‘What They Had’: Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon and Robert Forster on ‘the job of life,’ to care for loved ones in need

“It didn’t feel like going to work, it felt like going to the folks’ house,” said Michael Shannon about working on the family drama “What They Had.” He was in New York City to discuss the film with awards voters alongside writer-director Elizabeth Chomko and co-stars Hilary Swank and Robert Forster. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and it opens on October 19 in limited release.

“What They Had” is Chomko’s feature writing and directing debut, and it was “a very personal endeavor” for the first-time filmmaker. Inspired by her own grandmother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, the film tells the story of Burt (Forster) and his adult children Bridget and Nick (Swank and Shannon), who disagree about how best to care for family matriarch Ruth (Blythe Danner) as her mental condition deteriorates.

“It was inspired very much by my family and wanting to capture this memory that I didn’t want to lose, having seen someone lose their memory,” Chomko explained. “I wrote it to sort of heal the wounds of my mother and her brothers,” and “every time I rewrote it was like hanging out with my grandparents, so the joy was there.”

It hit close to home for the cast as well. Swank went on a three-year hiatus to care for her father after he had a lung transplant. “It’s really one of the hardest surgeries a person can undergo,” she said. And though his recovery took longer than expected, “time is irrelevant when you’re healing and fighting for your life,” so the film “definitely paralleled the journey I took with my father.”

Forster had a similar experience with his own father, caring for him in the last month of his life shortly after the actor shot “Jackie Brown”: “The job of life, the human condition requires that for most of your life you take care of others until the very end, and when you can no longer take care of yourself you have to rely on the ones that you have parented … I am very grateful to have made that effort,” he revealed. “Anybody here who makes the effort to take care of their folks will know that that effort never stops paying dividends to you and to your heart.”

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