Despite winning the Best Director Prize at Sundance earlier this year, Roger Ross Williams isn’t entirely convinced that his latest film “Life, Animated,” which tells of Owen Suskind, a young autistic man who learned how to communicate with the help of “Aladdin,” “Peter Pan” and other classic Disney animated films, is the reason he’s been having to clear so much space on his mantel as of late, but rather the Q & As that follow.
“There was a moment at Full Frame when Owen was coming down the aisle and he’s high-fiving all the people who are cheering — he goes up to the microphone [to start the Q & A and said], ‘I feel the love in this room.’ People just went crazy,” Williams recalls with a grin. “It’s why we keep winning all these audience awards.”
Though bringing out the spirited animation fanatic just before festival audiences cast their ballot for their favorite film at the door might be suspected of giving “Life, Animated” an unfair advantage, no one is likely to argue that Williams’ tremendously moving portrait of Owen and his family — parents Ron and Cornelia and brother Walt — as they prepare for his march away from their watchful eye towards independence isn’t deserving of all the accolades that have come its way.
As it turns out, the celebratory festival run seems like a fitting exclamation point on the year of firsts that Owen can be seen experiencing in “Life, Animated” — his first girlfriend, his first apartment at an assisted living center, his first job — made all the more remarkable by the fact that Owen didn’t put together his first complete sentence until the age of six, learning the ability to express himself through drawings of the cartoon characters he could identify with and the simplified language they would use. Cleverly, Williams reverses Owen’s education for an audience to understand the complexities of living with autism, using animated sequences to illuminate how his mind pieces together information as his family reflects on how they gradually developed a rapport with him. While the story in and of itself is inspiring, Owen is as well purely as a force of nature, his zest for life particularly evident in bringing his love of Disney characters to a club he started at his school to watch the films and dissect them analytically.
That infectious exuberance comes through both the film and its director, who somehow found the energy to talk about “Life, Animated” within a relentless travel schedule that saw him in England for the Sundance Film Festival: London two days before this interview in Los Angeles and at the Seattle Film Festival the day after it.
How did this come about?
I’ve known Ron and the Suskind family for 15 years and when I used to be a journalist, [Ron and I] worked together at “Nightline.” We also did a show for PBS called “Life 360” [where] I did a piece about Cornelia’s parents and how they met and a piece about Owen learning to ride a bike. I even worked on Owen’s Bar Miztvah video for Ron as a favor, so I’ve been their in-house documentarian for years and when Ron was writing the book [“Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism”], he came to me and said, “I think there’s a documentary here and we’re ready to do it.”
Did you actually see this film as a partnership between yourself and the Suskinds?
Definitely, because I knew the Suskinds for so long and so well and really felt connected and close to them. I really wanted to do their story justice, but Ron did not see anything until the rough cut stage. He and Owen watched the film pretty far along in the rough cut stage. Cornelia and Walt didn’t watch the film until the premiere at Sundance with an audience. And it was important to have that distance as a filmmaker because I didn’t want the book to have too much influence. The film picks up where the book left off — it’s about Owen now becoming independent and I wanted the creative freedom as a director to create the story I wanted to tell and they pretty much left me alone.
Did you know in advance what a momentous year this would be for Owen?
I knew we couldn’t just redo the book, which is all in the past and it just so happened that this happened to be the year Owen was going to graduating from school, he had fallen in love, and he was going to moving into his own apartment. As the Suskinds are telling me, “All these things are going to happen through out this year,” I [thought] “This is the perfect arc of the story.” It was a journey in one year that basically covers the bases of everything that everyone goes through— everyone falls in love, or at least most people do, everyone graduates, everyone becomes independent — but the stakes are so much higher for Owen. All these things were universal, and then we could tell the backstory in these black-and-white line drawings as flashbacks.
What went into your choice of animators?
It was important that the animation was very different than Disney animation because this was about going into Owen’s head and I started looking at different films. I saw a film called “The Dam Keeper,” which was nominated for an Oscar a couple years ago, and I loved the European type of animation. So I went to this [studio] called Mac Guff that did “Despicable Me” and “The Lorax” and they were primarily a 3D animation company. But when I met the owner of Mac Guff, Phillippe [Sonrier], this interesting character who lived on a boat on the Seine for 20 years, he really fell in love with the story of the sidekicks, I had amazing meetings with him, and then he put together this group of young French animators to [give] that European feel to it.
Mathieu Betard, who’s brilliant, ran the whole project creatively and the lead artist was Olivier [Lescot], who started showing me his drawings and [when] I said “What do you call this style of drawing?” He said, “I call it Olivier style,” so [when] they put together a group of seven or eight young French animators, they took Olivier’s stuff and brought it to life. I had to go to Paris a lot, which was tough. [laughs] I also worked with Emily Hubley, who really helped me [with] the last chapter of the book, the sidekick story — we didn’t want dialogue. We wanted it to be an emotional journey of sound and a visual, so I found this amazing electronic music producer in Portland, Oregon named Dylan Stark, who really created this soundscape. He took Owen talking and the sound of VHS fast-forwarding and rewinding and worked it into this musical language that felt very emotional.
You really get a visceral sense of the experience of being autistic — in particular, there’s that moment where you convey the noise that’s going on inside Owen’s head. Was it a challenge to understand that at first and subsequently convey it?
The whole concept of the film is to portray being on the inside looking out [because] all these films about people with a disability are always about the outside looking in and this is about going deeper and deeper until you’re totally immersed in Owen’s world — this beautiful vibrant world — so the sound design and everything [else] served that purpose. When Ron and Cornelia would talk about how Owen couldn’t understand [things] and [Owen] says “Everything was garbled,” it was about creating that soundscape and surround sound in the Orson Welles Editing Room at Skywalker Ranch. It was an amazing experience because we got to spend weeks with Al Nelson, the sound designer, and I would pinch myself every day and say “I can not believe I am here at Skywalker.” We even went to lunch the second day and who’s sitting there in the cafeteria but George Lucas himself?
That’s incredible. The scenes at the beginning of the film also are immediately immersive as you see Owen directly facing the camera, making expressions correlating to the Disney films he’s seeing. How did those come about?
When Owen is on camera, he’s always looking directly at the audience because I shot on an Interrotron, which is a camera behind a television screen, so I’d be in the other room and interviewing Owen on the television screen because if I was sitting there [in front of him], he wouldn’t be able to make eye contact. But since he spent his whole life watching a television screen, when he sees my image on television, he can look right at me and, in a sense, look right at the audience and tell his story. So [for the opening scenes] what I did was in-between asking Owen questions, I would play clips of Disney animated films and he would mouth the words and even with the “Peter Pan” sword fight, he’s doing the movements of the sword fight, so [by filming him] you are inside the Disney film and therefore inside his head as he interacts with the films, so it brings the audience into his world.
Did you actually know that you had the approval of Disney from the start of the film?
No. [laughs] It’s kind of a big gamble, isn’t it? I had already shot for awhile before I met Sean Bailey, who was really our advocate [there]. But it was a process. A big moment was when Julie [Goldman, the film’s producer] and I went and showed it to all the heads of Disney’s legal, animation and marketing departments and they were in tears after they watched some scenes. I don’t know if they realize the power that their films have had to change someone’s life like that. And they were just moved.
Something I only realized after watching the film is that although a big part of the story is Owen becoming independent, when he’s spending those first few nights at the assisted living center, your cameras are there. Was that an interesting position to be in?
Yeah, I wasn’t actually there the first night. I wanted to be as noninvasive as possible and the only person who was there with Owen was Tom Bergmann, [the cinematographer]. He and Owen had already developed a great relationship, and Owen was used to ignoring Tom, so [that first night] Tom was there in the corner and Owen lives very much in the moment, so you never see him look in the camera and he’s just doing his thing. He forgot Thomas was there, which is really why Thomas was able to get Owen as he fell asleep the first night. Then Thomas had the key [to the apartment] and he snuck out and then snuck back in before Owen woke up, so when the alarm goes off, he was there when Owen opened his eyes for the first time. [laughs] Owen didn’t even flinch, he was so used to Thomas being there, which is like a [documentarian’s] dream for a subject because they’re always so aware of the camera.
What’s it been like to travel with the film?
It has been extraordinary. With Owen, you never know when you start up this what’s going to happen or how Owen’s going to react to being such a public person, but Owen has thrived in front of an audience. He kills it at Q&As. He loves taking the control of the Q&A and calling on people, like “you over there.” He loves doing voices and interacting with the audience and every film festival, there’s been a standing ovation. But it’s also the film because it’s about love and the power of story and there is something about hitting those really universal notes that works. You never know when you release a film how people are going to connect, but this is a universal tale that people can really connect to and that’s really exciting.
“Life, Animated” opens on July 1st in Los Angeles at the Landmark and in New York at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas before expanding in the coming weeks. A full list of theaters and dates is here.