CBS Films' Extraordinary Measures is inspired by the true story of John Crowley, a man who defied conventional wisdom and great odds, and risked his family's future
to pursue a cure for his children's life threatening disease.
From his working class roots, John Crowley (BRENDAN FRASER) had finally begun to taste success in corporate America. Supported by his beautiful wife Aileen (KERI RUSSELL) and their three children, John is on the fast track. But just as his career is taking off, Crowley walks away from it all when his two youngest children, Megan and Patrick, are diagnosed with a fatal disease. With Aileen by his side, harnessing all of his skill and determination, Crowley teams up with a brilliant, but unappreciated and unconventional scientist, Dr. Robert Stonehill (HARRISON FORD). Together they form a bio-tech company focused on developing a life-saving drug. One driven to prove himself and his theories, the other by a chance to save his children, this unlikely alliance eventually develops into mutual respect as they battle the medical and business establishments in a fight against the system - and time.
But, at the last minute, when it appears that a solution has been found, the relationship between the two men faces a final test - the outcome of which will affect the fate of John's children.
The film is directed by Tom Vaughan (What Happens in Vegas, Starter For 10). Robert Nelson Jacobs (The Water Horse, Chocolat) wrote the screenplay, which was inspired by the book The Cure by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Geeta Anand.
FINDING AN EXTRAORDINARY STORY
For years, Harrison Ford and producers Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, and Carla Santos Shamberg had been seeking a project on which they could collaborate. Six years ago that search ended, when Ford read Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Geeta Anand's Wall Street Journal article, and later Anand's book entitled The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million - and Bucked the Medical Establishment - in a Quest to Save His Children), on John Crowley and the Crowley family. Captivated by multiple themes, Ford recognized the makings of a movie in this compelling material.
"I thought Geeta's book had something to say about personal courage, initiative, parents' love, and the power to overcome extraordinarily difficult circumstances," remembers Ford. "If we could wrestle this into the shape of a movie, we would be bringing a story to the screen which would enrich people's lives."
The producers agreed. Here was an opportunity to share an engaging, truthful story filled with emotional and physical obstacles - a story framed by one family's crusade to overcome great adversity. "What struck us about John is that he's a real-life hero," says Shamberg. "He went on a courageous journey and risked everything, along with his wife Aileen, to do what was best for their children."
The Crowley family's story would be perfectly at home at Double Feature Films, Shamberg and Sher's production company. A number of successful films inspired by real life subjects adorn the company's notable filmography including Erin Brockovich, Freedom Writers and World Trade Center.
"The best true stories read like fiction and Geeta's book was definitely no exception," notes Sher. "You think, 'Nobody would buy this if it wasn't true or, as with our film, inspired by true events.'"
Though the Crowley family had already grown comfortable relating their story to Anand, there was some initial hesitation when Hollywood came calling.
"My dad was a cop and my mom was a waitress," says John Crowley. "I didn't grow up in the Hollywood scene so I was a little skeptical at first. But the producers had done some wonderful films and have some very unique experiences in producing films inspired by real life stories so that made us more comfortable. And also Harrison was involved from day one which made the project all the more attractive."
With the Crowleys on board, a collaborative effort to bring the story to the screen was about to begin.
TWO MEN, ONE MISSION: THE SCIENCE OF ADAPTING THE STORY FOR THE SCREEN
Turning this family's journey and The Cure into a two-hour feature presented a delicate balancing act. The timeline of events, which encompassed several years, had to be condensed and yet the story still needed to engage audiences in the arduous, groundbreaking scientific process that saved the Crowley children. The task would indeed be both challenging and rewarding. The producers met with Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs and quickly realized they had found the right person to adapt the story.
"He had written Chocolat," notes Santos Shamberg. "He's a very sensitive writer. The process of turning Geeta's book and the Crowleys' story into a movie would be quite a long process. Robert came up with a good script within a year, which is very lucky."
"There are several things that moved me creatively and emotionally to tell this story," says Jacobs. "I was very drawn in by this family. They deal with adversity with a lot of grace and humor. I think that's an important story to tell."
Jacobs found Anand's book to be an invaluable resource and the journalist/author to be "extremely generous with sharing her research." But Jacobs also immersed himself in his own extensive research of the family.
Though the film's main emphasis was to capture the family's extraordinary journey to overcome the odds, Jacobs also felt it important to reinforce that this was a family in a day-to-day routine.
As Jacobs perceives, "The triumph of this family would only be magnified by also showing the chinks in the armor, the same vulnerabilities and frailties and flaws that any other family has. All parents need to make decisions about what's in the best interest of their kids. For the Crowleys these were literally life and death decisions."
Compressing the story's timeline of events included assessing how to best represent the numerous people who assisted John in his development of the drug that would save his children. "There were many people who helped John along the way, from scientists to business men. And there were a number of doctors for whom John raised money," explains Jacobs. "We composited all of these people into one character - Dr. Robert Stonehill. John is very 'straight ahead,' and Dr. Stonehill marches to the beat of his own drum. I realized that putting the two of them together would make sparks fly. It would create a lot of dramatic tension."
Ford (who both stars and serves as executive producer on the film) saw Dr. Stonehill as an intriguing opportunity both in storytelling and as an actor. "He's a composite of people who played different parts in the Crowleys' story but, for me, he's also a composite of things I've observed in my research. He represents aspects of a scientist, and also aspects of a loner, an iconoclast," explains Ford. "And his relationship with John Crowley is an interesting kind of relationship for me as an actor. Their relationship is sometimes contentious, not at all smooth, but there are also moments of co-joined purpose. It's a complicated dynamic."
"It's two men with a mission; one to save his family, the other to prove he's right," elaborates Shamberg. "Two men against the system; I don't think you can go wrong when you have underdogs fighting for something right. And, given the current health care debate, the public seems particularly primed to root for characters who take control of important issues, such as this one, that affect the fate of their loved ones."
It is important to understand 'orphan drugs' to understand how the work of these two characters progresses. The Orphan Drug Act of 1983 was passed to encourage the development of drugs that have a small market due to their treatment of 'orphan diseases' (defined in the U.S. as a disease that (a) affects less than 200,000 persons in the U.S. or (b) affects more than 200,000 persons in the U.S. but for which there is no reasonable expectation that the cost of developing and making available in the U.S. a drug for such disease or condition will be recovered from sales in the U.S. of such drug*). Under this law, companies that develop an 'orphan drug' may sell it without competition for 7 years (there are also tax incentives). Pompe Disease is an 'orphan disease' and the drug that John Crowley and Dr. Stonehill develop through the course of this story falls under this 'orphan drug' status. The market potential for an 'orphan drug' can be enormous because of the general high cost of these drugs per patient (individual yearly treatment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year), which insurance often covers. This explains how John and Dr. Stonehill are able to raise venture capital and ultimately sell out to a larger pharmaceutical company (Zymagen).
To build Stonehill's character while authenticating the science in the script overall, Ford and Jacobs turned to experts in the field for help and credibility.
"I've been gratified by the willingness of the science community to help us work out ways to get the story more correct on a scientific level," says Ford. "In particular, to work out a way of representing the scientific process which is largely practiced in the head."
Finding ways to give physical form to this cerebral process was necessary to tell the story, yet the scientific dialogue was important both for accuracy and as a window into Stonehill's character. "When you see Harrison explaining the science, it's really the subtext that's important - you see a scientist who is passionate about what he's doing," says Jacobs. It was crucial for Ford and Jacobs to really understand the nuances of the science to then simplify the process for the audience's understanding.
One scientist who was instrumental in this research was Dr. Hung Do who worked with John Crowley from very early on and continues to work with him to this day. The filmmakers spent a considerable amount of time with Do, who consulted on the film from story development through production. He also shed light on what it was that John Crowley brought to the table for the scientific community that upped the level of motivation for a notoriously stoic (albeit by definition) group of individuals. "He made it about much more than research," says Do. "This was his kids' lives. That really brought it to a whole other level for us scientists."
For all of the factual research and timeline compression, the emotional component and spirit of the family was indeed the foundation of this script. Jacobs worked tirelessly to build a screenplay that conveyed both the physical and spiritual journey for all involved.
"You have to give real credit to Bob Jacobs," says Shamberg. "He took the essence of what was poured into each juncture over years and years, and made it dramatic by compressing timelines and combining characters."
Years of success as a screenwriter and positive feedback from the filmmakers did little, however, to ease Jacobs' nerves once it came time to deliver the script to the Crowleys for their read.
"This film is really the first that I've written that's inspired by a true story and a real family," says Jacobs. "It was important to honor the spirit of that family. So it meant a lot to me when the Crowleys read the script and said 'Yeah, you had to fictionalize in places, and you had to change the timeline, but we feel like you've captured the spirit of our family.' That was probably the nicest compliment that I've ever received as a screenwriter."
* From U.S. Food and Drug Administration website
FINDING AN INSPIRED DIRECTOR
It was 2006 and the coming of age film Starter For Ten, by a young director named Tom Vaughan, was creating a lot of buzz. Shamberg, Sher and Santos Shamberg went to a screening in Los Angeles. "Tom demonstrated a perfect sense of tone, subtlety and emotion, as opposed to sentimentality. And a wonderful sense of humor," recalls Sher.
A meeting with Vaughan was set at Double Feature Films. With Robert Nelson Jacobs' script recently receiving the stamp of approval, the producers gave Vaughan a draft of Extraordinary Measures to read.
"When I read the script I immediately had great confidence in the power of the story," says Vaughan. He was struck by the messages of faith and hope, exemplified through the Crowley family's own unfaltering fortitude when it appeared all the choices had run out. "The story really gripped me from beginning to end. And it kept surprising me. It had twists and turns that I didn't see coming, and that's refreshing."
Ford's attachment as Dr. Stonehill was also a draw for Vaughan. "It seemed such a perfect fit for him. It felt like something I hadn't seen him do before. I knew he'd be great in the role."
Santos Shamberg notes that a certain familial connection to the scientific field may have also drawn Vaughan to the material - "His dad is a scientist so, from a very early age, Tom has had a real understanding of what it means to spend one's life researching."
Vaughan's approach to the material was directly in line with the rest of the team's vision. "The trick with a movie like this is to make it as entertaining as possible, but not to make it so emotionally unbelievable that you throw the feelings in people's faces," says Shamberg. "We knew Tom could achieve that. He's just really good at that type of filmmaking."
CASTING A FAMILY UNIT
With Ford set to play Dr. Stonehill, finding the right actor to play John Crowley was essential. "With a dramatic film like this, the balance of the cast is very, very important," explains Vaughan. "The characters of John Crowley and Dr. Stonehill are very different but have to come together to achieve their common goal. It was important to find someone who could go head to head with Harrison on screen." Read more
THE CROWLEYS ON SET
The Crowley family flew to Portland during production for a set visit. "It was very important to all of us making this film that the Crowleys be a part of this experience," says Sher.Read more
THE PRODUCTION LANDS IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST
It was December 2008 when Tom Vaughan arrived in Portland to sub-freezing temperatures and a record breaking 18.9 inches of snow, one of the worst snowstorms in Portland's history. He was meeting executive producer Nan Morales for a 2-day scout. Nan had recently shot in Oregon and thought the Pacific Northwest could work out perfectly for Extraordinary Measures. And, since the film was inspired by the Crowleys' story, the filmmakers had the freedom to place the film geographically to their liking (the Crowleys actually hail from New Jersey). Tom and the producers saw the area's potential almost instantly. Read more
A FAMILY CHANGED FOREVER
It was winter of 1998 and John and Aileen Crowley were growing concerned that their baby daughter Megan wasn't crawling. At the recommendation of their pediatrician, they took her to a neurologist. Within a month of that appointment, the Crowleys' life changed forever. At fifteen months old, John and Aileen's daughter Megan was diagnosed with Pompe Disease, a very rare genetic disorder which causes a deficiency in the enzyme that breaks down glycogen. The build up of glycogen causes muscle weakness throughout the body, affecting the skeletal muscles, diaphragm, nervous system, liver, and heart. Pompe Disease is a "cousin" disease of muscular dystrophies and a number of other neuromuscular diseases such as Lou Gehrig's Disease. "The [Doctors] told us it was a serious disease," recalls John. "They told us it was a fatal disease." Read more
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
Tom Vaughan (Director)
Born and raised in Scotland, Tom Vaughan began his film career as a teenager. Earning money from appearing on a TV drama, Vaughan bought a video camera to pursue his burgeoning interest in filmmaking. He spent the rest of his teenage years re-making his favorite movies starring his friends and family. After studying drama at Bristol University, Vaughan moved to London and started making short films. His first short film, Super Grass, executive produced by Mike Leigh's producer Simon Channing Williams, went on to win a distribution deal with Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. The film played in theaters across the UK as well at film festivals and was bought by Film Four and shown on national and international television.
With casting director Stephanie Duala, Vaughan ran an acting workshop at the Holburn Centre for Performing Arts from which came the ideas and characters for his next short film, Box. A devised piece set around a phone box over one night in London, the film caught the attention of the organizers of a Levi's sponsored short film program. Vaughan's comedy Still Buzzin' became the first film made under this scheme and was shown at festivals around the world. It too won a theatrical distribution deal, this time in front of Richard Linklater's movie Suburbia. On the strength of Still Buzzin, ad agency St. Luke's approached Vaughan to produce a short film they were producing as part of a campaign for BBC Radio 1. The resulting film, Plotless, was again shown at cinemas across the UK and the four TV spots shot as part of the production went on to win Vaughan a Creative Circle Award for Best Newcomer. This lead to further success in UK commercials. He was named by Campaign as one of the UK's Hottest Directors and was selected as part of Saatchi & Saatchi's New Directors' Showcase at Cannes.
Film Four fully financed Vaughan's next short film Truel, a period drama based on a game theory problem, and he took time out of commercials to direct the hit TV show "Cold Feet". Since then, Vaughan has successfully balanced incredibly busy parallel careers directing commercials with TV dramas. This included, among other projects, a four hour period adaptation for the BBC starring Bill Nighy, Anna Massey, Stephen Moore and Laura Fraser called "He Knew He Was Right," based on the book by Anthony Trollope.
His first feature film was the coming of age comedy Starter for Ten, based on David Nicholl's best-selling book of the same name. Set in an English college town in 1985, Starter for Ten starred a host of then new British talent including James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall, and Dominic Cooper. The film was financed by HBO Films and BBC Films and produced by Tom Hanks and Sam Mendes.
The success of Starter for Ten led to Vaughan being asked to direct Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher in the hit comedy What Happens in Vegas. Released in the summer of 2008, the movie was a huge commercial success, making $220 million at the worldwide box office. The producers of Extraordinary Measures also approached Vaughan after seeing Starter for Ten back in early 2007 and he was attached to the project.
Robert Nelson Jacobs (Screenwriter)
Robert Nelson Jacobs grew up in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. He graduated from Yale University, where he received the Curtis Literary Prize for his short fiction, and he later earned a master's degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He began his career as a writer of short stories that were published in little, prestigious magazines and generated little, prestigious income.
His love of movies brought him to California, where it took a number of years for his writing to finally start paying the rent. Jacobs' script for the film Chocolat was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. His other produced screenplays include: Out to Sea, Dinosaur, The Shipping News, Flushed Away, and The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep.
Dr. Hung Do (Lab Technical Advisor)
Dr. Hung Do is currently the Director of the Discovery Biology Department at Amicus Therapeutics, a New Jersey biopharmaceuticals company. Read more
Melanie Sanders RN, BSN, CPN (Pompe Technical Advisor)
Melanie Sanders is a pediatric registered nurse and the staff educator for the Pediatric Acute Care units at OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland, Oregon. Read more
THE ART OF ADAPTATION