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Elizabeth Giamatti on her SXSW-Winning Collaboration with Alex Sichel, A Woman Like Me

Alex Sichel on the set of A Woman Like Me

Winner of a Special Jury Award for Directing at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, Alex Sichel and Elizabeth Giamatti’s A Woman Like Me is a frankly disarming and emotionally piercing hybrid doc as well as a necessary directorial collaboration. Filmmaker Alex Sichel’s 1997 debut feature, All Over Me, was an important entry in the decade’s New Queer Cinema, a scrappy teen lesbian drama that, in the L.A. Weekly, critic Manohla Dargis wrote “comes closer to unlocking the secret lives of girls than any other recent American movie.”

In the years following that film, Sichel taught directing at NYU, raised a family and, as explored in this new movie, got breast cancer. A Woman Like Me chronicles her journey through illness, and it does so with complexity, both emotional and narrative. Sichel is the film’s subject, taking us through treatments, both traditional — chemotherapy and such — and alternative. (Various alternative therapists are shown critiquing Sichel’s treatment regimen and urging holistic or mind-power approaches.) Most significantly, the film delves into the making of Sichel’s final artistic act — directing A Woman Like Me. This new film is a hybrid doc, with Sichel shown making a fictional alternate-universe version of her story that stars Lili Taylor as a filmmaker struck by the same diagnosis but with different coping skills and outcome. These scenes have a gauzy Hollywood naturalism that’s far from the stresses of Sichel’s life, shown here filled with warm moments but also Sloan Kettering visits and arguments with family members over her health decisions. In this context, the “film within the film” seems less a narrative experiment and more simply another aspect of Sichel’s self-treatment process, an act constructed around the empowerment and creative nurturing provided by the moviemaking process.

When Sichel died last year, producer Elizabeth Giamatti, a partner in Touchy Feely Films and a producer of Cold Souls and Pretty Bird, among other films, completed the project as a co-director. Below, we talk about how the path of that collaboration, filmmaking while being sick, and what Giamatti hopes viewers learn about Sichel.

Filmmaker: How did you get involved with the film? And, were you always directing it with Alex, or did that dual role of producer and director emerge later?

Giamatti: We were old friends, but we’d never worked together before. At one point, we tried to develop a TV show together. It went nowhere, but we had a good time doing it. So I think that planted the seed in both of our heads that we might want to do it again someday. But, by and large, the basis of our friendship was not professional. [Alex] came to me maybe six months after she was diagnosed, and she said, “There’s a movie playing in my head about a character a lot like me, with a diagnosis exactly like mine, only she’s dealing with it much better than I am. She’s the ‘glass half full’ version of me. Do you want to develop this with me?” I said, “Sure,” and honestly, I think she was surprised, taken aback. She very quickly backed down and said, “I don’t know if I can make a movie right now – physically and emotionally.” But then she said, “I’m not sure I want to create fiction right now because I feel like I’ve always used fiction as a means of escape, and I’m not sure I want to escape this. I think I might want to look it more directly in the eye. Maybe I want to use nonfiction — to do a video diary and write a blog.” And I said to her, “Well, you know, why don’t we just keep talking about it? We can talk about fiction and nonfiction and see if it goes anywhere.” And so, that’s what we did for about four or five months. We talked about the merits of both, and, at a certain point, I said to her, “To the extent that this might be a documentary or might have documentary elements, we should be shooting, because we’re missing stuff. There’s a lot of stuff going on in your life; we should be picking up the camera.”

Filmmaker: So this was the beginning of the formal shooting process?

Giamatti: We started by interviewing ourselves and talking in this almost “meta way.” As fiction filmmakers, it was really empowering to pick up the camera and just explore, to not feel like we had to know exactly where everything was going all the time. We started shooting interviews, whoever we felt like talking to. And we learned things about the movie, about what we wanted to explore. We were continuing to talk about what the fiction might be, but it started to become clear through this process that both of these movies we were talking about were one movie, a movie about the making of a movie under what we referred to initially as a “life-threatening circumstance.” And you know, eventually, we had to face the fact that that was a total euphemism. It wasn’t “life threatening.” She had a terminal diagnosis.

But, for a long time, this was a process-oriented movie. We were finding it as we were making it. The minute we said, “It’s a movie about the making of a movie,” it fell into place. We didn’t know exactly what the narrative shape of it would be, and we certainly didn’t know what the proportion would be of fiction and nonfiction. But, once we had that defined, it became clear to us what the movie was.

Filmmaker: The movie within the movie, the Lili Taylor section — did you have a narrative framework for that material? Was there a script?

Giamatti: Absolutely. Mostly, Alex wrote the script, and it was very clear that that movie was never going to be a 90-minute feature. By the time we finished our script, it was a 35-page script designed to be part of the documentary. We shot it in a seven-day period like a normal movie, except that we had a documentary crew following Alex around during those seven days.

Filmmaker: There’s a lot of “meta stuff” going around these days: movies within movies or self-reflexive works of narrative art. Many times, these works are very intellectual, almost like puzzles. But in this film, the story within the story seemed to be less about an intellectual construction and more just about the activity of doing. It seemed to be another element of her way of dealing with illness as opposed to simply being a tricky narrative.

Giamatti: I’m really glad to hear it. We tried to be careful of that in the editing room. There was more “making of the movie” stuff at in an early cut. I was a character in the movie for a while. There was a great sequence about casting Lili Taylor and [us] driving to meet her. But we took out a lot of that stuff because, in the big picture, it felt cutesy. The meta stuff, when it didn’t serve Alex’s story of this person who is using her craft to try to cope with this hideous circumstance, just felt too extraneous. Because of the subject matter, we had to really try to hold our feet to the fire and not to have it be about a couple of chicks making a movie, because that just felt really frivolous.

Filmmaker: One thing I appreciated about the film was its skepticism about the non-Western treatments Alex was pursuing. She’s clearly skeptical about Western medicine, and there are people in her life, like her parents, who are skeptical about the alternative therapies. The film respected both sides.

Giamatti: Having cancer, especially the way Alex had it, is a full-time job because, as she portrayed in the movie, she left no stone unturned. She felt like she needed to do her own research and see 10 different kind of healers and 10 different kind of Western doctors, too. You know, there are people who have cancer like my mother, from a different generation, who was like, “Okay, this guy’s my oncologist, and I’m going to do what he says.” But Alex needed to really look under every single rock, and she needed to question every single person who told her to do something, Western and non-Western. I mean, she questioned the Western doctors more than she questioned the non-Western ones, but that was just her. That was her bent.

Filmmaker: I’m a film producer, and I love making movies, but, at the same time, I know that film production is a very stressful thing. I think there’s a moment in the film when Alex says something like, “I don’t know if this is what I should be doing at this moment.” I worried about that for her while I was watching the film. How did you feel, as a friend, participating in this process? Did you ever worry that you were part of a process that was adding this other level of stress or drama to her life?

Giamatti: All the time, absolutely. We checked in with one another about it a lot. And I tried to have it be as low impact as possible. I asked her over and over again, “Is this what you want to be doing?” And she said over and over again, “Yes.” And she meant it, but it wasn’t like we didn’t have to revisit it, not infrequently. I felt like I had to revisit it all the time, because you know, her situation was changing all the time. In spite of that, I still worried that she was doing something that was adding stress to her life. There were times where I said, “Okay, we’re not shooting.” We had shoots we didn’t do. If she were here, I don’t think she would regret it for a minute, but it’s exactly what she says in that interview. I think she had questions about [whether this is] what she should be doing with her time. She was stressed out a lot of the time. Filmmaking is incredibly hard and stressful even when you don’t have a terminal illness.

Filmmaker: There’s that one very powerful scene — that fight with her husband at the dinner table. Aside from just the physical exertion of being on a film set, obviously she was wading into tough emotional waters in certain scenes as well.

Giamatti: Absolutely. And you know, we were not in her house day in day out. That scene happened to have taken place during the one day of pre-production that we had a DP there. A lot of the rest of the stuff with Erich [Sichel’s husband], Alex shot herself. And there were tons of really tense scenes that didn’t end up in the movie, not because they were tense, but because whatever, they didn’t fit into the narrative or they had crappy audio or something like that.

Filmmaker: To what degree was the final shape of the film affected by the progression of the disease? Did you have to stop shooting because of Alex’s health? Or, were you able to shoot all that you needed?

Giamatti: More the latter. People asked us all the time when we were shooting the movie, in this very ominous way, “Well, how does it end?” Meaning, “Are you following Alex through her probably inevitable decline and death?” And we would always say, “No, the movie ends,” because we saw the structure of the movie as a year in the life of a filmmaker making a movie while she has a terminal disease — her using the act of fictionalizing her life to see if she can change her relationship to a really shitty situation. When you can’t change your situation, can you at least change your perspective on it? It was never going to be about following her to the end. That wasn’t the movie we wanted to make.

We shot the fiction in June of 2013, and we started editing in the fall of 2013, by which I mean, we mostly started watching our footage, because we had not been logging it or watching it as we were shooting. We almost didn’t want to. We started watching and logging with an editor in September of 2013. Alex kept shooting video diary stuff all through that year, but there were maybe eight more hours of video diary stuff. We didn’t do any more interviews, even though we thought we might. So the bulk of the movie was shot at that point. In March of last year, we had gotten through all of our footage, we had strung together a couple of scenes and were ready to do an assembly. We spent a week and a half putting index cards up on the bulletin boards, and during that week, Alex was like, “I’m not feeling so good. I’m feeling kind of crappy.” She had just finished a trial at Sloan Kettering, and by finished, I mean, she had taken herself off of it in consultation with her doctor because they felt like it wasn’t effective. But nobody was like, “This cancer has really progressed, and time is short. It was more like, ‘Well, this drug is not effective in shrinking the cancer.’”

Long story short, within seven weeks of her saying, “I feel kinda crappy,” she died. So, among many things that I am grateful for, I feel really lucky that I watched every piece of footage with Alex. I’m really glad it took us six months. I’m really glad we all sat there with our notebooks and our pens, and I feel like we ingested, my editors and I, those conversations. And I feel like I know how Alex felt about the footage and it’s why I feel I was able to finish the movie without her.

So to answer your very first question in terms of what our roles were, when we were first working on it for about the first year, we weren’t talking about what our roles were. We were just collaborating, and it was a very awesome collaboration the whole time. We thought maybe we were co-directing it. We didn’t know because we were figuring out what the movie was. And then, right before we were about to shoot the fiction, Alex said to me, “You know, I need to define my role as the director.” And I said, “Fine. I’m happy to define my role as the producer.” And then, when Alex got sick, we didn’t have a ton of conversations like this, but we had the one we had to have, where Alex said to me, “What do you want to do about the movie?” And I said, “Well, of course I want to finish it, but only if you want me to finish it.” And she said, “Well, of course I want you to finish it.” And when we had that conversation, we agreed that we needed to both be directors on this movie, because I didn’t feel like I could finish it as a producer, without a director. You know, you need to feel like a director.

Filmmaker: I mentioned to a couple of people that I’d seen the film, both of them are women in their 40s who work in film, and both of them said, “I can’t watch that film.” As a producer, you’re always thinking, “Who is the audience for my film?” Often you think it’s people who are like the people in the film. What would you say to that hesitant audience member, someone who might be like Alex in terms of being an artist or worrying about health issues but who doesn’t want to confront those fears by seeing a movie?

Giamatti: Yeah, well, for sure that’s going to be our challenge — not just the people in that position but people who are like, “Oh, I don’t want to go see that cancer movie.” I would say that this movie is as much, if not more, about the creative process as it is about cancer and the course of an illness. I think it’s about trying to use your imagination in a really difficult circumstance. I think this is a movie about making movies, and in general, about making things. It’s about how we transform stuff and how we tell ourselves stories — you know, the power of storytelling. I know that sounds totally clichéd, but that’s really potent stuff for me. I really do think that that’s what this movie is about, most fundamentally.

Filmmaker: And finally, for the people who didn’t know Alex, who are just getting to know her through this film, which is capturing her at a specific moment in her life, what do you hope they would take away about her? What would you want them to know about Alex, not just as a filmmaker, but as a person?

Giamatti: I really hope her warmth and her humor and her directness come across. She was a really rich and special person. You know, because I never made a documentary before, I never asked that most basic question all documentarians know to ask, which is, is your main character compelling? And, you know, we lucked out. Alex is really fun to watch on screen. Every time we were away from Alex for too long in the movie, we missed her. So, for me, I hope that people get a sense of her humor and directness and her willingness to really look things straight in the eye and try to take them on.

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