One of the most memorable success stories at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was James C. Strouse’s Grace is Gone starring John Cusack as Stanley Phillips, manager of a Home Depot like warehouse store, whose military wife Grace is killed while stationed in Iraq. Instead of telling his two young daughters what happened, he decides to take them on a road trip to an amusement park, while trying to deal with his own loss and grief before letting them know. Even before the movie was honored with the coveted Audience Award at the festival’s closing ceremony, the Weinstein Company had picked the movie up for distribution after a legendary all-night negotiating session with Cusack (who also signed on as the film’s producer). Harvey Weinstein then showed the movie to filmmaker Clint Eastwood, who was so touched by the story that he offered to compose a new score for the film, as well as write an original song for the closing credits. The resulting film is a powerfully moving family drama that’s not only about the Iraq War, nor is it a political movie, focusing more on the loved ones left behind by the soldiers fighting in Iraq and how their absence and deaths affect them.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with Strouse about the film’s origins and how Cusack was invaluable in making his directorial debut happen.
ComingSoon.net: I missed the movie at Sundance unfortunately, and I don’t know much about the origins. I remember you wrote “Lonesome Jim” which Buscemi directed. Was this a script you had for a while that you always intended to direct yourself?
James Strouse: It was something I wrote after “Lonesome Jim.” I didn’t have much strategy. I finished the script and I liked it a lot. I didn’t necessarily plan to direct it. It just sort of happened that way. My wife was a producer on it and we were looking for directors and no one really bit. We were faced with this choice. I needed to make it or just sort of watch the chance go by. At the time we made it, it was a really sort of good time to tell the story and it didn’t feel like there was anything else out there like that. It’s strange. I think a lot of people had similar feelings and you see a lot of these stories come out now that sort of touch on Iraq in some way or another, but yeah, it sort of happened organically.
CS: How long ago did you write this?
Strouse: It was after “Lonesome Jim.” It went to Sundance this past January and we made it in March of the year before. I was writing for a good year, year and a half, working on various drafts up until I finished a draft that I felt comfortable enough to send out to actors.
CS: How did John Cusack come on board? Did you just send him the script, he liked it and came on board as a producer at the same time?
Strouse: Yeah. I had him in mind from the very beginning and it worked out to our advantage. It worked out that he liked the story, and I always imagined him in this role. I had no idea if he would do it or not, but I think he was excited by the role and the spirit of the story.
CS: Did you have a way to contact him? Tony Gilroy mentioned that it took two years to get the script for “Michael Clayton” to George Clooney.
Strouse: Two years?
CS: Yeah, something like that.
Strouse: I had agents at William Morris so that helped tremendously because he is a rep at William Morris so maybe that gave me an inside advantage, but I’d say it took three months.
CS: That’s not bad at all.
Strouse: It’s a pretty good response time.
CS: How involved was John? He’s a very busy actor, especially in the last few years, so did he do rehearsals or work on the script with you?
Strouse: The script was pretty much finished. I try to make a point of not presenting something that needs work, so there were some small points that we talked about and sort of went back and forth on, but we pretty much shot the script that I shared with him. We made it for about 2.5 million dollars total which is not shabby, but it’s also not a lot of money for a film, so we were just hustling to get it made and didn’t have a lot of time for rehearsals. We kind of figured it out in front of the camera.
CS: Was he involved with the casting of the young actors? Shelan O’Keefe is quite amazing, I don’t know how you found her.
Strouse: I love both those girls. I think they’re great. Shelan has a very complex part in the film. I was frankly kind of amazed watching it and putting it together in the editing room. It was such a delicate performance and very subtle. I didn’t even realize half the time how great a listener she was. It’s a film about what people aren’t saying to each other and suspicion and deceit, but love through it all and it all comes through and more through Shelan. And John did have a big part in that. We cast those girls locally out of Chicago. Shelan and Gracie were both on the first tape I ever watched from the local casting agency, but I kept looking and kept looking and narrowed down the search to five or six girls. John came in to read with all of them and he said, “I feel something special with these two girls. There’s chemistry I’ve rarely felt when working on a film or onstage.”
CS: That’s a pretty high compliment.
Strouse: I had to listen to that too and I think it’s clear that it was right for the film.
CS: Did Gracie jump on a bed for her audition?
Strouse: Gracie is a cheerleader. They were working with what was natural to them. She’s a cheerleader and just full of spunk and then Shelan is just a very serious sort of emotionally aware girl who has very adult tastes like French documentaries and the Talking Heads and she was eleven years old at the time. She’s kind of an old soul, wise beyond her years and I think that worked for the part.
CS: She must have cool parents if she’s listening to the Talking Heads.
Strouse: Yeah, you don’t find yourself listening to the Talking Heads when you’re eleven.
CS: No, even I didn’t do that. It’s interesting the way you talk about the way she emotes. That sort of thing isn’t in the script, so was it just a matter of talking through her feelings before shooting a scene?
Strouse: She’s very smart. I could talk to both those girls just about what their characters are feeling and they would get it. The best example I have is that moment on the beach when John’s character Stanley tells the girls the news. They both cried the first take, but we didn’t get enough of their faces so I had to reset the camera. Shelan had trouble crying again. Gracie kept crying for like six takes in a row, but Shelan had trouble. You know, it’s hard enough to cry once, but to do it again and again is tough, so we tried take after take and finally we’re down to about the end of our film and we’re running out of light. John had an idea to show them some film dailies of him having his breakdown on his childhood bed. So I took her to the car and we watched on a laptop. We watched him having this sort of nervous breakdown and I said to her, “This is what your father was hiding from you the whole time. This is what he was protecting you from. And this is what he was feeling.” And she just gave me a nod and she said, “Okay.” And we went back out there and she did it. She just came apart on the camera and she just understood and was so empathetic that she could do that.
CS: I was going to ask you if you have any daughters yourself, but I heard yours running around in the background so did your own relationship with her inform how John’s character might be feeling?
Strouse: Definitely. I have an older brother who has two daughters and I witnessed that growing up in Indiana, that sort of father-daughter relationship. I think that probably more than my own daughter informed the relationship in the story because my daughter is just three right now. I’m still finding my way. She hasn’t hit adolescence yet.
CS: What were some of the unexpected challenges of doing a film on the road? I know John’s done a few of those over the years. Was there anything that really took you by surprise when you had to do a movie like that?
Strouse: I like doing nights because we could just put the car in the parking lot and make it look like they were driving down the road. But during the day when you’re leading a car and a truck and you have to direct by walkie-talkie I think that’s terrible. I mean it really threw me off because I’m a pretty quiet guy and I like to be respectful to the other actors and sort of give discreet comments and stuff between takes. It was really hard for me to sort of just blurt out on a walkie-talkie for everyone to hear my notes. It is just a very strange, distant way of directing.
CS: Is Enchanted Gardens a real location or was that park made-up?
Strouse: There’s a park called Cypress Gardens that we used for the location has a really great topiary garden that I loved. The idea for Enchanted Gardens was just for the film.
CS: The movie was received really well at Sundance, where it picked up the audience award. Some people have decided the movie is just about the Iraq War, but it’s not really about that, it’s far more non-partisan. Do you find that people are superimposing their own beliefs onto the movie and is that good or bad?
Strouse: I find it very interesting. The life of a film is just so strange and new to me just what happens. Looking back, there are two moments that filled me with the most satisfaction and pride in the film. One was just getting it into Sundance and then two was getting in touch with a lot of families who had actually gone through this experience. I was able to meet one of them face to face at the premiere, this great guy Warren Pelligran who lost his wife and has three kids and he came up to me and said, “Thank you for honoring the story and the situation.” He told me I got it right which is amazing, but beyond that just to see what people take from it and how people are either disappointed or fulfilled. A lot of people are projecting themselves into this. Some are upset that it doesn’t make enough of a comment. It’s just really strange and kind of out of my hands, but for my part I always wanted to just tell a story that allowed people to empathize with this family and with this situation. That to me seemed enough. To sort of just respect this loss that is happening on the domestic side of this was what I wanted to do. I think most people are seeing that.
CS: This is a very serious topic, but there are some lighter moments in there. Was it hard getting some humor into the movie to keep it from becoming too grim?
Strouse: That was important to me. My favorite tragedies are the ones that respect the humor and the full quality of life, so I wanted levity in there. I had actually planned for a little more, but some of it just didn’t make the cut, but I do think it’s important to laugh because if it’s all grim, it drains you in a bad way, for me at least.
CS: I can see that. One of the most interesting changes after Sundance was Clint Eastwood coming on board to do the score and writing an original song for the movie. How did that come about?
Strouse: It was a very strange thing that worked post-Sundance. What had happened was, Harvey had screened it for Clint Eastwood and he liked it enough to work on the music. I mean, he’s never done that. He’s only done his own films. It was strange and an honor to sort of have him involved and have his name on the film in that way.
CS: Were you able to work with him and give him some input on the new score?
Strouse: Clint Eastwood sort of does what he does and then you stay back. He pretty much worked alone and then I heard the music and we had a couple of conversations. I found this is true with a lot of people working in film. If you have good people, talented people, then you trust them, you trust that instinct that made you say that they’d be good for the film in the first place.
CS: I asked John about this the last time I talked to him, because music is such an important part of movies for me, and I wondered whether you might have the original music on the DVD as well? Maybe a side-by-side comparison?
Strouse: I think that would be really interesting. I have no idea what the Weinstein Company is thinking or what they could actually even do. Bill Forbes, I love what his music does, but the music we had in Sundance was effective too.
CS: Do you know what you’re going to do after the strike? Do you have another script you want to direct? Do you want to stay in that path?
Strouse: Sure, I love working on a film, but I just want to make sure that I continue to do stuff that means something to me and I want to figure out if I could get paid for it on a consistent basis to make a real living. So I’m kind of figuring that stuff out.
CS: It’s always nice when you get paid to do things that you enjoy doing. That’s always the best.
Strouse: It’s great if you could figure out a way to do it.
James Strouse’s Grace is Gone opens in select cities on Friday, December 7.