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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 30, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 05
Still Alice: An interview with filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
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Still Alice: An interview with filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

by Gary M. Kramer - SGN Contributing Writer

STILL ALICE
Opening January 30


In Still Alice, writer/directors (and real-life couple) Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's beautiful, intelligent adaptation of Lisa Genova's novel, Alice (Julianne Moore), is a Columbia University linguistics professor who experiences the symptoms of early onset Alzheimer's. This compelling, moving drama shows the effect the disease has on her and her family.

Still Alice is all about loss and control as the title character slips in and out of stages where she has difficulty remembering things - be it a word, a name, or a dinner engagement - and the film shows how she tries to keep it together under such pressure. Glatzer and Westmoreland never milk her situation for pathos, and they coax an extraordinary performance from Moore. Her expressions as she grapples with her condition, are absolutely heartbreaking.

In an email exchange, Westmoreland responded to questions about Still Alice.

Gary Kramer: I understand this film resonates with both you and Richard. Can you discuss your experiences and how they are reflected in Still Alice?

Wash Westmoreland: Richard developed a slight lisp about four years ago and was told he probably had bulbar ALS. The life expectancy for this is between 18 months and 4 years. Richard is not only beating the odds, but he has directed two feature films in this time. He's determined to keep going. We don't talk much about next year or the year after - we just live day by day. Adapting Still Alice helped us work through some of our own issues - both in terms of living with the disease and caregiving. The speech Alice gives at the Alzheimer's Association later on in the movie largely comes from Richard's experiences.

Gary Kramer: Your early films have had a significant queer characters, plot or subplots. With Still Alice and your previous film, The Last Days of Robin Hood, you have made 'women's pictures.' Can you talk about this shift in your work?

Wash Westmoreland: We are always primarily driven by story and have projects on our docket with gay, straight, male and female protagonists. There is a great tradition - from Cukor to Fassbinder to Todd Haynes - of gay filmmakers having a strong connection to female protagonists. I guess there's a certain sense of empathy and exclusion from heterosexual patriarchy. We certainly had no problem identifying with Alice and working the entire story though her point of view.

Gary Kramer: How did you adapt the novel?

Wash Westmoreland: We knew the story was an intense emotional ride but wanted to avoid overplaying it. We took a restrained approach - largely inspired by Ozu's Tokyo Story - so as not to hit the audience over the head with where and how to 'feel.' We were pleased with the way this worked but some still [***still some] critics likened Alice to a movie-of-the-week, which we found bizarre. The movie's tone is so emotionally raw and the techniques adhere much more closely to those of art film than Hallmark. I believe there is a generalized cultural misogyny around women's pictures. Conventions from traditionally male genres seem to get more of a free pass. 'Noir' is seen as enduringly cool whereas the slightest whiff of melodrama and you're out!

Gary Kramer: Visually, you convey the theme of loss, the triggers of memory, and the fog of what is happening to Alice through out of focus shots and 'home movies.' Can you discuss your visual approach?

Wash Westmoreland: As Alice's short-term memory deteriorates, she starts to live more in her distant memories. This is very common with people living with Alzheimer's - the further back the recollection, the easier it is to hold on to. To show this, we used little shards of super-8 of Alice's childhood weaving in with her daily routine. Super-8 films were a big part of my childhood. When I remember something, I sometimes wonder if I'm remembering the event itself, or seeing it on Super-8. They have the same hazy texture in my mind.

Gary Kramer: Every scene - Alice speaking, cooking, or running - is freighted with the danger that she may forget what she is doing, or even harm herself or others. Can you talk about how you created this narrative tension?

Wash Westmoreland: We realized that the potential for memory loss leading to socially embarrassing situations or physical danger was a powerful source of suspense. Whenever Alice is doing something - whether it is giving a lecture, visiting the doctor or cooking Christmas dinner - the audience is consciously willing her to pull it off. In the end, it seems like she escapes social embarrassment but then something unexpected happens. In this way, it functions like a horror movie; the hand comes up out of the grave and grabs you.

Gary Kramer: There are powerful themes of shame, security, struggle and suffering reverberated throughout the film. Can you discuss that?

Wash Westmoreland: Alice says, 'I'm so ashamed,' indicating the social perceptions of the disease. There is still something about Alzheimer's that people feel embarrassed about. HIV/AIDS is also relevant here, demonstrating how the perception of a disease can be changed through social activism. What Alzheimer's really needs is a similar sea change in the way the disease is perceived. We hope that Still Alice is a story that can get people to understand the disease more intimately.

Gary Kramer: How did you work with Julianne Moore on the role?

Wash Westmoreland: We divided Alice's deterioration into four main stages, but Julianne did such a nuanced portrayal it seem more like four hundred phases. Julianne was so committed. She did so much research - in terms of visiting support groups and making friends in the Alzheimer's community - to make sure everything she did was 100% real. This took away our main fear - a phony note - and created something that was authentic and relevant.

© 2015 Gary M. Kramer

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