Interview: Jerry Rothwell on Leaning Into the Sensational in “The Reason I Jump”

If “The Reason I Jump” feels so exhilarating in offering a new way to look at the world, it’s because of what Jerry Rothwell felt as he was reading Naoki Higashida’s book of the same name, written at the time he was 13 to convey what it was like to live with autism.

“Often, I’ve leaned a lot on words and interviews and narrative, but the nature of the subject matter and the approach that we took is that you cut loose from these things,” says Rothwell, who worked with “Cloud Atlas” writer David Mitchell and K.A. Yoshida on the adaptation. “For most of the [production], we weren’t sure how it would look or what the experience of watching it would be like, and the first time we showed the film to people and realized that it did have a resonance, that was both surprising and really gratifying. It taught me some things about making films about how little explanation you need and how much an audience reads into sound and image, if you give them the space to do it. That’s what cinema is about.”

In stripping away the intellectual to get at the visceral, Rothwell creates something both literally and figuratively sensational with “The Reason I Jump,” rearranging cinematic language to commune with collection of young adults engage with a world that doesn’t always know how to relate back from around the globe. In traveling to India, Sierra Leone, Arlington, Virginia and his own backyard of England, where his producers Stevie Lee and Jeremy Dear tend to their neurodivergent son Joss, the director doesn’t presuppose he can channel what the experience of being autistic is like, but gives a neurotypical audience an acute sensitivity to the environments that surround his subjects to make the observations of how they navigate within them come alive.

Although “The Reason I Jump” summons an unusually direct emotional response, it is the result of a complex filmmaking process in which Rothwell creates scenes around connections made between the senses and employs dynamic sound design from capturing the full soundscape of anywhere he filmed to immerse viewers. That work yielded the Audience Award winner at last year’s Sundance Film Festival en route to a celebrated run on the festival circuit in the months that followed. With the film arriving at virtual cinemas this week, the director spoke about creating such a unique piece of cinema and doing justice to Higashida’s memoir, as well as working with Nainita Desai on the film’s sweeping score and seeing his work as a filmmaker in a new way.

How did this come about? When you get this book from Stevie and Jeremy, do the cinematic possibilities stand out?

It was a process. To begin with, I imagined it’s going to be a film about Naoki, the writer of the book, and I did an interview with him where he was communicating through his letter board. He was really interested and happy for the project to happen, but didn’t want to be in it, so that was the first idea out the window and I think that pushed me [to think], “Okay, so I’ve got his words [from the book], which he’s created in this very painstaking way about his experience. How [can] that open up the experience of non-speaking autistic people around the world without them becoming examples of the book or illustrations of these words? That led me really to look at the cinematic things that are in the book, the way that Naoki describes his visual world and the world of sound he experiences and memory. All of those things are really clues to an approach that we took really to shooting with these different characters that are in the film.

Joss is the son of your producers Stevie and Jeremy, but beyond that, did you know early on who you wanted to visit for the film?

Non-verbal autistic people are all over the world and in some ways, not hard to find, so the issue is then how do you start to engage someone with the idea of making a film where they are comfortable, consenting to do it and you feel they have the support to enable that to happen. I found that Amrit Khurana’s artwork on the web and I knew the film really needed to start by plunging you into a sensory world, trying to get an audience to see things in a non-neurotypical way [to] see things differently, so that was a great starting point in Delhi, India. Then with Joss, I had a great opportunity because Jeremy and Stevie were part of the production and Joss was only 20 miles away, so I could shoot much more frequently with him and get more of a sense of his experience over a longer period of time. That felt to me like the phase of the film where you hone in on what does it mean to live with that sensory world.

And then I looked for people who might take us out beyond that – Ben and Emma – part of this group in [Washington] DC, communicating in the same way that Naoki does through a letter board and making a lot of political interventions on behalf of nonspeaking autistic people. It broadens the film out into that political dimension. And I’d been shooting in Sierra Leone, so I knew I wanted to tell an African story of autism because it felt to me that if you look at representations of autism, so much of them are really about the Western/Northern world. I found Mary’s work there with her daughter Justina amongst villagers around the stigma and setting up this incredible school in Freetown amazing.

Was your experience of being around people helpful in figuring out certain words or sensations you could build around?

Yeah, we tried not to go into the film with a bunch of ideas about special effects or different visuals and early on, we started working with a group of autistic advisors, a group who we’d chat through the idea of the film and then we’d start showing them cuts of the film later on. Plus, I went quite deeply into the incredible literature that’s being written by non-speaking autistic people at the moment like Naoki himself, but also Tito Mukhopadhyay and Ido Kedar, both of whom have written books that are similar, but very unique in their own way. You have to acknowledge in a film it’s not a direct transcription of someone’s experience. I couldn’t show what your sensory experience of what the world is truly, so what we tried to do is build a way of seeing the things that we found in people’s environments.

For example, Amrit lives in this block of flats in a housing development just outside Delhi and mostly she spends time drawing things that she sees outside. In the flat, it’s hot and there are these fans going and Amrit likes sitting in front of the fan and just rocking with the movement of the fan and that felt, “Okay, so maybe we can build on that experience by recording the sound of the fan in 360 and really try to put an audience in sync with this room with fans that are making lights shimmer and curtains flap.” It was really building on the things that we found in an environment.

It’s a big decision from the start to record in 360 sound. Did you know how important it would be?

I think I didn’t [laughs], but I really wanted to work with Nick Ryan, the sound designer who has done a lot of work around the neuroscience of sound. Nick’s an aesthetic himself, where your experience of sound and imagery is often related, so the color yellow might have a sound [attached to it] or “Saturday” might be a color. That’s very common in non-speaking autistic people as well, so I felt Nick might have a take on how sound might work in this film and when we first started talking about it, he said, “Well, of course you’re going to do it in 360°, aren’t you?” And I hadn’t really thought about doing a film, let alone a documentary in 360° sound, but I went, “Yes,” and we went down this journey where we recorded 360° sound in every location.

We recorded these noise prints of every room we were in so we could shape any sound we added to that 360° environment. We ran 16 tracks of recording every time we were shooting and we were a tiny crew – sound recordist Sara Lima, who is across these three recorders and then in the sound design, Nick tried to build on what we created in film during shooting, to think about the subjectivity of sound. For example, there’s a sequence which is built on a sequence that Naoki writes about how he understands from the sound of rain that it is raining and how he has to go through all of his memories of rain in order to establish that what he’s hearing is rain. In that sequence, Nick took all these sounds that sound like rain but aren’t rain — the sound of paper flapping or someone’s hand tapping on a table — so the whole sequence is built out like you’re seeing rain, but the sounds that you’re hearing, they sound a bit like rain, but maybe they’re something else, and it catapults you into the idea of remembered rain, hopefully.

The score from Nainita Desai really beautifully seems to take some of its cues from the sounds in the film – was it interesting to mix the music and the sound design in that way?

Yeah, we wanted to do was make a point where the score and the sound design met, so fairly early on, working with Nanita, we would give her sounds that were from the shoot — for example, the sound of Amrit’s fans was something that [Nainita] had and then could use in that early sequence in her music. Likewise with the electricity, Nick had built these contact mics that you could put on those green boxes to hear the sound of them and Nanita’s music built on the back of that material. She managed to create a score that’s at times incredibly beautiful music and at times just picks off the discordance of the sounds that we’re hearing and turns them into a kind of music, so I’m really glad that she’s getting the recognition for that score because it was a labor of love.

We are circling around a version of the film that’s like a live version, which is entirely music using the rushes of the film. I imagine it’ll be a year before that sees the light of day and done completely in our spare time as an overlap because there’s no funding for it, but [I’m] excited to see whether you can keep that same forward motion in the film. I watched a lot of nonverbal films as part of the process of researching this, obviously a film like “Koyaanisqatsi” is a great reference point, which is a film that has a real shape to it. You’re really taken on a journey by that film entirely through music and images.

In your time with Naoki, was there anything you might not have gotten through the book that helped guide you in this process?

Yeah, the experience of watching Naoki communicate and talking with him is a really profound experience because even if you’re quite familiar with this territory and immersed in it, I think there’s a neurotypical thing which neurotypical people do, which is you default to trying to understand someone neurotypically. You try to read into what they’re doing that perhaps isn’t [its] intended meaning, so this combination of being with Naoki and him being subject to all of the distractions that his autism leads him to and at the same time communicating these very wise, pithy, poetic thoughts through a letter board, you get educated by it. There was a point in our conversation where he would get up and go to the window and look out behind this net curtain off in mid-sentence when he was pointing at something on the letter board and then sit down again and carry on the same sentence. At one point, he had done that a few times and I said, “What is it that draws you to that window all the time?” And he says, “I’m looking at the wheels of cars that are passing.” And I say, “why?” And he says, “Well, they’re like galaxies rotating,” which is this incredible [observation] that as a neurotypical person you wouldn’t imagine or see.

“The Reason I Jump” opens on January 8th in virtual cinemas, which split proceeds with your local arthouse. A full list of participating theaters is here.