PARK CITY, Utah — When writer-director Laura Chinn was a teenager in 2005, her mother moved her and her terminally ill brother to Florida. The idea was for him to spend his last days in hospice in peace. Instead, the place was mobbed by protesters and media because, as they’d quickly discover, Terri Schiavo was in that same hospice.
The circumstances provided the inspiration for Chinn’s directorial debut, “Suncoast,” starring Nico Parker as the teenager in question and Laura Linney as her mother. It’s streaming on Hulu starting Friday.
Though it’s not unusual for a filmmaker to draw on their life for narrative guidance, within this strange and fraught and emotional time Chinn saw an opportunity to tell not just her story but a more universal one about grief and empathy. And she got to work, using the skills she’d learned over the years, writing for and acting on television (including creating the series “Florida Girls”) and learning some new ones too (like photography and how to shotlist).
Schiavo was in a vegetative stage for 15 years after a cardiac arrest at 26 in 1990 and had become the face of end-of-life legal rights, which beyond the bitter disagreement between her husband and her parents had ignited a national debate. In 2005, right before her death, it was a full-on media and political frenzy.
“But also as a teenager being in that position, it gave me an opportunity to see a very political story that was on the news right up close and see that these were all human beings.” Chinn said.
The film is still mostly fiction, however.
“It’s important to know that while Kristine is certainly archetypally based on Laura’s mother, while there may be some similarities here and there, I was not intentionally playing her mother,” Linney said.
Likewise for Parker’s Doris, who is attempting some semblance of normalcy amid the turbulence in her teenage life, making new friends and pushing boundaries. Much to her surprise, she finds herself most comforted by a protester played by Woody Harrelson.
“She’s sort of wise beyond her years,” Chinn said. “This older person is someone she can connect with more so than the people her own age.”
Parker, who is the daughter of actor Thandiwe Newton and writer-director Ol Parker, cried the first time she read the script.
“I just couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said. “I couldn’t stop saying lines.”
Plus the chance to work with Linney and Harrelson was one that Parker said she was “borderline begging” for.
“Woody’s the best, he’s so weird and so funny,” Parker said. “Then when the camera is on him — and him and Laura are similar that way — life just beams out of him, he’s so present. Watching it up close is so interesting. I don’t know what happens in his face, but it’s just sunshine.”
Linney said for her, everything was right there in the script that made it easy despite the heavy material.
“I’m the daughter of a playwright, so the story comes first and you do everything you can to help move that along,” Linney said. “When the script is good and the people are good and you’re having a good time, it’s easy. It’s not painful. You’re not like beating your chest. You don’t go home depressed … And there’s nothing better than feeling like you’re part of a younger artists’ launching.”
Este Haim and her partner Chris Stracey helped craft the score, inspired by the music of the period. All were especially excited to get permission to cover The National’s “Green Gloves,” sung by Monica Martin, for a pivotal moment when Doris is running to hospice.
She’d loved the song but didn’t realize how relevant it was until she read an interview with the group’s frontman Matt Berninger about how it was about grief, and missing someone so much that you start wanting to wear their clothes.
“It’s really a perfect song,” Chinn said,
The “Suncoast” world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last month was a teary occasion. Chinn’s own mother ran out of tissues and a stranger was right there with another to hand off. It was a common sight in a theater full of sniffling (“Suncoast” is funny as well).
“I hope that people can walk away with it being able to express more of their own grief, feel more of their own grief and feel more connected just to the idea that we all go through this and that there’s not really a right or wrong way to do it,” Chinn said. “We’re all just kind of doing the best we can.”