In Still Alicewriter/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's beautiful, intelligent adaptation of Lisa Genova's novelAlice ( 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 thingsbe it a word, a name, or a dinner engagementand 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 and body language as she grapples with her condition, are absolutely heartbreaking.
In an email exchange, Westmoreland responded to questions about Still Alice.
Windy City times: 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 [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis]. The life expectancy for this is between 18 months and four 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 afterwe just live day by day. Adapting Still Alice helped us work through some of our own issuesboth 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.
WCT: 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?
WW: We are always primarily driven by story and have projects on our docket with gay, straight, male and female protagonists. There is great traditionfrom [George] Cukor to [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder to Todd Haynesof 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.
WCT: 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?
WW: 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'sthe 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.
WCT: Every sceneAlice speaking, cooking or runningis [fraught] 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?
WW: 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 somethingwhether it is giving a lecture, visiting the doctor or cooking Christmas dinnerthe 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.
WCT: There are powerful themes of shame, security, struggle and suffering reverberated throughout the film. Can you discuss that?
WW: 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
WCT: How did you work with Julianne Moore on the role?
WW: 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 researchin terms of visiting support groups and making friends in the Alzheimer's communityto make sure everything she did was 100-percent real. This took away our main feara phony noteand created something that was authentic and relevant.
WCT: How did you adapt the novel?
WW: We knew the story was an intense emotional ride but wanted to avoid overplaying it. We took a restrained approachlargely inspired by Ozu's Tokyo Storyso 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 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!
©2015 Gary M. Kramer