Production Notes – “The Vow”

Screen Gems (Sony)
Published: 2012

STUDIO SYNOPSIS: Paige and Leo (Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum) are a happy newlywed couple whose lives are changed by a car accident that puts Paige in a coma. Waking up with severe memory loss, Paige has no memory of Leo, a confusing relationship with her parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange), and an ex-fiancé (Scott Speedman) she may still have feelings for. Despite these complications, Leo endeavors to win her heart again and rebuild their marriage.

SYNOPSIS
What if the one you loved literally didn’t recognize you anymore? Would you know how to win your soulmate’s heart all over again?

Paige (RACHEL MCADAMS) and Leo (CHANNING TATUM) are a young married couple, madly in love and living fulfilling lives as artists in Chicago. One snowy night, the two fall victim to a car accident. Leo survives intact, but a head trauma erases Paige’s entire memory of her relationship with her husband.

When she comes out of her coma, Leo is a stranger to her. Suddenly Leo finds himself in the painful position of rebooting the relationship he’s waited his whole life for, and win his wife’s love all over again. Paige has reverted mentally to the young law student she was five years earlier, before she met Leo and became an artist. In seemingly an instant, she is no longer the wife Leo knew, and on top of that, she no longer recognizes her current life. She can’t fathom why she is estranged from her parents (JESSICA LANGE and SAM NEILL), misses her more conservative wardrobe, and doesn’t understand why she would have dropped out of university and a promising career in law. Making matters worse, Paige thinks she’s still engaged to charming businessman Jeremy (SCOTT SPEEDMAN), who still wants her, and remains reluctant to embrace Leo, with his less conventional lifestyle making music, as anyone she might have ever loved.

When Paige’s memory recovery appears to be a hopeless cause, Leo begins to confront his worst fear – that he’s lost the love of his life and his only family. Refusing to give up, he decides to start fresh and court Paige as if they’ve just met, with the hope that since they fell in love once, they can do it again. It’s a challenge that will test everything he’s ever believed about love, about being true to oneself, and about that sacred part of every marriage ceremony: the vow two people make to each other.

PRODUCTION NOTES
In A Love Rediscovered, The Love Story Rediscovered. Everybody loves a good romance, but hasn’t every love story been told by this point in the history of cinema?

Spyglass Entertainment Co-Chairman Roger Birnbaum admits he’d grappled with this question for years. Then a news story crossed his desk: “I read an article about a couple who’d been in a car accident and the woman never recovered her memories of the man she loved.” Immediately, the unusual nature of the story spoke to him.

What happened to New Mexico residents Kim Carpenter and his wife Krickitt — an initially tragic but ultimately uplifting saga of a man and woman who found each other again after a seemingly insurmountable obstacle – touched many lives when it was first reported. The Carpenters would eventually publish a book about their experience in 2000.

Spyglass producer Jonathan Glickman describes what interested them in the Carpenters’ story. “We got excited by the idea of telling a story of a relationship that was inspired by true events that had not yet been seen, but was also relatable to anyone because of the universal themes about the need to adapt to change for any relationship to last.”

Krickitt Carpenter, who has been happily married to Kim now for 18 years even though the period of memory she lost never returned, boils down what happened to them this way: “My husband is amazing. He did everything he could to win me back. Life is full of ups and downs and challenges, but you have to dig down and be the best that you can be.”

Honoring the emotional reality of such an extraordinary incident required coming up with an original story that had the right balance, explains Glickman, “Because the story is so emotional and gripping, we didn’t want to make it a melodrama, but something that could elevate itself to one of those classic love stories like The Way We Were or Love Story and at the same include relationships between parents and daughters, sisters and friends. The script needed to be accessible, with humor and a light touch throughout, so that we don’t take ourselves so seriously.”

If that sounds like a tall order, it was. After years in development, Spyglass was delivered a script the producers were thrilled with. “A love story, if told properly, should be able to connect with cultures all over the world.” Roger Birnbaum sums up: “After a few attempts and over a decade of trying, we found a particular take on this story that made sense to us and the kinds of movies that we are making now at Spyglass, which are commercial, mainstream movies that we hope can touch audiences all over the world.”

The next step was finding a director who could deliver on the promise of the script. Spyglass met with Michael Sucsy who had just wrapped a movie of his own, the much-lauded HBO film Grey Gardens. Glickman smiles, “We met with Michael and clicked instantly. He found things about the story that none of us had thought about.”

“I just thought it sounded like an incredible premise for a film,” says Sucsy. “The fact that two people are already in love when the movie starts, and then they’re ripped apart, and then they have to find a way back to each other, that really touched me. The thing that hit me the most was the fact that this could happen to anybody at any time. A lot of time when we deal with memory loss, it’s about Alzheimer’s and growing old, but I thought this was a really universal way of being able to relate to the problem.”

Jonathan Glickman proclaims: “Michael Sucsy is a true superstar. He is confident, he is smart, he’s funny, but most importantly, he has a real emotional soul and he’s not afraid to get true dramatic moments, which is why Grey Gardens was such a success. He’s a top-notch director and we really were lucky to have him leading the ship on this. It was almost as if we had waited that long to get Michael Sucsy to direct it.”

A Commitment To Talent
A great script attracts a lot of great people, but finding the perfect talent to bring Paige and Leo to life was crucial; not just the right actor and actress individually, but the right pair. Producer Jonathan Glickman explains: “So much of the film is hinged on how this girl actually married this guy and how she makes sense of that fact, and whether an audience will believe that this guy could get this girl to marry him.”

“The great thing about Rachel and Channing’s pairing is that they’re both extremely charismatic and likeable, but not necessarily from each other’s world, and they were probably six years old when we started working on this story,” jokes Glickman, “So there’s another element of timing in the making of this film”.

For Sucsy, casting Paige was tricky, because it was important for the character not to come off as too distant when adjusting to her post-coma world. “The difficult thing for an actress in approaching the role of Paige is that she comes out and she doesn’t have any connection to her husband. He’s a stranger to her. If she’s too off-putting, it’s hard to root for her. And in the case of Rachel McAdams, she’s the perfect actress to play the role, because she can tread that line of being likeable, but being convincing that she’s going through this process of having lost her memory.”

McAdams connected with the script and her character from the beginning: “I loved the way the script unfolded. When we first meet Paige, she is a much more actualized version of herself than we see later on in the film, which is kind of a backwards way to go but exactly what I found so interesting.” She explains, “Paige has embraced the life she’s made with Leo. They’re clearly free and comfortable and supportive of each other; she appreciates his music and he encourages her sculpting. But then we find out that she’s cut off from her family and denying a big part of her life.”

Channing Tatum is a self-proclaimed hopeless romantic, and felt the script told an authentic story about a once in a lifetime love and what people will do to hold on to that. “Falling in love is the easy part!” notes Tatum. “Getting on with your life together and making sure you stay in touch and connected because life can get in the way sometimes, that’s the tough part. I think that a huge part of Leo and Paige’s journey is based on the fact that not only do they make each other intensely happy and support each other, but that they pushed each other to grow and when you do that it really does take you to the next level in a relationship and in life.”

It’s been said that a common reaction for people with brain trauma and memory loss is for them feel inadequate and frustrated. The people and things they can’t remember become associated with anxiety, frustration and confusion. This aspect also intrigued McAdams. “It stands to reason that a person would feel overwhelmed by it all and want to avoid what is making them feel bad about themselves even though others are trying to help,” she says. “It must be so frustrating for everyone in this situation! So often people have to take a stand about who they are, but then they lose important people in their life. Paige feels inadequate and frustrated by her memory loss and at one point just finds it easier to be away from Leo. This is about bridging the gap between those two things and so many of us can relate to that.”

Channing admits that he found the role emotionally difficult at times because, as a young husband himself, he couldn’t help but imagine himself in this situation: “I hope I would be as brave as Leo is; it’s heartbreaking for him, but he has the faith to let Paige find her own way. And this role is great because Leo is so truthful about his love, he doesn’t hold it back, and I can relate to that. I love love! It’s harder to play than running around with guns and being physical, but it’s very satisfying.”

Tatum says it made total sense to him to work so hard to win Paige back: “If my wife (actress Jenna Dewan) lost her memory of me, I wouldn’t just be like ‘Okay, alright, well, see you later, good luck’. No. I’d be fighting tooth and nail and plug away at this until it comes back. No matter what.”

“It’s a great romantic love story but also about familial love too,” says McAdams. “When Paige wakes up and doesn’t recognize her husband and learns that she’s estranged from her family, she sees big holes in her life that need to be filled in. I find that idea of not knowing if you will find your way back to your destiny so interesting.” She continues, “Do you naturally gravitate towards all the things you were already going towards in your life, or does it just start from scratch and you have to build yourself up as a person all over again? And I think that’s such an interesting idea that they say you will naturally go where you were. You’ll find your way back there even though you have to relearn everything from scratch. A driving force through the whole movie is you’re waiting for this epiphany, you’re waiting for that light bulb moment and it doesn’t necessarily come.”

On Leo’s sacrifice, McAdams feels that, “It was generous and a loving act that he gives Paige the opportunity and the space to become herself again on her own terms and also wise of him to know that she needed to do that.”

Channing is in sync with Rachel on the choices Leo makes. “I don’t think it was Leo’s place to tell Paige the truth about her family rift,” he notes. “If he had, she more than likely wouldn’t go back to them, but he didn’t want her to run to him by running away from them.” Tatum worked hard with director Michael Sucsy to find a place for Leo where “he understands that her family is just doing whatever they possibly can to get their daughter back and he doesn’t blame them for it but he just wishes that they would be honest with her. He wanted her to choose to be with him.”

Tatum continues: “It’s so frustrating for Leo because there’s nothing visibly wrong with his wife; she talks like Paige, she walks like Paige, everything is exactly the same, but it’s just her memory of her husband is completely gone. And it’s that much more painful that she remembered other people, her family, but just not her husband and everything they had been together.”

For Sucsy, casting Tatum was a case of finding the soldier of love in an established movie warrior. “The Leo role is a knight in shining armor, and prior to this I’d only seen Channing’s work where he’d been in tough, military roles. So I went to meet him, and we sat down, and I called the producers afterward and I said, ‘He is the guy. He’s Leo. It’s perfect for him.’ I got the sense that his heart was bigger than his chest cavity. He’s got a huge heart, Channing does, and so does Leo, and that really comes out when he has to keep sticking with his wife through the ups and downs.”

From Rachel McAdams’ point of view, “Channing Tatum is the perfect guy for this role because he’s a real renaissance man; chivalrous and gentlemanly. He’s playing someone who would do anything to win back his wife’s heart and that’s very much, I think, who Channing is. He’s a very heroic kind of guy, so yeah, and I know he loves love and really believes in it and I think he made Leo a really stoic character that you just fall in love with and believe that he’s definitely the rock in the relationship throughout. He added such lovely little touches to Leo.”

Channing is equally impressed by Rachel: “Look, she is one of the most brilliant and beautiful people that I’ve ever met. Not just as an actor, but as a person. She cares. She has the true talent to be able to make any line work – and we’ve got some serious big lines in this movie – which can be hard to pull off, but she just does. She has an uncanny ability to make anything sound real and amazing because she commits and believes in it. I’m in awe of her and I’ve learned so much from her.”

Sucsy knows he struck gold with the pairing of his stars. “You can’t fake chemistry,” he says. “It’s there or it’s not. And the good thing is, Rachel and Channing luckily had it. They really got along well. They light up the screen.”

In addition to attracting some of the hottest young actors to the production, the script also drew remarkable talent to fill the key parts of the family who surround Paige and Leo. On the supporting cast, Jonathan Glickman explains, “One of the great things about putting this picture together was that there are such fine roles outside of the leads, and that helps balance out the movie so that adults can say, ‘Okay, there’s something in this movie for us as well. It’s not just a young love story, but that there are adult themes that are going to be explored in it’.”

The producers had faith from the beginning that director Michael Sucsy would be able to attract the best talent because he is known as such a good actor’s director. Furthermore, Sucsy’s pre- existing relationship from Grey Gardens with Jessica Lange helped entice her to play Paige’s mother, Rita.

“The thing I really appreciate about working with actresses like Jessica is that they don’t just come in, say their lines, collect their check and go,” says Sucsy. “They want to make it an experience. So we took the few scenes that Jessica plays and we really fleshed them out and made them deeper. There’s a scene where Rachel’s character is confronting her mother about something in their family, and what Jessica brought to that scene as an actress, it kind of makes me emotional just thinking about that day. Then you look over, and the grips and the electrics and the sound guys, everyone’s just not paying attention to what they’re doing because her performance is so riveting. I mean, she’s just a gem.”

From the beginning, Sam Neill was always the top choice for Bill. Jonathan Glickman explains why: “Sam’s a fine actor who can play empathy and can play tough equally well, and we just felt that he was a great match for Rachel and we also were always excited about the scenes between him and Leo. We needed a formidable father figure who would be intimidating to Channing, and let’s face it, there are not a lot of people who would be intimidating to Channing. Sam Neill has that force. He’s done everything in his career from being chased by dinosaurs to being with Meryl Streep when the dingo ate the baby, so he has such a breadth of experience.”

Sucsy applauds Neill’s ability to take a potentially off-putting and arch character and get you to see things from his perspective: “The point was to make him coming from a good place, even if it didn’t feel that way to Paige, even if it felt controlling. He made it feel real, made it feel grounded.”

Glickman adds, “Having Jessica and Sam, we have two of the finest actors out there who make you believe that this story actually happened.”

Rachel can’t say enough about Jessica Lange and Sam Neill as her parents: “They’re so great. They’re just amazing. I was so happy when they signed on to do the movie and they both brought so much humanity to their roles. It was so lovely to watch and they’re both exceptional and you see why they have the reputations they have.”

McAdams talks about being in a scene with Lange: “Paige’s mother could have come off as a real villain, but Jessica played her with such empathy. Even for me as the actor in the scene with Jessica, when she’s explaining why she stayed with Paige’s father, I’m sitting there in awe, feeling for this woman as she talks about her commitment to her family. At the beginning of that scene, Paige doesn’t get where her mother’s coming from at all, and the way Jessica did it there’s just no way you couldn’t empathize with her character. She’s incredible.”

Similarly, McAdams says that the role of Paige’s father Bill “could have been very one-note: the villain, the father that doesn’t embrace his children and does everything wrong, but Sam Neill brought a certain vulnerability to the character that makes him human. And Sam is such a lovely guy.” McAdams continues, “He’s so funny in a way you would not expect. He has a sense of humor that kind of creeps up on you out of nowhere and I think that was great that he brought a little bit of that to this character.”

As for the role of Jeremy, it was important to cast an actor who had the charisma to be a formidable foe for Leo and someone that the audience would believe Paige had loved, and may still love. Jeremy shows the other path that Paige could have taken and could choose again. Scott Speedman was cast in this role and did not disappoint.

“The great thing about Scott is that he plays a leading man,” explains Sucsy. “A lot of times with Hollywood casting, you’ve got the big movie star in one role, and then some supporting guy in the other role. Well, guess who she’s going to end up with? It telegraphs it. So the great thing about casting Scott is that it really puts into question who she’s going to end up with. He has to be a contender, and I love that about Scott and his performance.”

An added bonus was that Scott and Rachel had worked together previously and therefore evoked a natural chemistry on set. “”Scott really nailed the role. We’re lucky to have had him,” adds McAdams.
Australian actress and Rachel McAdams lookalike Jessica McNamee was cast as Paige’s sister Gwen. “Her audition blew me away,” says Sucsy. “And when she showed up on set, she said not only has she always gotten that she looks like Rachel McAdams, but her father apparently looks like Sam Neill, who’s playing her dad in the film. So that was kind of fun!”

McAdams adds, “Jessica McNamee is an exceptional actress, and I think she’s going to have an amazing career. And it’s really scary how much we actually look alike!”

Making The Vow Real
Principal photography on The Vow began an all-location shoot in August, 2010, in Toronto, Canada. Because the film is set in Chicago, the last four days in October were shot there for verisimilitude, including landmark locations.

Sucsy called on his friend and Grey Gardens production designer Kalina Ivanov to bring her considerable talent and experience to creating the look of every unique set in the film as well as Paige’s artwork.

Ivanov responded to the script immediately: “I loved the opportunity of having to create these people’s lives from scratch and then having to create a whole new world for them of where one of them is comfortable and the other one knows nothing about it. It presented a great opportunity to give Paige’s character a lot of clues about her past life and to give Leo the opportunity to use these clues in trying to rekindle their love. So every environment I created for those characters had to serve a dual purpose: to not just to be their environment, but also to give you the clue of what their life was like before as a couple.”

Kalina and Michael first met at her interview for Grey Gardens and found that they have a very similar approach to art. “We both think very conceptually, and we both feel and think through images, so the first thing I did after I read The Vow was to find an image of a suzannie, which is a multi-colored hand sewn bedspread from Afghanistan, which I felt spoke of the look I wanted to create for this show.”

As for the art, believes Ivanov, “Each of Paige’s sculptures represent a time in her life, and the fact that she was an artist was extremely appealing to me as a designer. And the fact that she forgets how she was an artist, that her art is interrupted and she has to find her core as an artist again, presented itself as a very interesting challenge for me as a designer.”

Tatum gives Ivanov and Sucsy credit for the “incredibly expressive sculptures that are beautiful but have a dark edge to them that show her pain.”

In terms of the locations, Chicago and Toronto do look in many ways alike says Ivanov: “They are both towns from the same era and they’re both on lakes, so the architectural vernacular isn’t that different.”

As for working with director Michael Sucsy, Rachel McAdams smiles. “Michael makes everything fun,” she notes. “He set the tone from the beginning that if nothing else we were just going to have a great time and hopefully, the rest would work out. I love that he’s very much about the process and not the end result, which of course I know is always in the back of his mind, but it’s the journey for him, which is lovely.”

Involved in every aspect of making the film, Sucsy was even there for Rachel’s hair consultations, wardrobe fittings and the art. “Michael is just so much a part of it all! He’s collaborative and totally open to new ideas.” Rachel recounts a moment when Michael told her that he believed in the love story and had a feeling in his solar plexus when he thought about her and Channing together. “I’ve never heard about the solar plexus being an intuitive place on the body, but it is for him, and it was just so sweet. Yeah, he’s just been a lovely support throughout,” says McAdams.

Channing Tatum credits Michael Sucsy with being able to bring the best out in his talent. “I think Michael is a sculptor in a way,” says Tatum. “He has a real sense of how he wants things, and that’s an awesome safety net for an actor. It’s especially impressive when you remember that this is only his second movie!” The actor continues to sing Sucsy’s praises: “Michael loves the written word and has a real sense of reality and language that I think helps him help us walk the line between over the top schmaltzy and authentic. It’s so helpful to be able to trust that in a director and not be afraid to go too far, not be afraid to undersell it and really just trust that he’s going to go and put all the places in and really ride the wave of a really good rollercoaster of emotion.”

For Kim Carpenter, the movie inspired by their remarkable love story may be the tale of a newly imagined screen couple, but watching it he couldn’t help recognizing the emotional truth of what he’d gone through in real life. In particular, he cites the uncanny acting choice Tatum made when Leo first learns that Paige doesn’t remember him. “He went outside and slid down the side of a [vending] machine,” notes Carpenter. “It’s a really powerful moment in the movie. Well, ironically, once I discovered my wife didn’t recognize me, I went outside the door and slid down the wall and buried my head between my legs. Things like that. The gravity of a lot of the scenes. It actually made me cry! I was really happy with it.” All in all, Channing Tatum sums up the core of the movie’s message this way: “It’s a big deal to vow yourself for life to somebody and mean it. It really is something.”

For Roger Birnbaum, seeing The Vow to fruition was everything he’d hoped for since he first heard the Carpenters’ story. “With world class director Michael Sucsy and a truly stellar cast, we couldn’t be more happy with The Vow. At the end of the day, we want to make movies that will appeal to a wide spectrum of audiences and make them as well as possible.”

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