Filmmaking poses considerable hurdles without having the added obstacle of coping with the debilitating effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
For director Richard Glatzer, the frightening diagnosis didn’t present a barrier but a challenge.
In early 2011, a neurologist diagnosed the award-winning American filmmaker with the disease after he noticed he was slurring his speech. The following months found Glatzer and his filmmaking partner and spouse Wash Westmoreland trying to come to terms with the physical and emotional repercussions of it.
Later that year, they were contacted by British-Australian producers Lex Lutzus and James Brown, who asked them to take a look at a novel called “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova. The book told the story of a brilliant woman in the prime of her life who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Initially, the idea of adapting the book into a film seemed too close to home, but Glatzer and Westmoreland found themselves sucked right into it.
“It’s a compelling story, made emotionally accessibly by Lisa Genova’s forthright, honest writing,” Westmoreland said.
Though Alzheimer’s and ALS are very different diseases — Alzheimer’s attacks cognitive functions, initially leaving the body unscathed, whereas with ALS, the intellect stays intact while the patient suffers the loss of motor skills and speech. They do, however, have some similarities — they are both terminal, incurable and have the effect of isolating the patient from the rest of the world. Glatzer and Westmoreland, who previously directed the acclaimed 2007 film “Quinceanera,” and 2014’s “The Last of Robin Hood,” weren’t going to allow that to happen as they pushed ahead with adapting the book into a screenplay and then making the film.
“In a way, working on ‘Still Alice’ helped us to work through a lot of things that were happening in our lives, and so just making the movie and feeling this sort of family feeling and support for what Richard was going through meant the world to us,” Westmoreland said.
They compiled a top-notch cast including Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart (of “Twilight” fame) Alec Baldwin and Kate Bosworth. Moore plays the title character, a respected university professor who finds herself suffering acute memory loss. Although Alice has just turned 50, she is soon diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.
When it was time to cast the film, Glatzer already had lost his ability to speak. He typed his questions to his actors into his iPad, using a speech-to-text app. In his first meeting with Stewart, he asked her if she had seen the 1953 Japanese classic “Tokyo Story,” about the relationship between an elderly couple and their adult children. She hadn’t, but promised she would before production commenced. When it came to casting the title character, Wash asked his partner whom he had in mind. Glatzer typed: “Julianne Moore.”
He made the perfect choice. On Sunday, Moore won a Golden Globe for best actress in a drama for her role in “Still Alice.” Today, she received an Oscar nomination for best actress.
“We sent a message to her about the project and she read the book even before the script arrived,” Westmoreland recalled. “A day or so later, we were on Skype. Within seconds she said, ‘I’m in.’”
Production got under way in New York in late 2013. By then, Glatzer was unable to feed or dress himself and could type on his tablet device only at certain angles with one finger. Undaunted, he was on set every day, directing the movie, despite incredibly physical limitations. His determination inspired the cast and crew and gave them a sense of greater purpose.
“It was a tough time,” admitted Westmoreland, who hails from England. “When I left L.A. to go to do pre-production (in New York), Glatzer had stopped driving his car. When he arrived in New York, he'd lost the ability to use his arms or hands, and he was typing with two fingers.”
At a recent press day, Glatzer, who was in a wheelchair equipped with his trusty talking iPad explained how he worked with his cast and crew, and how he refused to let the disease get the best of him while making “Still Alice.”
He calls Stewart, who plays Moore’s youngest daughter in the film, “a force of nature.”
“I would say being with her is like working with (Marlon) Brando,” he said, through the machine’s text-to-voice speaker. “She’s compassionate and resolutely truthful. She doubts herself constantly and is the last person to recognize how great she really is. Maybe that’s the key to her genius.”
With his sense of humor obviously intact, Glatzer called making a film while being unable to speak “interesting.”
“You have to choose your words carefully and often bite your tongue — figuratively and literally,” he said. “I have to always gauge whether a comment is worth interrupting the speed of production. How lucky for me to have Wash on the front lines.”
“That being said, Richard was very fast,” chimed in Moore, sitting a few feet away from her director.
Looking at him, she added, “You may have perceived yourself as being slow, but that’s not what we experienced. You were like Quick-Draw McGraw on the iPad.”
She recalled rehearsing a scene where her character is lying on a couch and her family is talking about what they are going to do about her long-term care.
“The original line was, ‘What’s for dinner?’” she remembered. “It just seemed weird. It seemed funny, and we thought, ‘This is going to get a laugh (and) we don’t want to get a laugh.”
As everyone considered the problem, Glatzer began typing, “It’s hot in here.” And everyone agreed that his new line was the way to go.
“What was interesting for us, just as a company — this is a tiny movie made for $4 million in a really cold month in March with no heat and then we’re dealing with this really crazy degenerative disease — was that they were there every day and they were prepared every day and you’d think that they didn’t have anything on their mind but making this movie,” Moore said.
“I was just really struck and moved and inspired by their work, by their work ethic and by the fact that they demonstrated in real life what is important to you, what do you pursue and how do you pursue it in an important way? That’s kind of what this movie’s about — what are the lives we lead? What do we care about? What do we want to say? Who do we want to be? Who do we want to be with? For us, as actors and artists in the presence of this, this was truly inspiring and a great gift.”
Added Stewart, “If anything, you see a truer side of somebody who is so stripped and showing only their bare bones. There’s no affectation, there’s no pretense. You can almost see a version that is clearer.”
Westmoreland said he and Glatzer are already thinking ahead to their next project.
“We’ve worked together now for over 15 years and this experience of ours is just so tremendous that we’re going to enjoy the process of putting ‘Still Alice’ out in the world,” he said. “We feel very lucky to have been able to make this film. Of course, we have several ideas for other movies, as all filmmakers do. We just want to keep working as long as we can.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Julianne Moore received an Oscar nomination for best actress today.
Top photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics