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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 Alzheimer's disease 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, Chomko 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 even 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 struggle to 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 a private practice not meant for public consumption. As the years went by, her journal became her 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 time with 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 with.

Chomko was given the opportunity to work on the script at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, helping her to gain initial momentum. The encouragement and support she received there was heightened in 2015 when she received a Nicholl Fellowship, an international screenwriting competition established by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to identify and 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 includes 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 each brought 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 directorial 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. I studied 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, through prep, production, and post."

A Dutiful Daughter

At the center of What They Had's family drama is Bridget Ertz, a 40-something chef contemplating the next stage of her life, played by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank. "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 especially 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 my 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 intellectually acute."

Swank herself has already experienced the kind of role reversal that Bridget is going through, 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 to 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 experience 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 made major 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 a wonderful 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 to play 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 being- because 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 the screen."

Danner, who had made five films over the previous year, at first wasn't sure she wanted to 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 initially 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, Danner 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, Bert, played 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 "Huff," 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 description of 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 have parented." Forster remembers getting a flurry of phone calls telling him about this film. "Everybody - 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 Toro's Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water, Michael Shannon delivers an extraordinarily sensitive performance 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 mother's condition 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 generations coming of age."

She very much wanted an actor from Chicago to play the character. Shannon, who cut his 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 spades." Casting Shannon was a huge gift to the project, Chomko says. "There's nothing Michael 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 my own."

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 accompanies her to Chicago. In the competent hands of Farmiga, what could have come off as self-centered 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 mother's 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 she 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 for those 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 instrumentalist Aoife O'Donovan. "It was serendipitous," says the director, who plays the piano and composes music. "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 years."

Chomko had sent an early draft of the script to her mother, who became a trusted advisor, 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 something." remembers 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 Ramos. Although she had a miniscule budget for music, the director asked Ramos to approach O'Donovan, 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 circle-of-life collaboration 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 out."

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 became this ghost, sort of hovering on the margins while everyone carried on living. We were all moving 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 home?'"

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 Drive, Chomko's 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 her grandparents' 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 somewhere you 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 finds when 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 light and warmth in the apartment. "When I met Roberto, there was a deep an emotional connection," 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 films, photography 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 resentments. Roberto and I wanted to capture that darkness, shoot through doorways, find shadow in our shots."

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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