The Absurdity of Life: Elizabeth Chomko and Robert Forster on What They Had

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Playwright and actress Elizabeth Chomko makes her writer/director debut with a story that comes directly from her past—a poignant look back at the challenges her family faced when her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Blythe Danner plays Ruth, the sweet matriarch whose memory is starting to fade while her daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank), son Nick (Michael Shannon) and granddaughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) try to convince the romantic, stubborn Chicago patriarch Burt (Robert Forster) to put her in a care-giving home. Their strategizing to simply show Burt brochures about care-giving, or to accept that Ruth needs professional help, makes for a lot of tension in the household, along with numerous heartfelt conversations about the sacrifice in taking care of someone else. With some unsurprising big laughs and a pristine heart, “What They Had” is further grounded by its narrative’s focus on everyone else’s current life stresses, while showing the importance of sticking together as a family. 

A project like this is all about casting, and a key of part of this filmic group is Robert Forster, who has 186 IMDb credits to his name and has been acting since 1967. While he might be most known for roles in “Jackie Brown” and “Mulholland Drive,” his work here parallels his underrated performance in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” as a forceful yet tender patriarch. 

The morning after “What They Had” was presented at the Chicago International Film Festival, I sat down with Chomko and Forster to discuss making the film, the way they created a family on set, following their instincts on such a personal story and more. But before the three of us started talking, Forster and I got a head-start:

Are you a morning person? 

ROBERT FORSTER: Oh, when you have to be. When you got a job you up and go, whatever it is, you do it. 

No stipulations, like, “I can’t be awake at that time”?

RF: I’m waiting to get big enough to be able to say, hey, look. I need a nap. I’d like to have a mid-morning nap? And off by 4 o’clock. Boy, that’s going to be good. I can’t wait. [laughs] 

How long does it take you to memorize your lines? 

RF: You don’t memorize them, exactly. But you must know them so well that they can come out of your mouth the way that thoughts come out of your mouth. Not lines. You are not saying lines one at a time, you have an idea that must be expressed and you work on those words until you can express that without fail, or close to that. You don’t ever get good enough until you hit the set and really talk to the other actor. That’s when you really refine what needs to be done. But I remind actors that’s one of the golden rules. 

Elizabeth Chomko comes in: 

What can you tell us about the inspiration behind Robert’s character? 

ELIZABETH CHOMKO: He’s very much based on my grandfather, who I adored. Adored. And lost him before I was ready. And so, he was a big presence in our lives, my whole family’s lives. He was really quite a … he was a very loving, generous patriarch, and had very clear sense of who he was and what morality, and what you do. He was just a really amazing man, and watching him care-give for my grandmother and her Alzheimer’s, just the … it was just so cool to watch him take on duties that, you know, that I never had imagined him doing, and how committed he was to her. It really was inspired by him. And so I always saw so much of Robert in my grandfather. It was perfect casting, I thought. 

RF: And for the actor’s part, you don’t live the guy’s whole life, you live the specific moments that the film writer has given you to live. They’re on paper, so it’s not like you’re guessing, and you take those and you start talking about shot-making. And only a few a day. And you take those little tiny moments, and you try to recreate them using who you are. 

That is one of the basic things that actors all know, that the character has to be somebody that they create, bring the character to life using who you are. And that’s why it’s come up occasionally in conversation how a different actor would make a very different. But when you get done with a picture and you see the picture, it’s very hard to imagine someone else in that role. I do that, I have had shots at jobs and though about them, and when I saw the guy who actually did it, I said, “Boy, I couldn’t have done that. It’s perfect.” But there are so many things that come in the process of growth and understanding. 

EC: I think casting, you’ve said this and you’re exactly right, that casting is a huge part of the gig. If you get that right, the rest is, relatively smooth sailing, it makes it very easy. It just makes it easy and you don’t have to really do much. And I felt like the whole cast was so perfectly perfect for their roles. I was just like, “Go with God, play, run with this, whatever feels right in your instincts.” That’s what I most wanted to cultivate and celebrate and encourage. It made it a lot easier, I think. 

RF: Well, John Huston said, and this was early in my career, I heard him say it and I saw it written down somewhere: “Casting is 90%.” By that, I assume he meant that once you got the right cast … but when you say give us a right to play, you say that but when I say it to people, I remind them that you gave your cast the right to feel that everything they were saying were their own. It’s an art form for a director to give his or her actors the feeling that they are they author of her own words, but they’re hers. It’s right there on the page. 

Writer/director Elizabeth Chomko – Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images North America

They became yours, was there a lot of change to the script when working on set? 

RF: I would say no, there’s almost no change. There’s little heads and tails of scenes, if a scene is this long, we start a line or two in front of it and do a line or two later. That’s, but the scene was this. and all the scenes were written, were yours. 

EC: There wasn’t a lot of change, but I did encourage a looseness. And I kind of written it with that in mind, trying to capture looseness on the page. More just to inspire and some of that really worked out. Like Michael’s cadence really fit how I had written [Nicky]. But I just wanted everyone to feel relaxed, natural and comfortable. And they did, the heads and the tails, I just love letting the camera keep going. But again, this casting and how amazing these performers are, that’s gold to just let the camera roll and to see where things take them. That’s some of my favorite stuff in the film was just them playing in the sandbox with who they really were. 

I feel like that’s where some of the humor comes from, like Michael eating food with his hands. There’s really good comedy here. Was the comedy in the script? 

EC: I would say it was both. 

RF: My first joke, I knew it was coming. I didn’t do it until the last day, but my first joke was “Fuck the Camry.” She asks me, “Where’s the Camry?” and I’m old, fuck it. 

EC: [laughs] I think I had wanted that kind of comedy. I think Michael eating with his hands, or when he comes home and she’s in the blouse, “Dad just got it dry-cleaned.” But the way he ate, god he was so committed to the corn beef that day. We did so many takes of that, honestly because I just could not believe, that’s one of my favorite scenes and I couldn’t believe how great they were. That’s one where I let the camera go, and every take, the improv they were doing after, it was so hard in the editing room to pick which one to include. So I think that the tone was there, but then they embraced it and developed little funny bits further and took, it just kind of unfolded. But that was so important to me, to capture the humor, because that’s what I grew up with and that’s how we coped with my grandmother’s illness which surprised the hell out of me. I thought we were all going to be solemn and sad, and it really was way funnier, in a way. What else can you do? Just the absurdity of life, right? 

Is it a tough balance when making so personal that you also just want to be a good story? How much is simply about gut instinct?

EC: I think that was a challenge for me on set, sometimes, wanting to do the best by the story always. Always. That was always the goal, and you know it’s definitely a dramatization from the actual events and the actual people, it’s a movie and it’s fiction. But you know, especially with the disease aspects and the caregiving aspects, I was taking such a specific inspiration from my family and I wanted to not screw that up and I wanted to get that right. Sometimes I would lean more into that, how I remembered it. I think we did a number of different takes sometimes, so that we had the option to craft it in the editing room. I wanted to really listen to their instincts as well. Most of the time, I think they almost all the time their instincts were right. We would, I would say let’s get this just to have it, and then it would be, oh, of course. They were right. 

RF: And also, and going up the escalator yesterday, you said, you can create an arc in the editing room, I’m sure there’s an awful lot created in the editing room. But in general, the actor, I at least have a pretty good idea of what I think that material is like. It’s like connecting the dots, they aren’t all in a row, but you know they create something that you know where you’re going. There’s a certain instinct to it. 

I imagine you had a pretty tight shooting schedule. 

RF: Very tight. 

EC: 22 days. 

I’m always amazed at how fast indie movies are shot. So, was there a lot of time for actors to rehearse, or did the chemistry happen on camera? 

RF: Actors do what actors do, they show up on the first day and assume intimacy. 

EC: Which they did so amazingly. The first day, I was like, “Oh my god, I’m looking at a family.” I’m so proud of that, how much you guys feel like family. It’s so amazing to me. 

RF: All in the script, though. 

What a compliment! 

EC: He’s very generous. 

RF: It’s very true. Read it! They send scripts, you can read it and say to yourself, “Wow, that was written exactly that way.” And little tiny nothings that you saw in the movie, you could not have known that that didn’t happen spontaneously, but it was there. They were just as it was meant to be. We had a dinner—

EC: I don’t even think we got through the whole script, but we did have this table read.

The footage at the end, is that your grandparents? Or a mix of the actors? 

EC: Yes. Most of it is by my dad’s dad, who was a really amateur documentarian who had beautiful footage of his family that I thought was a treasure and wanted to use. And then I did a little supplementary shoot with a Super 8 camera that kind of fit the narrative. And then there’s some personal photos of the cast, my family. I hate it when you watch movies and there are pictures that were taken yesterday. 

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