Director Roger Ross Williams on “Life, Animated”

Posted on July 15, 2016 at 3:54 pm

Director Roger Ross Williams says that his new documentary, “Life, Animated,” is “a very universal coming of age tale. It’s really about growing up.”

But it is a very specific story as well. It follows Owen Suskind, a young man with autism, as he graduates and leaves home and gets a job. Suskind, whose father wrote a best-selling book also called Life, Animated, used Disney films to help him understand how people express feelings. And this movie does the same for us, especially those neurotypicals in the audience. As Roger Ebert said, movies are “an empathy machine,” taking us inside the lives, thoughts, and feelings of the characters. Like Owen, all of us use movies to learn about the world and our place in it.

Williams said, “I follow Owen for this very transformative year in his life as he graduates and becomes independent and falls in love and all the things that happens to everyone in life. We all go through these things. I was like, ‘Wow!’ This was a great opportunity because just the timing worked out that it was just this year that he was going to hit all of these big moments and see where it takes us. So I’ve always felt that this was something more than an autism film, it’s a coming of age story and it’s a story about the power of family and the power of love. So it has all of these themes working for it.”

The movie’s saddest moment is its most universal, when Owen’s girlfriend breaks up with him. Williams shows Owen’s crushing disappointment. “The wonderful thing about Owen is that he doesn’t have the same filter that we Because he lives in the moment he completely ignores the camera. So it feels much less like a documentary and more almost like you’re watching in narrative film unfold. Owen is just who he is naturally on camera. And I think because I have had a long-term relationship and known the Suskind family for so long that Ron and Cornelia were very comfortable and they trusted me. It was a difficult time but Ron and Cornelia before we even started said, ‘We have to show everything warts and all, and we have to be totally honest and totally open. If we are going to help people on their journey then we need to really show what the journey is like through the good and the bad.’ So that was really important to them and it was really important to Owen, even before when they were going to write the book. Owen always would say to me, even in the most difficult times he was like, ‘I’m helping other people, right?’ And I would be like, ‘Yes you are.'”

Williams said that he wanted the film to be Owen’s story. “It was really important for me as a filmmaker to tell the story from Owen’s point of view and from the inside looking out. Because there’s so many films about people with disabilities that are all from the outside looking in and it’s never their point of view, their reality. The whole point of this film is to get inside Owen’s head, get inside Owen’s world and see the world through Owen’s eyes. And it starts sort of uncomfortably because you see him pacing and talking. But by the end you know exactly what’s going on inside his head. You’re totally comfortable and it’s even a little bit unnerving for some people because they’re so comfortable, they are so engrossed in Owen’s world. Because he grew up on myth and fable and story it’s such a rich world. I had this craziest thing the other day. After one of the screenings, someone came up to me and said ‘After seeing this film I wish I were on the spectrum.’ That’s the greatest compliment.”

And it was important to him that the film was also the story of a family. “Someone also came up to me and said, ‘I love my parents but I really wish Ron and Cornelia were my parents.’ I grew up in a broken home with single mother who struggled and even as a child I always gravitate towards family and stories about warm, loving families. So it was important to me that this is also a story about love and the family and that connection because they have such a powerful connection and bond. For me the real hero of the story is Cornelia who is just an amazing mom.”

Owen’s brother Walt plays an important role in the film. He clearly loves his brother and wants so much for him. And he understands that he will be responsible for him someday. “You have to grow up quick pretty quickly. You have responsibility. He always says he feels like a third parent. And they invite him to be part of that and make the decisions but I don’t think until they saw the film they realize how much it troubled him, how much responsibility he felt. They never had that conversation and that moment which happens to be his birthday when he gets emotional I was like, ‘Wow!’ He went down to the pier. It’s a big responsibility and he feels that, that responsibility and he also felt sort of a bit ashamed that he didn’t do enough when kids were making fun of Owen.”

Disney is normally very protective of its characters and content, but Williams knew it was essential to be able to include the movies that meant so much to Owen in the film. He brought footage of Owen’s Disney club, all people with autism who love Disney films, when he met with the executives. “By the time we were done they were all in tears. It was amazing. I think they were touched that the films they created could change someone’s life in such a way really, really moved them.”

Like Owen, Williams says he identifies with the sidekicks in stories more often than the heroes. “I feel like a sidekick. That’s why it resonated with me because I am sort of on this similar journey. It’s not as extreme as Owen’s but it is a journey of wanting to be accepted and find my inner hero. I come from a broken home, with a single mother who struggled and lots of family problems and I overcame those and had to constantly find my inner hero. So this story really resonates with me in a way that’s very personal. I think every documentary is personal. I don’t think you can make documentary or be able to sustain the life of a documentary if it’s not personal.”

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