Once again, The Notebook director Nick Cassavetes is serving up a heart-wrenching film that, aside from its box office prospects, just might help Kleenex through today’s tough economy.
My Sister’s Keeper – based on the bestselling book by novelist and recent Wonder Woman comic book scribe Jodi Picoult – re-teams Cassavetes with his Notebook collaborators, producer Mark Johnson and screenwriter Jeremy Leven, to tell the emotion-filled tale of two parents (Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric) who, when they discover their infant daughter Kate has leukemia, decide to conceive another child to provide genetic material in hopes of prolonging Kate’s life.
As they mature, the two sisters – Sophia Vassilieva as the afflicted Kate and Abilgail Breslin as her intended savior Anna – share an incredibly close bond. So close that when Anna hires a lawyer to medically emancipate herself, against her determined mother’s single-minded wishes, it threatens to tear the seemingly normal but already fraying family apart.
It’s sensitive material to be sure, and Collider explored how the project came together, Cassavetes’ own real life family medical drama and the ways the story affected the actors with the director and his leading ladies. It’s after the jump:
Cameron Diaz: Nick brought me this script, and it was a wonderful script. I didn’t really even think about the fact that I would be playing a mother. I didn’t think about it, in terms of what it meant to my career. I thought of what it meant to the story, and who this woman was and what her life experience was and what was happening in front of her. I didn’t think, “Oh, my God, if I play a mother, and a mother of teenagers, how is this going to affect my career?” It didn’t even phase me.
Nick Cassavetes: I have a sick child. My second daughter was diagnosed with congenital heart disease when she was a week old. When I was young, I was wide open. The world was wide open before me and I was a happy guy. I didn’t know anything about life. This illness from my daughter Sasha was temperance on my soul. It was a learning experience. It was something that I had to go through and it was something that she had to go through. Cameron felt like what I felt like back then. She felt like that. So yeah, it’s weird that she has never played a mother in a movie and she’s playing a mother of three in this movie and they’re teenagers. But that doesn’t scare me. I knew she was up for it. I thought it was fresh casting. I’ve gotta tell you, I’m more proud of her performance in the film than I’m proud of a lot of things in my life. I think she’s fantastic in the film. She’s the fulcrum of the movie.
Abigail Breslin: In the movie, my character and Sofia’s characterare sisters, and my character loves her sister so much that she’s willing to go to any lengths to help her. That’s what I liked about the movie. You think that this family is all in this big problem, which they are, but they all love each other, even though they’re going through this whole thing.
Sofia Vassilieva: One day when we were doing a screen test beforehand, we had just done one where it was the wig when the hair was falling out, and it was the very beginning of it all, I remember I came into the trailer and I was hysterical. It was so hard to see yourself like that, and it was so hard to envision other people going through that, and that’s something that happens every single day. The two things that made that moment better were that Cammy and my mom were there, and they both fled in when I was sitting in that chair crying. And I think that it let me see myself in a different light, being so new and pure, and having a completely fresh start. At 15, I wasn’t conformed to any idea of myself.
Cassavetes: I think that it’s great as a director that you get to play all the parts and you try to make them all real. I think it’s important, it’s what we do. You explore the material that’s in the movie or in your story. That’s why I get my kicks making movies, man. I get my kicks making movies so I never shy away from the work.
Breslin: My experience with Nick was that I met with him before we started filming, and he said, “Abby, I’m just going to tell you right now, this is going to be a work out and you’re going to have to do things in this movie that you probably don’t want to do,” and I was like, “Okay.” And then, I got to set and I was like, “Wow, he wasn’t lying!” But I think that Nick is a really good director. He just really sets the tone for the day. If it was a scene that was a really hard scene for someone, he would just say “Okay, you’ve gotta be serious today. No joking around. This is a serious day.” But, that’s what makes it good because you’re really into it from the beginning. You’re in that mindset of the scene.
Cassavetes: Abigail’s a 70-year-old woman in a 12-year-old’s body. She’s so soulful and so gets it. I find myself trying to catch up to her intellectually as opposed to dragging her along. There’s something very, very special and still and knowing and nurturing about Abigail Breslin. It’s astonishing when you think this child who’s so caring, and she just gives that off, that she’s not going to help her sister, which really helps our film. So when she said she wanted to play the part, I was like, “Okay, we’ve got her. Good. That’s my girl!”
Vassilieva: Nick was this leader of all of us, and he would give everybody their place to play and create, whether it was the actors or the prop department, or anything like that. He chose the right people to surround himself with that were the best of their craft and could create on their own, and he gave everybody that space, and the opportunity and freedom to go with it where they wanted to.
Cassavetes: With Sophia, the beauty – the thing that you want to capture, exploit, whatever the word is – is she leads with her heart. She feels so much sometimes, she almost feels TOO much. Her sensors are wide open to the world. When you watch her selling the fact the a girl is 16 but she knows so much about this world and the other world that she decides it’s better to go to the other world now and that’s okay. That’s a tough thing to sell for a girl who is not still water, who you don’t believe has an understanding of this world and the next. With Sophia, that responsibility fell upon her shoulders and it fit her like a suit. For some reason, I believed that she was the type of person that would make that sacrifice, not only for herself but for her family. It was just as simple as that.
Diaz: I think Nick being an actor himself, prior to being the director he is today, really helps his ability to communicate with his actors. If you ask Nick, he’ll say that he loves actors, and he really does. He’s incredibly generous with his actors. He gives so much of himself, particularly in this movie, because it’s a very personal thing. He’s gone through having a sick child and so he knew, really intimately, what this experience was like and he was able to give that to all of us, and communicate it in a way that really went to the core and essence of the experience and the moment. He just has a wonderful sense of humanity and what it really is to feel things on the level that these people feel.
Cassavetes: I’ve known Cameron for a number of years. Did you ever know or get to meet somebody and they do something and you’re like,”That’s not them?” I see her in comedies and the totality of Cameron, I have to think about it. This is a girl who’s probably made a lot of dough in her life. She can make people laugh. She’s pretty. But that’s not her. She’s a woman who cares about the planet. She has a lot of thoughts about being responsible to this world and to her community. She’s just a great person and a very mature person. But the fact that she can make people laugh, that’s the first thing that people jump to. Remember when Tom Hanks was doing Bachelor Party and Nothing in Common and suddenly he decided to make serious films? People were so mad at him. They were like, “C’mon, dude. You can make me laugh. Woody Allen’s making Stardust Memories. Are you crazy?” It’s such a rare commodity for people to be able to make you laugh and take you out of whatever experience you are in at the moment that they not only expect you to do that but they want you to do that because it’s such a satisfying experience.
Breslin: What I found interesting about the movie was that there really are no bad guys. Everybody’s doing what they think is right. They’re not trying to do anything wrong. They’re just doing what they think they should be doing.
Cassavetes: Families aren’t logical. Families are emotional. When things happen, people are entitled to have opinions that aren’t politically correct. I don’t believe the mother is particularly sympathetic in this movie, but I understand her completely. I don’t think that the daughter wanting to stop being poked, prodded and cut upon is perfectly logical, but I don’t sympathize with her. If things were so politically correct and pat, then they’re not worth exploring. The fact that this family doesn’t come together and all the pieces don’t exactly fit is what makes the story worth telling, and it’s also my experience with family. I’ll probably have a message on my machine right now with my family having some kind of a problem that they shouldn’t have, but that’s the beauty of it. What the film sets out to be, and hopefully becomes, is an examination of a family that’s going through something very hard.
Diaz: Now I know I can really judge anybody on that. You don’t know what it’s like until you have a child dying in front of you. And, if she’d looked a little bit closer, Sarah might not have put her whole family through what she had. The parents that I spoke to all said that this script really reflected what happens to a family who has a child with special needs. Everybody falls away and everyone else’s needs in the family fall away. It only becomes really focused on that child. As far as speaking to a mother who had to let go of a child, we didn’t have any parents who had had to do that. Unfortunately, we lost one of the boys, Paul, who was in the film with us. Speaking with his mother during that time, you really get this sense that there’s never really a time that you let go. You really don’t. I don’t think as a parent that you can actually ever let go, even when you honor your child’s decision to be released or the child is finally taken from you.
Cassavetes: I’ve had a lot of experience going to pediatric hospitals, going to cancer hospitals and talking to kids and to doctors and finding out what this and that and the other means. [Screewriter] Jeremy Leven explained to me that, at the end of the day, “Stop thinking about the book. What would you do if you were her? Don’t think of it as a topical kind of story. Don’t think of it as a legal type of story. This thing is actually happening to a family. There’s a mother, there’s a father, and they have a sick kid and they’ve got problems.” When I thought about that, it seemed to simplify this story for me. Then, going and visiting people in the hospital, this story repeated over and over and over again. And in reality, none of these stories ended like the book did. How do you sell that a girl at 16 says it’s okay to let go of her own life? It’s really hard. Now you go and you ask these kids, you say, “Do you ever think about dying? Do you ever thing about just letting go?” And to a person, they say,”Yeah.” They do. They think about it. Sometimes it gets too painful and that’s just mind-blowing for me,
Diaz: I think the most important thing that I’ve found in my life is just my family and friends. Your wealth in life are the people that you get to love and who love you back, and all the experiences that you get to have with those people, throughout your life. Some come and some go. Some stay for a really long time, some leave quickly, some linger, and all of those experiences are the wealth of your soul. Those are the things that I’m most grateful for.