At today’s Contenders LA, here’s what they said about What They Had, Bleecker Street’s family drama from first time writer/director Elizabeth Chomko.

“It was something that I wrote for my family,” said Chomko, appearing on a panel with stars Hilary Swank and Robert Forster. “It’s about the things that happened during my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease…a place of grief and time traveling.”

Chomko said she wrote the first draft seven years ago, and joked that was followed with 40 rewrites before the story became a film starring Swank as Bridget, who returns home to Chicago at the urging of her brother (Michael Shannon) to engage in an emotional battle with her father (Forster) over who is best to make decisions for her ailing mother, portrayed by Blythe Danner.

What They Had
Bleecker Street/Shutterstock

Moderator Pete Hammond asked about the humor Chomko infuses into a tragic story. “I grew up in Chicago we were a family of laughers…the only thing we took seriously was God and Catholicism, and everything else was a pile of jokes,” Chomko said. “You laugh the hardest when your heart is about to break.”

She added that the story deals with the universal reality that the world does not stop when a loved one gets a difficult diagnosis.

Of course, not everyone gets the opportunity to watch a version of one’s family portrayed by such a distinguished cast. “What can I say? I’m speechless, and honored,” Chomko said.

Forster said he took the role because “it was on the page…I knew right away it was the role for me. I’ve been a parent for more than 200 years if you (add) up the ages of my children.”

Swank said that even though Chomko also served as the writer, as well as the director, she let the actors make the dialogue and the characters their own.

Swank said the role of Bridget was perhaps her most vulnerable because it came the closest to herself. “I’m not boxing, I’m not dressing as a boy,” Swank said. “I’m playing a real woman who is trying to figure it out. That’s very vulnerable.

“Right now, we have a lot of content out there, and a lot of the posters and ads are these really big movies, with someone in an outfit, climbing walls, that have superpowers,” Swank added. “(What They Had) is a slice of life.”