Inspired by the life of William Shue, Gracie centers around the sudden death of a young man and the effect such an enormous tragedy had on an entire family. With wounds that are sudden and unexpected, healing becomes a thing that seems too far away to reach. And for the main character named Gracie, a young girl whose idol has been abruptly stolen from her, life’s meaning seems obsolete. However, this passionate, feisty girl fights for a meaning through a sport that forever bonds her to her big brother. To begin mending the wound, Gracie finds solace in soccer, a game in which her brother triumphed, and the one thing that ends up saving her from going down a dark, deserted road.
The creation of the film Gracie began long ago when Andrew Shue (Melrose Place) yearned to make a movie about his deceased brother, Will. However, initially, he imagined a father-son story but as time went on, Andrew’s vision changed and one day, he went to his brother-in-law and sister Elisabeth’s husband, Davis Guggenheim, and suggested that the main character be a girl.
“Immediately, everything clicked into place for me because, one, I’m in love with his sister and, two, I saw this theme in their lives – this girl who was the only girl in a family of boys and who didn’t quite fit in,” said Guggenheim. “A girl who loved her brother and when he died, she was inspired to remember him.”
Guggenheim, the brilliant director and winner of an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, first met his other half one year after she lost her beloved brother, who was on a rope swing at the family’s summer home on Block Island, Rhode Island when the rope snapped and he died from internal injuries resulting from the impact of the fall.
Referring to Elisabeth Shue as “Lisa,” a preferred nickname amongst close friends and family, Guggenheim stated, “When I met Lisa and her brothers, you could feel that the immediate pain was there.”
“I felt like I was being led into this incredible tragedy of which I wasn’t a part and although I never knew Will, I could feel their love for him. It was so powerful.”
“That was the context of how I met and fell in love with my wife,” continued Guggenheim. “When the idea to make a film about the family came up more than fifteen years later, I felt like I finally knew Will and could do this. ”
“Doing this project was an amazing experience because it became therapeutic for the family and I was lucky enough to be along for the ride.”
Once Guggenheim jumped on the “project Gracie” bandwagon, he and Andrew and another pal, Ken Himmelman, wrote out a treatment. From there, the guys raised some dough and hired the writers – (Lisa Marie Petersen and Karen Janszen.)
“It was very much a team effort,” explained Guggenheim.
While Guggenheim’s past experience is mainly drama-based with complicated plots such as seen in his work in Deadwood, The Shield, 24, NYPD Blue, ER, and so on. . . making Gracie was somewhat new to the edgy director.
“Gracie was a big departure for me,” said Guggenheim. “But in the end, I don’t think in terms of genres. Every script I read, I have to find a way to connect to the material.”
“I try and find something I can put myself into and discover a way where I can get fired up and find emotion. That’s what I look for in a script.”
“Just as you can’t choose who you fall in love with, it’s the same with a script,” added Guggenheim. “You can’t choose what story you’ll do next. You just have to fall in love again.”
Elisabeth Shue loved “project Gracie” from the beginning stages. With raw emotions regarding the loss of her brother, Will, this story was monumental in her filmmaking career.
According to Davis, “It’s a completely different thing to make a movie where the events are personal and where all the things in the movie actually happened. Although we did have our characters find their own voice within the story, a lot of the things in the film remained the same in spirit.”
For Shue, she was up for an enormous artistic challenge. Playing the mother who lost her son, she found herself experiencing the brutal loss partially from her own mom’s point of view.
“As Davis mentioned, one thing we decided was to make the characters stand on their own,” explained Shue. “We wanted the story itself to have its own power and its own reality.”
“For example, Dermot Mulroney plays my father but his character is quite different from my father and the last thing I’d want him to do is to try and play my father. Instead, we were interested in capturing the depth and complexities of Dermot.”
“I felt the same way about playing my mom,” continued Shue. “I can play my mom. I know her very well but I also wanted to find parts of me that I can bring to her character that are mine.”
Still, Guggenheim recalls some rehearsal scenes where Shue’s role was highly emotional.
“During the rehearsal where Lisa played the mother hearing the news that her son had died. . . man, that was tough,” explained Guggenheim. “We couldn’t even finish the rehearsal without falling apart. We were reliving it. Everyone felt it. The emotion was so thick, it seeped into the movie.”
While Shue was faced with many emotional challenges including the “big hurdle” of trying not to worry about what people will think of the roughest period in her life, which has been reenacted on film, having her husband direct the movie put an ease to her concerns.
“Davis helped me with my fears,” said Shue. “He was the only one I would trust as my director for this particular project.”
“I know what kind of a director he is and what his goal is in anything that he does. He strives to make it as authentic as he possibly can and keep it real. I knew that as long as he is the person guiding the ship, then this is the best chance we have at making Gracie something to be proud of regardless of whether people like it or not.”
Taking place in South Orange, New Jersey in 1978, fifteen-year-old Gracie Bowen (played by Carly Schroeder), lives in a family full of boys. With three brothers who are obsessed with the game of soccer, Gracie’s father (played by Dermot Mulroney), puts all of his spare time into coaching his kids in the backyard from dawn to nightfall. However, after Johnny (played by Jesse Lee Soffer), the star of the high school varsity soccer team and the only one who sees great potential in his little sister’s knack for the sport, is killed in a car accident, Gracie is left to fend for herself.
The Gracie character was based on Shue who was also the only girl brought up in an all boys’ domain. “On some level,” said Shue, “I think of it as a girl in a man’s world, trying to gain her father’s love.
“That’s part of the story. But then there’s the whole other part of the story about overcoming grief. That grief can sometimes inspire you to do things that are beyond what you thought you could do because you no longer have anything to lose.”
“You’ve been feeling so badly. Nothing can ever feel as bad as that. So, you’re not scared anymore. You become raw in your approach to life if you aren’t swallowed by it and if the person you love is somehow still with you.”
Casting for the role of Gracie was a difficult one. And playing a role that is based on Elisabeth Shue can’t be easy on the young actresses going up for the part. However, Ms. Carly Schroeder was determined.
“I had the script for two years,” said Schroeder. “When I first read it, I wanted to do it. I kept bugging my manager, ’when are they going to start casting for this?’ I wanted to go in for Gracie, bad. So, when I finally got to audition for it, I was so happy.”
“Since I’m not the kind of actress that can go into an audition room and turn on the water works, it took me a little while but after an hour and a half, Lisa and I were just cracking up at everything. We tried doing scenes a bunch of different ways, and it was a lot of fun.”
“I felt really comfortable with them [Guggenheim and Shue] because they made the atmosphere a really great place to audition in, which is really important when you are going in for a part, especially when it’s something you really want to do.”
“When I first got to the audition, I told them I really want the part,” continued Schroeder. “So, I said that if they want me to go to soccer camp, I’ll start camp today.”
Shue and Guggenheim’s decision to make sure the characters were partially based on the real person being portrayed and partially a reflection of the actors’ personae, made it especially important to find the perfect person to play Gracie.
However, Schroeder immediately impressed the Shue-Guggenheim team and was cast shortly after her audition for her inner strengths that shined through during the audition.
“Even though Carly is playing me at fifteen, she is really an interesting and complicated young girl and I wanted her to bring out her own fierce spirit,” said Shue.
Not a problem for Schroeder who began training in soccer even before she knew she landed the part. “As soon as I left, I told my mom I need to start preparing,” stated Schroeder. “I told her, ‘I don’t know if I have the part or not but I have to train.’”
Schroeder continued, “I started running every day to build up endurance. And when I went to play with a man we hired to teach me, I was so nervous but I got all dressed up for the occasion. I put on some shiny lip gloss, I blow-dryed my hair straight, wore a hot pink shirt, cute black shorts and some cleats.
“I figured if I’m going to fail, I’m going to do it with style.”
During Schroeder’s second visit with her soon-to-be director and co-stars, Davis, Elisabeth and her brother Andrew Shue played soccer with her.
“Before training for this project, the only other few times I played soccer was once when I was five year’s old; during an episode I did on Dawson’s Creek, and for a soccer commercial and that was it!”
When Schroeder finally landed the part, she was thrilled.
“I was so excited it wasn’t even funny,” said Schroeder.
Her training became extensive. Monday through Friday, the former captain of the Galaxy coached her. However, weekends were Schroeder’s time off but that didn’t stop this sixteen-year-old fireball from pushing forward. On her own, she’d venture off to a nearby high school where twenty- year- old guys played.
“I asked them if I could play and they said, ‘Sure, Blondie, come play with us,’” recalled Schroeder. “They were pretty brutal. Just like in the movie, they did not want to see a girl win.
“At one point I scored a header. Oh, man, that hurt but afterwards, I called Andrew and was like, ‘I scored a header’ and he’s like, ‘nah’ and I’m like, ‘yes,’ and he’s like, ‘awwww!’”
Happy to have found the perfect girl to play Gracie, production began and as mentioned, it was a melancholic experience for everyone.
“There were lots of pressures making this movie,” explained Shue. “This was an indie film so there was never enough money and time. All of that lay on my husband’s shoulders and it was really hard to see. However, I do think Will’s spirit guided us through this project. There was this unwillingness to stop or quit on any level.”
“And the commitment we got from everyone was so beautiful,” a teary-eyed Shue said.
One year prior to Will Shue’s death, his father jotted down a quote that his son said at a friend’s funeral and Guggenheim repeated it with fondness: “You feel as if everyone should write a book before they die, but their book is already written,” said Will. “The pages live within those they’ve touched.”
Stated Guggenheim, “To think of a young man thinking that way, and to be so sensitive to life and death and so intensely aware, that’s something.”
Although it has been many years since Will’s passing, he will always be remembered and Gracie is a dedication to his memory.
“It’s not like one day, all of a sudden, they are gone,” explained Shue. “Their spirit never leaves you.”