Featuring a cast that includes Hollywood mainstays Corbin Bernsen (Major League, L.A. Law), Melissa Gilbert (Little House on the Prairie), and Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show, Spanglish), When We Last Spoke is a Vietnam-era story of two little girls who are left to live with their grandparents. Their father has headed off to war and their mother has deserted them. Together, this newfound family learns how to overcome the heartbreak and uncertainty of being alone but together. In doing so, they discover the most important aspects of life – family, friends, love and forgiveness.
I recently spoke with Henna about why she chose to explore issues of loss and abandonment in When We Last Spoke, why faith is the overarching theme of the film, and how its’ encouraging message can influence others during these troubling times in which we are living.
First off, before we even get to the movie, what was the genesis for writing the novel, When We Last Spoke?
I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories for hours on end and often told after a southern noontime meal of fried chicken, butternut squash, garden peas, and western cake. That was a routine that we enjoyed so much. I adored my grandparents. They lived about a mile down the road on a ranch, which has been in the family since the 1800s. After they passed, I wanted to preserve their traditions and honor their memories in a way that would stand the test of time. But just to let you know, the plot in the movie is completely fiction. However, there are small moments to come from my experiences as a child.
For those who haven’t read the book could you provide a thumbnail overview of story of When We Last Spoke?
In 1967, sisters Juliet (Darby Camp) and Evangeline (Chandler Head), are abandoned by their mother while their father is away serving in Vietnam. They’re left on their unsuspecting grandparents’ doorstep in the small southern town of Fireside. Stunned by their sudden arrival, tenderhearted Walt (Bernsen) and champion fiddler Ruby (Gilbert), graciously stand in for the missing parents. They create one blue ribbon recipe for a loving family. Add in one eccentric great grandmother, Itasca (Leachman), and laughter and tears abound.
Is any of this story biographical? Did you draw inspiration from your family and friends when you were developing characters for When We Last Spoke?
I did. Even though the plot is really fiction, there are small moments in the story that are biographical. For instance, there’s a scene where the two little sisters have gotten head lice from a playground bully at school. That was something I experienced as a kid, but also when I had children. I have a daughter who got lice and, oh my goodness. I tried everything to get rid of that. I tried every product in the grocery store over and over again and it didn’t work at all. So, I called my sister and said, how do I get rid of this? And she said, ‘Well, have you tried mayonnaise?’ And so I coated her head in mayonnaise, put a shower cap on her, and let her sleep in it. It worked the first time out of the box. So, that made it into the movie. There are small things, because it’s about a couple living on a farm and on a ranch. That was part of my life. The daily routines there, their occupations, the food they cooked, those small moments definitely came from my past.
While there is a fair amount of humor in this movie, in many ways this is not always a feel-good movie. In it, we see two sisters from a dysfunctional family from the 1960s working through issues of loss and abandonment. Why did you choose to explore these areas in your novel?
Especially today, not all families look alike, and they’re often raised by grandparents, other family members or friends, or they might be adopted. What’s important for me to point out is that not all families look like they just stepped out of a Sears & Roebuck catalog picture, but they’re still families and need to be honored. We are adoptive parents. We have three older kids and then we adopted our youngest child. So, our family picture is varied. That was important for me to bring that up.
As I watched through the film some of the themes I uncovered were loss, abandonment, courage, waiting, heartbreak, uncertainty, and even laughter. Was it your intention to display both ends of the emotional spectrum so prominently?
Yes, it was. I didn’t want this movie to be gratuitous. I wanted it to be meaningful, but I wanted it to be digestible. I wanted people to have moments of relief and to laugh. And I have learned during my life as a writer that it’s often works very well to juxtapose laughter and tears in close proximity. By the time people are through with the film, they usually feel relief and release as well. It’s kind of a cathartic experience. In terms of the grandparents who stepped in, I wanted to point out that two people can make a difference in the lives of children. That cannot be measured.
It’s a permanent gift from grandparents and other relatives who take on raising kids that is going to go on forever and ever. Another one is you’ve got to forgive others before you can move on. I think that’s really important. For all of us as humans, we can all relate to that one. Faith is important and families helping them transcend difficulties. You see a lot of dancing in the film. That’s there for a reason and it’s because I believe you should dance where you are. That’s kind of a metaphor, but actually doing it is a whole lot of fun. Dance where you are in whatever situation you find yourself. Because if you wait until your life is perfect, before you practice finding joy, you might have a very long wait. Celebrate life as you have it, as you see it.
If there is one overarching theme or storyline that you think is the most important thing that people need to get from this film, what would you say it is and why?
That’s a tough one. I think faith is always the number one thing for families to be able to get through tough times. It is always the number one tool to help you transcend these very difficult situations. We all have tough times in our families. They just vary from family to family as to what our real trials are. And I do think that sometimes when you’re kind of walking through the fire and you’re in a tough situation, like Ruby and Walter are in the movie, you may not realize the lasting impact it’s going to make on the person or child you’re helping. I think it’s really important to know the good work that you’re doing is going to be felt for a very long time and does make a huge difference.
After people have seen the movie, as the creator of When We Last Spoke what would you like to see audiences get out of the viewing experience? What is your greatest hope for the film?
I hope people will be encouraged. Perhaps they have had some respites from the really tough things are going on in the world, especially in 2020. I think they’ll come out feeling better and have had some release and relief, a few tears, and a lot of laughs. So I’m hoping they can have a tiny little vacation from life for a couple of hours.
Watch a trailer for When We Last Spoke: