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Hoffman, Sarandon Face Child's Death in <i>Moonlight Mile</i> - 2002-10-05

Academy Award winners Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon play parents struggling to cope with the death of their child in a bittersweet drama inspired by the true story of its writer-director. Alan Silverman has a look at Moonlight Mile

Their daughter Diana was murdered just as they were planning her wedding. Instead, Ben and JoJo (Hoffman and Sarandon) have to bury her; and the grieving parents practically adopt Diana's fiancé Joe, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

The character of Joe is drawn from the life of writer-director Brad Silberling, whose fiancé, actress Rebecca Schaeffer, was murdered in 1989. Silberling says his experiences with her grieving parents ranged from outrageous to uplifting.

"I like to think of many things in the film as 'literalizations' of what was emotionally true." Silberling said. "So many of the emotional, behavioral details are very true, but I wanted to find a way to create a story structure out of our emotional experience."

"In any heightened life moment you have behavior that is one moment gut-wrenching and one moment absurd," Silberling said. "There's humor, giddiness, absurdity, anger . . . it's all mixed in and it's never when you think it would be. So the risk was putting that in front of an audience and knowing that some people are going to have a really hard time accepting this because films have traditionally given us a very hallowed point of view of grieving. I just wanted to see if there wasn't a way to dramatize what I experienced."

Dustin Hoffman says director Silberling's passion for the story convinced him to take the role of Ben.

"I didn't think I was right for the part when I first read it," Hoffman said. "Then a year later I just happened to meet the director. We sat down talking and I had forgotten I had turned it down. He asked me why I had and I told him, but I just liked him and I liked his obsession with it. I liked the fact that he couldn't articulate something he was struggling with because I felt it was authentic."

Also very real is the onscreen chemistry between Hoffman and co-star Susan Sarandon, who admits it was difficult even pretending to deal with the death of a child.

"That is the parents' nightmare," she said. "You don't want to go there. At the same time, what a gift to even have to imagine that, because it wakes you up in your own life. You go home and say 'he's a pain, but thank God he's alive' . . . This kid of mine who, right now, is particularly trying. I think that's the good thing that can come from that. It is a gift, but, yes, it takes its toll and it's painful."

Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays confused young Joe, believes Moonlight Mile plays out like real life.

"I think we expect in films for drama to be drama, to have a situation be dire: 'someone is going to fall off a bridge and we need to save them,'" Gylenhaal said. "Sometimes someone standing there might look like they're going to fall off the bridge, but they're just standing there. It's small movements. The movies about small movements forward and acknowledging that small movements make up a bigger picture, eventually."

The cast includes newcomer Ellen Pompeo as a love-starved young woman also in denial about a personal loss. Moonlight Mile takes its title from the Rolling Stones song that's featured in one of the film's most romantic scenes.