A story of how, even in the presence of loss, people will discover power, strength and joy.
The story of an anarchic, frenzied young woman who, on a whim, takes on the very serious job of caretaking for a remarkable musician with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) could easily have fallen into predictable melodrama. But instead, Michelle Wildgen’s 2006 novel You’re Not You became a critical surprise and was celebrated as candidly funny and revealing about topics ranging from sex to cooking lessons to the stirring intimacy of a friendship built on a mix of frank need and unfolding trust.
It was successfully adapted into a film by George C. Wolfe from a screenplay by Shana Feste (Country Strong) and Jordan Roberts (March of the Penguins), and is now available on DVD.
Wildgen’s debut novel You’re Not You, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and one of People Magazine’s Top Ten Books of 2006; she is also the author of the novels But Not For Long and the forthcoming The Back of the House. Her work has appeared in O Magazine, The New York Times, Best Food Writing, Best New American Voices, and various anthologies and literary journals. She is an executive editor at the literary journal Tin House.
When producer Alison Greenspan of Di Novi films read the book, it struck close to home.
Her father and an aunt both had ALS – the progressive motor neuron disease often called Lou Gehrig’s Disease after the baseball player who made his battle with it public – and she was drawn to how Wildgen addressed it head-on in a story that was also fresh and human and about an unlikely partnership that takes two women to places they did not foresee coming.
“At the time, my father was suffering from ALS, and my sister and I both felt we should read the book, mainly out of curiosity,” recalls Greenspan. “What happened was that rare thing that happens for producers sometimes: the story just stuck with me – and I couldn’t let it go.”
She continues: “I liked that it was so realistic about ALS, and reflected the dignity and pride of people living with ALS, but also I was drawn to it as a really entertaining story about two women who save each other. ”
Greenspan shared the book with partner Denise Di Novi and immediately the two began talking about who might take on the role of Kate – the highly cultivated and ferociously musician who finds herself in the unimaginable position of suddenly being vulnerable and needing lots of help.
For Di Novi, there was only one actress who came to mind: Hilary Swank, known for attacking roles with extreme commitment and depth, and for playing a roster of challenging women – from a female boxer to Amelia Earhart – too complex to be easily summarized.
When Swank responded to the book and committed not only to the role but came aboard as a producer, the project began moving swiftly ahead.
“My producing partner Molly Smith and I read the book and instantly fell in love,” Swank recalls. “It was a no-brainer for us to sign up. It’s a journey of two people living in completely polar opposite worlds who find out they have much more in common than they think – and then help each other to become fully realized in the middle of the most unlikely circumstances.”
Smith recalls that it was the thread of comedy, and of the powerful links we can have to strangers, running through the book that made if feel so alive. “There is a lot of humor in this piece, which is, at its core, is a beautiful story of friendship,” she observes. “Kate and Bec enter each other’s very different lives, create a sort of chaos and then find a truly deep and enduring connection.”
That same tone came through in the script. “The script doesn’t take the expected journey,” says Smith. “The dialogue is irreverent and we had two amazing screenwriters – Shana Feste and Jordan Roberts – who were able to especially capture Bec’s voice.”
Jordan Roberts wrote and directed Around The Bend, and re-wrote, and re-conceived for English-speaking audiences, a lush romantic drama from France, March Of The Penguins, that went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary. In addition to doing writing work on over forty feature films, he wrote, directed and produced 2012’s Frankie Go Boom, and Big Hero Six for Disney.
Shana Feste is the writer/director of Country Strong and The Greatest, and is the screenwriter for the forthcoming new Universal incarnation of Endless Love.
As the producers developed the screenplay, they also began the quest for a director who could bring the story’s distinctive blend of sensitivity, honesty and irreverence to the screen.
They found that in George C. Wolfe, renown for his work as a playwright (“Colored Museum,” “Spunk,” “Jelly’s Last Jam”) and as the director of such lauded Broadway productions as “Angels In America: Millennium Approaches” and “Bring In Da Noise/Bring In Da Funk.” His films include HBO’s award-winning adaptation of Lackawanna Blues and the romantic drama Nights in Rodanthe starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane, which Di Novi and Greenspan produced.
“We gave George the script, he loved it and then he doggedly pursued it. He just really connected with it,” recalls Greenspan, “and you could sense his passion. We knew he could deliver the caliber of performances needed and transcend the pitfalls to make this a movie about people in the midst of exciting changes, to give it electricity and humor.”
Wolfe was drawn to the comic contrasts between Kate and Bec’s lives before they collide: Kate with her refined perfectionism, Bec with her tornado-like constant motion.
“The two of them brought to mind that Katherine Hepburn line about Fred and Ginger – ‘she gave him sex, he gave her class’ — and I was intrigued by how Kate is an overly focused human being, while Bec is an overly chaotic human being. Bec brings that chaos into Kate’s life, which helps to liberate her, and Kate brings her focus into Bec’s life, which helps to ground her. So that was the thing that I think I responded to foremost: these two women who end up forming an incredibly symbiotic relationship and how they get there.”
The getting there takes both women through moments of absurdity, triumph and of bracing mortality, but Wolfe always saw You’re Not You as reflecting back some of the lightness, humor and exhilaration that comes through even in life’s darkest times.
He summarizes: “I think it’s a story of how, even in the presence of loss, people will discover power, strength and joy.”
You’re Not You Now On DVD
Academy Award winner Hilary Swank (Conviction, Million Dollar Baby) and rapidly rising star Emmy Rossum (Shameless) intertwine in You’re Not You, a surprisingly funny, defiantly unsentimental and starkly moving portrait of a high-stakes friendship between two women – one literally in need of a voice, the other discovering the full power of hers.
Kate (Swank) is a suave, married, eminently successful classical pianist just diagnosed with ALS (also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Bec (Rossum) is a brash college student and would-be rock singer who can barely keep her wildly chaotic and messy affairs, romantic and otherwise, together. Yet, when Bec takes a last-ditch job assisting Kate, just as Kate’s marriage to Evan (Josh Duhamel) hits the skids, both women come to rely on what becomes an unconventional, sometimes confrontational and fiercely honest bond. Aimless as she is, Bec is determined to become an intimate shadow to Kate – accompanying her and translating for her through the most bewildering and awkwardly comic circumstances. The result is a camaraderie stripped down to the barest essentials of daily sustenance and late-night confessions.
But as sensual, meticulous, willful Kate begins to rub off on whirlwind, spontaneous, free-spirited Bec – and vice versa – both women find themselves facing down regrets, exploring new territory and subtly expanding their ideas of who they want to be.
Two-time Tony Award winner and theatre legend George C. Wolfe directs this powerful portrait of a transformational friendship. “This is a story about two people confronting the truth in themselves,” comments Wolfe. “Sometimes in life when you come up against a non-negotiable obstacle, whatever it might be, that obstacle becomes a chance for you to become another version of yourself. That’s what I found so fascinating about You’re Not You.”
In addition to exploring a friendship that blooms under fire, Wolfe sees the film as exploring those hidden, contrary parts of our identities that don’t always get the chance to reveal themselves.
‘The title, You’re Not You, comes from something Kate says to Bec, but in many respects, it’s about each of the characters. Kate isn’t really Kate. Bec isn’t really Bec. Evan isn’t really Evan. Each of the characters is stuck playing a version of themselves — until they begin to see that there is a more complicated, more evolved and deeper version of who they can be inside themselves. In the movie’s journey, they each become more of who they are.”