Lost and Found: A family deals with a loved one's dementia in Elizabeth Chomko's 'What They Had'

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What Elizabeth Chomko had before What They Had was a string of 16 under-distinguished film appearances—bits in indies or guest-shots-that-sometimes-swelled-to-recurring-roles in TV series—but running alongside this newbie actress was a writer trying to get out, followed quickly if not simultaneously by a director.

Both emerged in a dazzling double-debut via this domestic drama that drew warm receptions at its U.S. premiere at Sundance as well as its international one in Toronto.

“My love, really, was theatre,” Chomko confesses. “I went to school for theatre and philosophy and played a bunch of regional theatres in D.C. where I went to school. That’s how I learned to story-tell—through acting—but I was always a writer. My family moved around a lot when I was a kid, and my journal became my confidant.”

Pages from that journal inform What They Had. Chomko lived it before she wrote it, which is why her characters come over so accessible and identifiable and life-sized.

“The whole film is really a meditation on everything I know about love and where I learned it—from my parents’ relationship and my grandparents’ relationship, what was different, what was similar. They had different ways of communicating love.”

Chomko and her two sisters did not grow up cinephiles, but their mother put them in front of films that had female storylines, “not for any political reason, but because that was the stuff she related to. I watched Anne of Green Gables and Julie Andrews musicals and Norma Rae—but what I really grew up doing was reading novels. It’s a difficult art form to bring into the cinema. You have so much more real estate with a novel. That sort of interwoven storytelling was a big influence on writing this film.”

Her specific inspiration came from observing her grandmother lose her memories—a tragedy that went into overdrive after her grandfather’s death in 2010.  She herself died only three months ago, without ever seeing the film. “She had a 17-year battle with Alzheimer’s and, at the end, was quite debilitated by it and in no frame of mind to process what she saw. But I think she’d have been pleased with it. Her brothers were. My favorite moment so far was getting my uncles’ reaction after they saw it at Sundance. They said, ‘You couldn’t have given us a better gift.’ That’s when I realized what a film our memories are. Without our memories, what are we? Just living in the present without any context, and I didn’t want to take my memories for granted.”

Some of her authentic past punctuates her picture, in fact. The rickety remains of her family’s home movies are sprinkled throughout. “I went out with a Super 8 camera myself and shot a bit, but all the archival footage is my grandfather’s. He was quite a documentarian. I don’t think he knew how intuitive he was with the camera, but he really found his moments with it. He had all this beautiful footage I always thought was so stunning, and I wanted to use it—in keeping with the themes and visual true-line of a film about memory. These flashes of the past and nostalgia certainly inspired me to make the movie. I was honored to be able to include them.”

Such familiarity with the home turf gave Chomko the extra edge and authority that most first-time-out writer-directors are denied. There’s an unerring ring of truth about what is said and how the cast connects with those words. So confident is she as a screenwriter, she doesn’t always need words to make intimate scenes work.

Two marriages come to an end in the movie without us hearing one word. And the film’s final fillip (which leaves us smiling) silently tells us why a turkey crosses the road (basically, the same reason a chicken, with much less fuss ’n’ feathers, does).

“Turkey” is the pet name that passes between two elderly lovebirds, Burt and Ruth (Robert Forster and Blythe Danner, both in award-courting performances). As age creeps over him and Alzheimer’s over her, it’s their one true constant—but she can still identify her husband of four or five decades as her “boyfriend,” so there’s hope.

The story starts on Christmas Eve, but it’s not a midnight clear. The momentarily unattended Danner blithely slips out into a blinding Chicago blizzard, forcing a family reunion whether they like it or not—and they don’t like it because it means deciding where they can safely stash Mama. There are a variety of views on this.

Bridget (Hilary Swank), the daughter who fled to the West Coast, comes in with her college-age daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga)—who’s in an emotional freefall of her own—while Nicky (Michael Shannon), the son who dutifully stayed behind, comes from across town where he serves his prize-winning Manhattans in a bar he owns.

Casting kudo: Swank and Shannon actually do look like they could be Forster’s issue, and the blunt head-butting that follows has an unmistakable familial reality to it.

Not only was Swank the first to sign up for the film, she decided to extend her duties to help produce it as well. “Hilary really was an inspiring muse and pushed her character that extra 20 percent to make her a real, tangible human being,” says Chomko.

“I’d worked hard on the script to develop the characters as much as I could. Then, once I had my cast, I rewrote it to make magic out of the people that they were. The casting was perfect—thankfully!—because we had just 22 shooting days in Chicago, with no time to prepare or rehearse. It all suddenly came together, and we just went for it. Everyone was utterly committed to making it happen and getting it done.

“I did encourage them to go off on their own. I let the camera roll and allowed them all to take their parts and run with it. They could change words, say it in their own way or improv. I wanted that almost Cassavetes-like overlapping of dialogue that happens when you’re with family. What I’m proudest of is how they really do seem like family—and for that I can’t take a lot of credit. They are the ones who did that.”

What Chomko can take credit for is providing every member of the family with a full plate of conflict and angst. “People ask me which character in the film is me. In a way, they all are, I’m always working out some wound of my own with everybody.

“With Hilary’s character, I can really relate to her sense of being a caregiver and wanting to please people. I think maybe that’s something women trouble about, and I’m hard on myself about that. Michael’s character is that voice of reason in my head that we all have. He’s that guy who forces everybody to reckon with the truth. What’s more, he’s almost always right, so, in effect, he prompts all of them to grow and see their own flaws. In a way, this is a kind of coming of age for all of them.”

The kids are all right, but the real takeaway of this film comes from the parents in the supporting ranks, from Danner and Forster deep in the throes of life’s “badly written third act.” She has her dotty moments—answering a stapler instead of a phone or proudly announcing at dinner that she’s pregnant—but, toward the end in her last scene with Swank, Chomko allows her a moment of heartbreaking lucidity.

If you think you’ve seen this Robert Forster before, you probably have. Chomko cast him right out of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, where he played a short-fused, old-fashioned grandfather who bops a smart-mouthed teenager in the face. Burt in What They Had is a double-downed edition of that—a constantly charging engine for the film as well as the family, battling his offspring over his wife’s uncertain future.

“I love the tone Alexander Payne found in that film,” Chomko admits. “He beautifully walked that line between hilarity and heartbreak, and Robert’s performance of a traditionally minded patriarch was funny and still had gravity. He was someone I wanted to see a whole movie about, so I made one. He was so in line with Burt.”

Right now, the one-time actress is enjoying the film-festival fruits of her labors. “I really did the whole process—the writing and rewriting and learning how to be a filmmaker. All the other stuff that came from that—Sundance and Toronto—is really icing. For me, it was about the doing of it. Every part of it was a joy, in and of itself.

Having given her own family tree a substantial shaking, Chomko is next branching out into a true story that’s not hers. She is adapting the memoir of the daughter of Jordan Belfort (a.k.a. The Wolf of Wall Street), telling how his conviction for white-collar crime impacted, and pretty much wrecked, the lives of his whole family.

“The films I’m connected to, the stories I want to tell and be part of telling, all feel personal in some way—regardless of how actual and reflective of my life they are,” she says. “I don’t know how to connect unless it is something that I’m working out.”