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Sebastian Siegel’s Deep Thoughts on Grace and Grit

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Sebastian Siegel’s Deep Thoughts on <I>Grace and Grit</i>

by Kit Bowen 06 June, 2021

Based on Ken Wilbur’s book of the same name, Grace and Grit tells the true story of courage, transcendence, and eternal love between famed philosopher Wilbur (Stuart Townsend) and his wife, Treya (Mena Suvari), and the difficult but beautiful journey they go through together when Treya is diagnosed with breast cancer.

ScreenPicks spoke with the very eloquent writer/director Sebastian Siegel about adapting Ken Wilbur’s poignant book for the big screen and how the story transcends love beyond life. Plus, how he got his score composers Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge to create the sound of “the gravity of a supernova juxtaposed with a collapsing star.” 

Here are some of Siegel’s deep and poetic thoughts on the movie:

Q: Reading Ken Wilbur’s book made a big impact on you, right?

Sebastian Siegel: Yes definitely. I read the book and was devastated, and yet somehow had hope. I was uplifted. And I thought, why is that? This is a story about love and beyond life, right? I looked at what other people thought about [Wilbur’s book] around the world and in so many different languages… they also felt devastated but full of hope. The same way it is in Love Story or Titanic or The Notebook, in which someone dies in the end and yet somehow, there's this hope. That there is this catalyst, but in which these two characters are able to evolve, and I think that's what's inspiring. So in the same way that the sinking of the Titanic is a character, illness plays a major role in the plot that ultimately is a catalyst for the development of our characters.

Q: I had an older sister who died of cancer many years ago. She was 11 years older than me and was kind of my mentor, teaching me things. And the last thing she taught me was dying with, well, grace and grit.

Siegel: I am sorry for your loss, but the particular language that you’re using, what you said about how she taught you, I think, is indicative of this story, this paradoxical journey of life. We don't sign up to lose someone. We don't want to sign up for those situations and devastation but that makes us grow. Whether it's your lover, or your sister, or your child, or your parent maybe someone who is not here, you still feel them. You see them in the wind or the sun.

I think that great stories, you know, don't just make audiences watch but also transform. For me as a cinephile and movies have affected me so much my whole life. I was a little kid and I wanted to make a picture that was experiential in that way, where people would sit through it, and by the end, it stays with you. This is beyond time and when I think about embracing Grit, I wanted to articulate that love lives beyond life. There’s a moment in which Treya just puts her head on Ken’s chest. There's no dialogue in that whole scene and yet you feel perhaps there's this thing and we have those moments in life, and those are worth living. The ones I like to paint on the screen. The beautiful, tender, romantic, joyous moments juxtaposed against this melancholy and tragedy.

Q: It was a stroke of brilliance casting Stuart Townsend and Mena Suvari as these two people.

Siegel: Thank you. Talking about intuition and faith, when I was adapting the screenplay, I had a very clear sense of Ken Wilber because I read most of his other work. Grace and Grit actually came later in my reading of Wilbur’s work. I knew Ken and we had become sympatico. The film needed to incorporate his work as a whole, not just this book. I knew when I met that guy, I would know. 

But I wanted to cast Treya first. I watch love stories at night for months. I knew it when I met the woman that she would have the interior structures that would become comparable to Treya. When I met Mena and we talked for the first time about it, she felt like she just had to do it. Like it was something it was speaking to her. She cried a couple of times, and I just knew she was the one. There was no doubt, it was just a fit. 

Same thing with Stuart, you know, and when we connected, he just invoked these subtle charms of Ken Wilber. This deep subtle sensitivity juxtaposed by the strong masculinity. That was very much Stuart Townsend. If you can cast the actors who are archetypically the characters, then there's less acting involved. I was bringing these two characters to the screen, and I knew it would resonate as true to the audience.

Q: In speaking with Stuart Townsend, he said it was really the three of you, going through this together. He also said he was exhausted at the end of it [laughs].

Siegel: For sure… well, I didn't get exhausted. I just got more excited I suppose. But yes, they were living through it. I lived through it in the adaptation process, and it was an immersive period. So it was the same for these actors. There are falling in love, getting their hopes up and getting their hearts broken. They're going through this cycle, you know, this depth. This psychological adventure. In the same way that, you know, a conductor will push the instruments in a symphony to the limit. It's the musicians who trust the conductor, and they're willing to push those instruments all the way. I think that that's a sacred relationship between the director and the actors. It's going to require a certain amount of vulnerability, obviously, and they trusted me fully and so I think that they've just played that out spectacular. 

Q: I love how you describe the film as a poem. Explain what you mean by that.  

Siegel: I think that the way we remember an experience is abstract and poetic. You could probably describe a dream you had as a kid like it happened a second ago. But if I ask what you dreamt last night or the night before or two weeks ago, you’d have no idea. The world is abstract, and I think movies are immersive in a way that can extrapolate from life in a very short period.

When I say a poem, I mean that it's immersive. We start the poem, we go through it, and by the end, we go through an emotional transition. It’s the same with a movie. Perhaps we were able to see or touch or feel something inside, maybe something that's been dormant. Or maybe something that's alive and we get to see it from the lens. I know that some movies have moved me and have resonated with me and percolated, you know, for days and years later because I felt something emotionally. I was able to touch inside of my own being because of a movie that I started for a couple of hours. We are able to make some sort of step in our own journey and encountering something inside ourselves. 

Q: Music also plays such a big part in Grace and Grit. Was that a fun part of the process?

Siegel: I had so much fun on every little step of this, but yes, the music is a major player in the film, especially coming from someone who loves music. As a kid, I had posters all over my wall, and I was always going to RadioShack, you know, getting records and just playing them over and over. I was also into music videos. Really into it, the seduction and being able to daydream over music. And when we drive, listening to music. 

When it comes to this story, the music is a character and is ultimately about the moon and stars -- the man and the woman as lovers onscreen. When I met [composers] Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge, who did Martin Scorsese’s Silence, I was just blown away. When we connected, we were talking about the movie about it being a love story, about the moon and stars.

One night, they sent me a piece of music like two minutes or something, and it's for this scene in which Ken is in the barn in Germany and he's underwater and then he comes to the surface and looks at the stars. This is really Ken’s moment where he is at his most hopeless and that's where his moment of resurrection is. He comes to the surface and realizes, “I'm going to be ripped away from this woman, I'm never going to see her again” but there she is in the stars. He looks up in the skies and he's devastated and yet, he's full of hope.

So, [the Kluges] sent me the piece, and I send back notes saying, “In this scene I really need the sound to be the gravity of a supernova juxtaposed with a collapsing star.” [laughs]. Then I'm like having some tea and thinking, “Did I just send that? What kind of nonsensical note is that?” But, of course, this man and wife team are brilliant musicians. Kim calls me and says, “I get it, I get it. I know exactly what you do!” And then he asks, “What does the gravity of a supernova sound like?” He means he wants me to make the sound on the phone. So it’s like 2 in the morning, and I'm making this sound [sort of a low grumble]. And Kim says, “I know exactly what you're talking about!” And then they sent it and it’s amazing! It’s one of my favorite musical pieces in the film. I'm so humbled by this experience.

Q: What else did you learn from this experience?

Siegel: To trust my intuition as a storyteller. I’ve made documentaries, commercials, written books on my own poetic philosophy, but I trust my intuitions. Whether it's the process of casting or writing or set design, lens testing or scoring or editing, you know, the intuition is ultimately what drives us. How do we know what vocation to do? How do we know what to write? How do we know who to fall in love with? In other words, if we're able to surrender and let go, we were drawn to the things that need to speak through us.

It’s a testament to my own sense of trust and faith in the intuitive process. It doesn't matter where it goes, I'm here to serve. Whether it's another person or my friend, or my lover or anything that I'm doing as a storyteller. I'm here to serve, and that voice is coming through. And if I listen to that, and have faith in that, then I think that it'll come out in a way that's truthful. All we can do here as humans is be truthful and whatever wants to come through comes through.