Julianne Moore, 'Still Alice' Team Talk Creating Authentic Alzheimer's Movie
Writer-director Wash Westmoreland reveals what it's been like to get so much buzz for a film most people haven’t seen.
When Julianne Moore took on her role in Still Alice as a woman afflicted by early-onset Alzheimer's, the one for which she's already earned a Golden Globe and is expected to receive a best actress Oscar nomination, she didn't want to portray anything she hadn't seen.
But she made sure she saw a lot. Moore told a group of reporters at Tuesday night's New York screening of the film that she did roughly four months' worth of research, in which she "basically talked to everybody I could."
"I talked to doctors and clinicians and patients and family members, and I watched all the docs, and I observed a lot of support groups, and I asked everybody everything," she said. "I'd literally say, 'Like, can you tell me what it feels like?,' and I just tried to be as specific as I could."
In the movie, Moore plays Alice Howland, a brilliant, 50-year-old linguistics professor who develops early-onset Alzheimer's. The film focuses on how Howland and her family, including a husband, played by Alec Baldwin, and her three children, played by Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish, deal with her rapidly deteriorating mental condition.
Moore's concern with creating a realistic portrait of someone with Alzheimer's was shared by co-writer and co-director Wash Westmoreland, who made the film with Richard Glatzer.
"Because we're portraying Alzheimer's, there's lots of like minefields because you don't want to portray anything that seems phony, you want it to look authentic," Westmoreland told The Hollywood Reporter at the Cinema Society, Montblanc and Dom Perignon-hosted screening. "A lot of times we talked to people who have early-onset Alzheimer's and tried to figure out what does it feel like when you're lost in a public place that you know really well, and from talking to them then we'd go and work on storyboards and figure out our camera shots to reflect this very personal and very terrifying experience that people have described to us."
Lisa Genova, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, also conducted extensive research during the year-and-a-half that she spent working on her book.
"I came to know 27 people with early-stage or early-onset Alzheimer's. I was in touch with them every single day for the year and a half that I was writing the story," Genova told THR. "We were in touch by email, [online chat], or by phone, some of them in person. I sat in on neuropsych testing, I shadowed neurologists at Mass Gen, I interviewed with the chief of neurology at the women's hospital in Boston and we diagnosed me, pretending I became symptomatic. I interviewed genetic counselors and general physicians, social workers who led caregiver support groups. I sat in on caregiver support groups."
As Westmoreland and Glatzer adapted her book for the big screen, Genova said that while she recognized this was their project, she made herself available if they wanted her feedback, ending up reading a few drafts of the script and giving them notes and spending roughly half of the shoot on set.
For Bosworth, she already understood a great deal about caring for someone with the disease, explaining that her grandparents, to whom she's very close, have Alzheimer's, with herself and members of her family in L.A. alternating turns taking care of them.
"It's a disease that's very close to me and has affected me personally," Bosworth told THR. "[This is one of those projects where] it's not just an acting job, it's a story you feel compelled to tell on a personal scale."
Like Moore's character, Bosworth's grandmother was a master of language, she said. "You see someone who's so sharp and witty and has such a great grasp on language just not be able to comprehend anything that's happening around them," she explained.
Although Still Alice has received a great deal of awards buzz for Moore's performance, much of the public hasn't yet been able to see the film. The movie had a one-week Oscar-qualifying run last month and is officially opening in select cities on Friday before expanding wider.
For Westmoreland, it's been a whirlwind experience going from making a small movie in New York during last year's frigid winter to receiving acclaim for the film, starting after the film's Toronto premiere, when it was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics.
In explaining why SPC was interested in Still Alice, co-president Tom Bernard told THR, "There's been so many movies about Alzheimer's that have been just horror stories…This movie [focuses on] the family and how … everybody is faced with this situation and how they react, and they react in such a way that's a very loving, caring, helpful scenario, which is not what you usually see when you see Alzheimer's movies. There's tragedy and the disease is tragic, but the movie is not … about the tragedy … it's about the support of the family unit."
Westmoreland said that the awards buzz has "shown a huge spotlight on our movie, and it's getting national attention now. People are starting to say, 'I've got to see that movie.' For a little independent film, that's a huge achievement."