Director Elizabeth Giamatti Talks ‘A Woman Like Me,’ Accepting the Unacceptable and Her Good Friend Alex
The Buddhist Meditation on Death says, “The point is we are all going to die, but that is the very thing we cannot accept.” Is it even possible to accept what is unacceptable to so many of us? Would you spend the precious time you do have left in despair over your circumstances, or would you try to find a way to be at peace with what is coming?
Oftentimes, we turn away from films with a terminal illness at their center. Too devastating for some and far too personal for others, we as moviegoers gravitate toward more lighthearted or even action-packed films. There have, of course, been anomalies like Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 (2011), or more recently, Josh Boone’s The Fault in Our Stars (2014). Generally, however, we go to the cinema to escape our own troubles. It is rare that we are drawn to films like Alex Sichel and Elizabeth Giamatti‘s A Woman Like Me.
The film, which premiered at SXSW and won the Special Jury Award for Directing, shadows Alex, an award-winning filmmaker and professor, as she comes to grips with her terminal breast cancer diagnosis. Showcasing an extremely intimate account of Alex’s emotional turmoil, the audience follows her various treatments and her day-to-day life with her family and friends throughout the picture. More than just a documentary, the movie looks through a fictional lens at other outcomes to Alex’s situation had she been a different woman dealing with the same thing. In fact, the viewer will find themselves drawn to the screen despite the sea of emotions that is sure to circulate throughout one’s body — and that is mainly because of the captivating story. Alex’s tale is so riveting because she refused to take her diagnosis lying down. Instead, she chose to live fully and on her own terms, showing us that despite our circumstances, we as people have the power to live the lives that we want.
GALO recently had the opportunity to speak with director and producer Elizabeth Giamatti about her directorial debut and her good friend Alex, who passed away before the film was put together. Read on to find out what she had to say.
GALO: Ms. Giamatti, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
Elizabeth Giamatti: Oh, no problem! It’s my pleasure.
GALO: Well, I really just want to say that I loved A Woman Like Me. It really touched me deeply on a personal level. I think it’s a fantastic film, and I really hope that a lot of people get the opportunity to see it.
EG: Thank you so much for saying that. That’s really nice of you and I really appreciate it, really glad you liked it.
GALO: In the film, Alex quotes Nora Ephron saying, “No one wants to see a film about cancer.” It’s such a devastating disease that has touched so many lives. Were you hesitant at all about proceeding with this film because of the difficult subject matter and how it might possibly affect those who have dealt with cancer personally — and also because Alex was your friend?
EG: You know, we weren’t hesitant about proceeding only because, I think, when we started making the movie, we really didn’t know yet where it was going to go — and I can talk about that a bit more later. So, luckily, we didn’t have time to be scared of it. I do worry about that after the fact in terms of — I do think there are going to be people who are going to say, “I don’t want to see that movie. I’m not interested in that subject matter,” or “It’s that cancer movie.” And I get it, totally, because I might have similar hesitation myself. But that’s going to be one of our challenges. Of course, there are going to be people who don’t want to see it, period, and that’s their prerogative. It’s going to be our challenge to put the film out there in a way that it’s clear that it’s a somewhat different approach, which I think it is.
GALO: I watched a recent interview that you did at SXSW where you stated that initially you and Alex thought you would be shooting a feature-length fiction film. Obviously, the film became a documentary about Alex’s experience with metastatic cancer. At what point did you all decide that’s how the film would look?
EG: It was mostly through the editing process that we figured it out. Obviously, or not obviously, the film in Alex’s mind in that initial moment of inspiration was a fictional movie. But she very quickly said to me afterward that she wasn’t sure she wanted to make a fictional version of her life for a variety of reasons, and that she was also thinking about a documentary. So for a long time, we talked about both, and then we started shooting the doc while we continued to develop the fiction. But at a certain point, we knew while we were still shooting that it was some kind of a hybrid. We knew that both the fiction and the doc were going to be a part of the same feature-length movie. But we didn’t know the proportion of fiction to doc until we were in the editing room. And that’s something we played around with a lot in the process of editing the movie. You know, because at a certain point, we thought it might have been 50-50.
GALO: Oh really?!
EG: Any percentage is arbitrary and in point of fact, the percentage that we ended up with is totally arbitrary, but it’s the percentage that ended up working. And I agree with you, I now think of this movie as a doc. I don’t think of it so much as a hybrid anymore. Because I think it’s Alex’s story, but I can tell you that we played with higher proportions of fiction in various cuts and it just never worked as well. There were a lot of reasons for that, but one of them was that Alex was such a compelling character and we missed her when she wasn’t in the movie for long stretches of time. It just wasn’t as interesting. The fiction really had to be something that we experienced through her perspective on it. So when there was too much fiction that dynamic disappeared.
GALO: Well, would you ever revisit the fiction portion of the film as a feature-length piece — perhaps to get it to a larger audience, or just to explore cancer in a way that we don’t often see? Or have you left the project within that doc piece?
EG: It’s so interesting because you have asked a question that other people have asked, but you just framed it in a really good way. [Chuckles]
GALO: Thank you.
EG: By the time we wrote the fiction, at that point we knew we were going to shoot it as part of this project. So we never ended up writing a 90-minute feature. We ended up writing a 35-minute [one]; it would have been a short or something. It was a 35-page script and we shot it to be part of this movie. We knew we were going to cut it up and interweave it with the doc. I don’t know that it would stand on its own at this point. I’ve thought about making a short version of it, like a 12-minute version. What’s interesting about the way you framed the question is whether we’d revisit it and just make it a completely other movie? Maybe — I need a little distance, and I can’t tell yet if I need to move on and work on something completely different. But conversely, there’s a lot of material here from a story point of view, and it’s still a subject that I’m still interested in exploring. So, the short answer is: I don’t know, but I’ve contemplated it.
GALO: Well, I would definitely love to see it, whether it’s a short or a feature-length piece.
EG: Well, thanks! I’m glad to know that; that’s one. [Chuckles]
GALO: One of the things I really appreciated about the film was the vignettes of the holistic healers. So often there is only a look at the scientific approach; patients are given a regimen of chemo and radiation. Alex was willing to look beyond those options. How important was it for you to showcase holistic healing while juxtaposing it with more “traditional” methods?
EG: It was really important because it was really important to Alex. Alternative approaches were something that she had been interested in all of her life — always, to any kind of medical stuff that she had. In as much as she is the person we’re following, it was really important to show those approaches and also to show them in a balanced way. We weren’t making a movie that looks at holistic and alternative treatments versus Western medical treatments. It was more. We were interested in showing Alex’s desire to look at everything with a more subjective viewpoint. And as filmmakers, [we wanted] to remain neutral on whether one was more valid than the other. Because in this particular case, it’s like her husband says in the movie, it’s not like Western medicine has something so fantastic to offer in the case of metastatic breast cancer. And frankly, if it had — if Alex had been facing something that had a better track record; if her disease were more curable than it was; and if Western doctors had said to her, “If you do this, you’ll have an 80-percent chance of being OK,” she would have done it in a heartbeat. But there is no cure for that kind of breast cancer, so she really wanted to look at everything, and to find out the way to live the longest and healthiest while she could. But I also think, in terms of the emotional trajectory, it’s about when you’re in that situation, you’ll try anything, you know? Western, non-Western, whatever — [you’ll try it].
GALO: Oh, most definitely.
EG: For me, the trajectory of the movie is about: “I’ll try anything Western, non-Western.” And then, “Oh shit! Nothing’s working. I have to get my mind into a better relationship with this disease.”