Interview: Elizabeth Chomko and Robert Forster on Coming of Age and Coming Back to Chicago for What They Had

What They Had is about a lot of things, most of which are related to a family’s inability to talk about medical care, but also bigger-picture drama like the inability to please our parents no matter how hard we try and how we sometimes lose our voice and dreams by trying to live up to certain familial expectations. These weighty subjects come courtesy of actor-turned-first-time-writer/director Elizabeth Chomko, who debuted the film at Sundance in January. The Chicago native based a great deal of the story on her own experiences returning home over the years, being a prodigal offspring returning to the place that both shaped her and rejected her.

What They Had

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

Hilary Swank plays mother to a troubled college student (Taissa Farmiga), but her real trial comes when Swank’s Bridget returns to Chicago after a medical scare regarding her mother (Blythe Danner). Her father (Robert Forster) refuses to even acknowledge that his wife is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, while her brother (a very funny Michael Shannon, in full smarmy jerk mode) already has the paperwork ready to put both his parents in quite-nice assisted-living facilities.

I spoke to Chomko and Robert Forster (who is not from Chicago but has a long history in the city, especially as the star of Haskell Wexler’s legendary work Medium Cool), when the pair was in town for the Chicago International Film Festival recently. For reasons not worth explaining, this interview was done in two sittings a few hours apart—the first part included both and the second part was only with Chomko. Please enjoy…

When I saw this the first time at Sundance, I knew nothing about it or your life, but I could tell that it was a very personal story. How much of what we see are things you experienced?

Elizabeth Chomko: I would say it’s a dramatization of the things that happened to my family when we were caregiving for my grandmother who had memory loss due to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s definitely evolved into more of a fictionalized story, but I wanted to capture the spirit of my grandparents and my memory of them.

So in this scenario, you’re more Taissa’s character than Hillary’s?

EC: They’re all me, even Michael’s character has parts of me and what I was working out at the time. But my grandparents are really the inspiration. I tried to capture them on the page as I remembered them and my memory of Chicago, because I grew up here.

I remember you saying during the Sundance Q&A something about trying to capture the “Chicago texture.” What would you say are the most Chicago things about your film?

EC: I wanted that regional specificity, with the light here and the buildings and the fabric of the culture. In the script, there are a lot of things that I remembered when I would come back to my hometown—I left when I was 14—and we would come back every year. And every time you’d come back, there was the reckoning with who you are now and how you’ve changed. There’s nothing like coming home to make you confront that. But in the script, there were a lot of specific things that I remembered, like that drive from O’Hare to the western suburbs or the city. Some of that stuff we shot, but it was such a short shoot, we didn’t have time to get it all.

But also, I wanted the morality that I associate with my family, especially my grandfather and that older, more traditional generation, where you’re loyalty is to family and God and your parish, and you don’t ask questions about that. It’s really that simple, and you just do the right thing. When you change your surroundings by moving to another region, it’s hard to navigate the right thing when there is no answer. Even with the actors in smaller roles, I wanted real and authentic people from the area. And for me, it was a homecoming; I’d always wanted to come back. We were supposed to come back when we left, and we didn’t, so this was a beautiful homecoming for me.

Robert Forster: I was reminded earlier of a line in the film: “Shit or get off the pot.” We said that a lot in Rochester [New York, where Forster is from]. Rochester seems to be close enough to Chicago that people would confuse me about being from Chicago. My first joke in this picture: “Fuck the Camry,” this is way we do things in Chicago. Carrying the culture—fidelity to your parish and your wife and the things you know are important, and that carry and give you boundaries. These are the things that are common to Chicago—simple things, you know who you are. When I read the script, I knew who I was, as quick as a wink. So bringing it to life was not at all hard.

I was lucky enough in the years before he passed to get to know Haskel Wexler.

RF: One of the greats from Chicago.

When you come back, do you get flashbacks to that volatile time in our city’s history and being in the middle of those riots in Medium Cool?

RF: I haven’t been back to Grant Park, but I saw the buildings, the circular buildings with the dangerous-looking parking garage on the river…

Marina Towers, sure.

RF: There are a few shots of them, and whenever I see them, it reminded me of being here. This morning when we drove by it, I remember how scared I was of backing off the edge of the parking garage.

There are several very deep truths in this film, one of which is that we never stop trying to please our parents, even after they die. They are still the voice in our heads. Talk about the struggle that Hilary’s character has fighting and ultimately embracing that truth.

EC: What a great question. Hilary’s character is the most like me in that way. I’m the oldest grandchild, the oldest kid in my family. There is that hero-child thing that I have. I think part of where that came from in the writing was to heal everybody’s grief and to want to find a workaround for it, a workaround for death and denial. I would hold these generational wounds—like my mother’s grief and my grandmother’s grief—and want to fix that. It comes from a weird, psychotic place. In terms of pleasing your parents, that’s something I relate to and I think it’s universal going back to the prodigal son in the bible. I’m glad you picked up on that.

The other truth that is present is that even the closest families have a tough time discussing medical decisions and care or even death. It’s as if talking about how to take care of each other acknowledges that there’s a problem in the first place.

EC: That’s been the biggest surprise and most wonderful exchange with audiences—how many of them are dealing with this right now. “We just went through this, and now my brother and I aren’t speaking.” There’s no way to have these conversations with your parents or siblings, and as a result, we don’t look at it or say “It will be fine.” The denial leads to you being blindsided by it. “Shit, now what are we going to do?” And everybody has an opinion and it’s hard and then you end up spending the last of your time with someone in a place of unrest and conflict and fear.

Robert, what do you remember specifically responding to about your character when you first read Elizabeth’s screenplay?

RF: Honestly, from the very first scene of waking up and realizing that his wife is missing, and then when the children come along and saying “You didn’t need to be here. We’re fine. Everything is alright. Cut it out. I’m in charge. We’re going to Florida; we already have a plan.” Nobody takes over his duties. As far as children and wanting to please them after they’re gone, parents start out wanting to please their children. I’m a father of four; you try to please your children all along the way, and you hope that they’re pleased with whatever you’re doing, with their school, their adulthood. You’re hoping for them that they’re happy and willing and prosperous. When you are in need of their help, you hope that the children are able to care for you in a way that recognizes that you cared for them. This is the human condition, caring for others.

One of the most interesting relationships in the film is between you and Taissa, because it feeds into that belief that the grandparents get it right with their grandkids in a way they didn’t with their own kids.

RF: That generation makes a difference.

[There’s a break at this point, and I continue with Elizabeth later that day]

Another thing I remember coming up at Sundance was this idea that coming-of-age films should be limited to teenage casts. Everyone in this film has some level of growing up to do. Talk about building those characters, and how some of them have to regress in order to build them back up.

EC: When I go home, I always regress to that kid that I was. With my sisters, I’m always the bossy oldest sibling. We’re all that way. We always slip back into those roles, even if we don’t act that way around our peers. With the character of Bridget, in a way, it’s prompting her to look at this and is a catalyst for her to really reckon with something that’s been building in her for a number of years, maybe even since the day she walked down the aisle [to get married]. To me, the confrontation and the breakup was always going to be between Hilary and her dad, not so much between Hilary and Eddie [her husband, played by Josh Lucas]. It was about her telling him the things she probably should have told him when she was 17. I didn’t come of age at 17; I still don’t know anything [laugh].

It’s also not a singular moment in a person’s life.

EC: Totally. You’re always coming of an age. That was what helped me craft the script, the fact that I was thinking about three generations coming of age. What does that look like? What is the difference between their morality, messaging that each generation received, and what generational errors are made over and over, even when you have the best of intentions. You make those errors that your father made that you sore you’d never make, and suddenly you find yourself making them.

Michael’s character Nick is so mean to Bridget, but it’s clearly because he cares so much about this family that it frustrates him that they’re all acting so foolish. He gets the biggest laughs. Was it written that way that he had that attitude, that strange bitterness which translates into laughs so often?

EC: Oh yeah. All of that was on the page, because when I think about where these characters came from, I think Hilary’s character is really mean in a lot of ways, and it’s me reckoning with things about myself that I think a lot of women struggle with. There are things I don’t like about myself, right? That I’m a caretaker, a people pleaser, I have to ask for permission, I have to wonder if I’m likable, all of these things. And Michael is this other voice that’s critical of that. “Why are you making this so hard? Stop lying and be yourself. Stop being a chickenshit.” So that came out of the inner critic in me that tells me not to have a filter. So in many ways, he’s what I aspire to be, in so many ways, because he does have a huge heart, he means well, and he’s right, ultimately. And as a person, Michael has a huge heart, so he wore that beautifully.

When I spoke to Hilary recently, one of the things that she seemed to grab ahold of for Bridget was her struggle, finding her voice, figuring out what she really is, and confronting this loneliness head-on. All of those things seem very important right now in our culture. When you wrote it, were these bigger-picture ideas in place the entire time?

EC: I thought it was very risky writing this role. There was a little bit of pushback—nobody that I worked with was like “What if she stayed?” But there was some from other places, especially because they thought she might be not relatable or unlikable. This is like women that I know, and a lot of women have come up to me and say that they relate to this character. We never see women who make mistake or are perhaps unlikable in movies; it scares people and it makes women feel like there’s something wrong with us, when we do things that are not what we’ve seen. To me, her action was quite heroic. To confront this shortcoming in her life, especially for her daughter, to set the example, and for Eddie, to let him be with someone who wakes up every morning appreciating him the way he deserves to be appreciated. When we have more women telling more stories, you’re going to see stories like this because this is what it’s really fucking like [laughs]. I don’t know how else to put it.

I think that’s how you put it. It’s almost become cliche to say that someone who transitions from acting to directing has a better rapport with their actors. But did you feel like it made a difference?

EC: I think so. Me being an actor, the kind of love you have to have for the character, no matter who they are, you have to find empathy and have a deep understanding of a character to step into them. Me as a director, knowing that about actors, and knowing how great these actors were, allowed me to be “Here you go. Do whatever you feel is right.” And based on what the cast has said, I did that more than some other directors do, because they have such great instincts and I would have been foolish not to use those and take advantage of those. I always knew as an actor, when I was the right choice, that it allowed me to have a confidence to take risks and be free, because the stakes were low and I didn’t have to prove anything. It was important for me to get the right cast, which I did, for those reasons and to let them know “You are perfect. Let’s have fun. Play with each other.”

There was a lot of time between the film playing Sundance and then again at Toronto. When you got back together with your cast, did it feel like a family reunion?

EC: Oh my gosh, yes. We’re like family. We bonded like crazy on that, and every time we’re back together, it’s like there’s a powerful connection. We made this movie with a lot of love, which I say all the time, but I mean it. I wrote it with love and they grabbed it from me and did the same. It’s pretty cool.

Do you have another one in you?

EC: [laughs] If I can get through this press tour. I’d love to do it again; I’d do it better, differently. What an amazing thing to experience, and I learned so much about filmmaking, storytelling, cinema. I can’t wait to apply all the stuff I didn’t know on this to the next one and two and three.

Good luck.

EC: Thank you so much for those questions and for coming back.

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