“Alzheimer’s disease has infinite ways of presenting itself, and I wanted my story and this film to be a specific portrait of a woman — and a family — living with the disease.”
From first-time writer-director Elizabeth Chomko, the film “What They Had” centers on a Chicago family in crisis. Bridget (Hilary Swank) returns home with her daughter (Taissa Farmiga) at her brother's (Michael Shannon) urging when her mother (Blythe Danner), who is living with Alzheimer’s, wanders into a blizzard in the middle of the night. Bridget’s father (Robert Forster) is adamant — he won’t put the love of his life in a nursing home. The family must navigate their futures together, while facing some of their shared conflicts from the past. This is a film that focuses caregivers from different generations, and how each person approaches the Alzheimer’s crisis.
Elizabeth’s own grandmother passed away earlier this year after a 17-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Tell us a bit about your own Alzheimer’s story and how your personal experiences informed the film.
My maternal grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 68; the news surprised us all. She had spent 25 years of her life in a career as an administrator in geriatric nursing.
I grew up visiting the nursing homes she worked at, volunteering, hanging out with the residents. I loved listening to their stories and their memories, connecting with this older generation of people — their wisdoms and histories felt like treasure.
My own family is from Chicago — there’s a lot of teasing, a lot of laughter, we don’t take things too seriously. We always had so much fun with each other. After my grandmother’s diagnosis, I was worried that our time together wouldn’t be fun anymore — that we wouldn’t find the same joy in the face of the disease.
In hindsight, it wasn’t like that at all. My grandmother was a joy to be around through her Alzheimer’s journey, as she always had been. My family still laughed, in some ways louder and harder than we ever had. We knew what we were about to lose, so we relished our time with each other.
Was it a conscious choice to make this topic the center of your directorial debut?
Alzheimer’s disease has infinite ways of presenting itself, and I wanted my story and this film to be a specific portrait of an individual woman — and a family — living with the disease. After her diagnosis, my grandmother slowly became like a kid again. I bonded with her like we were schoolgirls, not grandmother and granddaughter. I still cherish those moments.
When Blythe Danner came onboard, she had had no exposure to memory loss, but she was very brave and game for the challenge. She put herself into my hands, studying home videos of my grandmother, taking great care to capture every specificity. Blythe has that same childlike spirit that I observed in my grandmother — but she also embodied the grace and intelligence and courage my grandmother had her whole life. My grandmother was infinite things beyond Alzheimer’s, so it was about casting the woman, not the disease.
The thing I really wanted to capture in the film was our family’s joy and my grandmother’s spirit … that love, that laughter. I wanted to capture my grandmother the way I remembered her. It was like making a memory — a memory I didn’t want to lose. The result was the script and the film.
When someone has Alzheimer’s, the whole family is affected. What about telling the story of these different generations of women and men with varied caregiving roles was vital to you?
While I was devastated by my grandmother’s diagnosis, I ultimately had to consider how it affected others. Who is this diagnosis harder on — me? Her husband? Her children? Her?
I wanted to honor that and bring it into focus. So many of us are touched by memory loss. It can be very painful. The impact the disease has on the family unit, how it can expose long-buried memories of our own — the old wounds it can dredge up — helped paint a portrait of a family coping with loss and the real trials and challenges of caregiving, the tolls it takes on each caregiver.
Blythe Danner had the task of portraying someone with the disease, and she has also been a caregiver in her real life. How do the personal experiences of the actors make the film even richer?
Blythe has spoken about her own caregiving experience in the past, for her beloved husband Bruce Paltrow. That experience may have helped her understand this family.
Hilary also experienced being a caregiver after her father had a lung transplant. In their own different situations, I imagine both Blythe and Hilary came from a place where they understood how delicate these dynamics are.
Taissa and Robert have been touched by Alzheimer’s in their own families, as had many of our other cast and crew. The entire team brought their own personal experiences into filming —their beautiful memories and grief and longing, all the emotions that come along with any illness and in any family. We all put pieces of our souls into the film.
Michael Shannon’s character is carrying a lot of the burden before Hilary Swank’s character comes home to Chicago, but he also serves up some of the film’s lighter moments. Why was it important to balance comedy with drama when telling a story about Alzheimer’s?
After my grandmother’s diagnosis, I didn’t anticipate how funny things would be. I had envisioned her becoming sort of lifeless, disappearing before my eyes … that her spirit would be taken away.
That wasn’t the case at any stage. Watching the whole process was difficult, but up until the very end, she retained that sense of humor and spirit she always had.
I wrote Blythe’s character with the grace my grandmother had throughout her life, even when coping with the disease and its different stages. I wanted to get that part right and so did Blythe.
To this day, some of my grandmother’s moments in the midst of this disease have stuck with me. She really did hit on my uncle on one point, and we’re still able to laugh about it. (There is a scene where Michael Shannon’s character, the son, speaks of being flirted with by Blythe’s character, his mother in the film.) Mike just got it quickly and easily, perhaps because he has spent time living in Chicago, or because he has the biggest heart — he understood Nicky’s complicated burden — and the humor he uses process it — in a deep and immediate way. The actors jumped right in and felt like family, with no time to prepare. They understood the piece and captured the love it had been written with. They understood that laughter is catharsis, and that you often laugh loudest when your heart is just about to break.
As many of us know, at a certain point, Alzheimer’s is not so funny. If I had known later how unfunny it would be, it would have been harder to capture these lighter moments. We were still having a pretty good time when I got a lot of these thoughts down on paper. I am glad I did that when I did.
When people struggling with dementia and Alzheimer's in their own families see this film, what do you hope they take away from it?
My hope is that audiences come in and feel whatever they feel, take away whatever they take away. That they give themselves permission to do that. I wrote the script through grief, to self-soothe my wounds and the wounds of my family. I didn’t want to acknowledge that our time together was over. I wanted to make a memory that could not be forgotten.
What I have learned in sharing the movie with others is the vulnerability that I brought forth — telling a story about something so personal — promotes vulnerability in others. Being vulnerable is scary and not something most people feel comfortable with. Now more than ever, I think we need to allow ourselves to realize that we are truly more alike than we are different.
The eldest grandchild has a way of fixing things, or trying to fix things. Making the film did soothe me and allow me to grieve and let go at a slower pace. That was helpful; it gave me a sense of control when I had none. It felt like a colossal act of love.
There is a sense of needing to do the right thing for someone diagnosed with Alzheimer's or dementia, and we often bend over backwards. It’s hard to be angry with a sick person. We sometimes take it out on each other. Caring for that sick person can bring out the best in us and the worst in us, and it’s okay to forgive ourselves for that, and forgive each other.
What do you feel is the best way people can spread awareness and share resources about this disease?
My family sometimes felt alone and dysfunctional at a time when we should have been enjoying the days we had left with my grandmother. I don't think families are quite prepared about what to do when. It’s not easy co-parenting with a sibling that you never saw eye-to-eye with in the first place; I think that we are all afraid to acknowledge our own mortality and that of our parents.
Being prepared and opening up a dialogue about how to navigate these really difficult challenges of Alzheimer’s — financial, personal, emotional, legal — is important, because they can be all-encompassing and overwhelming. You need to tackle these things before the disease happens to you, so that you can enjoy the moments that you do have together.
Spread awareness by starting a dialogue. I didn't even realize the daily support my family was giving my grandmother had a name — caregiving! The more we talk, the more we learn. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, even with strangers — you’ll be surprised how not-alone you are.
And laugh, whenever you can.
Learn more about the film and where it is playing near you.
Photo Credits: (1) Elizabeth Chomko, (2) Bleeker Street, (3) Bleeker Street