“We were a family of laughers and joy. We’d tease each other like crazy and I felt like, ‘How could anything be funny anymore?'” said writer and director Elizabeth Chomko.
Instead, living through 17 years with Alzheimer’s disease, her grandmother’s joy and laugh were something she never lost, Chomko recollected in describing Pat Becker, a longtime Oak Park resident, along with Chomko’s grandfather, Cliff.
Chomko found their lives and love story so compelling, she thought someone should make a movie about it.
“I didn’t think it was going to be me,” she said.
Six months after having that thought, Chomko, already an actress and playwright, “really quickly” wrote a first draft of what would become “What They Had,” which will be released in theaters nationwide on Oct. 26.
“It was about capturing it,” Chomko said. “I just thought I’ll write the script and send it to my mom and her brothers. It will be this family legacy — something that shortcuts grief for us … but it snowballed.”
“What They Had” was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January. At the Chicago International Film Festival last week, it was a Gala Presentation film, which put it among “the most highly anticipated films of the year,” according to the festival website.
Seven years in the making, Chomko went from that early draft to honing her script at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. In 2015, she received a Nicholl Fellowship awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was here Chomko’s work was noticed by Hollywood producers, turning written word into a film in the making.
“What They Had” is a dramatization of her family’s story as her grandmother loses her memory to Alzheimer’s. The names are changed. It takes place in the Chicago area – we see a Forest Park water tower and St. Giles Church in Oak Park is featured – but it is filmed in Hyde Park.
Due to Oak Park restrictions, the feature could not be filmed in the village, even though a location had been chosen to represent the couple’s home.
Both Pat and Cliff Becker grew up in Amboy, Illinois, but moved to Oak Park to raise their four children. Their three sons went to Fenwick High School and daughter Kate Chomko, Elizabeth’s mother, went to Trinity High School. Later in life, the couple moved to a condo in River Forest.
The Beckers were active at St. Giles Catholic Parish in Oak Park for 50 years and Elizabeth recalled her grandmother distributing communion as a lay minister there. Cliff also had a booth at Oak Park Antiques on Marion Street. But, what Chomko remembers most is their warmth and love.
“They had so many friends; they were so beloved,” she said. “My grandmother was just the most warm, wonderful, kind spirit. She just had this buoyant personality.”
Pat started a career in geriatric nursing administration in her early twenties, going to night school while raising her children, according to Chomko. She worked at the Oak Park Arms and Woodbine (now Berkeley Nursing and Rehabilitation Center), both in Oak Park.
While Chomko did not live in Oak Park, she visited her grandparents often and attended Fenwick for a year while living in Hinsdale.
“I visited (my grandparents) every weekend and volunteered [at the senior centers],” Chomko said. “I would visit with the residents and hear their stories. I just loved being with them and their wisdom.”
Chomko said her storytelling abilities are rooted in her days in the Chicago area. She moved frequently and lived in Chicago, Minnesota, Hinsdale and Belgium before ending up in California, where she lives now.
In her work, Pat Becker became involved with Alzheimer patients. She was on the Governor’s Task Force on Alzheimer’s for the State of Illinois, according to her obituary on Legacy.com. Her own diagnosis came at age 68.
“It was ironic that she ended up with the disease herself,” Chomko said. “She handled the entire disease with an enormous amount of grace. I think having experience helped her understand what to expect. It’s the unknown that’s so terrifying. … She seemed to handle it better than the rest of us. And she never lost her joy for life and that buoyant spirit.”
That spirit is captured in the film. Blythe Danner plays Ruth Keller, the matriarch who is experiencing memory loss and wanders off one night. Her family is at odds on how to move forward.
Her husband, Bert Keller, played by Robert Forster, wants to keep his wife at home and care for her himself. Their son, Nick, played by Michael Shannon, believes a memory center is the answer.
Hilary Swank takes on the role of their daughter Bridget Ertz, who comes to town from her home in California, and tries to strike a balance between her father’s and brother’s needs while figuring out how to support her college-age daughter, Emma, played by Taissa Farmiga, who is going through her own growing pains.
During the entire process, Chomko’s mother “became a sounding board” and while the film was in post-production, Kate Chomko made her own contribution to the film.
“She sent me this poem she had written in the voice of my grandmother,” Elizabeth said. “My grandmother was so successful — sharp as a tack — so to see her lose that capacity to communicate, it was really hard on my mom. She wrote what she imagined her thoughts would be and said, ‘I think this is a song.'”
Elizabeth, who composes and plays piano, worked with Kate to create the song used during the closing credits.
“Are You There” was fleshed out, instrumentation added and recorded by Aoife O’Donovan in time to be included in the final mix of “What They Had.”
While the movie shows the struggles of a woman experiencing those difficult moments of losing her memory, it also captures the joy in remembering, and how she can be with her family — her loving them, them loving her — no matter what.
“She was always finding joy,” Chomko said of her grandmother. “Every day for her was a gift no matter where she was at. She fought so long, so hard, to the very end. She just loved life, whatever life was. … I think that is what really inspired the film. That deep love of life and love of your loved ones – bottomless love.”