Writer/director Michael McGowan's Still Mine is the story of Craig Morrison, a Canadian man who fights the red-tape maze of bureaucracy so he can build a small home for his wife, Irene, as she slips into late-life dementia. The couple is played by veteran character actor James Cromwell (Babe) and French-Canadian treasure Genevieve Bujold, Oscar nominee for Anne of the Thousand Days and '70s Hollywood It-Girl (Earthquake, Obsession, Coma etc.) SBS Film spoke to them both (he from Los Angeles; she, Toronto) as their moving love story hit Australian cinemas.
All these years I’ve been at this game, this is my first leading role
What did you find most compelling about Michael McGowan's script?
JC: What drew me to the part was that it was such a beautifully written script. The relationship between them was gentle and loving. I believed it accurate in the sense that it doesn't soft-peddle how difficult it is to deal with someone of diminished capacity. He is a generous but entirely self-contained man, who has only one desire and that is to make the last days of his life and his wife's experience, in her conscious mind, as comfortable and joyous as possible. This is a universal desire that runs up against the bureaucracy, which never takes into account the particular, rather simply applying a generality to everything that comes in its way. And he resists. And since I am not only an iconoclast but also a rebel, I enjoyed the fact that he resisted and, finally, prevailed. I always like it when a film is about something that ordinary people can watch and come away from saying, 'I can do that'.
BG: Everyone involved with the film, myself included, was deeply appreciative of the script and [it] was our point of convergence. It was, above all, in my heart, a beautiful love story. I was immediately interested in doing it. When I spoke with Michael on the phone, I liked his take on it and that he was direct and really got to the point in our conversation, which I appreciated. By the time we got to the location, just north of Toronto, we were all so committed to this beautiful film.
Tell me of the rehearsal period and the methods by which you attained such a convincing intimacy.
GB: Oh, God only knows. (Laughs) I had never met him…
JC: Well, as I told Genevieve and anybody else that would listen, I had a crush on her when I first came to Hollywood. She is just incredibly beautiful and gave wonderful performances. So I had a very strong… not bond, because we developed that as the film went on… but I had strong attraction and affection. And because she is French Canadian, and I happen to very fond of French Canadians, and because she has endured living in this La-La Land existence with her dignity and integrity intact, I have a great deal of respect for her.
GC: First of all, he is very intelligent. He had done his homework. He was very dependable, and generous and patient, and he has a great sense of humour. What's not to like?
And the on-set mood for the much talked-about nude scene?
JC: I take my clothes off at the drop of a hat. (Laughs) I have no inhibitions and quite liked [filming that scene]. When I did the shower scene, Genevieve was supposed to join me in the shower but she demurred. I think she wanted to see how I handled it, to see how comfortable I was in my skin. Maybe as a 73-year-old man, she wanted to see if I looked bad and if, perhaps, I was going to make her look bad. So on that day, she stepped back and watched and finally said, “I can do that”. So when time came for her to disrobe, she had that very French-Canadian tilt of the head, and the nose goes defiantly upwards, and you could see she was thinking, “Go ahead! Watch me!” (Laughs)
Still Mine makes a fascinating companion piece to the similarly-themed Amour, from Michael Haneke.
GB: I think the two films don't compare at all! I couldn't finish watching Amour. I left when he slapped her. For me… no, I could not watch. If that's love, I don't want to ever experience that. In Still Mine, their world is full of light, but Amour is so dark. [Haneke's characters] were wealthy but their lives and their home were so dark. And then I heard that he puts a pillow on her face and she dies! No, no, no, no… Something in me, my actual body, just rejected that notion. I just couldn't get it. I did not want to come out of a film called Amour depressed and saddened. I want an uplifting experience!
JC: I think it is a very apt comparison. I disagree with Genevieve, respectfully, as I do on a number of things. I thought that what that film chose to do was explore the really dark side of the disease. I have had friends who've gone through Alzheimer's and it doesn't always go the way Craig's story goes. Sometimes it demands more than any human is capable of bearing. I thought the husband's devotion was extraordinary, in a film that is one of the most extraordinary I have ever seen. But its message was 'Life sucks and then you die'. In Michael McGowan's script, there is an optimism and hopefulness. It doesn't diminish the impact of Alzheimer's or the overwhelming majesty of death, but it takes a lighter approach.
It must be incredibly heartening for both of you to find these types of roles at this stage of your careers?
JC: I'll say! All these years I've been at this game, this is my first leading role. You can't consider Babe a leading role, though the studio wanted to convince me it was a leading role. I said, “Are you kidding me? It's the pig's picture! I've got 17 lines.” Still Mine is the first time I've really experienced that kind of leading character arc. As a character actor, I never get the girl. In this film, I got the girl.
GB: This role was really a gift from Michael, from one Canadian to another. I have not been working as much as I was, say, 30 years ago. For the last few years, I have been working in support roles, four or five scenes in a movie or on TV. Scenes important to the story but in terms of working days, I would be in and out. But this was my first lead in almost three decades. It was really a gift.
Still Mine is in cinemas from June 6.