By Michael Phillips
Five pieces of direction from first-time feature filmmaker Elizabeth Chomko, writer and director of “What They Had”:
Write what you know. Chomko, 37, was born in Chicago and grew up in Minnesota; Hinsdale, Ill.; Belgium; England; and California. Her mother and uncles grew up in Oak Park and River Forest. She visited her grandparents twice a year for many years, and was 21 when her grandmother received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the basis of the “What They Had” storyline.
“We were a family of laughers,” Chomko told me last week, the day after her debut feature played the Chicago International Film Festival. “When she was diagnosed it was devastating, and we all thought we’d lose that easy laughter, how could anything be funny anymore? But we never really lost it, even though watching her lose her memories made me realize how precious they are, and how our memories are always kind of ebbing and flowing.”
Use your writing to cheat death. For years, Chomko worked primarily and steadily as a stage and TV actress. In Hollywood she made do with some recurring and series regular roles on the high end, settling on the low end, earlier on, for “mistress corpse in a rolled-up carpet” fare a la “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” (She really did play a mistress corpse in a rolled-up carpet, though she was seen, fleetingly, alive, in flashbacks.)
Chomko began the first draft of her semi-autobiographical screenplay seven years ago. “I wasn’t ready to let them go,” she says of her grandparents. “So this was a way of trying to cheat death, and find a workaround.”
Make it local. Chomko shot “What They Had” on a low budget, in a few weeks, in early 2017. The film was set in winter, with lots of snow; Chicago provided none of it, so they faked it. The River Forest condo residence of the characters portrayed by Blythe Danner and Robert Forster was played by the lovely old building located at 5650 S. Dorchester Ave. in Hyde Park.
“We looked at Oak Park,” she says, “but the village told us we had to be out by 10 or 11 p.m. every night, which didn’t work for us. So we went to Chicago.”
Don’t waste time regretting who you weren’t. “For a while I was nervous about directing. I didn’t look like the filmmakers who I knew. I didn’t grow up watching the stuff they saw growing up. And I didn’t grow up shooting Super 8 movies with my friends. I thought all those things meant I shouldn’t direct. And then I woke up one day and realized it meant that I should.”
Keep writing, keep working. Chomko’s currently attached to the adaptation of the Christina McDowell memoir “After Perfect,” the true story of one family’s downfall in the wake of the multimillion-dollar “Wolf of Wall Street” scams. Martin Scorsese made that world a decadent fiesta of predatory bros. This perspective promises something new.
“It’s like a new, cool thing to tell stories about women,” Chomko says. “I also like telling stories about men. Did you see ‘Roma’? That’s a beautiful portrait of the invisibility you sometimes feel if you’re female.”
Chomko told womanandhollywood.com earlier this year: “We’ve tried for a long time to change things by being deserving, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If anybody was going to hand us change, they would have done it already.”