At the bottom of Jenifer and Jeff Westphal’s old home in Philadelphia, there was a room that was left empty for their son Kyle with the thought that he could fill it with his favorite things and be free of any other distractions in an effort to temper his autism, which had been raging since he was three-and-a-half. The Westphals couldn’t be quite sure of Kyle’s unusual behavior when he was younger, knowing he was born missing a muscle in one eyelid that required a series of operations to fix, but during the early 1990s when there was much less awareness around autism, the family was perplexed by how he interacted with the world, often hiding in the couch and avoiding eye contact until Jeff had read a book describing his symptoms and he and Jenifer set about emptying out their basement.
In “Let Me Be Me,” co-directors Dan Crane and Katie Taber come to show how that room was filled with love as Kyle flourished when left to his own devices with the guidance of the Son-Rise Program, which emphasizes a more play-based approach to forging a connection between parents and their children with autism over behavioral revision. Although Jenifer would later become a major producer in the documentary world under the banner Wavelength Productions, behind such films as “Knock Down the House,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and “Feels Good Man,” she had one of the most incredible stories already in her midst as Kyle’s childhood was documented for treatment purposes and evolves into a compassionate chronicle of how he found his calling as a fashion designer, eventually preparing for his first runway show as he graduates from Drexel University.
Crane and Taber, who would work on “Let Me Be Me” separately reconstructing Kyle’s childhood through a mix of animation and archival, respectively, in addition to their interviews with the family in the present day, slip into the minds of all involved show how his initial struggle to communicate took its toll when there was no way of knowing what Kyle’s condition was, requiring full-time care when work often called Jeff away, and the way in which Kyle began to build his own understanding of the world, first in finding comfort in the various swatches of fabric that would find their way into the room because of his love of “Cinderella” and eventually watching television where he would learn all about social cues from Blair Waldorf on “Gossip Girl” and confidence from Tyra Banks on “America’s Next Top Model.” While he starts learning how to relate to the world on his own terms, the filmmakers open up the ability to understand him on a deeper level, no longer defined by the malady that was once thought to rule over his life.
With the film arriving in theaters and available to rent at home this week after its premiere last fall at DOC NYC, Crane and Taber spoke about how they were brought aboard “Let Me Be Me,” working with the Westphals as producers and subjects and finding the right feel in the film’s tactile, three-dimensional animation.
Katie, I understand you came on first. How did you get involved?
Katie Tabor: True, it was quite a beautiful journey to go on with Kyle and the Westphals. They had some footage already under their belt that they had been working on in different ways, but Jen felt strongly that there was a better way to get this story out. She didn’t feel clear about what that was, so we started having some great conversations and came to realize the family was going to need to be a bigger part of the story in order to authentically get at what happened in those years and what was still haunting them about that time. We were going to need to give each person in the family time to say their piece and let those different narratives interact with each other.
For myself, what pulled me into the project was Jen’s real commitment to authentically tell the story, whatever that meant and wherever that was going to take us and also the extraordinary archival footage that they had. [I thought] “Wow, this is incredible. Not only when someone tells you the story of what happened, it is fascinating, but then you get to see these hundreds of hours of footage.” As a filmmaker, that’s really what sparked me and pulled me in.
Dan Crane: And I came onboard in 2020, and Katie had done what she felt she could do with it and it felt like the film just didn’t have an end necessarily. We were trying to figure out ways to tie it together and I came in as a writer on it to try and restructure it, maybe shoot some new interviews. It’s hard when you’ve worked with a story for a long time and I worked with a new editor, coming in with fresh eyes, tweaking the structure a bit. There was some animation that was in there and we played off of that and found this great animation team in New Zealand called Yukfoo that did an amazing job putting us in the head of Kyle, which is what we were really going for.
It occurred to me that because fabric was so important to Kyle’s world, we should find someone who could do either stop-motion or CGI as stop-motion, which is kind of what they’re doing and I wanted to create a world that was based in fabric and use the textiles to reflect his world. That became such an important touchstone thematically for the film that he’s spent the first part of his life hiding under fabric and then he uses that fabric to show who he is, so that was why we went out looking for a company that could do this. I was out on Youtube looking at animation companies and saw this company that had done a promo for Wellington, New Zealand, and it was all these beautiful rivers that were made out of fabric and I thought, “Oh, these guys are great.” I did a very detailed spec with them and then they achieved everything I asked for and then doubled it because they just kept coming up with new and innovative ways [to tell the story], like coming up with sequins as the liquid, and [other] little details like that that really make it rich.
Were you using the interviews with Kyle to extrapolate that inner life to be true to what he was feeling in the moment or is that something you lean on other research to figure out when he was so young?
Katie Tabor: I spent a lot of time with Kyle, so it was over the course of a couple years of working with the family and with Kyle. We filmed a lot of footage in New York, following him in order to deepen the filmmakers’ relationship for all the reasons you’re saying, just to get a deeper understanding of where he was as an adult now, and where some of his thoughts were about his time as a child in the room. That was really an important part of this process. As opposed to a verite doc or a purely archival doc, this doc exists as it is because of the process the family went through together, meaning Kyle as well, so he had to be fully invested in what it meant to be telling his story now, his historical story as a child and Dan was able to really take a lot of those insights we had gotten – some are in the film and many, many interviews and time spent with Kyle are not in the cut, but all of that information about his experience and his personality and his perspective on the world are beautifully reflected now in the animation and that is deeply grounded in what Kyle has to say about his experience.
Was there anything that happened along the way that changed your ideas of what this could be?
Katie Tabor: Finding those pieces of archive when [Kyle’s] really in the rainbow blanket [at the end of the film], I found that to really be a transformative moment for me in just being able to encapsulate the how important the hide and reveal element Dan was talking about and [how important] the fabric was to him. The purity of this kid in this rainbow fabric [dancing around] and also that he was older at that point. That’s not when he’s six. He’s 11 or 12 at that point, and he’s a big kid [draped] with this rainbow fabric, so it’s moments like that in the archive that immediately burst with this connective tissue with [other] things that he had said and things that other family [members] have said, so that was a really crystallizing beat for me. I’m glad we were really able to both give it a lot of weight within the footage, but also I think it was really a jumping off point in the animation as well.
Dan Crane: And it’s funny – that scene kept moving to different places when we were doing our edit. What’s so brilliant is Katie was able to exhume all of these incredibly poetic pieces from the archive so we had those to play with. It was right as we got towards the end I said to the editor, what if that’s the final piece of the film? It’s just him to music [dancing in the rainbow cape] and no pun intended, but that to me sewed everything up. It was just such a perfect metaphor for what was going on with him and that scene really affects me emotionally. It’s really beautiful and the fact that he goes on so long doing that dance and reveals himself in a way and then goes away and then takes a little bow, it’s very poetic.