Roger Ross Williams and Ron Suskind Talk Life Animated
Recently I had the honor to speak with Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams and Pulitzer Prize winning author Ron Suskind about their film Life Animated. A true story about a young man named Owen with regressive autism who uses Disney films to communicate and understand the world around him. This is such an inspirational film and can’t be missed. Here is what they had to say.
Tracey: Roger, How did you decide to make a film about Owen and his family, how did it begin?
Roger: Well it’s a best selling book by this guy, Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind and it’s an amazing story. I’ve known the Suskind family for about fifteen years. Ron came to me when he was writing the book and said that this would probably make an excellent film and I agreed.
Tracey: Ron, Can you tell me a little bit about Owen’s autism and how it affects him?
Ron: Owen is a late onset autism guy so he is chatting away at two, two and a half and then he regresses. He looses all speech and motor function. He can’t meet your gaze he sort of vanishes. That’s now called regressive autism. It’s about 1/4 to 1/3 of all the cases. The cases are as wildly known at a higher percentage of a wider population these days. It’s one out of sixty eight children and one out of forty two boys. That means that lots of the function of expression of language, processing sensory inputs are gone. We pick up all sorts of things by what we’re doing right now. We do it instinctively, that goes haywire to him and he ends up facing like a sensory overload. That’s hard for folks who are not on the spectrum to understand. We are all on the spectrum somewhere and that is an important part of the film. In that direction of the spectrum, the world is a giant spinning noise machine to walk through. Roger actually shows this point of view in the film which I thought was very important.
Roger: It was really important to tell the story of the inside of Owen’s world of His perspective because most films about autism are really focused on the outside looking in.
Tracey: Ron, When was the first time you had an ongoing conversation with Owen and how did you feel after it?
Owen and I have a conversation, which you hear in the film when we’re doing Peter Pan. At two we had conversations like the ones you have with a two year old. For many years after that we couldn’t talk to him. Then we began once we realized that he had memorized all of the Disney animated movies the sound alone. That’s a lot of movies and a lot of material. So we said oh my gosh we can’t speak to him like a normal kid but we can speak to him in Disney dialogue and we had a lot to work with. Everything is in Disney somewhere, so we started to use Disney as our pathway What’s really nice is, this is the way it is with all content. It’s a thing you share, it’s a representation of life through art or entertainment that you then share. You gather around like you would gather around a campfire. We started to say we’re going to gather around this particular campfire because Owen has chosen Disney as his special thing. So we gathered around the television set with that warm glow. We were so surprised with how much is in there. When you start to match the Disney film the way it can apply to life you’re like well that kind of works. Especially on the core issues, the deeper issues of identity. Of what you do when your down and can’t get any lower. That’s a big Disney theme. All those stories which are drawn from ancient folklore, these are the stories people have been telling for a thousand years The Kenyans have a Beauty and the Beast and the Indonesians have a Snow White. They all have versions of this. A lot of people say oh that’s fable, myth, that’s for the kids department. Everything is in there if you know how to look. That’s what we had to learn, how to look as a way to reach Owen. How to match up what’s in there to the world he is living in. Our world and that’s what we found. He was using them to interpret the world. Not just the inner world but everything around him. That was very exciting for us.
Tracey: Roger, Were there any challenges during the filming process at all?
Roger: The greatest challenge in making this film is; I really wanted Owen telling the story and I couldn’t do it in a traditional interview because he wouldn’t look me in the eyes. So what I did was, I filmed Owen on an interrotron. It’s a camera behind a television screen and so he could see my image because he liked looking at the television screen. He would basically be looking me in the eye and right to the audience and telling his story. That is how I overcame that obstacle. The effect is great because what you have is Owen connecting directly to the audience.
Tracey: Ron, Owen is now great friends with Jonathan Freemen and Gilbert Godfried, how did they meet?
Ron: We all went up to New York for Owen’s 19th birthday to see Mary Poppins on Broadway at the New Amsterdam theater in Times Square. We’re in the theater and Owen all of the sudden looks at who’s in the cast and says “oh my gosh, Jonathan Freemen is in this, he’s the voice of Jafar”. I mean with hundreds of people in the theater he is the only one who knew this and when Jonathan walked out Owen looked like he had seen Elvis. After the show we went to the stage door to try and meet Jonathan but he had slipped out and we didn’t see him so I wrote him a note. “If you could call Owen on his 19th birthday in a couple of days you would make his life”. So Jonathan calls him up on his birthday. We did it in a conference call so we could all hear it. Owen is literally lifting off the ground and he’s like “Owen this is Jonathan Freeman (imitates Jafar)”. Owen than asks if they could do some lines and starts doing Iago. Jonathan is blown away and says “Owen I’m out of lines, what’s my next line” and then a beautiful thing happens. At the end, Jonathan a long time Broadway actor, an incredibly sensitive man says to Owen “what do you think Aladdin is really about?” Jonathon says it’s about good and evil and good triumphing. That’s what Jonathan was thinking Owen would say as well but Owen says; “I think it’s about a bigger thing than that. It’s about accepting who you are and being okay with that.” All of the sudden we hear sniffles on the other side. John was like “I never saw it that way and I was in it”. He started calling people at Disney and a world opened up to us and we started meeting people at Disney Here’s a funny story, Jonathan came to visit us once and as he came down for breakfast Owen was playing A Whole New World and Jonathan was like “Owen, are you playing that for me? (in Jafar’s voice)” And Owen says “no, I play that every morning to get ready for my day.”
Roger: I think everyone should play that every morning to get ready for their day.
Tracey: How is Owen doing now?
Roger: Owen has been busy going to all the film festivals. He loves the Q & A sessions and calling on people and really commanding the stage.
Ron: Often there’s one or two questions from people who are a part of the spectrum. One was from a kid who was getting bullied and was asking for advice. Owen stands there for about thirty seconds thinking and says, “your going to have to believe in yourself, no one else can do that for you, go deep into the deepest parts of who you are and find your inner hero” people just started to cheer. He feels such warmth, he says the designation of the hero often in the third scene of a Disney film when they sing the “I wish song” and everyone knows who the hero is and everyone else gets in line as a sidekick to help the hero fulfill their destiny. He feels that real life is different as he applies these narratives to the life he and we all live in. He says we’re all really sidekicks. At our best we help others fulfill their destiny and on that day we find the qualities of a hero within ourselves. We’re ever sidekicks and we don’t get re-drawn in this life. That’s a beautiful idea that helps me and helps Roger and helps all of us. Searching for this designation of a hero is not the goal or the quest. It’s finding ways to summon the qualities within ourselves. I am not about me, I am about everyone, is what he says to us. That’s such a beautiful sentiment.
I would like to thank Roger Ross Williams and Ron Suskind for their time in speaking with me and I am thrilled to see the film again when it arrives in theaters on July 1st. For more information please visit: http://www.lifeanimateddoc.com