Diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, Alex Sichel decides to rewrite her life's script by casting Lili Taylor as a fictional version of herself in a film about a woman who surmounts the exact same illness. Piecing together that narrative with behind-the-scenes documentary, Sichel and co-director/producer Elizabeth Giamatti forge an entirely unique hybrid film about facing and overcoming one's fears in life and art. We spoke to Giamatti about their collaboration on A Woman Like Me and what it was like to finish the film after Sichel's passing.
NFF: What was your collaboration with Alex like on the film? Correct me if I'm wrong, but initially you started out as just the producer.
Elizabeth Giamatti: You’re right. I can tell you how it evolved, and I will, but really the most central and important fact about the collaboration was its joyfulness. It was a fantastic creative relationship, and it mostly felt completely seamless in terms of how we each saw the film and how those individual visions came together to form a collective vision that we both loved and understood the same way. Our individual ideas at the beginning fed one another, and the movie that evolved was something that we both would have characterized, I believe, as “ours” -- there was never a “hers” and “mine” thing, regardless of who was producing and who was directing. We always saw it as “a film by” both of us.
During the initial development stages, we didn’t have clearly defined roles, but when we were ready to shoot the fictional scenes, Alex said to me, “I think I need to be the director.” It was a great moment for her to say that, and I was in fact happy to have some definition for myself at that point as the producer.
Then, after we shot the fiction, we spent six months together watching our footage every day with our editor, talking about every frame, making notes, talking about what worked and what didn’t and why, and during that time we were still defining our roles as director (Alex) and producer (me). But when Alex got sick, we had to have one of those very hard end-of-life conversations. She asked me what I thought about finishing the movie without her. She wanted me to do it, and I wanted to do it, and at the same time I knew it would be an impossible task for me as producer – without a director -- to sit there and think, “Okay, now what would Alex do?” I told her that in order for me to finish the film I thought we needed to be co-directors in order for me to be able to make the thousand and one decisions one has to make in order to edit a movie. And she agreed.
NFF: Did you or Alex ever intend to make the narrative portion with Lili Taylor as a standalone film? Did you always know it would be woven into the framework of the documentary?
Giamatti: Initially, when we very first started talking about this movie, it was a straight up pure fictional film – feature length, narrative, etc. Though we were also, on a parallel track, talking about a documentary version – or rather, maybe a video diary that turned into a blog. We were starting small. So this hybrid form was something that evolved over time and many conversations, but by the time we wrote and shot the fiction we knew that it was going to be part of this hybrid movie and we designed it as such – even though we didn’t know exactly how they were going to be woven together.
NFF: Alex passed away before the film was completed. What was it like to finish it without her there?
Giamatti: Well, it was hard in terms of the personal loss of my very dear friend and collaborator, but it was also, strangely, okay from a creative perspective, because by then I knew – or at least I thought I did, which is all that mattered – what our collective vision for the movie was. Alex was very present inside my head by then, so I actually had very few moments of sitting there in the edit saying, “What would Alex do?” And that is lucky, because I think that would have been paralyzing.
NFF: As far as the formal aspects and hybrid nature of the film, did you draw from any particular influences?
Giamatti: Strangely, most of the movies that we used as references were more because of their thematic and tonal resonances than because of their formal structure – maybe because there weren’t that many hybrids to draw from, and also because hybrids are all so different from one another in how and why and how often they choose to incorporate fiction. We did refer often to an incredible film by William Greaves called Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, but then just as often we would talk about Day for Night or All That Jazz or The Wizard of Oz, which was a great parallel for us (in fact we had quite a lot of references to it both in the fiction and the doc that didn’t make it into the final cut – for good reasons, but the idea was incredibly helpful). Agnes Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes was also really inspiring – she’s so free in that movie to not follow rules, to tell her story however she wants to – and if a giant talking puppet serves her one minute, that’s great, but she doesn’t feel a need to return to it if it doesn’t serve her later in the film. That was incredibly helpful. Also, any movie that managed to treat heavy subjects with a certain kind of lightness and humor was helpful to us.