For Wash Westmoreland & Richard Glatzer life imitates art as the married writing team battles A.L.S. while scripting the emotional drama about Alzheimer’s Still Alice.
Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
(January 23, 2015)
Vincent van Gogh might not have been known as a film critic, but he did once famously say, “A good picture is equivalent to a good deed.” Such is the case with Still Alice, a good picture, to be sure, a profoundly moving drama about a linguistics professor rapidly unraveling, physically and emotionally, after developing early onset Alzheimer’s. For her work in the lead role, Julianne Moore recently won a Best Actress Golden Globe. The film, which displays its heroine’s struggles unvarnished and the relationship with her caregiver [Kristen Stewart] in blunt, but inspiring terms, enjoyed a euphoric reception at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival. Many audience members have received the film as van Gogh might have foreseen, as a “good deed,” an impactful film that also serves as a reminder that we are not alone in our suffering and that it might well be our most important responsibility to look after one another.
The film’s writing-directing team of Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer understand this sentiment firsthand. Partners both professionally and personally for more than a decade, the team, who married in 2013, first made their mark on the indie film scene with the 2006 Sundance premiere of Quincaenera, which took home the festival’s Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize. After the white heat of that project’s effusive reception dimmed, the Englishmen labored for seven years in the Echo Park home they share to get a follow-up feature off the ground. They were in production on 2013’s Last Days of Robin Hood, starring Kevin Kline as Errol Flynn, when Westmoreland suspected Glatzer’s health was on the decline. By the time they were asked to adapted Lisa Genova’s bestselling Alice novel for the bigscreen, doctors had confirmed the fear: the writer had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease, better known as A.L.S. or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” an incurable, terminal illness that affects cognitive function, speech, and muscle control, leading to paralysis, loss of speech, and death.
The myriad parallels between the creative team’s real life and the story they’d been drafted to tell were often emotionally difficult, but ultimately inspiring and liberating, says Westmoreland, 49, who continues writing every day with Glatzer, now 62, though the latter has been rendered mute and mostly paralyzed by the illness and can only communicate by typing with his toes on a specially-adapted iPad. “I don't believe in fate or destiny,” says Westmoreland, “but if you were writing a story about fate and destiny, our journey with Still Alice would be a perfect example of it. This project came to us at exactly the right time and allowed us to really figure out a lot of the challenges life had presented. The greatest gift for us, though, is how many audience members have told us that the film came along at exactly the right time for them as well.” A good deed, indeed.
Photo: ©2015 Sony Pictures Classics
Julianne Moore in Still Alice.
Still Alice is one of the modest films aimed at an adult audience that is particularly difficult to get produced in today’s franchise-oriented market. The book on which it was based almost didn’t get published, even. What does that mean to you as an artist?
Wash Westmoreland: Within this kind of film, you're always against the odds and nothing is ever certain. There are almost random events that can affect you positively or negatively, so you really can feel vulnerable. With the case of Alice, we actually have the sensation of the planets lining up for us. There were lots of things that could have gone wrong and lots of reasons why the movie might not have happened – from financing the thing, the availability of our talent, from certain difficulties around the shooting schedule – but things just did line up, and we felt okay. The sweet bird of film was flapping over this production. It's like we felt a certain blessing faze all coming together in the right way.
The film has been very warmly received with a good amount of trophy talk. The bird on this film has been flapping some mighty wings.
Wash Westmoreland: Well, sometimes the bird flaps and flies away, and you can't do anything about it. But yes, it is a good bird on this film. We're very happy. Really, it's all happened so fast. Last March, we shot the film in a little over three weeks, and then we completed the post-production just 10 days before Toronto. It was all very fast. We were just running in there with a very new movie. The reception has been a filmmaker's dream.
It’s often said that filmmaking is a very collaborative process, but with romantic relationships like those shared by Nick Hornby and his wife-producer, Amanda Posey, or Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas, or you and Mr. Glatzer, the creative process can be especially collaborative, yes?
Wash Westmoreland: Well, we both share the same enthusiasm and passion for the projects we're working on, so there’s actually always plenty to talk about. When we have different projects in different stages of development, it's almost like having a bunch of children. Each of them has its own particular struggles and bumbles and joys, and so you share those experiences together. With filmmaking you're doing a job that you really want to do. Many of us are not doing it for the money, especially in the independent film world. Richard and I try to not let writing and directing entirely take over our relationship; we try to keep it a pleasure we share together. There are situations, sometimes, where it's midnight and you'll be just about asleep and you'll come up with a great idea for a scene and you have to excuse yourself for a moment with “the mistress” and go write it down. But if you’re sharing the mistress, then there’s a mutual understanding.
It’s impossible to discuss Still Alice without addressing Mr. Glatzer’s own serious illness, diagnosed while the film was in process. How did the illness change the collaborative process for the two of you, and how does it continue to change?
Wash Westmoreland: Before the illness, our writing process was very fifty-fifty. We would generate ideas together, lay out the whole template together, and have a very organic process of writing the script together. Since Richard lost his ability to speak, we have to take more time in order to maintain that collaboration and that equality, which is very important to us both. In the early days of the illness, he was typing very fast, so that allowed us to maintain a certain equilibrium. As we got deeper into Still Alice, his typing started to slow down to one finger, and now he's only typing with his toe. It is very important to us that people know that Richard's opinion still has equal value on anything we’re creating together. We've adjusted. He says because he can't talk and his typing has become so slow that what he says has greater importance. He does it all on his iPad. What I’ve found interesting is that he concentrates his thoughts and ideas a lot more than people who can speak.
As you said, you’ve adapted.
Wash Westmoreland: And we’ve really tried to maintain a sense of humor about things. We like to tell people that we’re the Penn & Teller of indie screenwriting and directing!
Quincaenera received so much affection and you and Mr. Glatzer followed up that film with a number of other fine projects, but then there was a bit of a dry patch.
Wash Westmoreland: Oh, it was more than a “bit” of a dry patch. It was a great big terrible dry patch! This is what can happen in indie film: there is absolutely no job security. We can work on the project passionately every day for four years and then for one or a hundred reasons completely outside of our control, it all falls apart and the film is never made. No one's going to give you a silver medal for all of your effort; it’s just gone. You can't put it on your resume, and tell people, "I worked really hard for four years and nothing happened." It's just vanished, and you're back to square one. So, yeah, we had a desert. There were a lot of nights asking ourselves, “Are we ever going to make another film?” We just didn't know.
And then Still Alice was actually offered to you. How did that happen?
Wash Westmoreland: It was the first time we've been approached to do an adaptation. Lex [Lutzus] and James [Brown], these producers in the U.K. just phoned us up and said they had this book and would we mind taking a look at it? This was late 2011. We were keen for the work, to be honest, and the book sounded very interesting to us, but Richard had just taken ill, and we weren’t sure we could take on a job. But when we read the book, we were so emotionally affected by it and Richard felt such a connection to the story, that we were, like, “This is exactly the film we should be making right now.”
This being your first adaptation, what was your approach to the book?
Wash Westmoreland: If there's source material to be adapted, it’s not very different from if there is no source material to be adapted. It still has to have the things you look for in any movie. It has to have great characters, a strong emotional, psychological dynamic, a good ending, a deeper thing that's happening underneath the story. All those elements were present in Still Alice. We also felt a certain freedom in the adaptation process. Lisa’s book is brilliant, but it wasn’t like adapting Jane Austen, where the language itself is so famous and so particular that it’s almost sacrilegious to change a thing. So we were able to take the situations and plots within Lisa’s book and figure them out cinematically with a great deal of freedom. It was really an ideal adaptation for us. It gave us a rock solid template to follow, and also a freedom to imagine the variations, the cinematic reality of this story.
Nevertheless, you've got to take a manuscript that's several hundred pages long and figure out how to work it into 120 pages.
Wash Westmoreland: Oh, God, yes. You've got nine puppies, and you can only keep five.
So from a craft perspective, how do you go about whittling down the litter, if you will?
Wash Westmoreland: Well, the book was a bestseller, and it has an extremely loyal following, so we were very aware of maintaining the essence of the story. We knew there were subplots in the book that were lovely, but would only work if you were doing a miniseries or something like that – the support group stuff, things like that. We made the decision straight off that we wanted to do the extremely subjective story of Alice, stay with her point of view all the time. So our adaptation really became the story of Alice and the dynamics of her family. It became a film very much about Alice, very specifically what she was going through, from her point of view.
How did your screenplay change when Julianne Moore signed on?
Wash Westmoreland: We felt extremely happy because we knew she could absolutely ace it. She can project and radiate intelligence and warmth and vulnerability, and she can do it all honestly and authentically, even when language is failing the character she is playing. So we gave her the script and she was very enthusiastic, and two days later – after working on the script for about a year and a half – we were on Skype with Julianne Moore, just going through the script scene by scene, things getting more and more intense as we went along. She is so formidable in every way, and so we collaborated. We truly collaborated. By the time we were on set together, we'd worked out a lot of issues that slow down production. We’d already had all of those conversations. So we were able to work very quickly.
Was the book’s author involved at all in the adaptation process?
Wash Westmoreland: We wrote our first draft without any collaboration at all, and we felt okay with it. It seemed in pretty good shape to us. We felt ready to send it off, but you’re always nervous at how people are going to respond to your work, and we felt that way, especially, sending it to the author of the book we had adapted. We didn’t know if we would get rapture or hostility. But Lisa read it immediately and wrote an email to us and that email said, in bold upper case letters, "I LOVE THIS.” We were, like, "Whew," because it really was a big deal to us.
There was no, “I love this, BUT…”
Wash Westmoreland: She really was a champion all the way through this. She is an academic. She is a trained neuroscientist. So she had some notes, which were fantastic, about how certain things might progress in the character’s illness or how certain things might happen a little differently. But all of it was with the understanding that if we needed her input, great, and if we didn’t, that’s fine too. She really was a dream.
You’ve done a lot of documentary filmmaking through the years. Is there a different writing process for documentaries than for an adaptation like Alice?
Wash Westmoreland: When I was making documentaries at first, I often felt I was discovering the narratives from the material I was pointing a camera at. I felt, often, at the mercy of whatever was in front of me, and that meant I could shoot 15 or 20 hours sometimes, and it was all junk. But then that thing happens, that one moment, and it all becomes clear: Oh! This is the story. It all gets kind of distilled when that thing happens that ties together everything else you’ve recorded. Until that happens, you’re often looking for who is your lead and what is the narrative anyway?
And it’s different writing an adapted screenplay?
Wash Westmoreland: When you're writing a screenplay, you're looking inside the materials for that guidance. With documentaries, you’re looking outwards into the world and hoping that lightning strikes. With an adaptation, you go inwards for those moments of golden inspiration, for those things that make a scene work.
For you and Mr. Glatzer, what do you learn about yourselves and what you're dealing with throughout the process of making the film, and how much does the personal situation inform the work?
Wash Westmoreland: From my point of view, the one thing the movie does is really look at the role of a caregiver, at the relationship between Lydia and Alice. That's the inspirational thing about this movie, at least from what many audiences have told me. The film says, "One of the greatest things a human being can do is care for someone else." That is certainly my own life now. I am primarily a caregiver. So many, many people in America – millions of people – are caregivers. It's not a job that's talked about a lot. It's not a job that's valued. If we’ve shined any light on that, I would be very pleased and proud. I’ll say, also, that when you're looking after someone who is ill day-in and day-out, looking after every need they have, it can be very, very tough, and making the film and now watching the film, I myself am inspired to do better, to serve better, to love better, to be more emotionally present – no matter how tough the days can be. It might sound silly that I draw inspiration from my own film, but I do.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming or aspiring writers?
Wash Westmoreland: We found it very useful during our “drought years” to write a new project whenever the inspiration came, without any care or regard for if it would get made or not. If we'd spent the seven years in between Quincaenera and Last Days of Robin Hood just taking around one script that we insisted was our next project, until the pages got curled with age and the idea started to lose its sheen even for us, that would have been demoralizing. What really kept us going was to keep writing. We had projects we were pushing. We were doing meetings. We were always trying to finance one thing or the other. But we never stopped imagining new projects, new ideas that no one could touch or reject because we were just being artists. We were always allowed to write what inspired us. That really kept us going. By the time we came out of the drought and did Robin Hood and Still Alice, we actually had three or four scripts we’d been working on that we felt really good about, so we’ve got things to take into meetings with us now. So I’d just say, “Keep evolving new material.”