A few years ago, Elizabeth Chomko was at her grandfather’s funeral in Oak Park, Ill. A playwright, theatre actress and TV day player (The Mentalist, CSI), Chomko was listening to a swoony eulogy about her grandparents’ love story when “the most profound” inner voice spoke to her: “Well, someone has to make this movie.”
She looked around the church, which was filled with farmers. “Who’s here who’s supposed to make this movie?” she asked herself. “I’m supposed to go tell them to make it.” Six months went by before she realized that person was her.
“I felt so unprepared,” Chomko said in a hotel room in September, when the resulting film, What They Had – which she wrote and directed – played at the Toronto International Film Festival. Movie-star-pretty, with wavy blonde hair, full lips and a direct gaze, Chomko “didn’t know any filmmakers who looked like me,” she continues. “They were all dudes who grew up watching Scorsese and De Palma and shooting shorts on their Super 8’s.” She grew up in Chicago, Wisconsin and Minnesota, drawing, playing piano, putting on backyard shows with her sisters, and watching Shirley Temple and Julie Andrews, Judy Garland and Anne of Green Gables. At American University in Washington, she studied theatre and philosophy. She didn’t think she was “qualified” to write a film.
But she sat down and churned out a first draft – in three days. “It sucked,” she says, “but a lot of it was there.” She spent the next two years rewriting it. She sent it to a friend who was a junior agent; he passed it up the line. She was accepted into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Then her script won the Nicholl, a fellowship under the auspices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
That was the game-changer. All the big agencies read it. One of the Nicholl judges, Albert Berger, came on as producer with his partner, Ron Yerxa (Little Miss Sunshine). Blythe Danner signed on as Ruth, who’s losing herself to Alzheimer’s. Robert Forster plays Burt, Ruth’s husband, who’s too in love to admit what’s happening to her. (A scene where Forster wears rubber gloves to dye Danner’s roots is priceless.) Michael Shannon plays Nick, the son who’s been keeping chaos at bay, and Hilary Swank plays Bridget, the prodigal daughter who swoops in to “fix” everything.
At some point, Chomko realized she couldn’t hand her story to another director; she had to make it. “All those reasons that I thought meant I couldn’t – that I’d grown up watching Shirley Temple and putting on shows – were not the reasons I shouldn’t,” she says firmly. “They’re all the reasons I should.”
The 22-day shoot was rife with the challenges of a low-budget film – such as smoke machines that never showed up – but Chomko loved every second of it. “It’s like I was home,” she says. Her cast got used to her crying during setups and takes; they still tease her about it. “I’m a crier, and I’m okay with that,” Chomko says, shrugging. “If I’m crying, I’m onto something. It’s my north star.”
Cue the inevitable marginalization. Never mind that, in her sparkling script, every character has a vivid inner life and an urgent arc; that the relationships feel as lived-in as a denim shirt; that the dialogue is naturalistic but surprising. What They Had is about family, right? So it must be a woman’s picture.
In the days after the film premiered at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, Chomko heard the same thing over and over from male film executives: “We did not want to see this movie, we were dreading it, it will be like eating our spinach because it’s about female things, but big surprise, we loved it.” (Casting Shannon was a genius move – not only because he gets to show a side of himself we rarely see, but also because he appeals to “a certain type of dude,” Chomko says, chuckling. “He cools it up a bit.”)
The cliché that only women care about emotion on screen doesn’t surprise Chomko; “gently exasperates” is a better term. “Female filmmaking is viewed as a niche thing – women making movies about women with other women for women,” she says. “I’m hopeful we’ll come through that, but I don’t think we’re there yet. It’s [nonsense] that only women like emotional movies. If we keep expecting that, we’re all missing out.
“Robert and Michael read the script and flipped out for it,” she adds. “They never saw it as some niche, community-service movie.”
In Chomko’s favourite films, which include Tootsie, A League of Their Own and The Savages, “the characters are so well painted they jump off the screen and stay with you like old friends,” she says. “We know them and feel them; they’re part of us.” And watching people build “co-dependent and resentment issues that explode in their faces is fascinating and compelling and hilarious to me, as wonderful and drama-worthy as any story.”
Now she has a stack of work on the go, including the script for After Perfect, based on Christina McDowell’s 2016 memoir about how her American-princess life crashed after her father was arrested for fraud. And she hopes that stories such as hers, drop by drop, will turn the cultural tide.
“It’s that old line, ‘Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man,’” Chomko says. “A lot of women just don’t have confidence. But that’s something we can control. One of the only things, in this whole battle” for gender equality. “We can silence the voice in our head that says, ‘You can’t do this.’ We have as much right to take up space on this Earth as everybody else.”
What They Had opens Oct. 19 in Toronto, before expanding to other Canadian cities