Saturday, November 1, 2014

Five Questions for the filmmakers behind Still Alice


Filmmaker Magazine has a regular column called Five Questions; I found this particular column with the writer/directors of Still Alice, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, especially interesting. The pair are probably best known for Quinceañera. Take a look at what they say about adapting Lisa Genova's gut-wrenching novel; material that both deserves and demands sensitivity as well as restraint, and a determination to avoid diving into teary cliche ridden portrayals. Exciting too, to see that Julianne Moore went to great - and appropriate lengths - working with the Alzheimer's Association to get it right. The fact that Richard Glatzer was diagnosed with the physically debilitating ALS after agreeing to do the film, and decided to stick with the project anyway says a lot about the kind of people these filmmakers are.

Filmmaker: Julianne Moore plays a linguistics professor, a resonant occupation for a woman losing her cognitive abilities. How does linguistics — and the idea of language — function in your film?
Glatzer and Westmoreland: The original first shot of the movie was a giant word, “language,” typed on a computer screen. We cut it because it felt just too literal, but language is a continual focus of the story. Being a linguistics professor, Alice is painfully aware of the increasing limitations and barriers presented by her condition. In one scene, when her daughter asks her to describe what is Alzheimer’s feels like, she says, “I can see the words hanging there, and I can’t reach them, and I don’t know who I am anymore.” Perhaps, the greatest tragedy of Alzheimer’s is that the reduction of language, in concert with the impairment of memory, leads to an ever decreasing sense of identity. What you see in the movie is Alice using every means at her disposal to resist this process, finding other ways to communicate and retain her selfhood even in the absence of language. 

Filmmaker: How did Julianne prepare for the role, both with you and on her own?
Glatzer and Westmoreland: Julianne is a powerhouse. There’s a reason so many of her movies are stellar and so many of her performances are standouts. She is an intensely committed, brilliant person, and her preparation for this role was thorough in the extreme. We talked about the project for about a year while we were making Last of Robin Hood and had a great open exchange, but her process was ultimately her own. With the support of the Alzheimer’s Association she was put in touch with people in the field and was able to visit support groups, form friendships with people with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and even go through the testing procedures used by neurologists to diagnose Alzheimer’s just as a patient would. By the time she came on set, it was all there.
We organized the schedule to be as chronological as possible and worked the hair and make-up, costumes, cinematography and production design in concert with the different phases of the disease. But everyone in the production, from her costars to the PAs, immediately sensed something special was happening with Julianne’s performance, and it brought an extra level of commitment from the entire crew. 

Filmmaker: Your film is adapted from Lisa Genova’s novel, but I’m wondering if either of you have had experience with family members and Alzheimer’s disease that factored into your interest in doing this movie.
Glatzer and Westmoreland: Neither of us has had experience of Alzheimer’s in our families but we did have a very unusual circumstance that propelled us toward this material. Richard had been diagnosed with ALS early in 2011 — it was later that year we were approached to adapt the book of Still Alice. We thought it might be too much to take on, but once we read the book, we saw enormous parallels between what Alice goes through and what Richard was going through. The diseases can be seen as opposites in some ways — Alzheimer’s affects cognition whereas ALS attacks the body — but as they progress, both create barriers for the individual in relating to the wider world, and both demand a struggle to retain the sense of self.

Diving a little deeper, I found this tweet which calls out the help both Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart got from the Alzheimer's Association:
For the movie Still Alice, Sandy Oltz was Alzheimer’s Association National Early-Stage Advisor to Julianne Moore and Dylan Cooke was Kristen Stewart's caregiver advisor to prepare for their roles. Other Alzheimer’s Association National Early-Stage Advisors include Ron Grant, Lou Bordisso, Cynthia Guzman,Joyce Botti and Pati Hoffman

Read the entire article at Filmmaker Magazine 

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