In 'Still Alice,' Director Couple Tells A Story That Mirrors Their Own

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Despite his ALS diagnosis, Richard Glatzer (right) says he was on set every day during the filming of Still Alice. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
Despite his ALS diagnosis, Richard Glatzer (right) says he was on set every day during the filming of Still Alice. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

In Still Alice, Julianne Moore plays a brilliant linguistics professor struggling with early onset Alzheimer's disease. Moore's performance has already earned her an armload of awards, and she's considered the favorite to win the best actress Oscar. But the film's directors have their own story — one that parallels that of the film.

Richard Glatzer and his husband, Wash Westmoreland, adapted Still Alice from a novel by Lisa Genova. Shortly before they took the project on, Glatzer was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS. That's why Westmoreland calls this the best of times and the worst of times.

"We have these very strangely contrasting experiences of like being on the red carpet with Julianne Moore and the wall of photographers, they're all calling your name out," he says. "And then in the home, much more day-to-day care-giving activities [that are] necessary in order to get through."

Glatzer says because of his ALS, he and Westmoreland nearly decided against doing the film at all.

"My medical condition made reading the book quite difficult for me," he says. "It just cut too close to the bone. But once I'd finished it, I felt determined to make Still Alice into a movie. It really resonated with me."

In Still Alice, Columbia University professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) learns she has early onset Alzheimer's disease after experiencing several disturbing lapses of memory.
In Still Alice, Columbia University professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) learns she has early onset Alzheimer's disease after experiencing several disturbing lapses of memory.

Today, Glatzer's voice is that of his iPad — he speaks by typing what he wants to say with the big toe on his right foot. When Still Alice first came along, Glatzer's ALS diagnosis was fairly recent and his symptoms weren't that noticeable. They went ahead with the adaptation, but when they got into production a year and a half later, Westmoreland says, "a lot more deterioration had happened."

Glatzer puts it bluntly: "My arms were shot, but I was able to be on set every day and type with one finger on an iPad."

Westmoreland says it was a challenge. "We are co-directors. We've always worked everything out together. And now there was, you know, an impediment to that — that Richard was using the iPad to communicate. But we still wanted to keep everything 50-50 and equal." And because of the fast-paced nature of working on a film set, that wasn't always possible.

'You Gotta Make Hay While The Sun Shines'

Westmoreland and Glatzer have been trying to keep things 50-50 since they met at a party in 1995. "We started talking immediately about movies and found that's where both our passions lay and we haven't stopped talking about movies since," Westmoreland says.

Still Alice directors Richard Glatzer (left) and Wash Westmoreland have been together since 1995.
Still Alice directors Richard Glatzer (left) and Wash Westmoreland have been together since 1995.

Glatzer types for a moment and, again, cuts to the chase: "He moved right in."

Westmoreland laughs. "I think it was like a few days and it was like, 'Let's not mess around. ... We found each other.' "

Their breakthrough film, Quinceañera, was about a pregnant Latina teenager growing up in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood, where Glatzer and Westmoreland still live. In 2006, the film won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. But it was hard to get new projects going during the recession and their next movie didn't come out until 2013. Now, the buzz surrounding Still Alice has presented them with new opportunities.

"You gotta make hay while the sun shines," Westmoreland says. "So it's the best time to set up future projects, hopefully for the next two or three years."

Westmoreland and Glatzer say they'll write and direct those projects together — and they expect to announce the next one in a few weeks.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Indira Lakshmanan. A favorite to take home an Oscar later this month is Julianne Moore for "Still Alice." She's already won a Golden Globe and several other prizes for her portrayal of a brilliant linguistics professor struggling with early onset Alzheimer's disease.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STILL ALICE")

JULIANNE MOORE: (As Alice Howland) It feels like my brain is [expletive] dying, and everything I've worked for in my entire life is going. It's all going.

LAKSHMANAN: "Still Alice" was adapted for the screen from a novel and co-directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer. The two men are also married, and as they worked on "Still Alice," they had their own struggle that parallels the one in the film - coping with Glatzer's diagnosis of ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. They spoke with NPR's Ina Jaffe.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Wash Westmoreland calls this the best of times and the worst of times.

WASH WESTMORELAND: We have these very strangely contrasting experiences of, like, being on the red carpet with Julianne Moore. And the wall of photographers, they're all calling your name out. And then in the home much more day-to-day caregiving activities necessary in order to get through.

JAFFE: Westmoreland's husband and collaborator Richard Glatzer says because of his ALS, they nearly decided against doing "Still Alice."

RICHARD GLATZER: My medical condition made reading the book quite difficult for me. It just cut too close to the bone.

JAFFE: Glatzer now speaks through an iPad. He types what he wants to say using the big toe on his right foot.

GLATZER: But once I'd finished it, I felt determined to make "Still Alice" into a movie. It really resonated with me.

JAFFE: Glatzer prepared some of his answers before our interview. It takes him a long time to express himself, so he asked for the questions in advance, which seemed reasonable under the circumstances. "Still Alice" came along at a time when Glatzer's ALS diagnosis was fairly recent and his symptoms not that noticeable. So Wash Westmoreland says they went ahead with the adaptation.

WESTMORELAND: And it was about a year-and-a-half after we wrote the first draft of the script that we actually went into production. And by that time a lot more deterioration had happened.

GLATZER: My arms were shot, but I was able to be on set every day and type with one finger on an iPad.

JAFFE: Maybe because they were accustomed to dealing with a progressive illness, the movie doesn't contain a lot of melodrama or medical explanations. It keeps its focus on Alice's day-to-day struggle to maintain her identity and how members of her family react. Her youngest daughter asks Alice the obvious question others have avoided. What does it feel like? Alice says...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STILL ALICE")

MOORE: (As Alice Howland) On my good days I can, you know, almost pass for a normal person. But on my bad days I feel like I can't find myself. I've always been so defined by my intellect, my language, my articulation. And now sometimes I can see the words hanging in front of me, and I can't reach them. And I don't know who I am. And I don't know what I'm going to lose next.

JAFFE: Westmoreland says what Glatzer had already lost made things challenging on the set.

WESTMORELAND: We are codirectors. We've always worked everything out together. And now there was, you know, an impediment to that that Richard was using the iPad to communicate. But we still wanted to keep everything 50/50 and equal. But we're on a film set. And there's crazy stuff happening. And you have to make quick decisions. And there were a number of challenges to going into this with, you know, Richard's health.

JAFFE: Glatzer and Westmoreland have been trying to keep everything 50/50 since they met at a party in 1995.

WESTMORELAND: And we started talking immediately about movies and found that's where both our passions lay. And we haven't stopped talking about movies since.

JAFFE: Glatzer types for a moment.

GLATZER: He moved right in.

WESTMORELAND: I think it was, like, a few days, and it was, like, let's not mess around. Let's just, you know, we found each other.

JAFFE: Their breakthrough film was called "Quinceanera." It's about a pregnant Latina teenager growing up in LA's Echo Park, the neighborhood where Glatzer and Westmoreland still live. In 2006, the film won both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience award at Sundance. But it was hard to get new projects going during the recession. Their next movie didn't come out until 2013. Now the buzz surrounding "Still Alice" has presented them with new opportunities.

WESTMORELAND: You've got to make hay while the sun shines. So it's the best time to set up future projects, hopefully for the next two or three years.

JAFFE: Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer say they will write and direct those projects together. They expect to announce the next one in a few weeks. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.