Extraordinary Measures is inspired by the true story of John Crowley (Brendan Fraser), a man who defied conventional wisdom and great odds, and risked his family’s future to pursue a cure for his children’s life threatening disease. Directed by Tom Vaughan in the tradition of great inspirational dramas like the Academy Award nominated film Erin Brockovich and The Pursuit of Happyness, Extraordinary Measures is the first film to go into production for CBS films.
Supported by his wife Aileen (Keri Russell) and their three children, Crowley (Brendan Fraser) is on the fast track in corporate America. But just as his career is taking off, Crowley walks away from it all when his two youngest children, Megan and Patrick, are diagnosed with a fatal disease. Harnessing all of his skill and determination, Crowley teams up with a brilliant, but unappreciated and unconventional scientist, Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford).
Last week, Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford (who also served as the film’s Executive Producer) talked to journalists in Los Angeles about the development process, researching their characters, and why this film was important in terms of raising awareness about a devastating disease. Having played iconic characters in huge franchises, they touched on what it was like to play ordinary people for a change attempting to do extraordinary things. They also promised to get back to us on which franchise was better: Indiana Jones or The Mummy.
Question: Harrison, you came across this material about 6 years ago, what was the process and why were you interested in seeing this made into a film?
Harrison Ford: Well I was in business with my production partners, Michael Shamberg, his partner, Stacey Sher, and Carla Shamberg, Michael’s wife, and we were looking for material to develop for movies that I could be in and we came across this material in the Wall Street Journal, read the follow-up book by Geeta Anand and thought that there was a germ of a good idea for a movie in there, something different to what I normally am involved in, and a chance to build an interesting part for myself in that story. We started to try and find a screenwriter that could capture what we were looking for and we hit upon Robert (Robert Nelson Jacobs) and he did two or possibly three drafts before we started. Well I think there was a wonderful collaborative atmosphere involving Michael and all of the other production partners who have developed a couple of stories in the past that were stories of real humanity and people doing positive things – Erin Brockovich, World Trade Center being two of them. And so we went through the process, we found a script, we were satisfied with the script, we found Tom, and the rest is show business history.
Harrison and Brendan, both of your characters are motivated to find a cure for this disease, did you visit with any children that actually have it?
Brendan Fraser: I did, yes. John’s children. When I met them, they came to a premiere of a movie that I was opening about this time last year. It was a film called Inkheart and, as it goes, Megan had actually read the book that it was based on and was a fan of the material. And, I had met John (Crowley). We spoke on the phone. I had seen appearances he had made on television. I knew him through the spirit of the script. And then, I should tell you, after the screening was over, his kids were there and, for the first time, I had an appreciation for truly how fragile they are. They’re on life support systems. They’re in chairs. They wear respiration units. Pompe is a degenerative disease that causes the muscles and body to atrophy and the organs to enlarge, the heart in particular. But one thing it does not affect is certainly the mind and let me tell you, in the film that she had just seen, which was the premiere called Inkheart, it had flying monkeys that were lifted from The Wizard of Oz. Now Megan, 11 years old at the time, told me after the movie was over “Uh Brendan, you know the flying monkeys have been done before.” “Hi Megan, how you doing? I’m Brendan.” So, needless to say, it was a great introduction.
Harrison, did you visit with any children?
Ford: No, I didn’t. I met John’s children, but I didn’t go any further than that. My character is a research scientist. He’s a medical doctor but he doesn’t see patients as we say in the film. And his interest in the disease is on a cellular level. It’s an intellectual puzzle for him. He really is not comfortable with meeting sick people. So, I didn’t do that. Instead, I spent my research time working with scientists trying to figure out how to get science, which is something you practice in your head, out onto the screen and figure out ways that we could accomplish the description of the science in a way that wouldn’t slow the movie down. We sort of phrased it out. We gave the audience credit for some intelligence and didn’t sit them down to give them a lecture. We phrased out what was necessary I think throughout the film in a way I was very happy with and I was looking for the reality of the character that I play so I went to the University of Nebraska. I visited with other scientists that John led us to in the biomedical company that he now runs.
Ford: So I was on a totally different vector than Brendan.
Have you felt any inspiration from doing the film to go out and give back to this specific community or another community? Did the experience of making this film change anything in terms of the way you are as a parent or how you feel about children’s illnesses?
Ford: I approach this from a different point of view. John is still involved in the pharmaceutical industry. John is still doing research and the benefits of his research are now available. The enzyme therapy that we talk about developing in the film now when administered to infants allows them to live a pretty normal life. John’s job is to make further therapies and he’s very involved in charities that benefit kids. To be quite honest with you, I have children. I have other concerns. I have other focuses. I really feel very sympathetic and I would love to be able to help but I don’t see this as the opportunity, having done this film, for me to suddenly leap on a soap box and begin to talk about the pharmaceutical industry or the desperate plight of sick children. I do what I can in my world but I don’t have the bona fides to do that right now.
Fraser: I was told that by virtue of making this film in a way we’ll raise awareness so that’s a tool in and of itself.
Harrison, since you found this subject, why did you decide to play this character?
Ford: Because the character is a fiction, he’s a composite of other contributors to the science that brought this enzyme therapy through the process. We had the opportunity to make him up out of those things that helped tell the story. We wanted to create both ally and antagonist for John. We wanted John to reach out to this awkward guy out of desperation and Stonehill is a difficult character. I didn’t want to do the conventional scientist. When I met scientists, I found them to be as various as any other group of people and so I thought I can surely make this guy what helps tell the story. That’s always my ambition is to create a character out of what will help tell the story. I’ve never been an actor to say my character wouldn’t do that, because he should do that in order to help tell the story. So, we had the opportunity to cast him any way we wanted. Robert hit on a structure of their relationship that was intricate and satisfying and came at the end of the film to their eventual alliance and I found it a very interesting character to play. My ambition from the very beginning was to make a good part for myself, something differently to what lately I’ve been doing. So that’s how we got there.
Harrison, you mentioned meeting with the scientists and you’re well known for wanting to get the details right. I was struck by how much of Stonehill’s work was on white boards and notebooks and not computers the way we might imagine a scientist today working. Was that the reality that you found and how did that approach to explaining the sciences serve your character?
Ford: Yeah. That’s what I saw when I went out there. I saw a group of guys sitting around a table and just talking about the science. “Well we could do this.” “Nah, that wouldn’t work because of this, that and the other thing.” That was pretty much the form of it. But Stonehill also is an academic researcher. He’s pretty used to working alone. He’s pretty used to being in charge of his lab and being the captain of his own ship. He’s underfunded and left pretty much alone. He has absolute faith in his science and one of the things I think that we hit upon to attract the relationship with Crowley was his great passion for his belief in his science and his passion for it. We tried a lot of ways in the bar scene where we first meet to set the hook in Crowley’s lip and I think that what we ended up believing was that a desperate man would seek out somebody who had that kind of passion and conviction that Stonehill had. But I think the science is laid out in a very good way.
Fraser: It’s accurate.
Ford: I think we hit upon a very good way to articulate the reality of the science.
Brendan, playing a father who is dealing with his kids in this situation, does it make you count your blessings in a way?
Fraser: Absolutely. I’m the father of three sons – 7, 5 and 3. Their bodies are healthy. They’re a little bit wacky in their own way as children can be. (Laughs) Certainly I felt a gravitational pull to the material so that there’s a certain element of acting that’s not really necessary. I’ve really liked this in foreign movies before or I’ve observed others working with them and I’ve noticed that there’s a method that goes on where the actors try and get the children, like the child actor, to interact with them in a real way. It seems like you’re the adult trying to get the kid to fall in love with him. It was completely the other way around. I fell in love with Meredith, Diego and Sam. They were great. He had us in a rehearsal where he abandoned us at a bowling alley with a stack of single dollar bills. You still think it’s funny [to be] stuck with parents in four corners of this huge bowling alley that we actually shot in and then with Keri and I and we played mom and dad to these three kids who were just running rampant. Of course, I’m like buying them candy and pizza and drinks and stuff. And Keri’s going “Maybe we shouldn’t give them that much.” Meanwhile, we’ve taken off. I’m just pumping tokens into everything that has a big plastic gun on it. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.” And then when they get the tickets and we go into the exchange booth. One of them, they’re fighting over what they’re going to get. “No! I want the glow ring.” And I go, “You know, I think rehearsal is over now.” Needless to say, it worked. They were wonderful kids. Can I just make one quick mention of something? We’re talking about what a great kid Megan is and this is one I’m going to tell you is true. For love, money, I don’t know what, I could not get the information of the release date of this film out of the studio representatives, anybody, either they weren’t saying or they didn’t know. They wouldn’t say. They wouldn’t say. Even my executive producer, he wouldn’t talk. (Laughs) I get email from Megan who is internet savvy to the inth degree to say the least. She says “Dear Movie Dad, guess what? There’s a website up. The movie is opening on January 22nd, 2010.” Signed, “Love Megan, the awesome” with 19 exclamation points. Imagine my surprise when I went to the website and it was indeed accurate. Imagine how crimson-faced people were when I go “Guess how I just found out when the movie’s opening?” (Laughs) The 12-year-old Megan Crowley.
Given the scope of the national debate on health care reform right now, how hard was it to restrain from turning that into a political angle to take with the film?
Ford: I think we’re all against creating a polemic, a bully pulpit to proclaim our point of view about these things. I think we wanted to present the reality of the situation and let the audience decide for themselves. I think that’s why we didn’t take an easy swipe at the pharmaceutical industry. I think we portrayed it the way it really is. And, we wanted to concentrate on the kids and on the relationships, the human relationships, and not get into that level of detail on the rest of it.
Harrison, you’ve mentioned this is a project that’s a little bit different from what you normally do. What do you see as the next progression in your career in terms of taking on projects that push you a little bit differently?
Ford: Oh, I think I’ve always done that from the very beginning. I saw what luck and success I had as an opportunity to twist it up and do something different, so I’ve always sought out different genres and different kinds of characters. The next thing I think I’m going to do is a thriller with a very different kind of character. I have a comedy coming out in July. So, I continue to develop some things for myself and also take advantage of good parts as they come along.
Also, you’ve had great longevity in your career but as you continue to get older and your family grows and your kids grow up, …
Ford: You talking to me? (Laughter)
…how have your priorities changed now in your career versus when you were younger in terms of balancing work with your personal life and still being able to have new adventures?
Ford: Well look, my work has always been important to me. The reason I continue to do it is because it’s so much fun for me. I love my work and so that’s what keeps me in the game. And you’re quite right, I don’t mind playing older characters. I find it interesting. There are parts I couldn’t have got when I was 30 years old. So, it continues to interest me in the same way that it always did.
Could you talk about the casting process especially with the kids?
Ford: One of the characteristics that’s so admirable about Tom (Vaughan) is his patience and he is tireless and patient. He spent a lot of time before selecting the kids.
Brendan, as a follow-up to the question to Harrison, could you talk about this being a departure for you?
Fraser: Okay, this is the part where I tense up. Well, this is a real life individual. Tom sent the material my way. John Crowley is very much alive and he exists. He’s not an abstraction. He’s not a fictional character. That’s the challenge that I definitely wanted to take on and one that I certainly haven’t seen in the short scope of my career so far and I don’t know if I’d see it again down the line, so I had to pay attention to that. It would be remiss not to. But then, that challenge is how do you portray that individual inside of 90 minutes and the gravity of his circumstances and what drives him to seek to have his family survive, succeed without at any time falling into the trappings of being mawkish or sentimental or insincere. John Crowley is easily one of the most principled individuals who I have met in my life and for that I feel that I’ve met a very special person and there’s no small measure of – well I won’t so much say – satisfaction and honor that I feel to have had a chance to try and embody the spirit of who this individual is. And, to give you an idea what kind of guy he is, for all of his achievements, he’s the first one to say that Aileen is the one who deserves all the medals. Gosh, what else can I tell you? I’m glad for this opportunity. Thanks for asking.
Harrison, can you talk a little bit about what Brendan brought to the table in terms of the casting process?
Fraser: (Laughter) He doesn’t want to. It’s okay.
Ford: No, what Brendan brought, from the very first time we read through material together and when we talked about it, was an authenticity. He didn’t attempt an imitation of John Crowley. He just reached into his own experience and his own emotions and understood, and because he understood and because he felt, he’s had a lot of experience. He may downplay it but he’s had a lot of opportunities and experience to work with good people in the past and he’s learned how to do it really well. So, I had a great time working with him. It was fun.
Both of you have played iconic screen characters in huge franchises. I’m just wondering for each of you, have your paths crossed before doing this and do you find it interesting the fact that you finally are in a movie together where you’re playing ordinary men who are heroes?
Ford: (to Brendan) Do you want me to get this one?
Fraser: Yeah, you get it. (Laughs)
Fraser: I was asked to the Spike TV Awards Ceremony and it was my obligation and duty and pleasure to present Harrison with the Brass Balls Award. I later asked him what he did with said brass balls. He told me he sold it for scrap metal. That’s when we first met. After that, it was reading scenes together over coffee or a drink or something like that. I don’t know.
Ford: Yeah. There was some…
Fraser: …some sort of libation. Yeah, like that. You know, a little mystery goes a long way in the alchemy of the actor bonding experience. I’m not sure. I might have to call SAG before I can answer this question. (Laughs) They bought it!
Harrison, besides the Brass Balls, was there anything else you have to share about your experience of working with Brendan?
Fraser: He just did.
Ford: No, I…
How about the fact that these are regular human beings that are trying to do some extraordinary things?
Ford: Well I think that Brendan correctly perceived how to get the tone of the film and the tone of the character and he was wonderful with the kids and so he knew what the job was. That’s what makes you right for the part. I thought he was tremendously affecting in the role. An actor only has his own understanding and experience to work with and I think Brendan nailed it. That’s all.
Have either of you ever had something happen where you did what was necessary and it was positive, whether it was in your career or in your personal life, that you can share with us?
Ford: No. (to Brendan) Go ahead.
Fraser: I’m sure your editor will forgive you if we don’t answer that. I just made a movie about it. That’s the closest I can come to it, I think. Nothing like this happens in my life, honestly. But if something bad were to come my way, what parent wouldn’t do anything – even throw themselves in front of a train – if it were for the betterment of their children.
Harrison, you mentioned you had a thriller and a comedy coming out. Is there anything on the next Indiana Jones?
Ford: Nothing yet. Nothing yet. George (Lucas) is working on it right now.
Brendan, between Indiana Jones and The Mummy, which is the better franchise?
Fraser: (to Harrison) We should have a good talk about that.
Ford: We’ll decide amongst ourselves and get an answer back for you.
Extraordinary Measures opens in theaters on January 22nd. Look for video interviews with Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser in a few days.