To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday
“TO GILLIAN ON HER 37TH BIRTHDAY”
Labor Day weekend on Nantucket Island marks a family reunion for David Lewis (Peter Gallagher) and his teenage daughter, Rachel (Claire Danes) along with his sister-in-law Esther (Kathy Baker) and brother-in-law Paul (Bruce Altman). It also marks the anniversary of David’s wife Gillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) who died in a boating accident on her birthday two years ago. To David, it could have been yesterday. Hoping to help David overcome his grief, Paul and Esther bring an attractive single woman (Wendy Crewson) with them to the island. But he’s not over Gillian. In fact, David is completely in love with her. It’s as though the strength of his devotion just might bring her back.
As the family celebrates the weekend with the traditional karoake singing and a sand castle competition, relationships are re-examined and truths are revealed. When David discovers that his obsession with his late wife has damaged his precious relationship with Rachel, he realizes he must do everything in his power to regain his daughter’s love — even if it means letting go of Gillian.
A Rastar/David E. Kelley Production for Triumph Films, “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” is a romantic-drama about life, relationships and enduring love. It stars an ensemble cast including Peter Gallagher, Claire Danes, Kathy Baker, Wendy Crewson, Bruce Altman, Laurie Fortier, Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Michelle Pfeiffer.
The film was directed by Michael Pressman and produced by Marylcay Powell, president of Rastar, and David E. Kelley. “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” marks the first foray into feature film producing and writing for Kelley, creator and executive producer of the acclaimed television series “Picket Fences” and “Chicago Hope.” His screenplay was based
on the play by Michael Brady.
ABOUT THE STORY
How do we deal with inexorable loss – the death of a loved one, or a person who is unattainable? Where do we find the strength to go on; and, what happens if we don’t?
“The idea of letting go of these kinds of losses is a very big challenge,” comments “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” producer Maiykay Powell. “I think the film is about the fear of letting go. If you do let go of the dream, it may invalidate it; if you let go of a dead person, perhaps you are disloyal to that person. Finding a way to move on and keep the love is an enormous challenge that is inescapable.”
For director Michael Pressman, the film is “about coming to terms with how you say goodbye to someone you love. This could be the ending of a marriage, the ending of a romance, or the ending of a friendship. The hardest thing is saying goodbye. David has to find a way to finally say goodbye to his dead wife and honor and remember her in a very real way. The story is really about a celebration of life. It’s painful, heartwarming and ultimately uplifting.”
Widower David Lewis knows that his wife is physically dead, but he refuses to let go of her ethereal, luminous presence. He converses with her in the moonlight, frolics and
laughs with her on the beach and shares his undying love; isolating himself and ostracizing his daughter Rachel from himself and the grieving process. He’s happier when he’s with Gillian, and mistakenly believes that he is doing the right thing for everyone. “Gillian is very much alive to David,” says Peter Gallagher of his character, “and he fmds a certain kind of solace and guidance from her in terms of raising their adolescent daughter.
“In his mind, love doesn’t die with the person,” continues Gallagher. “Love is a feeling and fantasy is part of our lives. He’s having an emotional fantasy. What harm is it doing anyone if it helps him get out of bed in the morning and function? But in his effort to protect Rachel, he realizes she feels excluded from her only remaining parent. There is no choice left but to have to say goodbye to Gillian and move on.”
Sixteen-year-old Rachel Lewis remembers the strong and powerful love her parents had, but “she feels her father is being selfish since the whole family has to deal with Gillian’s death. Their grieving is overshadowed by his despair,” says Claire Danes. “He’s shutting himself off from everybody else, including his daughter and she feels a little neglected.
There’s a tinge of jealousy because Rachel is alive and wants more attention than a dead person. She really wants things to be normal again so she can feel secure.”
Gillian’s sister Esther has her own way of dealing with her grief. “She’s taking psychology classes, trying to learn about herself and about family relations,” says Kathy Baker. “Esther is quite straightforward about the need for David to face the truth that his wife has died. It’s not good for his daughter that he’s spending so much time in fantasy land and not parenting. It not a very healthy place for a sixteen-year-old. She feels that enough is enough.”
Esther and her husband Paul travel to Nantucket Island for the family’s end-of-summer revelry. The weekend still includes the traditional activities that Gillian always planned for the family: a black-tie dinner, a sand castle competition, and a Karaoke singalong. Esther, however, is concerned about David’s state of mind and his behavior convinces her that her worst suspicions are true – David needs help and she must take action to remove Rachel from an unhealthy situation. She threatens to take legal custody of her niece, becoming the catalyst that forces David to confront reality and make a decision.
Esther and Paul also have another way of pulling David out of his shell – they bring along their friend — an attractive, intelligent woman named Kevin. Of course, they haven’t informed David of the surprise.
When Kevin learns the circumstances of Gillian’s tragic death two years ago on this weekend, “all she wants to do is stay on the ferry and go back to the mainland to get out of this situation,” says Wendy Crewson. “She is somehow cajoled off the boat into this hornet’s nest of emotion and accusation, and is surrounded by this lunatic family.
“I think she becomes involved with what goes on,” adds Crewson. “She’s quite taken with Rachel’s plight of being caught in this terrible mess between her aunt and her father.
She’s also vaguely intrigued by David and his situation of holding this love for Gillian. Kevin is quite cynical about love when she enters and a little more optimistic about it when she leaves.”
As the weekend progresses, relationships are examined and truths are revealed. As David’s mind continues to play tricks on him, he remembers the romantic perfection of his love for Gillian. Meanwhile, Esther and Paul become a little envious of such an enduring love.
In his reticence to express his feelings to Esther, Paul is the cynical antithesis of David.
When Rachel’s precocious friend Cindy, played by Laurie Fortier, confronts him with a provocative proposal, Paul is forced to take a hard look at his own life. “She mocks him and then comes on to him,” comments Bruce Altman. “He doesn’t act upon it, but it causes him to question what he really wants. He realizes that he has wounded his wife and that he really loves her and needs her.”
“This is a weekend where Esther and Paul finally express their appreciation for each other,” adds Baker. “Their relationship might not be Gillian’s and David’s and it might not be anyone else’s idea of the perfect one, but it’s theirs. It’s special and this weekend they tell
each other how much they appreciate it.”
For Rachel’s sake, David finally realizes that he is strong enough to let go of his fantasies of Gillian and rejoin the living. He bids his life companion a final farewell with the words, “I love you forever and ever.”
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
In 1985, Michael Pressman directed the West Coast premiere of Michael Brady’s play “To Gillian on her 37th Birthday.” The Los Angeles production received five Los Angeles Critics Circle Award nominations.
“I fell in love with the play and have always wanted to make it as a movie,” notes Pressman. “After ten years of waiting and loving a project, this is a dream come true.”
Rastar Productions had owned the play for a few years, and after several attempts to adapt it to a screenplay, producer Marykay Powell approached Pressman to direct the film
Since Pressman had been working with David E. Kelley on the television series “Picket Fences” and “Chicago Hope,” the two thought the material would be very apt for him. When Kelley agreed to write the screenplay, the pieces quickly fell in place for the project to go into
production. David Saunders, president of Sony’s Triumph Films, agreed to finance the film through his division.
“It was a very contemporary situation that could be made complex and interesting with Kelley’s input,” Powell says. “By the time he was ready to think about doing a screenplay, there we were. Indeed the material appealed to David and I think he saw the complexity of it.
I think that David Kelley’s specialty is taking a situation, and then the relationship within that situation, and spinning them in a very unexpected and interesting way.”
In translating the play to film, the biggest change was to make it a more accessible story by opening it up and really being on the beach,” recalls Pressman. “The beach house and Nantucket became real characters that enabled us to capture visually the romance that the play suggested.”
The filmmakers felt Nantucket Island was the perfect metaphor for the theme of the story. “It’s very poignant to contrast this beautiful, idyllic, peaceful setting, with the terrible death and loss that it represents to David and his family,” observes Powell.
Another major modification from the play was to make the love between Gillian and David extremely romantic. “It is the perfect love relationship; the kind of love that anybody would want, to justify his holding on to her,” explains Pressman. “In the play it’s a much more introverted character study about a man who is having trouble letting go. The movie really presents the case that there’s something wonderful about his madness; if you lose that, then maybe they’re like all the other normal couples that try to survive in the real world.”
With Nantucket as the centerpiece, Pressman asked director of photography Tim Suhrstedt, production designer Linda Pearl and costume designer Deborah Scott to create a romantic style with a real textural quality. The resulting classic American color scheme includes shades of sand, washed-out reds, blues that come from the ocean and the sky, and images of white-on-white.
ABOUT THE LOCATIONS
On a glorious fall day in September 1995, “To Gillian on her 37th Birthday” began filming on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Situated 30 miles at sea from the southern coast of Cape Cod, historic Nantucket was populated by Native Americans of the Wampanoag Tribe when it was discovered and charted by Captain Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602. It was later sealed by families with names engraved in the annals of history: Starbuck, Macy, Folger, Chase and Coffin were among the earliest white settlers.
From 1800 to 1840 Nantucket was considered the whaling capital of the world. The whaling tradition spawned the indigenous American folk art of scrimshaw, engraving on ivory, wood, shell and other materials. After the Civil War, the island became a popular summer resort. Since then tourists have been welcomed to its charming cobblestone streets and quaint guest houses, some dating back 300 years. The name “Nantucket” is derived from a Native American word meaning “faraway island” or “land far out to sea.” For the “Gillian” film crew this meaning proved prophetic. Moving personnel and equipment on and off the small island, which has seen very little filming, required the logistics of a minor military invasion. The production reserved advance bookings on the auto/truck ferries between Hyannis and Nantucket to transport the seven large production vehicles on and off the island. The crew was flown in from Los Angeles, Boston and North Carolina.
The company filmed for two weeks on the picturesque island at locations that included the ferry terminal on Straight Wharf, Madaket Road, on-board the Hy-Line Ferry, at Brant Point Light, the site of America’s second oldest lighthouse built in 1746, on Main Street’s cobblestones and near Jetties Beach.
The crew then traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina for an additional four and a half weeks of stage work at Carole° Studios, where the interior of the Lewis house was constructed. The Cape Fear region doubled for Nantucket beaches, with additional filming done at historic Fort Fisher, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach.
At Wrightsville Beach, actor Peter Gallagher was literally buried up to his neck in sand for a hilarious scene in which David enters the Nantucket sand castle competition with his elaborate “sand throne.” Twenty sand castles were created by Linda Pearl and her art department including a shark, a whale, an alligator, a walrus, and other assorted creatures, each weighing over 200 pounds.
The final eight days of filming were completed in the Los Angeles area. An exterior night Nantucket beach set, complete with dunes, a duplicate Brant Point light house and miniature beach houses was built in the enormous “Spruce Goose” dome in Long Beach. The sailboat accident flashback sequence was filmed off the coast of Marina del Rey.