As the Alzheimer’s drama ‘Still Alice’ garners acclaim, its makers, gay couple Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, deal with their own health tragedy
Partners in life and filmmaking, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland may have bestowed Julianne Moore with a role that could finally net her an Oscar. Adapted from Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name, Still Alice stars Moore as Alice Howland, a Columbia University linguistics professor stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. While her husband John (Alec Baldwin) and three grown children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish) rally in support, Alice struggles with losing everything that defines her.
It’s a powerful, moving, suspenseful, humane tale, and more than a bit personal for Glatzer and Westmoreland: In 2011, Glatzer was diagnosed with A.L.S., which has since progressed to the point where he’s relegated to a wheelchair, uses a feeding tube and communicates via typing with a toe on his iPad. The couple has been uplifted by the awards buzz — and the A.L.S. Ice Bucket Challenge videos by Moore and Stewart, among others — and they maintain a sense of humor and optimism. Regarding the feeding tube, Glatzer quips, “Food is so blasé.”
Based in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood, the setting for their breakout 2006 Sundance Film Festival award-winner Quinceañera, the couple first collaborated on 2001’s The Fluffer, a drama set in the gay porn industry (Westmoreland directed several X-rated gay porn films previous to that). They executive produced 2008’s Dustin Lance Black-scribed Pedro Zamora biopic, Pedro, while 2014 also saw release of their under-the-radar Errol Flynn biopic, The Last of Robin Hood, starring Susan Sarandon and Kevin Kline.
In this interview, the U.K.-born Westmoreland — with New York-reared Glatzer nearby and chiming in — discusses Still Alice, A.L.S. and the possibility of hitting the red carpet this winter.
— Lawrence W. Ferber
Still Alice is now playing in limited release in New York and Los Angeles. It is scheduled to open in North Texas in January.
Dallas Voice: What compelled you to take on Still Alice? Wash Westmoreland: It came to us at a very pertinent time. Richard had the first indications of A.L.S. in 2011, and we were dealing with a lot of medical stuff. We were approached to adapt the novel in late 2011, and at first it was like so many of its situations were similar to what he was going through — not just in terms of the neurological examinations Alice has at the beginning, but also the barriers the disease puts between you and the world. As we got more and more into it, we thought, “This is why we should be doing this movie right now,” and its such a beautiful story and brings hope into a dark, difficult place, which we needed as well.
What were the biggest changes made to Still Alice in translating it from a novel to a screenplay and film? One of the most obvious changes was she’s in Boston and a Harvard professor in the book, and we shifted it to New York and made her a Columbia professor. It made a lot more sense to shoot there. There were certain storylines we would have loved to include, but it would have made it a miniseries. When you’re adapting a book, its like you have nine puppies and can only keep five. [In the book] Alice forms a support group, there’s a Ph.D. student she was very close to … these were things we had to make hard decisions to not include to focus on her family. We had to distill what would be the true essence of the film for the big screen.
What was the atmosphere like on set? It was cold! The house we were in didn’t have any heating, so in between takes we were all putting on coats and drinking warm broth. But as far as how everyone got on, it was very warm. Alec and Julianne are old friends. The scenes were so heavy, you needed, in between, to have some kind of break. Kristen is a wonderful, down to earth person to work with and you almost forget there are 50 paparazzi camped outside for her. The whole crew bonded. Seeing Richard on set every day typing with one finger, determined to be part of this enterprise, sort of brought this special feeling to the set. Also the fact Julianne was giving such a magnificent performance just radiated out, so even the guys on the grip truck outside knew something important was happening on this film.
Alec recently executive produced Compared To What, a documentary about openly gay former congressman Barney Frank. How was working with him? He was terrific. It’s great to see him doing something like this. Before the movie, he wrote that he’s always being offered big comic characters or heavies, and its nice to play a normal guy in love with his wife who can’t bear to see her disappearing.
What is your creative process as husbands like? Are there many disagreements? Well, we disagree about everything and we resolve it. When we write, we are completely honest with each other, so neither of us has to wear kid gloves to express what we think about what the other person is thinking. Hopefully, by being pretty raw and honest in the writing stage, by the time we get to the directing stage, we’re on the same page and have hashed out all our differences.
How do you both feel about all the Oscar buzz for Julianne’s performance? It’s just unbelievable. When we went into the Toronto International Film Festival to premiere the film in September, it was very under the radar. We had a Monday afternoon screening and the response was so tremendous — standing ovations, huge emotional connection. Then Sony Classics picked us up and the “O” word started being used and it just exploded. I’ve never seen anything like it. This great love for Julianne that’s built up over her whole career, that’s focusing in on this moment, and it’s bringing so much buzz to the movie. It’s a filmmaker’s dream. Very exciting. Richard is convalescing after a New York hospitalization and I’d say he’s on hit movie therapy. It’s a huge uplift and shot in the arm.
Stephen Hawking, who lives with A.L.S. and is in his 70s now, is subject of biopic The Theory of Everything, which is also getting serious Oscar buzz. We just saw it, and it was very good. I shouldn’t say this, but I hope we run into him on a red carpet … but that would be counting our chickens before they hatch.
Is there an organization or specific person working on a promising outside-the-box treatment or cure for A.L.S. that people can donate to or otherwise help support? There are loads of people working on all kinds of promising treatments. What’s happening right now is, there’s a sense there could be a huge breakthrough. In the ’90s, there were a handful of people working on A.L.S.; now there are hundreds and the money raised from the ice bucket challenges could be decisive in actually finding a breakthrough. We feel like we just have to hang on. You saw the example of how people living with HIV in the 1990s, were allowed a second lease on life with the advent of the drug cocktails. We think of that in relation to A.L.S. Possibly within years, there could be a similar moment. That keeps us going. That’s hope.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 19, 2014