The Making of a Movie: “What They Had”
Nicholl fellow Elizabeth Chomko on the road to her first feature
Elizabeth Chomko has been a writer since childhood.
“As a kid, I used to journal compulsively and write short stories… I journaled more to combat loneliness in high school.”
The act of writing became deeply personal: “I didn’t set out to share the work that I was doing. It was more about the process.”
And that’s exactly the spirit with which Chomko began writing the script for What They Had, a film about two siblings coping with their mother’s decline and father’s reluctance to let go.
“I wrote it for my family as a way of time traveling and memory keeping. I really wrote it from a place of grief.”
Chomko has worked as an actor and playwright in Los Angeles. But this was the project that pushed her to listen to the voice inside her head. She finished a first draft in three days and spent the following few years honing the script.
“It was a very organic thing — not that it was easy, but it felt like I couldn’t let this go. I couldn’t move it aside and move on with my life.”
Then came the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, an international screenwriting competition established to identify and encourage talented new screenwriters.
In 2015, Chomko won with her script for What They Had.
Winning the Nicholl “got the script read by agents and other executives who became its champions.”
It brought on producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. It attracted talent including Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon.
And it “gave the project a validity that we didn’t have before,” Chomko added.
From the moment she envisioned the script turning into a film, she was set on being its director.
“I couldn’t give it away. I wanted to be certain it was made with the kind of love that I had written the script with.”
While directing her debut feature, Chomko found herself on a similar coming-of-age journey as her characters.
On set, she held onto a lesson that she learned from Bernardo Bertolucci in a book on filmmaking: “You always have to leave the door open for whatever walks in on the day.”
With only 22 days of shooting, the production process was filled with moments of growth. The only way through the challenges was to let “whatever walked in on the day talk to me.”
Sometimes, this meant letting the actors take her words as their own.
“I started off with the script being as close to my grandparents as I could because those are the people I wanted to preserve,” Chomko said.
Robert Forster was the first name that came up to play Burt, and Chomko immediately felt he was right for the role.
Blythe Danner proved a perfect fit for Burt’s wife, Ruth. “She felt like the spirit of the woman that my grandmother was, regardless of her diagnosis. I wanted to make the character a whole, rounded woman, with her Alzheimer’s being just one aspect of the many, many things that shaped her.”
With Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon on board, the cast “became this family before my eyes.”
“Making the film has been a really beautiful way of keeping them around and cheating death, cheating the loss of this past moment.”
And it has endowed Chomko with lessons she hopes future filmmakers—and Nicholl applicants—will take to heart.
“Run recklessly toward that voice, even if you’re terrified. Trust yourself and have the confidence to believe that yours is a voice worth hearing.”
As for whether she intends to direct again, Chomko replied, “I cant wait! I think this is the home I was looking for, the place where I belong.”