“Grace is Gone” is the story of a father who cannot bear to tell his daughters that their mother has been killed in Iraq, so he takes them on a road trip to a theme park called Enchanted Garden. It was written and directed by James C. Strouse, who spoke to me about making the film.
You worked with two of my favorite actors on this film, John Cusack, who played Stanley and Alessandro Nivola, who played his brother.
John wanted to try something different. It was written pretty specifically, you could see it on the page that [his character] was buttoned down and quiet, slightly repressed, and he was excited to try that. I had a backstory for him and put him in touch with a couple of people including a man who lost his wife and has three kids. John was ready to do and came up with a lot of the performance on his own.
Alessandro is just phenomenal. That was one of the last roles we cast and as soon as he read the script he said, “Yes, I’ll do it.” He’s so smart. It’s great to meet an actor who not only understands their part but the larger story as well. It’s kind of a luxury, when they understand the micro and macro at the same time. From the first take, I had very little to say because he just got it so clearly. Like his character, he was a breath of fresh air, a fun presence. The girls just instantly were smitten with him. I loved his film Junebug and I poached as many people as I could from that film, not just Alessandro but also the editor, screened the movie for Junebug’s director Phil Morrison to get his comments.
How did you come to use Clint Eastwood to compose your score?
That was Harvey Weinstein’s idea. After he bought it at Sundance, he told me Clint Eastwood would be a good choice to redo the music. We had music, honestly a very good score. I don’t know that we needed to replace it, but when Clint Eastwood said, “I would like to work with this; I can do something musically that will make this film a more emotional experience,” he was one of the few people I basically would change my mind for. When am I going to get a chance like this ever again?
Tell me about the research you did for this script.
I had finished the script and done research through the library, going on line, reading newspaper articles about the life of deployed families. There is a book called Surviving Deployment: A Guide for Military Familiesby Karen M. Pavlicin, a how-to manual for dads and moms and how to deal with raising kids alone, the reality of having a spouse who is deployed, a tough, very specific life situation. It was really informative. I sent the script to her and we started talking and she gave me a couple of comments and put me in touch with women — I mostly talked to women. They were amazingly generous with information. Karen lost her husband but not in combat. It was colon cancer. And she took her son to Disney World. So things did resonate with these families; it did seem like I was on to something. The idea of the watch with the timer that goes off at the same time so the child knows the parent is thinking about her, I found in an online article. There was also a mother who kept buying her kids pets, so many interesting sad stories, so particular to the family’s personalities, eye-opening, heartbreaking. This is a situation that has precedent. To think about the reality of it was overwhelming at times.
Middle school is unquestionably one of the toughest times in anyone’s life. Why did you choose to make one of the daughters 12 years old and how did you work with 12-year-old Shélan O’Keefe to give such an open and vulnerable performance as Heidi?
That stage of life is dramatically one of the most fraught with all sorts of complications and emerging consciousness. I loved putting that against this uncommunicative, closed-off man. Heidi is bursting with confusion and emotion and her father is trying to bury it as much as he can. Children are tapped into their imaginations in a way that makes acting very easy for them if they have the talent and the willingness. They already like to pretend. The biggest challenge with the girls was just getting them comfortable and creating an environment where they weren’t noticing the cameras and getting them comfortable in their own skin. When John read with Shélan, he said “We’ve got to her in the movie because she’s got the face. She’s the hardest to lie to.” In auditions, there were other girls who delivered the lines better, but what was amazing about Shélan was how great a listener she was. What she was doing when she wasn’t talking was really subtle, always small. She would never overdo it, an amazing instinct to have.
I watched the film on Veteran’s Day. I like the way it was respectful of all opinions on the war but mostly respectful of the soldiers and their families.
That was one of the most important things in making the film. There was a long learning process in writing it. I had no specific agenda when I started writing, but I would never make Stanley a mouthpiece for a dramatic idea or to criticize the administration because it didn’t feel true and wasn’t dramatically interesting. We’re witnessing this family’s grief, and if we get the movie right the people will be witnessing truth, as close as we could come to it, to capture something true. You get away from the truth when you start politicizing the story. I like writers where you come away with an experience, a shared truth about life and living that’s not reduced to a point, it just feels mysterious. I like stories that are led by their characters.