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Meet the 2015 SXSW Filmmakers #1: Alex Sichel and Elizabeth Giamatti Navigate a Terminal Illness in ‘A Woman Like Me’

Meet the 2015 SXSW Filmmakers #1: Alex Sichel and Elizabeth Giamatti Navigate a Terminal Illness in 'A Woman Like Me'

Alex Sichel was both the co-director and subject of “A Woman Like Me,” a devastatingly humane exploration of terminal illness. In it, Sichel creates a fictional character based on herself (played by Lili Taylor), and by doing so learns how to maintain her vibrancy and personality while contending with the illness. Sichel has since passed away, and her co-director, Elizabeth Giamatti, looks back on the enormously gratifying and challenging experience with pride. In the process of examining a difficult subject with humor and grace, she and Sichel created a film of unmatched emotional resonance and deeply personal reflection.

What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?

By creating a fictional character based on herself, filmmaker Alex Sichel learns how to navigate a terminal disease with grace and humor.

Now what’s it REALLY about?

“A Woman Like Me” is about life, death, art, faith, craft and learning to live joyfully with a ticking time bomb. Alex and I were interested in looking at some of the big things we all confront through the prism of the imagination — and we were hoping to do so with some sense of buoyancy. Or at least we hoped that the act of fictionalizing Alex’s very real experience would bring some lightness to that experience; Alex’s long-time Buddhist practice informed our approach in the sense that one of things we were trying to do was learn to “hold it lightly,” this very heavy subject.

Tell us briefly about yourself.

Alex Sichel made her first film, “All Over Me,” in 1996, right after finishing film school at Columbia. In the intervening years, she made some short films, created a segment of “If These Walls Could Talk II” for HBO, and wrote scripts with her sister, Sylvia, who is a screenwriter (and with whom she collaborated on All Over Me). Alex also taught directing at Columbia and Tisch School of the Arts.

Elizabeth Giamatti is a partner at Touchy Feely Films, which she and her partners, Dan Carey and Paul Giamatti, founded in 2005. At Touchy Feely, she was a producer on “Pretty Bird,” “Cold Souls,” and “All Is Bright.” Prior to that she worked in theater and had a meandering path through a couple of graduate programs in Cinema Studies (NYU) and Dramaturgy (Yale School of Drama).

Biggest challenge in completing this film?

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 daily, she was juggling a lot. Even though she was so 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.

What do you want the SXSW audience to take away from your film?

It’s really important to me that people can relate this film to any difficult situation they might find themselves in: when you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, can you use your imagination to wriggle yourself out, or even find just a little more space? Even though Alex and I fervently hoped that she would have a one-in-a-thousand instance of spontaneous remission, ultimately the only place we could actually effect change was in her relationship to her circumstance. As she says in the movie, “You can change it by the way you look at it.”

Any films inspire you?

We were inspired by a wide range of movies: “All That Jazz,” Agnes Varda’s “The Beaches of Agnes,” “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm,” “Day For Night,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Blue Vinyl,” “Reds,” Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close-Up….”

What’s next?

I’m not sure! I’ve been working so intently and intensively on this movie for the last three years that I haven’t really been thinking about it. That is really scary, frankly, even though the upside has been really being in the moment with this project. I have a few short films I want to make, and a couple of docs I’d like more time to think about making. One thing that’s been amazing about making this movie is feeling empowered to take the means of production up in my own hands, so I’m curious to see where that leads.

What cameras did you shoot on?

We shot on lots of different formats — which ended up being an important part of the look and feel of the movie. We shot the fictional scenes on a Red Epic, and most of the doc footage — at least the stuff that was shot by professional DPs — was shot on a Sony FS 100. Alex’s video diary was shot on a Panasonic consumer camcorder — the idea was that it would look almost like it was shot on a Flip camera — but of decent enough quality that it could size up with the rest of the footage. There are even a couple of iPhone shots in there.

Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform. If not, why?

We didn’t. We would very much like to and are planning to crowdfund in order to support our outreach campaign, but we didn’t end up doing so for production or post. We had thought about it, and quite seriously intended to, but the moment we were planning to launch a campaign also turned out to be the precise moment that we started editing full-time, going through hours and hours of footage, and beginning to put together scenes, and we didn’t feel like we had the bandwidth to do both at the same time, given the limited number of hours Alex had available during any given week. Luckily, we found other sources (foundations, mostly, and some friends and family contributions through our non-profit fiscal sponsor, Women Make Movies).

Did you go to film school? If so, which one? 

Alex went to Columbia Film School.

Indiewire invited SXSW Film Festival competition directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. For profiles go HERE.

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