Memories of Alice, part 2

More from Wash Westmoreland, reflecting on Alzheimer's disease and Still Alice.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Julianne Moore as Alice in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's candid Still Alice:
Julianne Moore as Alice in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's candid Still Alice: "She welcomed the role without any trepidation."

Alec Baldwin's character, Julianne Moore's connection to Robert Altman's Short Cuts and Lyle Lovett's If I Had A Boat sung by Karen Elson, fame for Errol Flynn in The Last of Robin Hood, starring Kevin Kline, Dakota Fanning and Susan Sarandon are remembered. James Keach's Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me, The Time of the Harvest, Elizabeth Bishop and Bruno Barreto's Reaching For The Moon, Rita Hayworth, Marcel Proust, and Stacey Battat's costumes come into our conversation about Still Alice. Alice's children are played by Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish and Kristen Stewart.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You quote Elizabeth Bishop's The Art Of Losing. It's beautifully used by Alice.

Kristen Stewart as Lydia:
Kristen Stewart as Lydia: "Lydia is away on the other coast and becomes very significant in the story."

Wash Westmoreland: That's really poignant. That's a line that Richard found. You know, Richard is a huge Elizabeth Bishop fan and he is living with ALS. We found a real poignancy in that poem One Art. It gave the speech some other poetry it needed as emotional resonance.

AKT: Have you seen Reaching for the Moon, Bruno Barreto's film on Elizabeth Bishop?

WW: No, I haven't.

AKT: This poem is central to the genesis of the film, Bruno told me. Have you seen the Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me documentary?

WW: I am dying to see it.

AKT: I moderated the discussion after an invited screening in New York with Campbell's wife and daughter and the director, James Keach. It was so interesting to hear how individualised the disease functions. Everybody has a different progression.

Alice with John (Alec Baldwin):
Alice with John (Alec Baldwin): "Something about the situation he just can't deal with."

WW: Everyone has a different manifestation of the disease. I'm a huge fan of Glen Campbell and Richard and I went to see him on his final tour. He played the songs perfectly and the guitar solos. In between was where you could see that the family had to help. His son and his daughter had to help him stay focused on what they were doing next. It was very moving.

I think in terms of Alzheimer's awareness, progress has been made, but it needs to happen faster. Great resources need to be committed to dealing with the medical implications of the disease and also dealing with the social implications.

AKT: Over the holidays, I was watching Rita Hayworth movies, Tonight and Every Night and Separate Tables. I had forgotten that she died of Alzheimer's many years ago.

WW: They have a Rita Hayworth Memorial Lunch every year to honor her, sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association.

Alice with Anna (Kate Bosworth):
Alice with Anna (Kate Bosworth): "She makes a tiny little slip, getting the wrong gist of a conversation."

AKT: Speaking of differences in manifestation - one part that seems to go very late is gender. Someone might be confused if the man across from them is their brother, their father, or their son, but still recognise them as a beloved person who is male. Did you ever hear of a case where gender went early?

WW: That's interesting. No. I heard a lot of younger relatives being mistaken for older relatives but in the same gender. A very close friend of mine, whose mother has final stage Alzheimer's … She would confuse him for his father and would relate to him as she would relate to his father, which was very traumatising for him. But I've never seen that cross gender line. Maybe it's one of the first things you learn and one of the last things you forget.

AKT: Proust tells us that places don't exist out of time and we can really only revisit them in our memory.

WW: That's why you got to have your madeleine every morning.

Kristen Stewart with Julianne Moore:
Kristen Stewart with Julianne Moore: "Julie worked a lot with that in the final scene with Lydia."

AKT: I liked your use of costume to tell of this family in Still Alice. The beige sweater gifted at the start from the children comes back and is not forgotten. We learn that she was honest, it was true, she liked it. The other incident is when she puts on the butterfly necklace and that striped top that makes her almost look like a child.

WW: That's the first time you see her wear something atypical and we actually show her selecting the garment. Something is changing within her. When she is going to the hospital, John [Baldwin] her husband is taking control of her taste at that point. He wants her to be more presentable, more like the wife he was proud of.

AKT: The husband is a very shadowy figure. I can't really grasp what he is feeling.

WW: It's a marriage of the mind. He is in love with her intellect. They seem to have a very good marriage after a great number of years but he can't deal with her intellect disappearing. He thinks of himself as a decent person so he wants to do the right thing. Something about the situation he just can't deal with. He needs to get out, which is emotionally cowardly and difficult. We tried not to vilify him.

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

AKT: I don't think you did.

WW: There are not many shots of him arriving, there's lots of shots of him leaving. He is actually researching cancer in the book [by Lisa Genova].

AKT: You made an interesting choice with the pony on my boat sung by Lyle Lovett. In the end credits you use the Karen Elson version. Where did that come from?

WW: In the post process we were looking for songs that worked for the scene where Alice and John are reminiscing about their past. We tried three, four, five, six songs and then we found If I Had A Boat by Lyle Lovett and it just clicked. And, for total cinema geeks, Julianne was in a movie with Lyle Lovett 20 years ago [Robert Altman's Short Cuts]. It's got a beautiful dreamy quality to the lyrics but also an emotionally resonant quality about human connections, unlikely connections, rather than obvious ones.

AKT: She, Alice, is the pony on the boat?

WW: I don't know if literally Lydia is the pony? Or is Alice the pony? It's finding a relationship that's unconventional that will get you through. Again, your questions are wonderful and not like anyone else's. That's why I always enjoy talking to you.

Alice at Columbia University:
Alice at Columbia University: "We only had one morning there."

AKT: I also can do a very conventional last question about your upcoming projects! What's next?

WW: I have a number of different ones. There's one about religion.

AKT: We just spoke [off tape] about what happened in Paris earlier this month.

WW: The one that's about religion is about how a lot of religious impulses start off very pure and then become corrupted. It's called The Time Of The Harvest.

AKT: An original story by you and Richard?

WW: Yes. Unrelated to that but what we were saying before about the Charlie Hebdo attack, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon came out and said that extremism is the thing that is an insult to Islam and not the depiction of the prophet. I was linking it to some fundamentalist Christians who say 'this is in the Bible, this is why we are against abortion, this is why we are against gay people', whatever.

There is that tendency when you've got a dense religious text to take a small verse or a couple of references and extrapolate it into a huge core of a movement. Whereas the bigger themes in Islam and Christianity are more about love and acceptance and anti-violence.

Tom (Hunter Parrish) as Alice prepares to quote Elizabeth Bishop:
Tom (Hunter Parrish) as Alice prepares to quote Elizabeth Bishop: "The art of losing isn't hard to master."

AKT: You have quite a holy trinity of subjects you tackle since we met - Errol Flynn, Alzheimer's and religion.

WW: The Last Of Robin Hood was a lot about religion but no one understood it. Florence [Aadland} believed that Errol Flynn is from the Pantheon. There's a lot of imagery and talk, like he says "Fame is the religion of a godless nation." And at one point she believes that he will have immortality as a famous person. And what she wants for Beverly [her daughter] and for herself is that immortality. It's the same thing that people want from religion that Florence wants from Errol Flynn.

AKT: Is there any link to religion in Still Alice?

WW: I don't know. It's very secular - deliberately so. There's more religion in the book but we felt, it's a secular story.

In part 1, Wash Westmoreland 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 and the role mirroring plays for Alice, as she goes through the looking glass, were recalled.

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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