WHAT THEY HAD
About The Production
In What They Had, first-time writer and director Elizabeth Chomko transforms her
family's history into an intensely personal, often funny and lovingly optimistic
story about love, duty
and self-discovery. When Chomko's beloved grandmother was diagnosed with
17 years ago, her family rallied to support her and her husband as they faced
one of the biggest
challenges of their lives. From her experiences during that family crisis,
Chomko has crafted a film
that will resonate with families everywhere.
Knowing little about Alzheimer's, one of the most common forms of dementia,
feared that her grandmother was destined to become a shell of her former self,
stripped of all the
important moments of her life. "But it was so much more than that," she says.
"The journey of
loving her and each other through memory loss was more profound than I could
have imagined. It
was heartbreaking, of course, but it was also life-affirming, and spiritual, and
absolutely hilarious. It
brought my family closer together, and pulled us apart, and forced us to reckon
with things we never
wanted to look at. It prompted all of us to sort of come of age, no matter how
old we were."
Growing up in Chicago, Chomko adored her grandparents and remained close to them
after moving away in her teens. Watching her grandmother's precious memories
slowly fade away,
Chomko says, made her treasure her recollections that much more. "Watching her
remember made me realize what a gift memory is. What are we without our
memories? I didn't
want to take them for granted," she explains. "I was the eldest grandchild and I
adored all my
grandparents. Making this film was this very personal journey of immortalizing
them, and a
particularly beautiful time in my life, and all that my childhood and my
hometown had meant to me.
It was a way to control time, to fight against fading memory."
The film, which Chomko calls "an intergenerational love story," tells the story
of a loving
couple slowly losing the life they built together. "It is also about the love
between mothers and
daughters, and about a woman learning to love herself," she adds. "And making
the film was an act
of love. There's heroism in everyday people. Caregiving is a truly heroic act.
It's challenging and
often thankless and we don't have a formula for it; there is never an easy
answer for the questions it
poses. As our world grows older, more of us will find ourselves suddenly
parenting our parents, coparenting
them with our siblings."
Formerly an actor, Chomko has been writing since she was very young, but it was
practice not meant for public consumption. As the years went by, her journal
confidante. "We moved a lot," she says. "I was lonely, and writing was like this
good friend that was
always there. I started playwriting in college and dabbled a bit in
screenwriting. I wrote because I
loved to, because it gave me joy. I wrote to work stuff out, and to create
worlds and people I could
always hang out with, no matter where on earth I was. I never wanted it to
become work; I was
afraid I'd lose the relationship with it. But the inspiration for this story hit
me like lightning. It was
supposed to be a film and I was supposed to make it. I didn't feel I had much
choice in the matter."
Chronicling her grandparents' story felt like an opportunity for Chomko to spend
them again. As she wrote and rewrote, the screenplay became an obsession, she
says. "The first draft
was a three day writing binge. Then I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. Rewrites
felt like time
traveling, hanging out with my grandparents again, with my family in Chicago
again. Some passes
made the script better; some made them worse and I had to go back to the
beginning. Some of the
loveliest moments were from the very first draft, and I had to learn not to
throw out the baby with
the bathwater. I learned the craft of writing movies with this script."
Chomko spent three years rewriting What They Had. Her goal was to capture her
grandparents, their voices and the Chicago she lived in until she was 14 and
still thinks of as home.
But it grew into something more: a way for her to explore issues she and many
others have struggled
Chomko was given the opportunity to work on the script at the Sundance
helping her to gain initial momentum. The encouragement and support she received
heightened in 2015 when she received a Nicholl Fellowship, an international
competition established by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to
encourage talented new screenwriters. That award brought interest from Hollywood
and the support
of veteran producers Bill Holderman, Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa who all decided
to join forces and
work together with Elizabeth to get the movie made. Their path led them to
Producer Keith Kjarval
who later joined the project and green lit the movie.
"They were able to help us access the money to make the film and a cast that
winners of Oscar, Tony and Emmy Awards," Chomko recounts. "Which inspired one
of the best
parts of the process: tailoring the roles to these wonderful actors, allowing
them to push the
characters that ten or twenty percent that made them tangible, real people. They
something personal to this story. I wanted to make magic out of that."
Encouraged to helm the film herself, Chomko spent months preparing for her
debut. "I was not willing to screw it up," she says. "I watched every director
commentary I could get
my hands on. I read books, watched interviews, YouTube videos on cinematography.
films, artwork, light; I picked many generous brains. I'm grateful for the
incredible support I was
given by everyone at the Sundance Lab and the Nicholl Fellowship. Real-life
experience on set as an
actor helped. And every day with my incredible cast and crew was a master class,
production, and post."
A Dutiful Daughter
At the center of What They Had's family drama is Bridget Ertz, a 40-something
contemplating the next stage of her life, played by two-time Oscar winner Hilary
brought an amazing strength to the role," says Chomko. "She had insights into
the character that
pushed the script leaps and bounds. My rewriting was inspired by all that Hilary
is, the things she
wanted to unpack from her own experiences, how electrifying she is in front of a
camera. She's just
as electrifying in person."
Swank responded to Bridget's dilemma in a way she believes many would. Women
are inclined to put others first, she believes, and often lose touch with their
own needs, just as
Bridget has. "What They Had is about a family and about a woman in her 40s
coming into her own in
a very mature way," says the actress. "Then there is a family crisis that serves
as a kick-starter for
looking at how she's been living her life."
Chomko was an unusually collaborative director on set, according to Swank. "In
experience, working with a writer-director can be intimidating, for good reason.
The words come
from their marrow, but Elizabeth, perhaps because she is an actor herself,
believes that once you are
inhabiting the character, you know them best. As a writer she got to the heart
of the matter on the
page and as a director saw that through without being married to the words."
Also essential to the film, says Swank, is Chomko's ability to inject levity
into its dark subject
matter. "In the saddest moments of our lives, the heaviness has to be broken and
that's often with
laughter. Capturing that on film can easily fall flat, but Elizabeth is both
emotionally aware and
Swank herself has already experienced the kind of role reversal that Bridget is
having helped her father through his recovery from a lung transplant. "I learned
how differently we
see our parents at each point of our lives," she explains. "My parents had me
when they were 26.
When they were my age now, I was already a young adult. I don't even have a kid.
I realize how little
I know, but I thought they had all the answers. We have all these beautiful
revelations that we have
as we mature that give us respect for our parents' journeys."
The message at the heart of the film, she says, is universal. "Elizabeth wanted
communicate that we should always be asking ourselves what we want out of our
lives. Are we being
fulfilled? Are we connecting? Because life is short, and we should try to live
it to the fullest and be
grateful to those who help us along the way."
Heading up the uniquely talented cast of What They Had was a life-enriching
for the actress. From acclaimed veteran actors Blythe Danner and Robert Forster
to two-time Oscar
nominee Michael Shannon and 23-year-old Taissa Farmiga, the cast members each
contributions to the film, she says. "They all did A-plus work. Their
characterizations are so fully
fleshed out. When you have a tiny budget, it's important to have that kind of
commitment. I have
made a career in indie films and so much heart is poured out every day."
A Loving Mother
Danner, who plays Bridget's mother Ruth, provides the heart of the family and
the soul of
the movie with seemingly little effort. "Blythe is such a light presence with a
great sense of humor,"
says Swank. "Her experience of the world and the entertainment business gave me
opportunity to learn. It was a master class in life and acting - and her
performance is stunning."
Chomko always imagined Danner as Ruth and was ecstatic when the actress agreed
the role. "She just has the right spirit," explains the director. "She has a
bouyancy and loving
playfulness that my grandmother had, and she's such a present actor, always so
alive, reacting to
whatever the moment is giving her. That reminded me of my grandmother's way of
when you don't remember who you are, all you can do is react to what is in front
of you. Blythe was
unbelievably fearless. She put herself into my hands in the most beautiful,
giving way. She's a truly
generous human being and a gorgeously alive and magnetic presence. She leaps off
Danner, who had made five films over the previous year, at first wasn't sure she
tackle another one so soon. In addition, she had no personal experience with
dementia or memory
loss. "Michael Shannon, who plays my son, told me I had to do it," she
remembers. "I was afraid I
wouldn't be able to bring anything unique to it. But then I met Elizabeth and
the script was so
wonderful that I had to come on board."
Playing a character who suffers from a disease she is not familiar with was
intimidating, she admits. "But I had such confidence in Elizabeth. I would just
look at her and say,
what do I do now? It was a bit like jumping off a cliff a few times. I saw video
of three or four
generations of her family together to get an idea of the relationships. Trying
to be truthful was so
important to me."
Learning about Chomko's real-life grandmother gave her both insight and empathy,
says. She was a working woman with a highly responsible position, and Danner
could imagine the
frustration, confusion and anger that losing her mental acuity would bring.
"When we first meet
Ruth, she is already on her way down the road," says the actress. "There were
some physical things
in the videos that I tried to emulate. She is always outgoing and cheerful,
which I believe was a
major chord in her life that she was somehow able to hang on to."
A Devoted Husband
As her memory fades, Ruth has become increasingly dependent on her husband,
by Forster. "Bert adores her and treats her like a doll," says Danner. "He
paints her toenails, colors
her hair and maintains her in a loving way. But it has to be traumatizing for
such an accomplished
person to start to realize how completely needy she is becoming."
Forster and Danner had previously played husband and wife in the Showtime series
starring Hank Azaria, and were able to pick up their off-screen friendship where
they left off. "He is
so committed to the work," she says. "We lived quite close to one another during
the shoot and had
dinner together some nights."
When Forster was suggested to her years ago, Chomko remembered seeing him in the
Alexander Payne-directed drama The Descendants. His performance as a
curmudgeonly guy with very
conventional views on life convinced her that he would be perfect as Bert. "The
way Bert looks at
life is that you do the right thing," the director says. "You do it with
commitment and fierce loyalty.
Robert got that moral compass so instinctively. He smashed it out of the park."
For his part, Forster says he has never had a better job. He echoes Chomko's
Bert, adding, "There's a nobility in doing what you are supposed to do and
getting to the important
stuff now, including taking care of your family. Start there. Because life is an
arc. When you're born
you depend on your parents to take care of you. Then you learn to take care of
yourself. Then it's
your turn to take care of others and finally, you have to rely on the ones you
Forster remembers getting a flurry of phone calls telling him about this film.
my agent, my manager - called me at once," he says. "And they all said they had
a gem for me.
Well, that's what you look for and it doesn't happen often. I tell you, I heard
my own voice as I read
the script. I just said, that's me!"
Bert is protecting his wife and putting up the fight of his life, according to
Forster. But, he
assures, Chomko finds the humor and humanity in the situation. "It's a serious
movie but in the
midst of all that drama, she finds something that will make you laugh. Elizabeth
always reminded us
that this is her family and she had given a great deal of thought to each moment
and each word. She
has a good ear for what sounds true."
A Stoic Brother
After his recent riveting turn as a sadistic federal agent in Guillermo del
film The Shape of Water, Michael Shannon delivers an extraordinarily sensitive
as Bridget's brother Nicky. Because Nicky stayed in Chicago while his sister
slipped away to the
West Coast, he has been managing his elderly parents' situation alone. With his
deteriorating and his father weighed down by his denial of the seriousness of
the situation, Nicky
has turned to his sister for some support.
"I identify with Bridget in many ways," Chomko says. "I'm a pleaser and a
caretaker, like a
lot of women. I struggle with that. Michael's character Nicky is that critical
voice we all have in our
heads that chatters away about our perceived failings. My voice tells me I'm not
being honest, that
I'm making things harder than they need to be because I'm not saying what I
mean, I'm too worried
about what other people think. Nicky is not the antagonist in the story - the
only antagonist is time
- but he does serve as that voice, confronting them all with painful truths. And
he's usually right.
And that pushes them all to grow, to come of age. Coming of age is not something
we do once; I
feel we're always coming of age. That's what the film is in many ways - three
She very much wanted an actor from Chicago to play the character. Shannon, who
teeth on the theater scene in the Windy City, fit the bill perfectly. "The movie
is a love letter to my
hometown of Chicago, and I wanted to capture its texture. Michael has that in
Casting Shannon was a huge gift to the project, Chomko says. "There's nothing
cannot do - and do so well it gives you goosebumps. He just took that role and
ran with it.
Working with him was a great joy and one of the most inspiring moments of my
life. He is so
committed to the story and the storytelling; every take I marveled at his work.
At all of their work.
With virtually no time to prepare, they were instantly this family, as real as
Danner, who knows Shannon through her son, director Jake Paltrow, agrees saying,
"Michael came in with so much that wasn't on the page. He is an extremely
talented actor with a real
gift for improvisation that brought so much authenticity to his character. Like
everyone else on this
film, Michael is just an A-plus actor. On a lower-budget film, you have to put
your heart and soul
into your work and Michael is a prime example of that."
A Woman on the Verge of Adulthood
While Bridget's husband remains in California, her sulky daughter Emma
to Chicago. In the competent hands of Farmiga, what could have come off as
petulance becomes something far more sympathetic. For one thing, she is more
like her mother than
either of them would like to admit.
"Emma is a girl on the brink of adulthood struggling hard to live up to her
expectations," says Farmiga. "So hard that she hasn't taken the time to figure
out her own
expectations. She's about to enter the world, but her mother has been smothering
her with her own
thoughts and opinions and anxieties. Despite what Emma thinks, she and her
mother aren't that
different. They are both so busy worrying about others that they haven't taken
time to think about
their own happiness."
Chomko had seen Farmiga in Ava Berkovsky's short Share and was taken by how much
seemed to communicate with so little effort. "Taissa has these eyes that take
you places. She tells a
compelling story by just inhabiting the frame. That was important, given that
the film follows several
storylines. We didn't have the real estate for a deep expositional dive on what
was going on with
Emma. Taissa instinctually connected with her. There was a line in the draft she
read, where Emma
says, 'You make me feel like there's something wrong with me,'" the director
recounts. "And I'd cut
it, for whatever reason, and Taissa said - 'listen, do you mind if we put that
back? Because that line
kinda cracked it open for me.' And she was absolutely right."
Farmiga was attracted to the film's portrait of a loving but flawed family.
"Every family has
imperfections, and I'm drawn to projects that show what it's like to
miscommunicate, to not be the
perfect sibling or parent," she says. "I could also relate to the story on a
personal level because my
grandmother has Alzheimer's. Elizabeth shares the truths about the hardships,
but also the joy and
the humility and comedy of caring for someone with this illness."
Farmiga believes audiences will find the film empowering and relatable, not only
dealing with Alzheimer's but anybody with a family. "People will see how
difficult it can be to
communicate under the best of circumstances, to let go of the past and to deal
with hardship," she
says. "On social media, everyone has a perfect life, so you try and be perfect.
This family is handling
painful, complicated things and becoming better people by doing that."
Love Song for a Ghost
The haunting song "Are You There" which plays over the film's final credits, is
a joint effort
between Elizabeth Chomko, her mother, Kate Chomko, and singer and
O'Donovan. "It was serendipitous," says the director, who plays the piano and
"The story of the film was inspired by the story of my mother's parents. My
mother felt this burning
need to write the poem in the voice of her mother, whom she cared for many
Chomko had sent an early draft of the script to her mother, who became a trusted
providing feedback and inspiration during the long process of getting the film
made. "She sent me
this beautiful poem, written in my grandmother's voice, trying to capture what
it might feel like to be
in the throes of memory loss - this perpetual sense that you'd forgotten
the director. "She told me she thought it was a song and she had dabbled in
composing a melody.
She wondered if there was a place for it in the film."
Chomko fleshed out the music and shared it with the film's music supervisor Mary
Although she had a miniscule budget for music, the director asked Ramos to
who like Chomko's grandmother, is of Irish descent. "Aoife has the most
gorgeous, haunting voice
and is a phenomenal songwriter and musician. She loved the ideas and the story."
says the director.
"She had just had a baby, but she found the time to flesh out the composition
and write other
instrumentation, and recorded it just in time for our final mix. It's this
that felt meant to be - my mother inspiring me, her mother inspiring her, our
collaboration with a
brand new mother inspired by our story. It was pretty profound; I still can't
quite believe it worked
In the lyrics, the voice is lost in her own head, wondering what it is that
connects her to the
people around her - the family members she does not remember. "My grandmother
ghost, sort of hovering on the margins while everyone carried on living. We were
forward; her mind was moving backward." Chomko explains. "But she was a really
good faker. She
understood social cues. So you'd be having this terrific conversation with her,
thinking she was right
there with you, and then all of sudden she'd say something so surreal it took
your breath away. And
she'd say it so nonchalantly that for a second you'd think it was you that was
crazy. But she'd see
your face, and realize she'd said something wrong, and sort of wander away -
looking for a place
she belonged, someone or something or someplace she'd lost. It was
heartbreaking. In the song, she
is asking her lost love, 'Are you still there? Are you a ghost like me? Are you
coming to take me
Back Home in Chicago
Shooting in Chicago, where Chomko grew up, helped bring back the memories of her
childhood. Rather than the glitzy urban metropolis and glamour of Lake Shore
Chicago is a place of modest homes and working families - "City of the Big
Shoulders," as the
poet Carl Sandburg famously dubbed it. Re-creating the warmth and security of
apartment was her first priority.
"I wanted to capture the Chicago that I lived in until I was 14, which is
inseparable from my
grandparents to me and still feels like home," she says. "Much of the action of
the film takes place in
Ruth and Bert's apartment, so it was vital to get the right space. It had to be
wouldn't want to leave if you lived there, that felt like home, and could become
a character itself,
while also being both practical and cinematic."
"What They Had is a story soaked in the intimacy and familial love that one
Chicago is their home. Being from this great city, I could not be prouder to
bring this production
back to my hometown," said Keith Kjarval.
The filmmakers mounted an extensive search for the ideal location and found it
at the last
minute, she says. "It's an elevated version of my grandparents' home, a place
that they would have
chosen if they had the means. The woman who lived there had lost her husband two
years prior and
was joyful about the idea of celebrating it as a place of love. She has
incredible taste and beautiful
things. The design team used it as a jumping off point; it inspired much of
their great work with
costume, art decoration, overall production design."
Working with cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, Chomko created an atmosphere of
and warmth in the apartment. "When I met Roberto, there was a deep an emotional
she recalls. "He had a wonderful, quiet, supportive energy that I immediately
warmed to. He
understood it was first and foremost a film about people. We looked at reference
and a lot of art, but our conversations were always grounded by centering our
work around the
emotional truths and thru-lines of each moment."
Chomko's desire to imbue What They Had with a memory-like quality guided their
decisions on lenses and color, as well as the overall look of the film. "The
Hawk C-series lenses we
used made the images feel timeless; they have a texture and this slight bend at
the corners that give
their images a nostalgia." she says. "We took a bit of a documentary-like
approach with the shooting,
so it felt like you were there, but we wanted to make things a bit more
beautiful than in real life -
colors more saturated, certain images more classically composed. Because when
you look back,
things always seems more beautiful in your memory than it did when you lived it.
And as with any
family, there are secrets in closets, shadows in corners; there are creaky old
and I wanted to capture that darkness, shoot through doorways, find shadow in
Chomko is aware of how fortunate she was to have had the kind of support her
collaborators provided, especially on her first film. "It was made with love by
all of us," she adds.
"And I am tremendously grateful."
The director says she hopes audiences will relate to the film and, ideally, that
some part of it
will stay with them after they leave the theater. "The story is relatively
simple, which allows
everything else to be complex and sticky and odd-ball and human, the way only
real life can be," she
observes. "That's what I wanted to do with the film. It is fictionalized but
it's also personal; it
captures the spirit of the real-life challenges and humor of my family's
journey, which I'm hoping
makes it resonate for people of many walks of life. So very many of us are
affected by memory loss.
I hope there's something in the film that makes people laugh and cry and perhaps
walk away with
the same sense of hope that making it gave to me."
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