The Reeler

Sundance Features

January 20, 2007

James C. Strouse, Grace is Gone

"It's not a film that's over and you say, 'Oh, I understand. The war is bad.' I tried to let it be as complicated and troubling as possible."

John Cusack as Stanley Phillips in director James C. Strouse's Grace is Gone

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

What can you tell me about Grace is Gone?

The film is about a father taking care of his two girls -- 12- and 8-year-old girls -- while his wife is serving in Iraq. Very early in the story he receives word that she was killed in service, and it's about his struggle to find a way to tell his girls. He delays telling them for a couple of days and takes them on a trip to a theme park to give himself the time to find the right way -- and to also extend their childhood for a couple days.

Was there any specific event or person that inspired the story?

Not specifically. It was a real hodge-podge of things that came together. There's not a person that this is based on in particular, although obviously the situation has precedent and is one of which families are notified every day. It was just combination of things, really: personal things in my life and family, some invented things, some things taken from headlines and current events and research.

There's a very personal nature to the story, but it does have a political nature as well. How do you go balancing out each end of the spectrum as a first-time writer director and find a balance you were happy with?

My personal goal throughout was --and every filmmaker you talk to will say this -- to be as truthful as possible. In writing it, I went through about 20 drafts. I shared each one with my wife, who's also a producer, and really, through the writing process, the biggest thing that changed was writing my beliefs into it too much and making people say things addressing the war in a very sort of direct and overt way. And the revision process was just kind of stripping that away slowly until it just became, 'What would these people say," not, "What did I want them to say?" And how would they act, not, "How can I make them act to make a point?" I think in the end, what we have is something that feels very character driven -- family driven -- and there are a lot of implications to it, but it's not a film that's over and you say, "Oh, I understand. The war is bad." I tried to let it be as complicated and troubling as possible -- whatever your point of view is.

John Cusack's performance has generated some advance word despite hardly anybody having seen the film. The clips I've seen indicate that it is indeed a departure for him, and he is impressive playing this character he hasn't remotely played before. What was the process you two developed to find this character, especially considering the personal and political ramifications of the story itself -- especially with his previous roles in mind?

We didn't actually talk too much about previous roles. I've always admired his work; personally I felt films like Being John Malkovich and High Fidelity are great comedic performances, but they work because there's pathos to them. I always thought he had the chops for something like this.

But as far as figuring out the performance, I consider it an ensemble piece. It works because of his chemistry with the girls [Gracie Bednarczyk and Shélan O'Keefe]; they're technically in every scene together. It was really a matter of once he signed on, and we kind of had a shared understanding of the part, it was finding chemistry between the girls and making them as comfortable as possible. It doesn't work unless the girls work, too; you have to believe those are his daughters. Everyone had to be doing their best work to make this film hold together. And the girls are both first-time actors; they'd never been in a film before. That was one of the greatest, most fun parts of the whole thing -- just to see them flourish and to see respond to them. Kids are the purest actors.

It's interesting you say that about the girls, because one of the most powerful excerpts I've seen features the military personnel delivering news of his Grace's death to Stanley. Totally modest and still, yet everything on Cusack's face is moving.

I always had in my mind that I knew I wanted to play that scene with a much restraint as possible. That was always in the back of my mind: let's not turn on the waterworks every five minutes. If it felt like you had a teary close-up and people breaking down every 10 minutes -- which is totally valid for this type of situation -- it would put too much of a strain on the audience. I knew I wanted to keep it under control. And when playing a role like this, you have to be open to whatever you're feeling in the moment, and I gave John a lot of room to try it a couple of different ways. That scene took all day; we could have made a hundred variations on that scene. We could have had him exploding -- John wanted to try a couple of different reactions, like vomiting, getting upset and pushing the man out of the house. But in the end, the original idea was working the best. He's stunned, and we keep that reaction sort of minimal because it raises the stakes throughout the movie. You're going to be wanting that release; you're going to want to see him break down. I guess this is always the case, but a lot was found in the editing room. John gave us a range of choices we could shape into what made it into the movie.

You've been to Sundance as a screenwriter, but this is your first trip as a director. How much does that ramp up the pressure for you personally, and what's your sense of how to prepare?

I go through a range of things. I'm scared to death sometimes, but you know, at this point, I really think I'm confident in the film, and since I have been there before, I know the audiences. They just want to see good movies. They want to be moved and they want to laugh, and I think that our film is a rewarding experience and I'm excited to share it. I feel confident that it's going to go over well.



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Good words.

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