Adapted from Geeta Anand’s best-selling book The Cure, Extraordinary Measures is the inspiring true story of John and Aileen Crowley, two devoted parents (Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell) who, with the help of an unconventional scientist (Harrison Ford), hope to cure their children’s life-threatening genetic disorder, Pompe disease. Extraordinary Measures hits theaters January 22nd.
MM recently caught up with the movie’s Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Robert Nelson Jacobs (Chocolat), to discuss the challenges of adapting a nonfiction book for the big screen.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): What are some of the difficulties of dramatizing recent, real-life events, as you did in Extraordinary Measures?
Robert Nelson Jacobs (RNJ): In this case, one of the difficulties is the sheer amount of material that I had to condense into a two hour film. If I had stayed close to the events and timeline of Geeta Anand’s book, the movie probably would run fifteen hours! So part of my task was to be selective: what are the crucial events in the emotional journey of the Crowley family? Inevitably, it’s necessary to compress events and characters. One semi-fictionalized event has to stand in for three, or four, or five events that happened in life. The timeline had to be compressed. For one thing, we didn’t want to show the kids at different ages because we wanted just one actor to play each of the kids; it would be distracting and emotionally disruptive to have to switch actors as the kids aged. So I had to take events that took place over a number of years and compress them into a much shorter timeline. The main task was to stay true to the spirit of the Crowley family: their courage, their life-embracing attitude. We all felt very inspired and uplifted by their story, and wanted to find a structure for the movie that would hit the milestones of the Crowleys’ journey.
MM: Did you interview the Crowley family or Dr. William Canfield [on whom Harrison Ford’s character is based] before writing the script, or did you base most of your
research on Geeta Anand’s book?
RJN: The Crowley family welcomed me into their home. I just hung out with them for several days, talking with each of them, eating meals with them, going to school with the kids. I learned a lot from them. It’s remarkable how they faced very grave challenges with such grace and resilience and humor. The sense of humor of this family was really something I wanted to get into the movie. Megan, the little girl, is especially funny–she really just says whatever is on her mind–and was a fun character to write. So even when I had to change or compress events, I felt a great responsibility to honor the spirit of the Crowley family.
As for the character of Dr. Stonehill [Harrison Ford’s character], there were actually several researchers on whom that character is based. A very important one is Dr. Canfield, but there were others as well. Again, it was necessary to take events that happened at different times and with different people and composite them into the character of Dr. Stonehill.
Geeta Anand’s book was an indispensable guide for me as I wrote my screenplay. Actually, Geeta was in the process of writing her book when I started writing my screenplay, and she was incredibly generous in sharing all of her research with me and sending me chapters of her first draft as she completed them.
MM: Your previous adaptations (Chocolat, The Shipping News, The Water Horse) were based on novels. In what ways it is easier to adapt fiction for the screen?
RJN: Every project is difficult in its own way. You are always making decisions about where to take liberties, what to invent, and what to delete. There are always parts of a novel that you love but can’t include in the movie because they don’t move the story forward. You have such a limited amount of time to tell a story in a film, you need to be very efficient and judicious about what “makes the cut.” You have to make similar difficult decisions in writing a true story. Obviously in the case of a true story, there’s a different kind of responsibility because you are telling a story about real people. Probably the most nervous I’ve ever been as a writer is when I sent my first draft to the Crowley family. I sent it to them on a Friday, and spent the weekend pacing the floors and waiting for the phone to ring. Finally, John Crowley called me on Sunday evening. He and Aileen loved the script and even read parts of it out loud to the kids. That meant a lot to me. The Crowleys never told us “you should show this” or “don’t show that,” but it did mean a lot to me that they felt the script captured the spirit of their family.
MM: What do you hope the audience takes away from your inspiring, hopeful movie?
RJN: It’s a story that shows the depth of parents’ love for their children–and the lengths to which parents will go to save their children. As a parent myself, I felt very moved by the Crowleys’ story on a visceral level. I hope that the audience is as moved and uplifted by the Crowleys’ story as I was when I first spent time with the family.
MM: What’s up next for you?
RJN: I’m juggling several projects. I like to mix it up and work in various genres. I’ve written a little sci-fi thriller with some pretty dark humor that runs through it–kind of an indie movie with a fairly modest budget–which I’m executive producing. I’m in the process of getting that set up to film in England, hopefully this year. I’m also about to start working on an animated family film. Very different ends of the spectrum. I like variety–it keeps my job interesting.