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"Being the kind of actor I was, I wasn't getting the good stuff. Reading scripts that weren't that strong made me kind of want to think, 'What's wrong with this? How do I fix this? Here's what not to do,'" Elizabeth Chomko says by phone from the Middleburg Film Festival in Middleburg, Va.

"Reading scripts and seeing that these were movies that were getting made, I knew I could write a better script than that."

While one wonders what material made Chomko's eyes roll, the movie she directed from her own screenplay, What They Had, currently has an 87 percent approval rating on and received a People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Despite roles in the TV series The Mentalist and Common Law, Chomko is having better luck behind the camera. Her writing and directing debut concerns a California-based cook named Bridget (Hilary Swank) who rushes back home to Chicago when her mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), develops Alzheimer's and wanders away from home.

Bridget's brother, Nick (Michael Shannon), is struggling to find a suitable memory care facility for Ruth, but their father, Burt (Robert Forster), refuses to admit that he can't care for her anymore.

What They Had seems like heavy, almost dour material. Often it is, but Chomko says that the story, which she loosely based on experiences with her grandmother in the Windy City, could also be oddly funny.

"What I observed with my grandmother, was that we weren't laughing at her. She was leading the charge with finding the humor in this," Chomko says. "I remember this one day at a birthday party where we were passing out cake with plastic forks, and she dropped the plastic fork on the ground, and she bent down to pick it up with a dog bone. She was just looking at it for a second, and then she kind of looked at me, and then we both just started cracking up.

"As I think about this now, I remember as a kid, back in the day, my mom, and my grandma and I would be cracking up, and my grandfather would be pissed at us for laughing so hard, and it would only make us laugh harder."

To balance the sorrow and the humor, Chomko recalls that she shot different versions of the scenes involving Ruth's problems and used the editing room to get the tone right for each beat. She adds, "I think it was very important with this to let Blythe lead."

In addition, Swank, who won Oscars for the downbeat Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby, and the Oscar-nominated Shannon (Revolutionary Road and Nocturnal Animals) aren't known for their comedy chops, but Chomko had full confidence in their ability.

"The movie business has to be risk averse because there's a lot of money on the line. I think (actors) can do more than that risk averse business would have us believe because it all comes from the same place, finding the truth. Comedy that's not grounded is slapstick. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just different," Chomko says. "(Swank and Shannon) were able to bring in what happens in their own families by making a joke about it."

Chomko insisted on filming What They Had in Chicago and in making her fictitious family Roman Catholic like her own. She says the the city's mindset helps drive her story. "It's kind of a Midwest thing to not really rock the boat and to sweep all of these old wounds under the rug," Chomko says. "I did feel that it was essential. I knew it had to be specific for the tone to work, for both the visuals and also for the cultural specificity."

The supporting players are Chicago locals, but her principal cast hails from all over the country. Swank is from Nebraska, Danner is from Philadelphia and Taissa Farmiga, who plays Swank's daughter, grew up in New Jersey.

The Kentucky-born Shannon is a fixture in the Chicago theater scene, and Forster, who grew up in upstate New York, starred in what may be the ultimate Chicago movie, Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool.

That said, Chomko recalls having a surprisingly easy time getting them all to pass for Chicago Catholics from the same clan. "I do remember we had to go over some of the rituals for the Mass and the prayer at the dinner table and when we would do the sign of the cross, but I think they got the kind of deeper machinations of that religion," she remembers.

"Somebody came up to me at screening the other day and said, 'Were they originally Jewish?' I said, "Oh, no, I was always a Catholic," and then she said, 'They remind me so much of my family, I could have sworn they reminded me of my background, and I grew up Jewish.' I think there's something about all of these religions at their heart are similar, maybe."

She adds, "I had a playwrighting teacher in college who said to me, the more personal your story is, the more universal it felt. I think that's so true. It might not be the details that are the same, but it is those details that make it seem like ours."

In 2015, Chomko earned a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the same people who hand out the Oscars, for her initial script. "There are about 7,500 scripts that are received each year," she says. "They give you fellowship money to write something else, but it's also a community you become a part of. It also introduced me to two of our producers. It was a wonderful thing for the movie."

For someone making a movie about such a sobering subject, Chomko seems strangely jubilant. "I feel like the luckiest person ever. I would have been so thrilled to have this cast on my 10th movie, let alone my first."

MovieStyle on 12/07/2018

Print Headline: Actress turns screenwriter, director


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