One of the many powerful films screening at AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi is STILL ALICE, a drama co-directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer. The film, based on the novel by Lisa Genova, stars Julianne Moore as prominent linguistics professor Alice Howland, whose life takes a devastating, unexpected turn when she’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Rather than fall into despair, Alice fights back, using her brilliant mind to devise ways of maximizing her gradually depleting memory, and contributing to the struggle against the illness. Meanwhile, her relationship with her immediate family (played by Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish) begins to shift in surprising ways.
AFI talked with Westmoreland about the film.
AFI: Julianne Moore’s performance in this film is so powerful. How did she prepare for the role?
WW: Julianne was tireless in her research for this role. She started attending Alzheimer’s support groups, talking to social workers, medical experts, research scientists. She even went through the tests for early-onset diagnosis as a patient would. Through the Alzheimer’s Association, she was able to get to know many people living with younger-onset Alzheimer’s, forming a close bond with a woman called Sandy Oltz who developed the disease at age 46 and described STILL ALICE as “the story of my life.” Julianne also visited people in more advanced stages. She didn’t want to do anything in the performance that was phony or didn’t ring true. Her commitment to the role was absolute.
AFI: Alice is a linguistics professor, and language is important in the film, particularly in how Alice must learn to navigate it once the Alzheimer’s symptoms really set in. We see her grappling with spoken words, written words and recorded words. How did this play into your adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel?
WW: Losing language is an incredibly heartbreaking and frustrating process. We heard of many different ways that Alzheimer’s patients handle this – ranging from wanting to know everything about the progress of the disease to not even wanting to use the word “Alzheimer’s” in relation to themselves. One of the brilliant things about Lisa’s book is that it looks at a woman who is a psychology professor and whose whole world revolves around the study of language. She is acutely aware of how language affects cognition and how the disease is affecting her and is going to affect her. When we were adapting the book, we highlighted language as a kind of index of how far the disease has progressed – from Alice’s early games of “Words with Friends” with her daughter, to self-administered memory tests, to her use of a highlighter pen to read, to her struggles to express herself when she can no longer find the right words.
AFI: You’ve mentioned in interviews your admiration for French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, and in this film you got to work with one of Assayas’ cinematographers, Denis Lenoir. Can you talk about how you worked with Lenoir to communicate Alice’s depleting memory through visuals?
WW: One of the great things about screening STILL ALICE at the Egyptian Theatre is that this is the place where we first saw Denis Lenoir’s work. It was a screening of Assayas’ L’EAU FROIDE – I think around 1999. We were so blown away by the cinematography, including the legendary party sequence, that we approached him afterwards and said, quite boldly, that we wanted to work with him. We met up soon after that and became friends. One of our key visual concepts with Alice is to use the camera subjectively, so the audience starts to see the world through her eyes. Denis has perfected a gracious and instinctive verité style that is perfect for this – it feels like the camera breathes with her. We also figured out ways to show how the disease affects her perception, using limited depth of field in the moments when Alice is struggling, and seems to work very effectively. Denis is a true artist and it was a great pleasure to work with him.
AFI: Do either of you have experience in supporting friends or family with Alzheimer’s, or was there some other personal connection to this material?
WW: Neither of us have family members with Alzheimer’s disease, although many of our close friends do. When we were first approached to adapt the book in late 2011, we realized what a tremendous responsibility it was to take it on and, initially, we had some reservations because of our own personal circumstances. Early in the year, Richard had developed the first signs of ALS in the form of slurred speech. We had been dealing with neurologists all year and many of the early memory tests Alice is given in the book were exactly the same as the ones Richard had been doing when it was suspected he may have undergone a stroke. Although Alzheimer’s and ALS are very different diseases, we found many parallels with what Alice is going through – both in the barriers a disease can create and in the struggle to stay connected to the world despite them. The book also taught us something about care-giving. It really values the life choice of looking after someone. We think this is a hugely important issue that America needs to face right now.
AFI: You assembled such a strong supporting cast around Moore. Can you talk about how Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish came to the production? Were any of them hesitant to take on such emotionally challenging roles?
WW: Everyone graduated to it magically! Kristen’s agents reached out to us and asked if we’d be interested in her for the role. That was a happy day. We’ve long been fans of her work and said that we would love to meet her. Kate Bosworth is currently caring for her grandmother, who is living with dementia, and she had inquired after the rights for the book. So we all met up and found we really clicked. Alec Baldwin’s role was the last role to fill. We went through a long list of names with Julianne, as we wanted someone she would feel comfortable with. When we came to the end she said, “I could text Alec Baldwin.” We were like, “Yes!” They had worked together on 30 ROCK and were eager to do another project together. We thought it would be such an interesting change of pace for Alec, and that the role would reveal a side of him that audiences hadn’t really seen before. So then we just had to find Hunter Parrish in New York to complete our family. And act like a family they did – getting close and supporting each other through the difficult scenes. None of them were afraid of the emotional challenge though. That is what actors live for.