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

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

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Imagine waking up one morning and your family’s world changing irrevocably. This is exactly what happened to the members of the Suskind family when their youngest child, Owen, went from a gregarious, playful youngster to an introverted non-verbal toddler practically overnight. Owen was diagnosed with autism and the breakthrough didn’t arrive until years later when he began using classic animated Disney films to help express his feelings. Director Roger Ross Williams’ astounding documentary LIFE, ANIMATED chronicles the Suskind’s journey.

You’re an incredible family with a pretty remarkable story to tell. I think you’ll give hope to and help a lot of people who might be struggling. Can you take me back to the day you decided to write this book?

Ron: Cornelia was really at the center of that. When Owen was around 19-years-old and he started to grow in awareness of his life and challenges. A part of what he’s seeing is, ‘People don’t see me for who I am.’

Cornelia: For a long time, he was non-verbal. Until he was well into his teens, we never really discussed his diagnosis with him. He didn’t ask – we weren’t even on that plane. I asked his psychiatrist, ‘Do we talk to him about that?’ He said, ‘No. When he is ready, he will come to you.’ And he did. Obviously, he always felt different. We know now because he can – because he has such a photographic memory – tell us how he felt when he was two and a half. Ron’s a writer by trade and so a couple of years went by and we said, ‘This is not your usual book that you do, but this is a really important thing to do. It’s important for Owen, but more important for all the families like us.’ We had nothing in 93’. There was a picture book that I could get for Walter, as a sibling. That was really the impetus. If this could really help other people the way we would have loved to have some insight and hope.

Ron: Cornelia said to me, ‘This was the book you were meant to write because this is the life you were meant to live.’ And so off we went. We wrote the book together – she edits, I write. What we did mostly was have to live our life over again.

I can imagine that was pretty difficult to re-live those memories during the hard times.

Cornelia: You hear people when they talk about writing memoirs that it’s very cathartic. And I was thinking, ‘Yeah, right. Whatever.’ We were given this really unique opportunity. I really think this book was divine intervention. Because Ron got a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to their place in Italy – the Bellagio [Center]. We went to Bellagio for a month. It’s not a vacation – you’re meant to be working there on a project and he was working on the book. Together in this completely separate place, away from our everyday life, we were able to sit and start the process of chronologically going through our life. It was really painful – tough in a way I had no expectation it would be. When you’re having to recall all these events…

Ron, you’ve done more political writing before but did you feel more vulnerable putting this out into the world?

My first book is more narrative. But nothing like this including that. I joke around with Corn, ‘I’m not sure I can handle this.’ I’d joke around with my friends, ‘Could you get me a gig in Afghanistan to get to a war zone to limber up?’ [laughs] That would be easier than this, you know?! For years, I would tell my subjects, ‘Okay, you need to tell me everything and go as deep as you can go. Only then will I have what I need to render you in full context as you are. It’s easy to say, but it’s another thing to turn those hot lights on yourself and your loved ones. That’s what we did with each other. Cornelia, who is a journalist like me and is tough and clear-eyed, she said, ‘Here’s how this is going to work: I’m going to be merciless with you and you have to be absolutely merciless with me. Otherwise, we’re not going to get to the deeper and most uncomfortable truths that is all what make books work.’ That was the beginning of our journey. [Director] Roger [Ross Williams] we knew from way back since early 2000’s. I had done some stuff at ABC with Ted Koppel – Roger was the producer. He did two lovely pieces; one was Owen riding his bike as a metaphor and he did one on Cornelia’s parents. We just knew Roger was our guy.

So the stars aligned.

Cornelia: That was a tough decision. A good friend of ours just had a big documentary done about their son and their life. I watched that I turned to Ron and I said, ‘There’s no way we’re doing this. It’s way too raw.’ Then I came around.

Is Owen still in his own apartment? How’s he doing there?

Cornelia: He’s doing great. It’s coming up on two years. He’s got his own condo. He does his own cooking and laundry. The case manager comes in a few days a week – for a couple of hours to do banking – he doesn’t drive – so go grocery shopping. He works three part time jobs. He has his own radio show on the community college radio station. DJ Animator – he plays Disney music.

Of course!

Ron: He has his own architecture. He’ll say, ‘Okay. We’re doing love songs today.’ He’ll pick his ten favorites and talk about their meaning to him – do voices sometimes.

Cornelia: He’s got quite a little following on the Cape. When he’s been out promoting the film, some callers were like, ‘Where’s Owen?!’

What were some of the things you discovered about yourselves as a family you hadn’t noticed before?

Cornelia: I think the most powerful thing for me and Ron were the scenes with Walter on the dock – they were incredibly emotional for us because those were things he’d never uttered to us before. Without a doubt that’s the biggest thing.

Ron: That’s true.

I really felt his vulnerability in those moments. I’m getting verklempt thinking about him explaining his role not just as a brother but also a caregiver. It’s heartbreaking.

Cornelia: It’s totally heartbreaking. But it’s real and it’s life and it’s painful. As a parent, it’s literally the last thing you ever want your child to feel like that way. It’s tough to think you’ve burdened your child in that way, but then you think, well, Ron’s father died when he was fourteen and that’s a terrible burden. Not to let myself off the hook, but Walter definitely has a unique experience that most other people don’t have unless they have a special needs sibling.

Ron: Walter’s sort of like a proxy for the audience. Walter lives a life in the wider world. He lives in a house that’s been defined by this and he has choices. What’s so powerful about the choices Walter ends up making with his life, to be the protector of the sidekicks because he is the protector of the sidekicks. That’s such a powerful choice he makes that’s one of choice of identity and character.

Is there a certain era of Disney animation that Owen gravitates towards more than others?

Ron: He used to be really a hand-drawn animation guy. He really bonded, for obvious reasons, with the big four at the time of his childhood – which were BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN and THE LION KING, which were a huge renaissance for Disney. Those were his four movies that he really worked and found ways to turn into what we call, ‘The Great Matching Game.’ To embrace scenes and match them with his feelings and his life in the world – turn into a map, a navigation, a code, to crack the codes of the world.

Cornelia: And then he really went back to the much earlier ones. That’s when he could tell you what year every single thing of every one. He definitely started embracing the newer stuff. Even in the last couple few years, he’s even come a long way. He used to be Pixar [makes X-cross sign with fingers], but now he loves Pixar – not everything…

Ron: …the better stories that are deep and emotionally powerful.

Because he can relate those to the world.

Ron: That’s right. He loved INSIDE OUT. He loved ZOOTOPIA. He loved the complexity of those stories – and how they get to the deeper expressions of humanity.

I love looking at what’s on people’s shelves in TV show and movies and I noticed Owen had a few non-Disney films on his. Are there other films he uses to express himself?

Ron: He loves the Fievel movies – AN AMERICAN TALE, FIEVEL GOES WEST.

Cornelia: At one point he said, ‘It’s just like our ancestors in Russia that came over and we’re Jewish.’ I was like, ‘Who’s going to put that together?’ We had this amazing woman come over and tutor him. PRINCE OF EGYPT! At first she couldn’t believe it. It gave him a framework into what he was doing.

Ron: PRINCE OF EGYPT and AN AMERICAN TALE pretty much do the Jewish story. You do the Bible and then you do FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. AMERICAN TALE are just Jews as mice!

This is such an incredible ability. I wish I had that framework to pull from in my mind.

Cornelia: I know. Me too!

Ron: He is the greatest moviegoer in America. We marvel at it too. He has such strong capacities in his compensatory gifts where he’s compensated for his struggles with these muscles. To be able to breathe in hundreds and hundreds of hours of movies and then go to them as needed, to write the right scene, it’s astonishing. He’s gone to selective live action too.

Cornelia: He loves really funny – like Chris Farley, TOMMY BOY. HAPPY GILMORE. Why did he want to learn how to play golf? HAPPY GILMORE. He’s not like a prodigy or anything, but he and Walter and Ron go out and play. He never would’ve picked up a golf club. It inspires him. He learned how to play ice hockey because of MIGHTY DUCKS.

Ron: When he was having relationship troubles and he was down in the dumps, we’re talking about it last Fall where he got real quiet and then did two scenes from the Christopher Nolan BATMAN series. The one about Alfred’s – Michael Caine’s fantasy – of seeing Bruce Wayne someday with a family. It was about Owen getting past his girlfriend and moving on with his life. It was so complex and powerfully dense. So perfectly applicable. Then he said the other Michael Caine one – where Alfred to Bruce Wayne, ‘Why, sir, do we fall? So we can pick ourselves back up.’ We’re just sitting at the kitchen table and we’re just like, [imitates being stunned] sitting there with Michael Caine. The emotions – it’s not just the words. It’s the way he gets at the deepest emotions like in the way great actors do. It’s method living!

LIFE, ANIMATED is now playing in New York and Los Angeles with a national roll out in the weeks to follow.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, 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.