Lili Taylor in "A Woman Like Me." Photo courtesy of "A Woman Like Me."

Lili Taylor in “A Woman Like Me.” Photo courtesy of “A Woman Like Me.”

GALO: Exactly, it’s about acceptance. Well, to continue on with that, there were many striking moments within the film. However, I think one of the most arresting ones is when Anna (Lili Taylor) is told that she isn’t actually going to die. She’s overwhelmed with happiness, so much so that she and her husband nearly take off running in the street. It seemed like unimaginable elation. Obviously, I think this is the ultimate fantasy for anyone facing a terminal illness, though perhaps a bit idealistic. Where did the scene come from? And why did you both choose to shoot it and ultimately leave it in the film?

EG: Because I think that is the fantasy, you know? Alex was a practicing Buddhist, and as they say and as her teacher said in the movie, the Buddhists believe you have to meditate on your death every day. And I think that…I don’t even want to speak to us as a culture, I can tell you [though] that Alex and I, we were in huge denial on some level that we are ever going to die.

GALO: Yes, I think most people are.

EG: We are — that’s how we live, and that’s how most of us get through the day. It’s a very hard thing to think about. I think the fantasy is not only that you’re going to cure yourself from an incurable disease, but also I think we all think that we’re going to live forever. So that’s where that came from. And actually, there was a third doctor scene that didn’t end up in the movie, which was [when Anna] goes back a third time and it’s sort of “the reality.” There’s the first one, which is the really harsh reality, and then there’s the fantasy of “you’re going to live forever.” And then there’s like, “Hey, things look good. There’s no spread.” And Emma says, “Well, what do I do?” And [the doctor] says, “Just go have some fun.” And for a variety of reasons, the third repetition didn’t work when [we] tried it. But that was the idea, this constant revisiting of this seminal moment where you get this news that changes your life and your perspective on your life. And it’s also a play on how in film we can revisit those moments and have a different outcome.

GALO: The beginning of the film opens with, “The point is we are all going to die, but that is the very thing we cannot accept.” We see Alex struggling with acceptance throughout the film. At the end of it, she returned to the silent retreat and realized it had been a year since she’d been there last. She also recognized that she was going to be around for another one of her daughter’s birthdays. She seemed almost OK with that. Do you feel that this film was her way of accepting her prognosis?

EG: Yes. That was the attempt. That’s the extent to which this is an experimental movie — it was really this idea we had that through imagining [what] this character does, [can] that help you come to acceptance? If you can see a character accepting things better than you are, does that help you get to acceptance? And so, I think to some extent, it was a vehicle for that. I mean, it wasn’t the only vehicle for it, and I don’t know that it’s ever possible to accept the fact that you’re going to die, especially when you’re leaving behind an eight-year old. That’s a huge challenge, and I think you can only get closer to acceptance. I don’t know that you ever get full acceptance. It’s too hard, unless you’ve been sitting on a mountaintop for 25 years. So the short answer is: yes.

GALO: Well, another striking visual in the fictional portion of the film was the ticking bomb. It laid there in plain sight throughout the different scenes, but it seemed that only Anna could hear it tick away. Whose idea was it to use the bomb?

EG: I’m so glad you liked that bomb. That was both of ours, it came from a conversation we had. Alfred Hitchcock talks about how the suspense in a movie is created — you have a regular dinner table scene, and then you pan down to show a bomb under the kitchen table and it creates incredible suspense in the scene, or something like that. And so, we wanted to try to make that manifest because of this idea that in life, let alone in movies, we all are living with this ticking time bomb. And so, that’s where that came from. I mean, honestly, originally that was conceived to have a voiceover going with it. Alex died before we had assembled the movie, let alone before we had a chance to let her sit down and write voiceovers together. But we decided to leave it in because it worked metaphorically without her sitting there explaining it.

GALO: Yes, it really does.

EG: It’s a pretty clear metaphor without her sitting there going, “I felt like I was living with a ticking time bomb.” And arguably, [it’s] better without that particular piece of voiceover.

GALO: Do you think “dying joyfully” is a possibility, or is it simply a feat too large to bear?

EG: It seems like it to me, but I would like to think that I’ll be able to get my head around it at some point. It’s funny; it’s one thing when you’re at the end of what is a typical biological lifespan, to sort of get yourself ready for it. Whatever it is, whether it’s your 80s or 90s, what we think of as a typical lifespan. I actually think there is no such thing, and people die in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s all the time. But we feel ripped from our lives when that happens, and the people we leave behind feel that way. I think that acceptance is an incredibly noble thing to aim for. I’m not sure that I’m going to get there.

GALO: I agree with that. I also wanted to say, congratulations on winning the Special Jury Recognition for Directing at SXSW.

EG: Thank you.

GALO: A Woman Like Me is an extremely personal film, chronicling everything from Alex’s doctor appointments, to the copious amounts of medication she had to take, to her arguments with her husband. Alex was so giving in her experiences in this movie. What do you think is the legacy that she hoped to leave behind?

EG: I think more than anything she wanted to make something that would speak to people. I’m always hesitant to say what I’m about to say, which is that I think she hoped to make something that would really speak to people who are confronting similarly terrible circumstances. The reason why I’m hesitant to say that is because I also think she would have wanted people — and I certainly do — to extrapolate beyond the specifics of her circumstances and beyond the specifics of cancer. We all deal with super shitty circumstances, and as a Buddhist, Alex really believed that with our minds we make the world. I think that message is the bigger and more important one, actually. You can shift the way you look at things. And in that sense, I think it’s also a movie about the creative process and the joy that’s in that process. And I think that’s really something she would have wanted people to take away from it as well.

GALO: Finally, I want to say that the film touched me so deeply because I lost both of my parents to cancer before I turned 23 years old, so I’m very close to the subject matter.

EG: Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry.

GALO: Oh no, it’s OK. I seem to be dealing OK, I think, but the film did hit home for me. So I have to ask, how do you think that this film will speak to cancer patients and their families? It’s obvious that we are all on borrowed time, but do you think or hope that the film will have people step back and reflect on what is really important in life?

EG: Oh yeah, I hope so. I hope that we all reflect on [what] we are doing and what we want to do while we are here, because we all are on borrowed time. I’m always hesitant to speak for Alex, but I think that for me, I would say, “Are you doing what you want to do in the few precious moments that we have?” But again, for Alex as a Buddhist, it was also about trying to accept, which we may or may not all be capable of.

GALO: Yes, it’s an extremely difficult thing to do.

EG: Yeah, it’s like in that conversation in the movie when Alex and Erich (Alex’s husband) are in the hospital room, and she asks him if he read that e-mail she sent [him] about hope and fear. And the e-mail that she’s referring to was a weekly reading that she subscribed to from Thich Nhat Hanh, who is this beautiful Buddhist writer. It was all about how it’s the human way to be on this roller coaster between hope and fear. And really, what I think is that the Buddhists would advocate this middle path, which is neither hope nor fear but just acceptance. I think Alex was really hopeful but also really fearful. And then Erich in that scene is off-camera, but I think what he says is so potent. He feels mostly fear because of this terrifying prognosis. And he says in that scene, “I don’t think it’s human to be between hope and fear.” Acceptance, as we were saying earlier in this conversation, is not our way. I don’t think it’s how we are necessarily designed biologically. I think it’s worth aspiring to, but we are definitely designed to feel fear of death — again, from a biological standpoint, not necessarily from a physical standpoint. What I want more than anything is for people to go away and talk about some of this stuff, to really have conversations about it.

GALO: I think that’s extremely important.

EG: Yes, I do, too.

GALO: But I think it’s also such a hard thing to talk about.

EG: Yeah, none of us want to.

GALO: Well, thank you so much for your time Ms. Giamatti. I really appreciated this.

EG: Oh, me too! I really appreciate that you want to write about the movie. Thank you so much!

A WOMAN LIKE ME Trailer from Elizabeth Giamatti on Vimeo.