Brad Silberling heard the terrible news from a police detective the morning of July 18, 1989. His 21-year-old girlfriend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer (TV's "My Sister Sam") had been shot dead by a stalker in the foyer of her Sweetzer Avenue apartment building.
On many a Yom Kippur since, Silberling -- the director of "Casper" and "City of Angels" -- has lit a yarzeit candle in her memory. This Yom Kippur, he'll also remember Schaeffer in a more public way with the premiere of his intimate drama, "Moonlight Mile" -- inspired by the relationship forged with her parents after he moved into their Oregon home for the funeral and shiva.
At the beginning of the film, as in real life, Silberling's alter ego, Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal) places a spadeful of earth on his murdered fiancée's casket. He dutifully stands beside her parents (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon) as the cantor chants the "El Malei Rachamim" memorial prayer. But when another woman unexpectedly enters his life soon after, he's torn between following his heart and fulfilling his role as the bereaved son-in-law-to-be.
The movie, Silberling's quick to say, is based on emotional, rather than literal truth. He was Schaeffer's boyfriend, not her fiancé, though they'd just started talking about the possibility of marriage. He didn't even attempt to go out on a date for two years after her death. In fact, it took him five years to muster the emotional distance he required to begin writing "Moonlight Mile."
"I wanted to explore this very strange journey that I'd never seen on film," the 39-year-old director said of the movie. "Like, how you go through every possible emotion in the aftermath of a death. For example, I'd be sitting with Rebecca's parents, and we'd just be roaring with laughter, dishing on people who were mouthing [platitudes]. There would be this bizarre, completely inappropriate humor at moments you'd never expect."
Gyllenhaal, who spent hours quizzing Silberling about his experience, said he was drawn to the movie's quirky-funny approach. "Brad taught me that what we consider strictly a sad time is actually filled with everything: humor, oddities, idiosyncrasies," said Gyllenhaal, whose mother, Naomi, is Jewish. "The movie isn't a high drama about mourning, like 'In the Bedroom.' It's more about the subtleties of everyday life after a tragedy."
On a recent afternoon, boyish, affable Silberling -- who grew up attending Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village -- is wearing faded jeans in his office, not far from Schaeffer's old apartment. He recounts how he was 23 when he met her on a blind date in 1987 at the nerve-wracking premiere of his UCLA graduate student film. He knew he liked her when, sensing his anxiety, the dark-haired actress patted his knee and told him everything was going to be fine. "We just sort of fell into each others' lives," said Silberling, who said he was surprised to learn that Schaeffer had once aspired to become a rabbi.
The morning she was murdered, Silberling found a loving message she'd left on his answering machine. It was the last time he heard her voice. Within a few hours, he was sequestered in a room at Cedars-Sinai, waiting for her parents to identify the body. Although he'd only met them just a few times, he bonded with them during endevors such as cleaning out Rebecca's apartment, while tabloid reporters slapped $50 bills on the windows.
The director discovered that Schaeffer's father, Benson, a child psychologist, had interrupted his lucrative practice for a time to study Yiddish theater. Her mother, Danna, a wickedly honest, salty-tongued writer, told Silberling "Of course, I'd like you to remain celibate for the rest of your life, but we can negotiate that." (Sarandon said that line in the film.)
The three became inseparable when Silberling moved into Rebecca's old room for several weeks after the funeral. "I needed to be there partly because when all three of us were together, Rebecca was present," he said. "And I remember thinking, 'It's wild, but we're kind of this weird new family, and I can see never leaving. But at the same time, I was aware of the people tugging at my sleeve saying, 'You know, you're it for them now. You are Rebecca for them, because she was an only child. So any time you can hang with her parents would be really good.'"
Silberling said he brought those conflicting sentiments to the character of Joe as well as "the swirl of emotions over, 'How do you dare connect with another [woman]?'"
In real life, the Schaeffers were supportive when Silberling finally began dating again around 1991. They attended his 1995 marriage to actress Amy Brenneman (TV's "Judging Amy"), where the bride andgroom read a tribute to Rebecca. (The couple now have a 1-year-old daughter, Charlotte.)
The Schaeffers were the first people Silberling allowed to read a draft of "Moonlight Mile." "I was nervous, but they liked it," said the director, who recently traveled to Oregon to show them the completed film. The screening, he said, was an emotional high. "I think they feel proud of the journey they've taken, and so do I."