Memories of Alice, part 1

Wash Westmoreland on working with Julianne Moore on Still Alice.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Still Alice co-director/writer Wash Westmoreland on Julianne Moore:
Still Alice co-director/writer Wash Westmoreland on Julianne Moore: "She has that way of acting that has a mystery to it." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In Still Alice, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland stage an entrancing battle around the power of remembrance, a form of detective story on memory loss, starring Julianne Moore, who gives a mesmerizing performance as a linguistics professor diagnosed at age 50 with a rare form of Alzheimer's disease. Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart and Hunter Parrish play her children, who all weather the storm in their own way. Alec Baldwin, as her husband, wants to flee and stay, he fell in love with her mind and can't bear to see it go.

Julianne Moore as Alice:
Julianne Moore as Alice: "Alice is terrified of her deterioration but tries to act as normal as possible. She is spinning a lot of plates."

Rita Hayworth's legacy, Errol Flynn in The Last of Robin Hood, James Keach's Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me, a Lyle Lovett song into a Karen Elson rendition, costume designer Stacey Battat's attention to detail, The Time Of The Harvest, Elizabeth Bishop's poetry and Bruno Barreto's Reaching For The Moon, populated our conversation at the Koi restaurant lounge in the Trump SoHo Hotel.

Wash explained that the recently Oscar nominated Julianne Moore is not a Method actor when it came to her portrayal of Alice. How Harvard in the novel by Lisa Genova transformed into Columbia, identifying with memory slips, recognising gender and the role mirroring plays for Alice as she goes through the looking glass were recalled.

"I shouldn't have had champagne," Alice lies because of a lapse during a lecture. Anybody who has ever been at a sudden loss for words in public, knows the panic. With the greatest precision one is invited to register the tiniest detail on Moore's alabaster face. With the flutter of an eyelash, a pause imperceptibly lengthened, a duck not recognised as a duck, we cross with her into lands where toddler flash cards become life preservers and certainties of any kind readily float away. How does it feel to talk to your future self who will not remember you?

Alice with Kristen Stewart as Lydia:
Alice with Kristen Stewart as Lydia: "People adopt mannerisms or speech patterns of the people they are with."

Anne-Katrin Titze: First of all, how is Richard?

Wash Westmoreland: He is doing great. I mean, it's a difficult time with his illness but he deals with it all very well. And the fact that the movie is doing so well buoys him up. We call it hit-movie therapy! He is in a good mood and it's having a beneficial effect.

AKT: Send my love to him in LA. We spoke last summer in the same place we are in now.

WW: Oh yes, right, about The Last of Robin Hood.

AKT: If I got this correctly, the first line in Still Alice is "Okay, happy birthday, Mom!"

WW: Jumping into life.

AKT: You are starting with the word "Okay".

WW [laughs]: It's about as everyday as it gets. We wanted to start with Alice [Moore] in the most identifiable, normal family situation - her birthday. And there's one empty chair at the table for the daughter Lydia [Kristen Stewart] who is away on the other coast and becomes very significant in the story. And we wanted to start with a fairly long shot on Alice - looking at her before you see the other people around her. It seemed like a very nice moment, turning 50, her family all around her.

 Alice's birthday:
Alice's birthday: "And there's one empty chair at the table for the daughter Lydia…"

AKT: The unpredictability of life.

WW: Yeah. She makes a tiny little slip, getting the wrong gist of a conversation. And I think a lot of people go, "oh, I do that from time to time." A little misunderstanding, momentarily, which is obviously leading to something much more major.

AKT: You give the audience these moments of forgetfulness that everybody knows. And this is when the fear kicks in. I was telling my storytelling students at a lecture earlier today that I was going to meet with you and I explained to them that Julianne Moore had just won for Best Actress and I couldn't remember the "Golden Globes".

WW: I think a lot of people identify with those little memory slips. When we were working in production on Still Alice, anytime anyone had a memory slip, they just got a free pass. That's the approach I still have. I do always test myself to remember things rather than look it up on my phone now, but that's just a personal challenge to myself. What the movie is talking about - the idea of losing memory and losing ability to articulate is one of the most terrifying things that we face as human beings.

AKT: How did Julianne herself react, taking this role? Did it affect her personally?

Alice at Columbia University:
Alice at Columbia University: "It worked so beautifully for that sequence of disorientation."

WW: She welcomed the role without any trepidation. She loved going on this journey with this woman from someone who is an international linguist to someone who is really almost without words but still a person. She has that way of acting that has a mystery to it. She does draw lines between her work and her life and somehow that makes her work more intense.

AKT: What do you mean by drawing lines?

WW: She is not a Method actress. She doesn't come on set to do a very depressing scene with that atmosphere around her as a person - which some actors do.

AKT: Clear boundaries between life and art?

WW: Yeah, when the camera is rolling, no one is more serious or more focused than Julianne. And when the camera is not rolling, she doesn't carry the mood of that scene to the craft service table. She is there chatting with the crew and a pleasure to be around. It's a mystery how her acting works.

AKT: You can't take your eyes off her in Still Alice. We are with her all the way.

WW: A lot of times in the film we cut from Julianne to Julianne. You know, we just go from Alice at the Christmas table, to Alice is cooking, Alice is in the bedroom. We really just cut from Alice's face to Alice's face fairly consistently throughout the movie. When we don't, it's to create a sense of a chapter.

AKT: The name Alice, is from the novel. Of course, there is that other dimension - Alzheimer's as Wonderland?

WW: I never actually thought of that! I don't know if it's quite that hallucinogenic as Alice in Wonderland - at all. The name itself, Still Alice, is from the novel by Lisa Genova and it has become a book that is very beloved by millions of people all over the world. There was never a question of changing Alice's name. We did change the city it is placed in. The book is set in Boston and she is an academic at Harvard University. For reasons of production it was necessary to move it to New York. Richard and I jumped at the chance to make our first New York movie.

Alice's butterfly necklace:
Alice's butterfly necklace: "Something is changing within her."

AKT: Columbia University is perfect. I used to have an office looking down at the quad where she forgets where she is at.

WW: It worked so beautifully for that sequence of disorientation. We only had one morning there. It was the perfect weather - it was a very low cloud, almost a fog which worked perfectly for that shot.

AKT: Staying at Columbia a little longer, I very much liked the scene with the department chair who confronts her about the student evaluations. There is some smugness in his demeanor and then, when he finds out, a complete turn.

WW: Daniel Gerroll [as Eric Wellman] had a very short time to define that character. We wanted someone who was sympathetic and had known Alice for a long time, respected her as that great teacher but ultimately was responsible to the department and the parents who are sending their kids to Columbia.

AKT: Another aspect that works by implication are the scenes at Pinkberry. Did they sponsor you?

John (Alec Baldwin) with Alice:
John (Alec Baldwin) with Alice: "He wants her to be more presentable, more like the wife he was proud of."

WW: In the book it was an ice cream parlor. We passed a Pinkberry and were attracted by the really distinctive design and bright colors and modernist look. We approached Pinkberry and they were very open to it. They let us shoot there and gave all the crew free Pinkberry. On one freezing cold morning in New York! We were all the same temperature as the frozen yoghurt we were eating.

AKT: What is so shocking about these scenes is the fact that something so basic as remembrance of taste, a favorite flavour, can be affected and lost.

WW: Alice copies her husband. He orders one flavour and she copies his order.

AKT: Hazelnut instead of the Original [coconut and blueberry toppings - how do I remember?] she always got.

WW: There's a lot of mirroring in later stages of Alzheimer's. People adopt mannerisms or speech patterns of the people they are with. Julie worked a lot with that in the final scene with Lydia [her daughter].

Still Alice US poster
Still Alice US poster

AKT: People are hiding what they don't know. With the illness, there is a parallel. When we are confused we might mirror another.

WW: Sure, you copy someone who is doing it right.

AKT: If you aren't familiar with a certain cuisine you might go with someone who knows.

WW: I'll have what you're having. I do think it's interesting that covering is a huge part of the way the character works as well. Alice is terrified of her deterioration but tries to act as normal as possible. Early on, the audience knows what's going on and her family doesn't. She is spinning a lot of plates. That coping thing really, I think invests you as an audience member in her character.

AKT: And that goes beyond Alzheimer's. It's so universal.

WW: Especially English people - we go through the whole social interaction around preventing embarrassment for other people.

In part 2, Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me, the Rita Hayworth annual Alzheimer's Association Gala, Proust, costumes, Alec Baldwin's character, Lyle Lovett's If I Had a Boat, fame for Errol Flynn, The Time Of The Harvest, Elizabeth Bishop and Bruno Barreto's Reaching For The Moon.

Still Alice is in theaters in the US and will be screened at the Glasgow Film Festival on February 21 before opening in the UK on March 6.

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