‘It’s not a movie about cancer and chemotherapy, it’s a movie about life and the choices we make and how all choices are legitimate.”
That’s how Israeli filmmaker Tal Granit describes My Happy Ending, the new movie starring Andie MacDowell that she directed with Sharon Maymon.
The movie stars MacDowell as a faded Hollywood star who seeks treatment for an aggressive form of cancer in England and who meets and bonds with three women in the chemotherapy room. Mikey (Sally Phillips, an actress who often plays a wisecracking best friend, as she did in the Bridget Jones series), is a free spirit, while Judy (Miriam Margolyes, a veteran British character actress, who has appeared in almost 200 movies, including The Age of Innocence and the Harry Potter series), is fiercely realistic about her chances and reveals that she was actually born in Auschwitz. Imaan (Rakhee Thakrar) is a young Muslim wife and mother, as well as an ambitious student, who was diagnosed during her pregnancy.
The film was based on a play
But while the actresses are American and British and the movie was filmed in Wales, it is based on a play by the late Israeli writer Anat Gov, who died of cancer in 2012. Her play, Happy End, is an unusually frank but also funny work, which combines songs and black humor inspired by her experiences coping with disease and death.
Gov, who was the wife of singer Gidi Gov, hoped to change attitudes toward speaking about mortality and cancer, and her play received great acclaim in Israel and was the basis for a documentary about her, Tamar Tal Anati’s On This Happy Note, produced by Arik Kneller, and sparked some of the discussions she had hoped for.
The fact her play has been adapted in English in the UK, starring an American actress of MacDowell’s stature, highlights the universal nature of the themes it discusses. The two Israeli directors, Granit and Maymon, were careful, as they shepherded the material across different cultures, to stay true to the spirit of the material.
Difficult themes are nothing new to Granit and Maymon, who have worked together and separately on many films. Their best-known collaboration was the 2014 film The Farewell Party, about elderly people deciding when to die, which won awards all over the world. Their 2018 film, Flawless, is about three girls, one of whom is trans, selling their kidneys abroad in order to buy breast implants. Maymon co-wrote the Oscar-winning short film Skin, about racial prejudice, with Guy Nattiv, and collaborated with Erez Tadmor to direct A Matter of Size, about a group of heavy Israelis who give up watching their weight and become sumo wrestlers.
“My Happy Ending fits in with the work we’ve done, which is about freedom to choose how we want to live this wonderful life we are given,” said Granit.
“Often, we don’t live the present,” said Maymon. “We think, this is about to happen, that’s about to happen. Julia Roth [MacDowell’s character] keeps thinking she’ll get a big part in a new series, or she thinks about going to her daughter’s wedding, and the movie is about how Julia learns to live in the present, and I think it’s a very important insight. I very much connected to the idea that life is now, life is what’s happening now.”
But Granit and Maymon said they didn’t think of adapting Gov’s play on their own and that producers Osnat Handelsman-Keren and Talia Kleinhendler came to them with the idea. This Israeli producing duo has had huge success abroad with such films as the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter and an English remake of Nadav Lapid’s film The Kindergarten Teacher.
“They bought the rights to the play when Anat was still alive and they gave it to Rona Tamir to write the screenplay,” said Granit. “She lives in New York and writes in English... It was the first time we directed a script that we didn’t write.”
Making the film adaptation of the play in English, said Maymon, “was their vision, because of the play’s universal themes. They felt that this was the best way to bring the story to a wider audience, and Anat gave her permission.”
Although Granit and Maymon “regrettably” never met Gov, they did meet with Gidi Gov and their children, and convinced them that they would be “true to her vision... that the spirit of her work was holy to us,” said Maymon.
The basic idea of the play, that a woman newly diagnosed with cancer meets and forms a bond with three other women and this instant friendship with people who understand what she is going through causes her to take a clear-eyed look at her life and her mortality. Working with MacDowell on this demanding role that brought out a dramatic side of an actress best known for light comedy in recent years, was a thrill for them. “She’s a legend, we grew up on her films,” said Maymon. “She’s Andie MacDowell!”
Granit praised her professionalism. “She was always prepared, she brought aspects of herself to the character, she was always ready to listen, to work.”
For the other characters, they looked for British actresses, since the producers had decided to film in Britain, who were close to the roles they played.
“Miriam Margolyes was just – Judy,” said Maymon. “We didn’t need to do anything. She’s one of those people who speaks the truth with no filters. It made me fall in love with her and she added lots of Jewish humor... She was very interested in our Jewish background and we bonded over that and our Jewish experiences and we were just amazed at what a great actress she is... They were all actresses we had seen from afar and suddenly here they are, working with us, giving us suggestions. It was a dream.”
Tamsin Greig, another distinguished British actress, joined the cast as Julia’s manager, and she also fit in. “The actresses bonded with each other and you can see that on screen,” said Maymon.
They filmed in an isolated location in Wales during the pandemic.
“We had to create a bubble because of COVID, and for two months we were cooped up with these people, but it was a dream.”
It also helped them to conceive the fantasy sequences, where the characters imagine shared dreams of freedom – walking in the woods, being back home, even just eating pastries.
The directors feel that making the movie that grapples with issues of love and death has changed them.
“I feel that until you face death, you don’t know what you will do,” said Granit. “But this movie made me think.”
Maymon actually faced a cancer diagnosis years ago and found that “humor helped me get through it and I was in a similar situation... At the time it was surrealist, absurd, but later I could look at it in a comic way, the way we do in the film.”