Through the Looking Glass: Remembering 'Still Alice' co-director Richard Glatzer
Update: On Wednesday, March 11th, Still Alice co-director Richard Glatzer died of complications from ALS. He was 62. Here, we remember the filmmaker with our February cover story on his amazing film.
If one were to flash-forward a few weeks, it would not be difficult to imagine a couple of Academy Awards going to the Most Minimal Emoting in Starring Categories.
In the male category, there’s Eddie Redmayne, who, as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking beset with a rare, early-onset form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in The Theory of Everything, has but to arch his eyebrow to unlock a brain brimming with brilliance. In the female category, there’s Julianne Moore, who, as a Columbia University linguistics professor losing words and then memory to early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice, turns her beautiful face—terrifyingly—into a blank slate.
Still Alice is a sadly literal euphemism for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, adapted from Lisa Genova’s novel by co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (Quinceañera, The Last of Robin Hood). Moore, who just won a Golden Globe for the film, co-stars with Alec Baldwin as her husband, and Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish as her three grown children.
The film has parallels on both sides of the cameras. In 2011, a few months after Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS (a.k.a. “Lou Gehrig’s disease”), the pair was pitched the project.
“That’s how we could identify so much with Alice,” Westmoreland relayed recently following a press conference marking the film’s release via Sony Pictures Classics. “Our whole process of adapting and making the book cinematic was informed through Rich’s experiences.
“We took the option in 2011, and early 2012 is when we did the main work on adapting it. He was on the set every day during the filming. He could still walk then, and he would type using an iPad. We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary this year, so we know each other very well. I would do most of the communicating while we were shooting, but he would have 50% creative input on every major decision.”
The film’s co-producers—Elizabeth Gelfand Stearns and CBS journalist Maria Shriver—were also personally drawn to the project. The latter lost her father, Sargent Shriver, to Alzheimer’s and wrote a children’s book, What’s Happening to Grandpa?, to explain the disease to her children. She expanded that audience as producer of “The Alzheimer’s Project,” earning two Emmys and an Academy of Television Arts and Sciences award for “a television show with a conscience.”
Stearns, who lost her mother and grandmother to the disease and runs The Judy Fund established in their honor, is likewise committed to getting the word out. The difference between Alzheimer’s and ALS is considerable, she noted. “They are almost the exact opposite. Alzheimer’s attacks the cognition, initially leaving the body unscathed, whereas with ALS the intellect stays intact and the body…”
The diseases, however, have similarities as well—particularly in the long run, according to Westmoreland. “They are both terminal, incurable and have the effect of isolating the patient from the world at large. Most critically, both diseases eat away at the sense of identity and make it vitally important to hang on to yourself.”
He is quite upbeat about his partner’s health. “Rich has managed already to beat the odds in terms of the disease’s progression. It’s really astounding how well he’s doing—but there are still a lot of challenges to deal with. He’s in the house, though, a lot, dealing with the disease, but he’s buoyed up by the success of the film. We call it movie therapy. It’s, like, something special happening around the film, and it’s keeping his spirits up and is actually affecting his health in a positive way.”
As for himself, “I’m doing fine. I have really good friends, and they support our work, and the movie itself is tremendous for us, so I would say I’m doing all right.
“We didn’t want Still Alice to be a depressing movie. It deals with something very intense and very difficult, but we wanted always to shine a light on the human, on the possible connections that people can make even in the most difficult of times. I think that gives the film something powerful to say about what it means to be alive.”
The subject matter didn’t scare Moore away. “I did it for the money,” she cracked.
“Actually,” she confessed when the laughter subsided, “it was a wonderful, wonderful script and such a beautiful book. What Lisa did—and it was so remarkable—is that she presented the disease completely subjectively. What would it feel like? What does it feel like to go through this process? We never get to see that. Rich and Wash took that novel and made it cinematic, in a very deceptively simple way. It was a thrill to be involved in something like that. I think that’s what attracted me to it—the very human nature of the story, and the idea that you are watching an individual and families journey through this very terrible situation.”
Westmoreland was happy to report there was no tension between the screenwriters and the book’s author, although he did admit a certain uneasiness when he popped the first draft off to her in the mail. “It was like our baby, and we were the foster parents who were bringing a child to this stage of his life, but Lisa’s response was immediately just incredibly positive, supporting what we had done artistically.
“In terms of her background and knowledge of the whole terrain of Still Alice, she was very helpful and able to give great feedback. This process continued through all the drafts, and she came to visit the set. We enjoyed very much seeing her book/our screenplay become flesh through these amazing performances. We were very much in tune all the way through, and that’s not just press-conference talk. That is the truth.”
Genova quickly confirmed. “I know a lot of writers, and the horror stories you hear of what Those People did to the book—none of that applies to this. I understood from the beginning—and I feel really lucky that I had the consciousness to realize that this is not my project. This is not supposed to be the book. This is a movie inspired by the story, and so I made it clear to Rich and Wash from the beginning: ‘I know I’m not steering the ship’ and ‘This is your creative project and not mine, yet if I can facilitate or support anything that you’re trying to do, please ask me.’
“The script they sent was incredibly respectful to the story and to the subjective point-of-view of Alice. They got why the book was special. It wasn’t about what the characters were going through. While that point-of-view is important, what’s so baffling and heartbreaking and difficult to understand is the point-of-view of someone with Alzheimer’s as they descend further and further into dementia. They were committed to staying in that point-of-view, so it was easy to support them.”
Duplicating the book’s perspective from inside Alice’s head was a major screen hurdle for Westmoreland, creating for the audience member “that total subjectivity so you’re with her and you grieve with her and go through all her tensions and disappointments and triumphs with her.” Another challenge “was what to leave out. Some adaptations try to cling on to too much. You’ve got to be disciplined to get to the core of the story in a way that it becomes a cinematic experience that works.”
Genova was content that The Big Message got out. “What I’ve been doing on a smaller scale with the book and now with the movie in a much bigger way is dragging Alzheimer’s out of the closet and into the movie theatres. Now, people can be seen and heard. People with Alzheimer’s don’t feel seen and heard. We’re not talking about this thing that exists. It’s awfully hard to care about something if it doesn’t exist, so this is a way of bringing the conversation to people and saying, ‘It’s okay to talk about it. It’s okay if you have it.’ Now, they’ll see Still Alice and see a vivid depiction of a woman who is not an elderly person in end-stage dying in a hospital bed. That’s what a lot of the mental pictures of Alzheimer’s have been. So now you can see what living with Alzheimer’s looks like and feels like.”
Westmoreland looks forward to the day when difficult subjects like Alzheimer’s can be addressed onscreen and find an audience willing to take the ride. “There are stories about real people that have relevance—and, to me, that’s what’s going to win in the end. Obviously, it needs to happen more. I believe that society is going to progress, and there’ll be more and more movies about more and more different sections of our American population—not just about the straight young white man.”