During one scene from “Autism in Love,” one of the film’s subjects Dave lays out a very simple formula for relationships based on compatibility. Though Dave himself may have figured it out, having met the love of his life Lindsey at an Autism Conference in Nashville, the rest of Matt Fuller and Carolina Groppa’s documentary about how those afflicted by the condition handle romance suggests that it isn’t always easy for others. The film follows five people including the aforementioned Dave and Lindsey, who are on the precipice of a wedding proposal, Lenny, a boisterous young man in Los Angeles whose bark is considerably bigger than his bite, especially when it comes to women, and Stephen and Geeta, an older couple in St. Paul who after 17 years of marriage are grappling with the specter of a life-threatening illness.
The Los Angeles-based filmmakers spent a year on the road for the production, which took them all across the country conducting interviews, where they’d ask questions as is simple as “what is love?” to summon the experience of finding a special connection with another person when individually they have difficulty connecting with the outside world in general. In a nice twist of fate, “Autism in Love” will make its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival during Autism Awareness Month and shortly before the film debuted in New York, Fuller, who directed the film and Groppa, who produced it, shared how they got to the heart of the matter in more ways than one with the documentary, handling the subject matter in a sensitive way and the importance of autism awareness.
How did this come about?
Carolina Groppa: I had been working as an assistant of sorts for a doctor [Ira P. Heiveil] who had been in the autism field for about 20 years and he’s an executive producer on the film. He wanted to research the topic of adults with autism and love for a book or a blog and when I dove in, I realized there was really nothing on the topic. I was shocked and he was as well, and I said [to him], I think this would be really great to explore through the lens of a documentary film.
From there, I involved Matt in the project and we spent part of a year doing research and getting ourselves into the community. We started doing very standardized interviews with people who were volunteering just to get a sense of their general thoughts about love for adults with autism. Then after about a year, we found some people that we thought were really compelling and were interested in letting us follow them, so we began production in 2013 and shot for about nine months. By the end of 2013, we pretty much had a film. We ended up following about nine different individuals and couples on the spectrum and ended with five people in the actual film.
How did you find your subjects?
Matt Fuller: That year of research Carolina mentioned put us in touch with to a lot of really connected folks in the autism community. When we were ready to go into production, we reached out to all of them and said, “Please introduce us to anybody you think will be willing to be on camera and be a part of the project.” Ultimately, four [people] in the film came from that process. We’d talk over the phone, and ultimately go meet with them in person, and it went from that.
There’s a sizzle reel online that suggests a different film, though as you mentioned a few people didn’t make the cut. How did this evolve over time?
Matt Fuller: We had to make a series of really difficult decisions. The sizzle reel that you saw is something that we put together to share with our supporters in the autism community [to show] the vision in terms of scope, the quality, and sensibility of the movie we wanted to make. Once we finally got all the resources we needed, we found ourselves inundated with really inspiring and exciting characters and stories and when you’re constructing a film with an ensemble cast like this, all of those puzzle pieces are really informed by the other pieces, so the final decisions were made to create a film that in it’s entirety is compelling, dramatic, informative and personal. It was just a rigorous editorial process that led us to the final cut of the movie.
Were there certain perspectives that you wanted to represent in the film? They seem to all have very specific types of relationships.
Matt Fuller: There were two things that were really important to us. One was to represent the autism spectrum as thoroughly as we could. There are so many different flavors of how autism manifests itself in adults, so we wanted to make sure that we got as much variety in terms of autism as possible. But we also wanted to represent the spectrum of love. Love has different seasons during our lives — You’re entering into a relationship, you’re looking for a relationship, you’re in a relationship that relationship is changing and shifting, and ultimately you’re in the twilight of your life — and we wanted to observe how that was handled, so it was really important for us to capture the progress and depth of both autism and romantic relationships.
The interview process must’ve been interesting because you speak to both your subjects and in most cases, their parents as well. How did you navigate those conversations?
Matt Fuller: It was always really important that the voice of the film was from the adult on the autism spectrum. You’ll notice there are no doctors [in the film] and no medical professionals talking about autism. We felt it necessary to have conversations with the parents for context really because a parent can offer a perspective on one’s history that many others can’t. Still, we really wanted to limit that conversation in the film because we didn’t want this to come from a parents’ voice.
There are moments in the film where Steven and Lenny mention they don’t want certain things on camera, and you’re obviously very sensitive to that issue, but how much in general was that a consideration during filming?
Matt Fuller: There’s always this delicate balance between subject and filmmaker. It was a constant conversation [on this film] how much access are we going to need in order to tell a compelling story while also respecting the boundaries and feelings of those who are brave enough to appear on camera. There were a few times, as you probably saw in the film, where things started to unfold and we were rolling, and it stops feeling comfortable for our subjects, so of course we respected those boundaries. There are also times when we knew that a significant event or conversation was about to unfold and we would talk about that off-camera, so [we would explain to our subjects why it’s] important to the filmmakers that we are able to capture that and that we’d give our subjects everything they need to feel supported and comfortable in being vulnerable, so we could work together to make sure that we’re doing the importance of their story justice by capturing this on camera.
Matt comes from a narrative background. Was making a documentary any different?
Matt Fuller: Both Carolina and I have a narrative background, but for me, I wanted to approach a nonfiction story as cinematically as possible, so that really informed a lot of the aesthetic choices that were made. Beyond that, I didn’t approach it differently than I would have a fictional piece. There’s obviously a large element of discovery with nonfiction filmmaking. You can’t script things. You don’t what’s going to happen, so you have to prepared to capture them as they unfold in front of you. There was a lot of conversation ahead of time particularly with Scott Uhlfelder, our cinematographer, about our visual guidelines and how we need to be prepared to make in the moment when significant event occurred. It’s never easy with such a limited set of resources, and in documentary, you don’t have the resources, crew, or equipment to create those aesthetics simply and easily. It’s the product of a lot of hard work, and preparation, and the willingness to approach the material in this way.
I noticed on the film’s Facebook page that one of the couples in the film, Dave and Lindsey, are taking the train to the Tribeca premiere, courtesy of some complimentary tickets from Amtrak. Is there a story there?
Carolina Groppa: We had actually connected with Amtrak during production because Lindsey and Dave live in D.C. and they take the train a lot. We actually originally wanted to try and shoot on the train, so we connected with somebody in their L.A. office, but and for various reasons we ended up not shooting on the train, but we stayed in touch with them. When Tribeca came up, we knew it would be so great if Lindsey and Dave could come to the festival, so I just reconnected with the same guy, who was supportive of the project, and there were very grateful provisions made. It was a pretty easy process. It’s just the little things that as independent filmmaker that are a huge deal and it’s something we are very grateful for and don’t take lightly. It may seem silly to others, but to us it’s just a testament to people getting behind autism awareness and how important it is.
Do you feel like you’ve really become part of this community now?
Matt Fuller: Yes and no. I feel like a cheerleader of the conversation that is integral to that community, but by definition I’m still an outsider. I feel like I have a much deeper understanding of them and their journey through the world after spending so much time with them, but I’ll never really know what it’s like to be on the spectrum.
Carolina Groppa: I think that Matt nailed it. We’ve spent a millisecond of what is needed to be part of the community, but we’re very grateful that we have been embraced and like Matt said, we’re just happy to be helping start the conversation about this, and hope that other films get made and other stories get told. At the end of the day, if this can be used it to propel this into the conversation or get people to just shift their perspective just a little bit on something, then I couldn’t ask for more.
“Autism in Love” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play three more times at the Tribeca Film Festival at the Chelsea Bowtie Cinemas on April 17th at 5:30 pm, April 18th at 6:30 pm, and April 21st at 3:30 pm.