Grace Is Gone with James Strouse

The germ of the idea for “Grace Is Gone” came from a family experience that had a big impact on writer-director James Strouse.

Personal Experience

“One summer, I took a trip with my brother and his daughters. We went to an amusement park in Ohio called Kings Island. My brother was going through this really ugly divorce. So we were going to this wonderful place where happy families go, only no one was talking and everyone was disgusted with each other. That feeling just stayed with me forever.”

“More recently,” Strouse continues, “I was watching a news story about the war in Iraq that featured the parents of soldiers who had been killed, and it struck me: what would happen to your belief system if you lost a loved one to the cause And I realized a story told from this perspective could be both timely and important for a lot of people.”

Once “Lonesome Jim,” which Strouse wrote and Buscemi directed, had been greenlighted, Strouse's agent set up a number of “meet and greets” with LA producers. Today, Strouse calls the get togethers “Perrier meetings,” because they lasted about as long as it took to drink the glass of water with which they invariably began. It was under these circumstances that Strouse and Grace Loh, John Cusack's longtime producer, met for the first time.

Producers

Strouse recalled recently that Loh “was the only producer outside of the people at Plum who actually seemed interested in what I had to say,” and so she was the only producer with whom he shared the idea for “Grace Is Gone.”

Says Loh: “My first impression of James was from his script for LONESOME JIM. I could tell he had the ability to capture a very personal story in a compelling way. When he told me about GRACE IS GONE, I was most intrigued by the idea of a mother taken in war. You never hear about that. I started thinking immediately about how that kind of loss would affect a family, how different it must be from losing a father, and of course, how a father would cope.”

Great Characters

“We are always looking for original stories with great characters,” Loh adds, “and from the way Jim talked about Stanley I could tell the role would be intense, complex and challenging and that Johnny could really thrive in that world if the script lived up to its potential.” So, with the idea of John Cusack as Stanley, Strouse began writing.

Writing Process

Strouse wrote GRACE IS GONE in the dark, without seeking input from anyone. After the first draft was completed, however, he sought out certain experts to make sure the script accurately reflected the unique experiences of an active service military family.

One such expert was Karen Pavlicin, the author of the brass tacks “how to” book for military families called Surviving Deployment.
“Karen was extremely helpful with certain points in the script, particularly with the protocols for the scene when Stanley gets that knock at the front door. That scene had to be as correct as we could make it.”

TV News

Another recurring theme Strouse found in his research that is reflected in the film: active service military families' general apprehension towards the news, especially towards television news.

“In military households, news reports are not taken lightly,” Strouse observes. “There's a sense that news is a dangerous thing. Parents are very protective: if kids are going to watch TV, they need to be supervised, and parents need to be there to edit and editorialize. In this current situation there are so many different opinions and for a child, it can all be really confusing.”

After a couple of revisions with input from the team at Plum, Strouse sent Cusack and Loh the script. It took them about a month to digest the material, but when Strouse, Niederhoffer, Loh and Cusack met face to face for the first time in New York, the New Crime team told Strouse and Niederhoffer they'd responded on both artistic and political levels.

Real People

“What is beautiful about GRACE IS GONE,” says Loh, “is that it's a story about real people and what happens to these real people when the tragedy of war hits them. It's so easy to grow numb to all the numbers and statistics out there, which is why it's important to remind ourselves of what's happening on a human level. It's about love, loss, pain, courage, and growth. Emotions are not discriminate. It hits us all. This is what makes this film so powerful to me. It transcends any political perspective.

Not a Soapbox

“Our personal points of view and that of John's character, Stanley, do happen to be very different. The last thing we wanted to do was to turn this film into a soapbox, but we did want to get the truth out, which we felt Jim so beautifully captured in his screenplay. “One of the things that struck John and me as horribly wrong was when the government decided to ban photos of the coffins coming home from Iraq. We felt that these brave soldiers should be celebrated, not hidden. At the very least, the families should have been given the choice.”

The film is at its most overtly political when Stanley visits with his brother, whose position on the war and the administration is 180 degress from Stanley's. “That was a tough thing to get,” says Strouse. “I have to give a lot of credit to John and Alessandro because they handled the material in those scenes particularly well. If the audience were to feel any 'performance' there you'd think Alessandro's character was just a puppet for the writer's liberal political views.

Pacifist Background

“For the record,” Strouse adds, “I grew up in a Mennonite, pacifist community, where my dad was a real outsider, living as a very patriotic, pro-military figure. So I see both sides as legitimate. In the writing, I tried hard not to make “Grace Is Gone feel like a polemic, anti-war film. I want to spark questions, not give answers.”

But Strouse did want to show how political disagreement could raise great passion, especially within a family. “My relationship with my own brother informed a lot of the dynamic between Stanley and his brother,” Strouse continues. “I know from experience how in a family you can go from being really fired up about something and then also say, “is there anything to eat” in the next breath. With your brother, you can go from a very solid emotional state to a very high one very quickly. However, I made a point of never letting either of them say the word 'Iraq,' even as things got heated. I tried not to pander to the audience.”

A Number of Firsts

As the production phase of GRACE IS GONE drew near, it became clear that the film represented a number of “firsts” for everyone. As the film's director, it would be the first time Jim Strouse would have to make hundreds of decisions very quickly.

“Even though I'd watched Steve Buscemi direct just about every scene of LONESOME JIM, I found the whole process of making GRACE IS GONE incredibly humbling,” Strouse recalled recently. “The first day, you're surrounded by a hundred people, and they've all made at least five films, and you've done nothing. I was very honest with everyone. I told them, I know what I want, but if you have a better idea, tell me. I had a huge amount of help along the way. What I also had was the story: I knew it like my own heart.”

Drawing on Cusack's Experience

Knowing directing for the first time would be a challenge, Strouse didn't hesitate to draw on Cusack's decades of experience. “I really depended on John. He helped me a lot. He depended on me, too, and we talked a lot about the character,” Strouse explains. “I told John the idea for Stanley came from growing up in Indiana in the 80s. If you were an athlete, who I think Stanley was, it was a terrific time. Indiana University had a dynasty with Bobby Knight, and Larry Byrd was a star in Boston.”

“My brother was a golden student athlete,” Strouse continues. “He told me something that really informed the character of Stanley. He said, 'You know, I really thought in high school that anything I wanted was going to come to me. In high school, if you do well, you are rewarded and treated like a god and after high school and college it was like getting pushed off a cliff. So my question to John was, 'How do you go from being Audie Murphy to a manager at a home supply store'”

Improvisation

There was a degree of improvisation in Gracie's scenes, as well as in some of the scenes shot in the car.

“All this was new to me,” Strouse adds, “but I thought, 'that sounds right, because I am trying to find some kind of truth in the thing.” My rule with the girls was, let's not say what's right or wrong, let's just do it. And I tried to be as encouraging as possible. And John and I both helped create a really safe environment for them to explore their characters on set.”

Camera Scheme

Strouse collaborated very closely with cinematographer Jean-Louis Bompoint, to execute what Strouse calls a “camera scheme” to reflect and enhance the characters and the narrative. “We talked a lot about the camera as a 'respectful observer,' Strouse explains. “I wanted the film to start with a sense of stillness to reflect Stanley's interior. He is a very closed-off, reserved person who loves his daughters, but he doesn't always know how to talk with them. So to mirror that, we kept the camera still and tried to create a sense of space between Stanley and the girls.

“But as the film progresses and Stanley starts to loosen up,” Strouse continues, “the camera also starts to loosen up. We begin the film in a kind of cold stillness and end up in warmth and movement. By the time we get to Enchanted Gardens, the camera is literally dancing around them.”

Words and Images

For all the focus on character, and for all the freedom Strouse and Cusack created for the girls in that sacred space of the set, for the most part Strouse tried to shoot “Grace Is Gone” as written. However, one of the film's most memorable moments was created on the spot, and in a specific location. Strouse had once observed, in a Wall Mart he'd visited early in the morning, employees engage in a huddle and group cheer. He'd thought about putting it in the script, but decided against it for fear that it might come off as condescending. But at one point Cusack asked Strouse what life was like in a store like Stanley's, so Strouse shared the anecdote.

“John really wanted to use it,” Strouse recalled. “On the day we shot at the location for Stanley's store, John even scouted the stock room. So we shot it, and of course now I can't imagine the film without that priceless moment, which speaks volumes about the character.

“In the writing, I think there's something too easy about spelling out 'Golden Arches' or 'Blockbuster,' but in film, the images of those icons are so powerful. It's easy to look down on the Midwest or any smaller town, but not very creative. I feel like a lot of filmmakers either condescend or over-romanticize the Midwest. I'd rather look at it from the perspective of someone living there.”