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About The Production
A couple can pack a lot of memories into four decades of marriage. For Ruth and Alex Carver, played by Academy Award-winners Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman, those memories are reflected in the apartment they have owned in Brooklyn for the past forty years. Once just a shabby flat in a neglected neighborhood, that two-bedroom apartment with a lovely view is now their comfortable home, with the second bedroom serving as Alex's painting studio. The neighborhood has blossomed and is on the verge of being overrun by hipsters, whom Alex is both amused and befuddled by as he walks their beloved dog, Dorothy.

As much as Ruth (now a retired teacher) and Alex love their apartment, it is on the top floor of a building without an elevator and they know that they need to be practical about the next phase of their lives together. For that reason, they have decided to allow Ruth's desperate real estate agent niece, Lily (Cynthia Nixon), to list their apartment and host an open house. Such an event would be enough of an ordeal under normal circumstances, but add in a suspected terrorist prompting panic throughout the city, colorful home hunters, and a serious health emergency for their dog Dorothy, and the weekend becomes a roller coaster of emotions for Ruth and Alex. This often humorous, delicately constructed and poignant film is based on the novel Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment, which was hailed by Oprah and praised by the Los Angeles Times as "a brave, generous, nearly perfect novel." Despite the book's critical and popular success, Ciment admits, "Of all the books I have written, this is the last one I thought would be made into a film. It's about elderly people, and that's not something that Hollywood normally does." That may be true in general, but when producer Curtis Burch ("Words and Pictures") read the novel in galley form, he believed that the realistically drawn characters facing an increasingly common major life transition would make for an appealing movie. He brought aboard veteran screenwriter Charlie Peters ("My One and Only"), who remembers: "I grew up in New York City, and the more I thought about the novel, the more I realized the relatability of the story."

Peters got to work adapting the novel, which is, like most literary works, dominated by the inner thoughts of the characters - even the dog! Peters talks about the general challenges when adapting such a work: "In a novel, you're part of the villainy or the greatness because the narration is an aside to the reader - you are in there, you are putting the faces on the characters, you're part of the action. In film, there's more of a distance - you know the people, you're given the people who are in the movie, sometimes very well-paid celebrities. You sort of stand back with your arms folded and say 'show me.'"

Although the story happens in only three days, multiple plotlines emerge and give the film the feel of a real-life weekend featuring authentic characters - both the charmingly comfortable couple and the eccentric only-in-New-York types they encounter. Shifting from the "big" crisis on the outside (the possible terrorist loose in the city), to the troubling news about Dorothy, to the couple's initially half-hearted dip into the real estate market that suddenly becomes very real, what remains at the center is the patient, true love of Ruth and Alex.

Ruth and Alex - who in the novel are depicted as an elderly Jewish couple living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan - are characters based on Ciment and her husband of over forty years, the noted painter Arnold Mesches. In addition to her own long and happy marriage, Ciment was inspired by the events of 9/11 and the morbidly humorous comments made soon after about buying property downtown while the market was so depressed. "I had one friend who suddenly had light in their apartment, after being in the shadows of the towers," she remembers. "Suddenly, the idea of what things were worth changed in such big ways."

"Of course if you write a script about two elderly Jews in New York, who are the first people you think of?" jokingly asks Charlie Peters. "Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton of course!" Having the sense that the acclaimed and beloved Freeman, who is constantly in-demand for blockbusters and high-profile features, would like the chance to take on a leading character in a smaller movie, Burch sent the script to Freeman's company, Revelations Entertainment. "Every once in a while, you get a really special script," remembers producer Tracy Mercer, who helps develop material for Revelations' producing partners Freeman and Lori McCreary. "I'm a big film buff and grew up in an era where there were charming films like 'The Goodbye Girl' and 'Murphy's Romance,' charming romantic films about adults. Morgan is such a singular actor with such a wide range of roles, but we haven't seen him play a romantic lead in a story for grown-ups. Of course it takes a village to make a film like this today - it has to be a passion project - but that's all a function of the script, and Charlie did a remarkable job opening up the story so that it could be cinematic, but still remain intimate."

"It's really a human interest story," says Morgan Freeman. "People who are married all of that time, of course they love each other, so it's not a suspenseful, rolling-around- in-bed kind of love story. It's about people keeping things on the low ebb, instead of too much sturm and drang."

As such, Ruth and Alex Cohen of the Lower East Side were destined to become Ruth and Alex Carver of Brooklyn, now an interracial couple whose passion and dedication to each other is made all the more remarkable by their different cultural backgrounds. However, "5 Flights Up" does not dwell much on the mixed-race background of the couple - it is briefly considered in a couple of poignant flashbacks, where the younger versions of the characters (Claire van der Boom and Korey Jackson, both giving spirited and uncanny performances) are seen beginning their lives together at the apartment that they will contemplate selling so many years later. But today, their longstanding marriage is almost mundane, an assumed fact of life, and thus all the more remarkable. For Jill Ciment, this change was a welcome one, and one she felt was very true to the spirit of her original novel. "I wanted to write about a long-term, happy marriage - something that is rarely portrayed in books or movies because there is no drama in it. The movie isn't about being an interracial couple; it's about being a couple in love for forty years. At the same time, there is no other time in history where we might see a successful interracial couple with such a long time together. This never could have happened at any other time and it's really thrilling to be a part of it."

Bringing Ciment's novel to the screen also meant a shift in location. Originally set in the mid-2000s, when the Lower East Side was undergoing a real estate boom, it made sense to shift the action to Brooklyn, which is currently undergoing gentrification. It also allowed the terrorist background plot to make navigating the city a bit more complex for Ruth and Alex, opening up new possibilities for scenes on the streets that could provide a hectic counterpoint to the coziness and comfort of their apartment. It was the possibility of shooting his first film in New York City that was one of the principal elements that drew veteran director Richard Loncraine ("Richard III" and HBO's "The Special Relationship") to the project. Having worked with Charlie Peters on the film "My One and Only," Loncraine had been aware of the project and intrigued by the possibilities of such a unique story. McCreary, aware that Loncraine was familiar with the script, met with the director in his native United Kingdom to discuss the possibility of working together. It was a fateful meeting with both McCreary and Loncraine immediately agreeing about the potential of the film and how special it would be to get this story made at this time in history. "When I learned that Morgan Freeman was involved, the whole prospect suddenly became even lovelier, and when we cast Diane Keaton, of course, it became an unstoppable project," Loncraine remarks.

Freeman and Keaton were both in high-demand so there was only a short window when both actors were available. It sounded perfect - but the window didn't leave much time to put the financing together. Associate Producer Marcus Mucha recalls, "We had an incredible package with only three months before we needed to start prep in order not to lose our actors. Everyone told us that this was an impossibly short amount of time to finance an independent film. But then Curtis introduced us to Richard Toussaint of Manu Propria. Within three months, the financing, including the paperwork, was complete and we were on our way to New York!"

Though each of their careers span about the same forty years of film history and both are revered as industry icons who never deliver a poor performance, Keaton and Freeman had never found the right project together. A few years ago, Keaton had visited Freeman backstage when he was appearing on Broadway in "The Country Girl" and suggested they find a film to do together. "When her agent told us she was available, we knew this was the perfect project," says Lori McCreary. "And Morgan and Diane on the screen are magic. When we were shooting on the streets, people were literally lining up to take pictures."

"It's great to be working with Diane, because she's so real and she's great fun," says Morgan Freeman. "I've had a joyful time 'making love' to her. I keep thinking about her and all of the weeks we've been working together, and how truly delightful she is - or delighted, I'm not sure which." Indeed, Keaton's energetic buoyancy and Freeman's relaxed lumbering give Ruth and Alex the perfect chemistry that allows anyone to believe that these are two longtime partners, as much friends as they are lovers, who can't imagine a life without each other.

In the novel, Dorothy the dog provides a third narrative perspective that gives audiences a broader context for Ruth and Alex's marriage, but obviously such a device would be difficult (if not impossible) in a serious screen adaptation. As such, the role of Lily, Ruth's adoring but aggressively eager niece who sees dollar signs in the Carver's apartment, became more crucial. "Cynthia Nixon was the perfect choice for Lily," says Lori McCreary. "She has this really directed energy, such a great contrast to Morgan's stillness and Diane's 'Diane'-ness. The three of them make this great trifecta of energy that really suits our film."

Nixon, who is very much identified with New York from her work on "Sex and the City," recalls getting an unexpected message from her agent saying there was a film shooting in New York with Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton. "I responded, 'I'm happy to read it, but I'm ready to say yes right now!'" When Nixon did read the script, like everyone else, she fell in love with the story's realistic sensibility and charm as well as her richly drawn character. "I'm not really the villain of the piece," she says of Lily, "but I'm close. Lily is very confident and aggressive, but there's an undercurrent of insecurity driving her. When I imagine what this weekend means to the character - having grown up and knowing and loving her aunt and uncle, and now she gets to do her job and show them how grown-up and professional she is. It's a great prospect, but for Lily it doesn't go very smoothly, so there's a lot of comedy there."

Ruth and Alex's life together are also represented by the dozens of paintings - which Lily refers to as "clutter" - that populate the Carver's apartment and Alex's studio. To make that studio feel as lived-in as the relationship, and to ensure that Alex's long career as an artist would also be reflected, Loncraine and production designer Brian Morris ("Evita") turned to the original source of inspiration for Alex - Arnold Mesches, Jill Ciment's husband, a visual artist who has had over 140 shows ("143 through April 2014," Mesches notes). At a spry 90 years old, he is considered one of the American art world's living treasures. "When I heard that Morgan Freeman would be playing me, it was beyond expectations - I wish to hell I was as tall as he is!" jokes the five-foot-three Mesches. "The only thing we have in common is grey hair."

"At this point in his life, Alex is a mature painter, so I thought they should have some of my later paintings," explains Mesches. "I am a figurative social painter, I paint the contemporary scene. What affects me is the feeling I get about the world, the fact that we are living in a precarious time, and I try to let those precarious feelings come through in the paintings." Mesches also adds that, unlike his spouse, he always felt the book would be a great film: "She's a very visual writer - she was a student of mine and comes out of the art world, so she thinks visually, she thinks like a painter."

But it wasn't only Alex's later work that needed to be seen - the production design also needed paintings that would be portrayed as works-in-progress during the film, as well as paintings representative of Alex's youthful past. All of these works needed to bear the stylistic imprint of the later paintings provided by Mesches, while also reflecting the lives of the fictional characters (the most prominent paintings in the film are portraits of Ruth done by Alex). By a fortunate coincidence, Lori McCreary's brother, R. Dean McCreary, is a visual artist who specializes in portraiture and has a keen eye for imitating the techniques of other painters (a trait he shares with Mesches, who is also quite good at borrowing the style of others and transforming it into his own).

"I became Morgan Freeman's 'stunt brush' on the film," jokes McCreary. "When they told me that Morgan was an iteration of Arnold, it was just a wonderful juxtaposition - an amazing artist playing a version of an amazing artist - and something I really wanted to be a part of." Thus, McCreary ended up "ghosting" for two legends, as his "young Ruth" and "works-in-progress" paintings incorporated Mesches' style.

It also meant that McCreary had to coach Morgan Freeman on painterly technique for the scenes where Alex is seen doing his work. "I never dabbled in painting," says Freeman. "I don't have an iota of talent in that direction - not drawing, not painting. I tried photography once and, although it was fun, I realize I don't quite have the eye for visual art." McCreary remembers giving Freeman some basic pointers during a rehearsal and then watching the actor execute the moves in front of the camera. "I said 'That's passable,' and he looked at me and said 'No, no, no, I'm Morgan Freeman, I don't do passable.'" So McCreary took some time to talk to Freeman about the more visceral perspective of the artist - how the brush is an extension of an artist's impulsive feeling, similar to the way an actor's body responds to a character's emotion. The discussion worked, as Freeman's next attempt was sublime. "I was blown away and I said, 'I think you got it,'" recalls McCreary. "And Morgan said, 'Think? Or know?' And I looked at him and said, 'You got it!'"

The carefully orchestrated and detailed visual style carried through to the exteriors as well. Loncraine, a veteran of three decades of filmmaking, had shot a few commercials in New York City, but had never worked on a feature film there with a large crew - let alone one on a very modest budget that only had six weeks for preparation and a rigorous production schedule that included one or two company moves per day over fifteen days of filming. "The streets are insane," the British-born Loncraine says. "But it's exciting. I'm constantly shocked, appalled, pleased, and excited at the complex of American emotions, and New York is a microcosm and expanded version of my feelings about America. I hadn't worked on the eastern seaboard before, but my crew has been remarkable. The Teamsters moved those trucks around the city with a skill I have never seen. And doing shots with Morgan and Diane on Fifth Avenue in the middle of the day, we had no big security, just hard working kids who were PAs asking the crowd to stay on one side of the street."

Lori McCreary, normally based in Los Angeles, agrees. "It's a joy to come to New York City and a coup to have found an amazing Line Producer in the New York-based Sam Hoffman. He worked tirelessly with his team to put together a top-notch and technically proficient crew."

McCreary also notes that shooting in New York can provide very unexpected consequences - even when things are going well. "We have an amazing production designer in Brian Morris," she says. "His sets are so believable. On the night before we were supposed to shoot a cafe scene, where Brian had designed the entire set, the crew was working and putting up signs for this cafe. Someone on the street took a picture of it and blogged that there was a new cafe in Brooklyn. The next morning, we started shooting and our legal team called us and said 'We must have missed it - but there's a cafe opening up in Brooklyn with the same name as the one in the film. You have to change all the signage immediately!' It took us a couple of hours to figure out that the 'new' business was actually our own set that the blogger had thought was real."

"We had to make sure we had everything exactly right," explains Executive Producer and Line Producer Sam Hoffman. "Ruth and Alex's apartment is a character in the movie, as is the neighborhood they live in and the neighborhoods they encounter while looking for a new place. New Yorkers are very tuned into real estate - we're always asking questions of each other, 'Why would you move when you already have a great place?' or 'Why would you trade a smaller bathroom for an elevator?' These were the kinds of specifics we had to make sure we nailed, not just for New Yorkers, but for everyone."

The flexible energy of the crew - a veteran team of New York-based professionals who have worked together before - and the imaginative input of the creative team of producers and cast meant that Loncraine's energetic and inherently collaborative style was a perfect fit for the production. "He's unbelievably curious and knowledgeable," says Sam Hoffman. "And he's a very kind man, a real filmmaker - you can talk to him about the challenges of the production and he can communicate and compromise. Though he's been around a long time, he's not an old person - he feels very young, very active, very energetic."

Having initially trained as a sculptor, Loncraine views his work as something that evolves over time. "I don't really have a 'vision' for a movie - not really," he explains. "It's like in a sculpture - you don't know exactly what you are going to make until you attack that block of marble, and in this case, I do it with my crew, we carve away at the idea of the movie. But everything has to be subservient to the performance - I don't want the look of the film to dominate the script and the actors. This film is about people, and you have to be driven by the little nuances that are found by the actors." "Richard leads the charge," states producer Tracy Mercer. "He is an artful guy, but also a technician who gets the nuances. He's a great captain for this story."

"This film is quite poignant to me," concludes Loncraine. "It's about the fact that you can suddenly decide, if you're lucky, that the end of your life doesn't have to be a steady decline. This film is about a couple discovering that while they didn't have anything catastrophic happen, or great failures, they are kind of winding down - and this weekend is about them winding up again, finding a new departure."

Producer and star Freeman, whose credits include over 100 films and television shows, has some thoughtful praise for his director. "I think of him as a careful filmmaker - this is a little movie, and in order to make it work, really work, he's shooting it with a lot of care. He's very thoughtful and he's got large ears - the ability to listen and recognize when someone else has a great idea." Indeed, one might say that the journey of "Ruth & Alex" - from the real-life couple that inspired the characters in the novel to the ones brought to life by Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton - is one that illustrates the power of listening to the world around you and allowing the love and inspiration of others to guide you through challenges as you carve out your future with the people you love.


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