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Filmmaker Elizabeth Giamatti on Making a Film While Her Co-Director Battled Terminal Breast Cancer

Filmmaker Elizabeth Giamatti on Making a Film While Her Co-Director Battled Terminal Breast Cancer

A Woman Like Me” is a hybrid documentary that interweaves the real story of director Alex Sichel, diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2011, with the fictional story of Anna Seashell (Lili Taylor), who tries to find the glass half-full when faced with the same diagnosis. The documentary follows Alex as she uses her craft as a filmmaker to explore what is foremost on her mind while confronting a terminal disease: parenting, marriage, faith, life and death. When we are stuck between a rock and hard place, can our imagination get us out? (Press materials)

Elizabeth Giamatti is a partner at Touchy Feely Films and co-directed “A Woman Like Me” with Sichel, who has since passed away.

“A Woman Like Me” opens in theaters October 9.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

EG: Alex and I both wanted to try to explore some of the big and scary things that confront us all as we get older, most specifically this terrifying thing that was staring Alex in the face. Also, my mother had died of breast cancer a couple of years before Alex was diagnosed, and I think Alex and I both felt like we wanted to try to explore something personal and hard on film. 

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

EG: There were two, really: One was trying to figure out how to raise money for an idea that was difficult to explain on paper. In the end, we cobbled together enough money to shoot the fiction scenes so that we could put together a short sample to demonstrate what we were doing.

The other was trying to duck and dodge around the reality that Alex had limited time, though we had no idea how much.  She was asymptomatic for almost the entire time she carried her diagnosis. But in a day-to-day way, she was juggling a lot, physically and emotionally and spiritually. Even though she was so very happy to be doing what she loved and using her craft to explore this very personal subject, I think she also sometimes felt overwhelmed. And that became a challenge within itself.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

EG: It’s important for me to start a conversation about whether one’s imagination can help when you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Alex was using fiction to try to learn to live peacefully with a terminal disease, and I really hope — and Alex did too — that this idea of using one’s imagination to change your perspective — on any crappy situation — can start to take root. While this project was evolving, we used to say all the time something that Alex’s Buddhist teacher would say: “Blink, and it’s a whole new world.”

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

EG: Try really hard not to be intimidated, and if you are, try to ignore those feelings. 

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

EG: We started with a little bit of our own money — a generically bad idea, but we did it anyway — because we thought it would be virtually impossible to explain to possible funding sources what this film would be like. Even once we figured out for ourselves what we were trying to do, I still had this inner skeptic’s voice, what I heard as funders’ voice, saying, “Yes, but is it going to work?” And I could imagine that, from their perspective, it would be pretty hard to understand how or why just on our say-so.  

After we shot some interviews and the fiction, we put together a four-minute sample which, mercifully, allowed us to raise other money — at first from small foundations and individuals, and eventually from film-specific funds as well.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

EG: Right now, it’s Agnes Varda’s “The Beaches of Agnes,” which was a great inspiration for us for this particular movie. We both loved so much how playful she was in that film, and how she seemed to create her own rules as she went along. 

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