EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Roger Ross Williams on ‘LIFE, ANIMATED’

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Owen Suskind in LIFE, ANIMATED. Courtesy of The Orchard.

Owen Suskind in LIFE, ANIMATED. Courtesy of The Orchard.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Simply put, director Roger Ross Williams’ LIFE, ANIMATED is a powerful and profound documentary you need to see to believe. Not only is this a film about Owen Suskind, an autistic young man who uses Disney animated classics to express his feelings, but more so, it’s a coming-of-age tale that will make you feel all the feels.

Ron Suskind had mentioned he’d known you before from your work at ABC News together. But how did it come about that they chose you to help tell Owen’s tale?

I’ve known Ron for 15 years. We were journalists at Nightline together. We’ve stayed in touch and been friends since then. When he was writing the book he came to me and told me the story and said, ‘This would be a great documentary.’ I said, ‘Absolutely!’ I jumped on it. I knew immediately and called my producer. A few weeks later, I was at Owen’s school filming. It all happened very quickly.

What was the shooting schedule like? Was the family in control of the schedule?

I think because I knew the family so well, Ron and Cornelia trusted me. They just let me film. They weren’t around most of the time I was filming with Owen. They trusted me. It was not just about following Owen in his daily life, but it was about hitting these big emotional peaks and valleys and moments. For me, this was always a coming-of-age story, not a film about autism. A film about a young man who has autism who is going through all the things we all go through – growing up and graduating and moving out on his own and falling in love and what that entails. It was about hitting those big emotional moments in the story and following Owen through this very transformative year in his life. The timing couldn’t be perfect because he’s about to do all these things. It was always about picking up where the book left off. David Teague, my amazing editor, and I always thought we were going to tell parts of the book in flashbacks, but that the story the audience was going to be engaged in was going to be Owen growing up and going out on his own – doing things that go along with being an adult.

You mentioned the flashbacks. Did you always envision them as animated segments?

My animators Mac Guff in Paris, this amazing animation company, we call them the back story animations – the pencil on paper line drawing animated sequences of what happened to them in the past. Mac Guff and I, along with Emily Hubley and the team created the sidekick story, which is the last chapter in the book, which takes us deep into Owen’s world.

What were Owen and his family’s reaction to that sidekick story come to life? I would imagine… I mean, I was crying! It’s his story and it’s so profound!

They were blown away. Cornelia and Walt didn’t see the film until the Sundance premiere. Because we didn’t want any surprises, so we showed Ron and Owen the film. When Owen saw it for the first time, he jumped up and he hugged me and said, ‘I love it!’ Owen doesn’t hug so it was a huge…we were all in tears. Imagine Cornelia and Walt then seeing it in front of 800 people and then going up on stage doing a Q&A emotional.

Owen Suskind in LIFE, ANIMATED. Courtesy of The Orchard.

Owen Suskind in LIFE, ANIMATED. Courtesy of The Orchard.

One of my favorite moments where I was a weepy mess was Walt’s confession about how he feels like he has to be his brother’s caretaker. Was that a challenge to get him into that headspace to talk about that or did it come about naturally?

No, it definitely didn’t come out naturally. That happened because it was Walt’s birthday. When Owen had that moment as a little boy when he came in and said, ‘Walt doesn’t want to grow up – like Mowgli or Peter Pan,’ because he was emotional on his birthday, it’s actually true! Walt gets emotional on his birthday. That’s when I took him down to the pier to talk to him about what he was feeling. At that point, Walt was very comfortable with me and the crew like we were part of the family. These films take so long – you spend a year or more with your subjects. Walt really wanted to open up and talk about it. It’s one of my favorite moments in the film. As we’ve been going to film festivals, Walt’s become a bit of a rock star to siblings all across the country who’ve said he expressed what they’ve been feeling.

I’m sure you had tons of footage to pour over given you spent a year with the Suskinds. What was cut for time reasons that you would have love to have seen?

There’s many, many scenes that will be in the DVD extras that we had to cut. There’s a great scene of Owen at Disney Animation Studios drawing with Eric Goldberg and talking about his life. There’s an amazing scene with Jonathan Freeman on Broadway at the Aladdin show where Jonathan takes Owen out to the empty stage – when the theater is empty – and Owen sings the song for him. We actually took Owen to MIT. Because of what the Suskinds have done, MIT has initiated a study of affinities with people living with autism. We put Owen in a MFFRI machine and showed him Disney animated clips and they watch what happens to his brain. Ron and Cornelia are literally looking inside their son’s brain and they are in tears. It used to be the end of the film. We took out all the science stuff because I wanted it to be really about the family and emotional – and not be impacted by the science.

I can’t wait to see those DVD extras now!

Yeah. We did a great commentary with Owen. It’s so funny.

I also loved the scene where it’s his first night on his own where it subtly builds up to what he’s going to watch. Did he help guide all those decisions as to what clips would fit best to express his feelings?

Yeah. He uses Disney animated clips to make sense of the world. So he returns to the appropriate scene for what he’s experiencing. It’s how he expresses his joy or pain or fear. He just went to that clip because that’s what demonstrated the abandonment and fear he was feeling at the moment. Same thing with his breakup with Emily. Every time, I was amazed by how perfectly, it was so clear that he used these films to decipher not just how to read, but decipher human interaction. I think because these films are classic fables that have been told for thousands of years that it really reinforced the power of story – that we need stories to connect with each other and make us human.

How did it work clearing these clips with Disney? Was it a nightmare?

No, because Sean Bailey, the head of Disney productions, really loved the project and took it on. He really helped us navigate the world of Disney. When I went there and showed them the effect the film was having on Owen and they watched the clips of Disney club, they were just moved to tears and didn’t stand in our way.

What do you hope people will walk away feeling after seeing this?

I think people walk away with a better understanding of autism and they understand the power of love and family. How they loved their child so much they found a pathway using his passion. The important thing to me is that people walk away the way I walked away knowing that people with autism have so much to offer us. We’re losing out if we look the other way or ignore this growing population.

LIFE, ANIMATED opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 1 with a national roll out to follow.

 

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.