Heartland Film Festival: Q&A with Una Vida director Richie Adams 

click to enlarge Bill Cobbs and Aunjanue Ellie in Una Vida.
  • Bill Cobbs and Aunjanue Ellie in Una Vida.

They say that nights are the worst for those living with Alzheimer's. They're certainly tough for Queenie, the street musician coping with the disease in Richie Adams' film Una Vida: A Fable of Music and Mind. She wakes up, bewildered, to an unfamiliar apartment with its walls covered with signs — “DON'T TOUCH,” "BATHROOM," “HOT!” But she does touch, picking a popsicle stick sculpture of a cabin made by her guitarist and de facto caretaker Stump Leg and moving it, unaccountably, to the bathroom cabinet after she's emptied the cabinet of its contents.

The camera wanders behind Queenie through the confusing, troubling scene — which is one of several effective moments in the film where we get a sense of just difficult life can be with a memory disorder. But Queenie (played by Aunjanue Ellie) stubbornly maintains one link to the outside world: her music. “She's hanging on through music,” says Dr. Alvaro Cruz (Joaquin de Almeida), a neuroscientist who recently lost his mother to Alzheimer's and is determined to do penance for perceived shortcomings in the way he cared for his mom by helping out Queenie. He may be seeing his mom in Queenie, with whom he feels a sort of mystical connection (butterflies are inolved). Or he may be playing Oliver Sacks, studying the fascinating phenomenon of the old blues singer who remembers lyrics but doesn't know where she is.

Adams, a Hollywood vet who has designed title sequences for films like The Last Samurai, Inventing Adam and the recent Heartland premiere The Judge, co-wrote the script with Dr. Nicholas Bazan, the New Orleans neuroscientist who wrote the source novel. Una Vida is his second full-length feature.

click to enlarge Una Vida director Richie Adams
  • Una Vida director Richie Adams

NUVO: Why'd you take on this project when it was suggested to you by Dr. Nicholas Bazan?

Richie Adams: I'm drawn to dramatic stories, particularly about matters of the heart, and given this was a story about Alzheimer's, a disease which I knew very little about, I thought it would be a good challenge for me. And the more I learned about the devastating statistics surrounding the disease, the more I thought that I was likely not alone in how little I knew about Alzheimer's.

And beyond what I considered a worthy cause of telling such a story, I really responded to the unlikely cast of characters that come together to help another in need. Dr. Bazan depicted this very well in his novel, and all against the magical backdrop of New Orleans, which I found all very compelling.

NUVO: How'd you try to ensure that Alzheimer's and dementia were accurately and responsibly represented on the screen? And what did you and Aunjanue Ellis talk about when she was preparing for the role?

Adams: When preparing to write the story, I sought out support from those friends and family members with a direct connection to someone suffering from the disease, or who had personally cared for someone with Alzheimer's. Through this research, I was put in contact with the Executive Director of Alzheimer's Services in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I live, and invited to attend the musical therapy sessions at their respite care facility called Charlie's Place that, among other programs, offers singing and music for Alzheimer's patients within the care of their facility.

I was amazed at what I saw. And how the music really affected these folks, some of whom who were in a vacant place, and how it brought smiles to their faces and really enriched their spirits. This was an excellent source for inspiration and background on the subject.

As per my dialogue with Aunjanue Ellis about the role, as part of her preparation, she requested to visit Alzheimer's care facilities in New Orleans to do some research of her own, and I know that she also drew a great deal of inspiration from her mother, who unfortunately suffers from Parkinson's Disease.

NUVO: How did you go about scouting locations? Were there particular parts of New Orleans that you wanted to be sure to get on the screen?

Adams: My family would go to New Orleans a lot when I was a kid, as I grew up in Baton Rouge; and later, after returning home from several years in Los Angeles, I shot several commercial projects in the city. These experiences collectively shaped the New Orleans I had come to love, and with the support of Dr. Bazan and my fellow producer, Brent Caballero, who both live in New Orleans, we knew that between the three of us, we probably knew someone who knew someone who owned a particular location in which we might want to shoot a scene.

We initially intended to shoot much of the film in the French Quarter, but due to cost restrictions, ended up shooting in the Marigny (Frenchmen Street) and the Bywater. I think we (the producers) all feel that the story is that much more "local" and current because of where we ultimately decided to set the story.

However, one location that we knew we had to get on screen was the Cornstalk Hotel, a bed and breakfast in the heart of the French Quarter. This was a location that was in Dr. Bazan's novel, and we knew it would likely come at a hefty cost. Ultimately, fate stepped in, and through a chance encounter in Baton Rouge with the grandson of the former owner of the famed hotel, we were given the opportunity to shoot at that wonderful location. Many locations that could have charged a great deal of money ultimately allowed us to shoot for free because of their response to the story.

NUVO: Do you hope the film leads to dialogue about end-of-life issues?

Adams: In the end, we tried to make a film that would entertain first, focusing on the beauty of people helping people in times of need, rather than highlighting the sheer devastation of the disease. Ideally, the film will give those caring for one with Alzheimer's something to relate to, and hopefully get those fortunate enough to have not experienced the disease firsthand, talking about it — because one way or another, Alzheimer's will likely affect the friends and families of everyone we know.

NUVO: Does your work as a title designer inform the way you work as a director in any way?

Adams: I believe my work as a title designer very much informs my work as a director. I owe a lot to my mentor, Richard Greenberg (Superman, Alien, The Matrix), an accomplished title designer who gave many of the important designers working in film today their first jobs in the business. Richard encouraged me to find what was most important about the story and figure out a way to distill that information into the design of the sequence. I feel that as a director, I have a similar challenge to find what is most important about the story and try to communicate that information in a compelling way, without distracting the viewer from things that would otherwise keep the story moving forward or toward its conclusion.

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