Extraordinary challenge: Tom Vaughan directs Ford and Fraser in inspiring true drama

Based on a Wall Street Journal article and subsequent book The Cure by Geeta Anand, Extraordinary Measures describes a race against time to develop a treatment for Pompe disease, a form of muscular dystrophy. It is told largely from the point-of-view of John Crowley, a real-life biotech entrepreneur whose two children were afflicted with the illness. The inaugural release from CBS Films, opening Jan. 22, it is the third feature from director Tom Vaughan.

Vaughan drew the attention of producers Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher and Carla Santos Shamberg with his debut feature, the coming-of-age comedy Starter for 10. The jump from a period romance to a real-life medical drama may not have been an obvious one, but, like the producers, Vaughan was drawn to the story's compelling characters and settings. He was also intrigued by the problems of both remaining true to the facts of the Crowley family and avoiding the pitfalls of what was once called the "disease of the week" genre.

"Number one, I was interested in making a movie," he says, speaking by phone from his office. "I wasn't making a documentary, but this was still representing the Crowley family, and they were involved every step of the way. I spent time with them, the actors spent time with them, they read every draft of the script, they put us in touch with other people. But John Crowley understood how a story like this needs to be told in movie terms. We would ask him, 'If we combine this and that'—make a composite character or compress the timeline—'is that still true to what happened?' As long as he was okay with it, that was a good guide. He set the parameters for how we could tell the story."

The son of a scientist, Vaughan speaks with precision, repeating details and taking pains to single out contributions from the cast and crew. He joined the project after many of the elements were already in place. The producers, for example, who had worked on other real-life films like Erin Brockovich and Freedom Writers. Screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs (Chocolat) had completed a script. And Harrison Ford, who had approached Shamberg and Sher after reading the original Wall Street Journal article, was attached as executive producer and star.

"The reason why I'm a filmmaker is because I was inspired by Star Wars," Vaughan reveals. "So meeting Harrison Ford was definitely a star-struck moment. But he's all about the work. He would try things, we would talk about scenes. I think it was important that he felt like I knew what I was doing. But really, he's all about making the character believable. He's not someone you have to give a lot of direction to."

In the movie Ford plays Dr. Robert Stonehill, a composite of several scientists. Ford, who helped develop the role with Jacobs, chose to portray a gruff, difficult man, someone with indifferent social skills and an underlying anger that erupts at the worst possible times. Stonehill is far removed from the actor's previous parts. Vaughan was struck by Ford's research, which included interviewing scientists and sitting in on meetings at biotech companies.

The director readily admits that he knows little about science, but adds, "We all made the decision that we didn't want to dumb the movie down. We were prepared to risk that the audience might not understand scientists talking science. There were scenes when Stonehill was lecturing John Crowley, and in an early version he would be using dumbed-down analogies, 'Imagine if you will...', that sort of stuff. As we worked, we started to pull all of that out. We realized that scientists wouldn't be talking to each other like that. Why would Stonehill be explaining things Crowley already knew? So we made the decision to use technical terms because the characters needed to be speaking in a way that was accurate to their world. If you don't follow the science, you still understand what the conflict is, what is happening in the scene, even if you don't know jargon like 'glycogen transferees.'"

Extraordinary Measures exposes to an unusual extent the collision between science and economics. Pompe disease is so rare that developing a treatment for it would be prohibitively expensive. In real life, Crowley had to leave the corporate world and found his own biotech start-up for meaningful research to proceed. But Vaughan was careful not to make an exposé about the pharmaceutical industry. Even the character of Dr. Kent Webber, a villain in simple narrative terms, has good motives. Implicit in the storyline to Extraordinary Measures is that most parents couldn't pull these strings, that most children with similar diseases would die.

"That's what's so important about Crowley's story," Vaughan insists. "I'm a father myself, and I'd like to think that if my children were in this situation I'd do all that John Crowley does. Here's this ordinary dad, and doctors and scientists are telling him to go home, spend time with his kids because they're not going to make it. And he refused to take that."

Vaughan also points out how Crowley personalized Pompe disease by introducing his children to biotech employees. "Take it out of the abstract and connect it to something real, that was John's thing. He always made sure that the scientists who were working on the project understood what the end product was meant to be." It was a tactic the director had to employ himself, at the same time guarding against charges of exploiting children suffering from a potentially fatal disease.

"We absolutely had to avoid a sort of tugging-at-your-heartstrings tearjerker," Vaughan says. "I wanted to engage the audience with the characters, but not be super-manipulative and, you know, 'Cue the strings.' We found that a little goes a long way. At first we were thinking, 'Do we have enough kids, do we need more of a sense of jeopardy?' Then it was like, 'How many scenes do we really need where doctors are saying the kids are in a lot of trouble?'"

The director raves about Brendan Fraser, cast as John Crowley. “It's fantastic to see that kind of enthusiasm from an actor; you really leap at that in filmmaking. He first had the obligation to portray the real Crowley accurately, but this was an intense role for him to take on. I think he found it very difficult. The scenes with the children were very, very tough, and then there were big technical scenes with a lot of jargon. He really had to stretch himself." Vaughan also singles out Keri Russell, cast as Crowley's wife, and especially the child actors, chosen after extensive auditions.

Oddly, Vaughan found himself discarding some of the family scenes during the editing process. "We ended up with a quite long assembly. And I found that once the family was established, we didn't have to cut back to them, their scenes weren't moving the story forward. The movie really became the story of these two men—Crowley and Stonehill—who have these very different motivations but who both need the same thing."

Vaughan's sense of focus, of stripping away the non-essential, came into play during the production as well. "With this story in particular, I wanted a clean style," he admits. "I really like unembellished moviemaking, I like it when I'm not thinking about a director when I'm watching a movie. Devices like cranes and such are valid if they're used to service the story, and there are times when you need all that equipment. But here, I didn't want anything to get in the way."

Vaughan started out making amateur films with his friends, then directed commercials, shorts and long-form dramas for the BBC. Along with Starter for 10, his feature credits include the hit 2008 Cameron Diaz-Ashton Kutcher comedy What Happens in Vegas. “Everything I've done has been a different challenge,” he reflects. “I've tried not to repeat myself. It was a bit daunting going into Extraordinary Measures because I'd never made a movie with real people, kids in wheelchairs, explaining a disease, big technical scenes, movie stars. Like a lot of things in moviemaking, it all came down to planning."

The director credits his time at the BBC with sharpening his skills. "TV work taught me that you need to turn up well-prepared because you have tight schedules and big crews and people need to feel there's someone in charge who has a plan. You can change the plan, but you've got to have one to start. And if you've planned well, and you are actually shooting scenes, when surprising things happen or variations turn up, you can deal with them, you can use them."

For Vaughan, the difference between television and film is simply a matter of scale. The problems of establishing a pace, controlling the tone, getting the elements of the frame remain the same. "TV is slightly less of a high-wire act. Movies are definitely playing for bigger stakes. I guess on any one particular film the key is to make sure that you're all making the same movie. You've got to feel confident that the producers and the studio and the director are all looking for the same thing. And with Extraordinary Measures, I think we all meshed to an amazing degree."