Billy Crystal wrote and directed “Here Today,” a film about a comedy writer facing dementia (Crystal) who forms an unlikely friendship with a singer (Tiffany Haddish). Learn about Billy’s personal inspiration for the film and how you can watch.
Billy, your character in the film says: “I’m writing something, and I have to finish it before my words run out.” Tell us how your Aunt Deborah helped inspire this story.
Aunt Deborah was a brilliant woman, very witty, intelligent and charming. She wrote seven books and was an editor for the Book of the Month Club. Her husband, my Uncle Bern, was a creative soul, an art dealer and a wonderful artist himself. He was my father’s brother and someone I was extremely close to.
My wife Janice and I became caregivers for Aunt Deborah and Uncle Bern at a certain point in their lives. That was when we noticed Deborah starting to be a bit less like herself over time. One day she came to me and said, “I’m losing my words…”
That moment was so profound. Her words were her currency, and she was going broke.
When we were creating my character of Charlie, my aunt’s words kept echoing in my brain. I worked on the screenplay with Alan Zweibel, and we felt that making the character of Charlie an accomplished writer – who loved his craft and was losing the tools to do it – would lend well in telling this story.
You saw Tiffany Haddish host “Saturday Night Live” and knew she would be the perfect fit for the character of Emma. What was the best part about working with her in creating this unique on screen relationship?
When I saw Tiffany host “SNL,” her talent blew me away, but when I met her, I was more impressed by her heart.
She was focused on her grandmother, who has dementia, and was moving her into her home to take care of her. She didn’t have to play Emma as much as she already was Emma. She is funny, of course, and painfully honest. I love that about her. Tiffany was willing to go to places she hadn’t gone to before in other screen roles.
Most importantly, the relationship between Charlie and Emma is built on love, as well as something sorely missing from our country today, which is EMPATHY. Being able to share in the feelings and struggles of another person is a key part of life, and just one of the ways we can all support each other as human beings, especially when facing a disease.
How have you found that laughter can help heal people who are going through difficult experiences, like facing a disease in their loved one?
I have always found a good laugh to be healing. My Broadway show “700 Sundays” was about dealing with the grief of losing my parents at different points in my life. To this day, I still receive letters from people who saw the show in the theater or at home on HBO and are so grateful that it helped them through tough times of their own.
Laughter is also what has made my now 51-year marriage to my wife Janice such a joy. Even in our darkest times – when we’ve lost a loved one, or seem to have an impossible challenge to navigate – we do it honestly, and with humor.
As Charlie says in the film, “Don’t take away my sense of humor.” I know that it is something I never want to lose.
Why is it important that movies like “Here Today” are made about complicated topics like dementia?
Recently, several films have been released that deal with dementia, and that is a very positive development – the fact that people are talking about the disease through film and opening up that wider conversation.
I have received many messages from people who are living with someone who is in the throes of the disease, and they are so grateful that “Here Today” depicted their experiences – and the disease – with proper respect. I’m very pleased that the film is reaching people and making an impact on those who are living with the disease every day of their lives.
Charlie keeps writing due to encouragement from Emma. How would you encourage people with an Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis to take life by the reins and continue to live their life to the fullest?
I think that caregivers and loved ones should stimulate people living in the early stage of the disease to continue to accomplish things, to be inspired to keep creating and living with hope. They can’t be left to surrender to the disease, and should live their lives as fully as possible.
If you are a caregiver for someone you love, try and stimulate their minds in different ways, because you never really know what unseen benefit may be beneath the surface.
And know that sometimes showing compassion and empathy with a sense of hope and humor is the best you can offer someone living with a disease, or the people dedicated to caring for them. Whether it is music, comedy, painting… just keep trying to reach those you love in a new way. Keep their joy alive.
“Here Today” is available on digital on July 20. The film will be available on BLU-RAY™ and DVD on August 3. Learn more about the film.
How has laughter helped get you through life's difficult moments? Let us know in the comments.
About: Billy Crystal is an actor, writer, comedian, director, producer and winner of six Primetime Emmy Awards, a Tony and Mark Twain prize. He has famously hosted the Academy Awards nine times since 1990. He lives in Los Angeles with wife Janice.