts after that, and we even wrote a song together that’s at the end of the film. It was a beautiful collaboration between a mother and a daughter, sort of working through grief together and a wonderful opportunity to let go at our own pace.
How far in the past was the real experience with your grandmother as you were writing?
Well, her diagnosis had been about 10 years prior. She was diagnosed quite young. I was 21 at that time. It just wasn’t at all what I thought it would be for the manifestations of her Alzheimer’s. These moments that I had with her, for whatever reason, they just felt so profound, so precious to me, so meaningful, in some larger way. I have notes, journal entries, about these little moments I shared with her. For example, in the film, the shower scene, where Hilary gives Blythe the shower, that was something I had lived through. I gave my grandmother a shower, maybe three or four years before I wrote the screenplay. It was just such a beautiful turn of reversal, like parenting the parent. Moments of that time, the circle of life, where you take care of your offspring, and then your offspring take care of you.
You said you wanted to explore the idea of memory being unreliable. Did you find that you viewed your experiences different in hindsight? Or did you have a different perspective from your family on certain shared experiences?
Yes, it’s been pretty wild. When I was writing the script and trying to put myself in my grandparents’ condo, to remember the voices and the way it felt, all those things, I kept hearing this clock, this very loud, pronounced, ticking clock. And I thought, Where was that clock? My grandfather loved antiques, and they had no clocks that functioned. So it’s just this funny thing. I felt the emotion and the grief of it and manufactured this sound like a ticking time bomb, because in hindsight, that’s what that time felt like. And now my mother and I will argue about whether stuff that’s in the movie actually happened. It really has been a fascinating experience of this pursuit of the mystery of memory.
The tone of the movie is interesting. Even though the family is dealing with a very serious situation, there’s a lot of levity and humorous interactions. Was that true to your experience or did you find things funny in hindsight that maybe weren’t at the time?
One of the things that I was most devastated by when I heard about my grandmother’s diagnosis, was—I’m from Chicago and I left Chicago when I was 14, but I would go back a lot. In Chicago, we didn’t take anything seriously except God and the Catholic Church. We just laughed, through everything. And I felt like my grandmother, that this was such a devastating thing to happen, that we would never laugh again. Nothing would ever be funny anymore. And I really felt surprised by the fact that the opposite was the case. The closer we got to the point where we knew our hearts were going to break, that they were going to truly, truly break, the louder we were laughing. That’s probably typical of families in general, I suppose, I don’t know. I really wanted to capture that in the film. I wanted to honor that laughter that we had.
Those come across as very established rhythms and patterns with the characters. Especially the brother and sister, this feels like how they’ve always been with each other.
Yes, thank you, I think so. The other piece of it that was so interesting was when you have this diagnosis that is so reverberating, that has such a huge piece of gravity, it’s weird, the rest of life doesn’t stop. It was important for me to really capture Blythe’s character [Ruth] as the whole woman, the infinite things that she was before her diagnosis, as well as the new piece of information. When I was with my family going through this, and trying to figure out what to do in this situation, and how this was going to all shake out, it has this way of…watching someone lose their memory has a way of stirring up your own and I really think it prompted, for everybody, this kind of coming of age and to look at the things that we had previously shoved under the rug. I wanted to really play with that with the screenplay and capture that.
Since it was so personal, did you have any reluctance to write about certain experiences? Or was it challenging to access some emotions you wanted to portray?
The fact that it just seemed so implausible that I would ever be able to make this film, especially with the early drafts, allowed me to have a freedom with writing, the freedom that I’d always had, that no one was ever watching. That enabled me to really put my heart on the page. I don’t know that I could’ve done it, knowing what I know now. I don’t think I really could. Over the course of the next several years of the process of turning it into a film, it was tricky to protect certain things I didn’t want to become public. There was a little bit of walking on eggshells with that, for me, as a creative person. It really felt in writing it, initially, that it was this act of love, and so keeping that as this act of love throughout helped me be brave about it.
Besides your mom, have you had a positive experience with other family members seeing the film?
I think so. I was terribly nervous at Sundance. When we premiered the film, my family was there. That was what I really nervous about, my uncles, and my extended family, I was just really nervous, really scared of how they would receive it. Afterward, it was such a joy to sit near them and hear their laughter at these moments that were family moments. My uncles were like, “You couldn’t have given us a better gift.” So, it’s been pretty wild. And wonderful.
Once you had your cast, did you have much rehearsal time with them? Did you continue to develop the script or make any revisions once you were working with the actors?
We didn’t have any rehearsal time. We had a short shoot, a 22-day shoot, and we had no rehearsal. We had a dinner the night before. I did some work on the script. Hilary’s character was always the one that was hardest for me to really nail because she’s not a conventional hero with a really driving, steady objective that she’s in pursuit of. Really she just wants to keep the peace between her brother and her father. She doesn’t have very strong intentions for how this is going to go. Also Hilary’s character was the most like me, the things that I was mining about myself that are hard for me to acknowledge about myself. So when Hilary came into the project, she and I did some further development of, in particular, her character. That was incredibly rewarding and a wonderful collaboration.
On set, you have no time, you’re just like, How can we make magic out of what is here? How can we remember the spirit of the scene and capture it with the time and the tools that we have? Certainly with the actors, I wanted them to—given that they were so incredible and so perfectly cast—I wanted them to just go with it, just take it and not be beholden to any precision with the language. I had written it with precision, but a precision that was like, I’m approximating what is going to sound really natural. So I would tell Michael, “If it doesn’t feel right, just say what feels right. Say it how it feels the most natural to you.” I just wanted them to wear these characters and just relax into them and be a family. “You’re not on your best behavior. You’re not filtering.” So I wanted them to just seep into that as much as they could, which they did. Beautifully.
It’s surprising you had no rehearsals. The performances are so lived-in. The character interactions speak volumes about the depth and length of the relationships, their history.
Thank you. I spent a long time writing the script just to keep including, to try to create that through each pass, and tried to develop more of a sense of how can I show this, this real family history, with all these different relationships. It’s an ensemble piece, and there’s only so much real estate for each dynamic. It was just about playing on set, let the camera run before and let them build into this scene and let the camera run after and some of those moments are some of my favorites that ended up in the film.
You said you wrote it with the idea that you would direct it and not someone else. Now that it’s completed, do you see your original vision from the screenplay on the screen?
Yes, I do. It’s not what I had imagined, I don’t know that it could ever be. In so many ways, it is endlessly more, endlessly greater, more human, more real, more authentic, more vivid. That is a testament to these great collaborators I had. In some ways things are not—we just had such a limited series of resources, so things were compromised, but that’s okay. The spirit of the story, the spirit of the film that I had in my mind, is there and then some on the screen. And again, it’s beautiful. It came from this place of not wanting to let go and over the course of this seven-year process of writing and making a film I was able to let go of a piece of it at each moment. Every location was letting it go, every cast member was letting it go, and the editing was letting it all go, and now, though, it does have this other life. That energy that went into that time, that memory, is now put into this living thing that will never go away. I feel very fortunate.
You co-wrote a song with your mom for the film. You also shot some of the home movie footage yourself. It’s obviously a very personal story. But also, just watching the film, it does feel like something somebody truly cared about and invested themselves in it.
Thank you. What a lovely compliment. A lot of the footage my other grandfather shot. He shot hours of footage of his family. I knew we had that stuff and I had always wanted to use it in some way. Then when I was going through the footage again after shooting the film I was just astonished by how beautiful it was and then I did some complementary footage with the Super-8 camera. But yes, it was, it was a total labor of love. We did it for my family. For me, I guess.
© 2018 Writers Guild of America West