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‘What They Had’ director captures ‘romance of the snow’ in her native Chicago

Actor Robert Forster and director Elizabeth Chomko of the movie "What They Had" at the Folklore bar in Chicago. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Back home in Chicago for the first time in quite a while, the 40ish daughter stops short when she sees her father’s new ride: a vintage, 1970s-era, convertible muscle car.

“What happened to the Camry?” she asks.

“I’m 75 years old,” says Dad. “F— the Camry.”

Damn straight, Dad.

That low-key but pinpoint-perfect exchange is one of countless relatable moments in “What They Had,” the brilliant, memorable and accomplished feature-film debut from Chicago-born writer-director Elizabeth Chomko. (My full review will be in the Sun-Times later this week.)

Shot mostly in and around Chicago last year and released Friday, “What They Had” is the story of a family in crisis.

Blythe Danner’s Ruth and Robert Forster’s Burt are an old-fashioned married couple, together for a half-century. Michael Shannon is their son Nick, who runs a bar in Wicker Park. Hilary Swank is their daughter Bridget, who moved away years ago but returned home after an alarming family incident.

Chomko was born in Chicago and lived here until she was 14, when her family moved to Belgium. Chomko wound up in Los Angeles, acting on TV before turning her focus to writing.

The 77-year-old Forster’s career spans five decades and numerous TV shows and B-movies, many you’ve probably never heard of — but Forster has always been a compelling presence, whether doing a guest spot on some forgettable detective series or rising to the level of the material with his Academy Award-nominated performance in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997) or his unforgettable work as “The Disappearer” in “Breaking Bad.”

I met with Chomko and Forster at one of the key Chicago locations in the film: Folklore, a restaurant-bar at 2100 W. Division rechristened “Nick’s” for the movie.

Video by James Foster | The director and writer of the film "What They Had" Elizabeth Chomko with the film's star Robert Forster

“When I completed the screenplay, I decided I had to be the director,” said Chomko. The story “was inspired by my family. Nobody else was going to give it the love and attention I would give it to it.”

Setting the story in Chicago over the holidays was hardly an arbitrary call.

“There’s this beautiful nostalgia, this romance, when you look back on a time — it’s always way more beautiful than when you were living it,” Chomko said. “Having lived in California for so long, as I look back on the romance of Chicago, the romance of the snow, you forget what it’s like to actually shovel, and ice off your windshield.

“I wanted to capture that romance.”

Michael Shannon (from left), Taissa Farmiga and Hilary Swank co-star with Robert Forster in “What We Had.” | Bleecker Street
Michael Shannon (from left), Taissa Farmiga and Hilary Swank co-star with Robert Forster in “What We Had.” | Bleecker Street
Bleecker Street

Forster was onboard from the moment he read the script. “It was this beautiful script with believable dialogue,” he said. “In the early days when I started working, you had to take lines and make something out of them. But this was all on the page. All the things you see in this movie … were there from the very beginning.

“Most movies are not about simple, ordinary people. … This was the kind of movie that does not require you to heighten anything. You don’t have to shoot somebody or chase somebody or make … FACES.”

Shannon’s Nick, proprietor of the bar, stayed close to home and dealt with day-to-day issues involving his parents for the last 20 years. Swank’s Bridget conveniently moved 2,000 miles away long ago — making it that much easier to judge Nick’s decision-making on her rare visits to Chicago. When she arrives, they fall into a familiar, often not particularly warm back-and-forth.

“I loved writing the dynamic between those two,” Chomko said.

“Your sibling knows you better than anybody. And they know all your buttons, and they know all your flaws better than you do.”

Danner is heartbreakingly effective as Ruth, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and has reached the stage of severe cognitive decline. Once in a while, Ruth is present and aware and in the moment; most of the time, her grasp of reality is tenuous at best.

Forster said Danner “was a little bit afraid because she didn’t want to make choices that did not serve the character she was playing. But she [wound up] making strong and unexpected choices.”

With Chicago as the setting for this interview, Forster talked about starring in “Medium Cool,” Haskell Wexler’s groundbreaking film that takes place against the backdrop of the 1968 Democratic convention, and told Chomko much of that work was improvised, as opposed to the structure of “What They Had.”

The conversation circled back to Forster’s approach.

“You start out with a certain amount of shots you have to get done that day,” he said. “You rehearse it, you get ready, everybody is ready — it’s like a magic trick. You learn the magic trick, and when somebody says, ‘Go,’ you try to do it flawlessly. And when you do, the illusion is made, and you move on to the next trick.

“It’s a lovely thing to create shots.”