Brad Silberling got his start directing television shows like Doogie Howser, M.D. and NYPD Blue before making the jump to feature movies with studio fare like Casper (1995) and City of Angels (1998). It wasn’t until Moonlight Mile (2002), however, that he finally had something personal to say. The film was loosely inspired by the grieving period he went through after his then-fiancée, actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by an obsessed fan in 1989. It featured then-up-and-coming actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Ellen Pompeo alongside veteran actors Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon delivering thoughtful performances in this moving story.
It's in 1973 and Joe Nast (Gyllenhaal) is staying with Ben (Hoffman) and Jojo Floss (Sarandon) after the death of his fiancée and their daughter. Ben copes by keeping busy, micromanaging the funeral and the reception afterwards while Jojo suffers from writer’s block. Joe sticks around because he doesn’t know what else to do, feeling like he’s the last link to their daughter, even staying in her room. While trying to retrieve wedding invitations from the local post office, he meets Bertie Knox (Pompeo), who helps him out. They gradually become attracted to one another but they both harbor painful secrets that hold them back.
Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon are believable as a married couple from the short hand they have between each other, like how Jojo frequently reminds Ben to lower his shoulders. It is these little, personal touches that provide valuable insight into their relationship. It is also interesting to see how they cope with the grief of their child’s death in their respective ways. Ben is all nervous energy and tries to keep busy, pushing the grief down deep so that he doesn’t have to deal with it. Jojo, however, channels her pain through anger and bounces it off Ben in little ways that are familiar to anybody’s who’s been married for a decent amount of time. Sarandon excels at playing this no bullshit kind of character and it juxtaposes well against Hoffman’s internalized bundle of energy.
Jake Gyllenhaal is decent as the bewildered fiancé trying to make sense of it all – his feelings for his fiancée, his responsibility towards her parents and what he’s supposed to do next – and Bertie comes along and shakes it all up. Joe is wracked with guilt over a secret he’s keeping from Ben and Jojo and it’s tearing him up inside. Gyllenhaal does an excellent job conveying this internal conflict. He delivers an impressively nuanced performance and at such a young age.
The lovely, pre-Grey’s Anatomy Ellen Pompeo plays Joe’s alluring potential love interest that is harboring deep, personal feelings of loss herself. Like Joe, she’s damaged and adrift in life and this draws them together. The actress conveys a fragile vulnerability under a tomboy façade that is intriguing to watch.
In 1989, Brad Silberling was a film graduate with a promising career directing T.V. he was engaged to 21-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer. One day, she was shot and killed by a crazed fan. Silberling remembered, “The moment this happened, there was a voice in my head saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’” He moved into her parents’ house in Oregon, staying there for several months while he tried to figure out what to do next and comfort them during this dark time.
Four years later, he channeled this experience into the screenplay for what would become Moonlight Mile (originally entitled, Babies in Black). Silberling said, “Like the girl in the film, Rebecca was an only child with parents who were vital and interesting. I didn’t know them very well and, suddenly, we were thrust into a unique type of intimacy in which the boundaries were unclear and the expectations hazy.”
He didn’t have an easy time of getting it made. Even after back-to-back hits with Casper and City of Angels, it took years for Moonlight Mile to get made. Four studios passed on it, including DreamWorks who felt it was too close to American Beauty (1999). Studio executives didn’t know how to market it as Silberling said, “They’re stumped by stories that are character-driven and don’t box themselves up neatly.” It wasn’t until Susan Sarandon and then Dustin Hoffman agreed to do it that financing came through. Initially, Hoffman turned it down in 1998 but changed his mind two years later when the filmmaker pitched to him again. The actor said, “Hearing Brad talk about it – I detected a yearning in him. He wanted to make this movie to figure something out.” Silberling’s agent contacted Disney’s studio chief and gave him 24 hours to decide on the $20 million film. He agreed to bankroll it in the fall of 2000 with principal photography taking place in the spring of 2001.
Moonlight Mile received mixed reactions from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Moonlight Mile gives itself the freedom to feel contradictory things. It is sentimental but feels free to offend, is analytical and then surrenders to the illogic of its characters, is about grief and yet permits laughter.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Yet somehow the director has put together a collage of period music without succumbing to the usual classic rock clichés, and he has a good instinct for the ways people use pop music to communicate and to express emotions they can’t quite articulate. In fact, if they articulated them a little bit less, Moonlight Mile would be a stronger movie.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Silberling has crafted a good number of strong, memorable moments—a barroom dance set to the Rolling Stones title song is particularly nice—but finally the presence of real feelings underlines what’s missing when they’re not there.” Finally, Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C+” and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Joe’s cleaving to his replacement parents, letting himself replace the child whose loss they have yet to confront, is a sticky, fraught situation that Silberling reduces to a pileup of TV episodes.”
I’ve always been a sucker for small-town American slices of life stories and Moonlight Mile is one that stayed with me for days. Even though it’s set in ’73, Silberling doesn’t hit you over the head with period details, letting the soundtrack, populated by Sly and the Family Stone, T-Rex, Van Morrison, and others do that instead. He focuses on the characters and their dilemmas, which are compelling in their own right. The music compliments them and so we get a touching moment when Joe and Bertie slow dance to “Moonlight Mile” by the Rolling Stones or when they drive off to an uncertain future to the strains of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing.”
What makes this film distinctive from others of its ilk is how personal it feels, from the song choices to the specific behavior of the characters. This doesn’t feel like some generic studio movie – it is a personal statement from someone that had to make it. It’s a film that features characters dealing with grief and guilt and trying to communicate these feelings with others. It also explores the real need for personal connection and how that can help people open up and be vulnerable, which helps deal with their personal traumas. How does one go on with their life after the death of someone close to them? Everyone has their own way of dealing and Moonlight Mile shows several coping methods – none of them are easy. This film was a highmark for Silberling and after its commercial failure (it was the victim of a studio regime change), he went back to standard studio fare and directing T.V. It’s a shame he hasn’t found anything as personal and moving as this film but it remains a poignant tribute to Rebecca Schaeffer’s memory and that part of his life.
Diaconescu, Sorina. “All the Way Back.” Los Angeles Times. September 22, 2002.
Ojumu, Akin. “The family that grieves together…” The Guardian. February 15, 2003.
Waxman, Sharon. “A Director’s Longest Mile.” Washington Post. September 29, 2002.