Quoting from a favorite scene, empathizing with a character’s dilemma, adopting the philosophies of fictional societies—anyone that has ever found refuge in cinema has done this.
Yet movies play a much more defining role in the way some viewers see the world. Movies have given them their voice—literally.
Heartwarming and utterly inspiring, Roger Ross Williams’ Sundance-winning documentary Life, Animated is testament to movies’ power to be so much more than just entertainment. Owen Suskind, the hero of this real-life story, is a young autistic man striving to become more independent and to establish stronger relationships outside of his immediate family.
As lively and charismatic as he is today, Owen lived in silence for a long time growing up because of his condition, to the heartbreak of his parents, Cornelia and Ron (a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer). Then they discovered that Owen was able to make sense of the world through the Disney films that he was watching repeatedly, and a bridge was built between parents and child.
Including animated sequences inspired by Owen’s own short stories about sidekicks and heroes, clips from Owen’s favorite Disney flicks, and poignant conversations with the Suskinds, Life, Animated is a satisfying tearjerker that washes pain away with a hefty ration of Owen-inspired optimism.
MovieMaker sat down with Williams, an Academy Award-winning documentarian (“Music for Prudence,” 2010), to get insight on his affecting journey into the colorful world of an exceptional young man.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Every time I’ve seen the film I’ve been equally moved. What was your first contact with this profoundly hopeful story? Was it the book [Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, written by Ron Suskind], or did you come into contact with the Suskinds another way?
Roger Ross Williams (RRW): I’ve known Ron for 15 years—we were journalists together at ABC. We stayed friends over the years, and when he was writing the book, he contacted me and said, “I think this would make a great documentary.” I was immediately blown away by this story, and within a couple weeks, I was at Owen’s school filming him.
MM: Would you say that this long-term relationship with the family gave you access that someone else couldn’t have gotten, particularly because of the intimate subject matter?
RRW: Absolutely. You know, Ron is a very public person, and Cornelia is a very private person. Cornelia often says in Q&As, which she’s been doing around the country with the film, that she wouldn’t have entrusted it to anyone except me. They really trusted me enough to leave me alone with Owen to film. We had a great team. Tom Bergmann, our DP, had a great relationship with Owen and the family. It was an amazing process. I knew them really well, so that was great for access, but as far as having any editorial say, they didn’t see it until it was almost a final cut, and Cornelia and Walt [Suskind, Owen’s brother] saw it for the first time at Sundance.
MM: Did you, as a filmmaker, study up on autism on its own, to come in with more knowledge on the subject?
RRW: No, because this was never an autism film to me. The stakes are higher because he has autism, but this is a classic coming-of-age story about a young man who has fallen in love, who is graduating from school, and who is moving out on his own, the things that we all go through. It was important to me that this was not an autism film. It did not have science or any of that stuff about autism. It was really about an emotional connection with the family.
MM: Why was it important for you not to have any of that?
RRW: Because the story I wanted to tell was a coming-of-age story about this family, and the power of story, how stories shape the life of Owen, and how the love of Cornelia and Ron drove them to find a way to connect with him. That was the story I wanted to tell.
MM: An element of the film that stands out in a gorgeous manner are the animated sequences based on Owen’s writings. Can you tell me about how this came to be, and the stylistic decisions for those clips?
RRW: The last chapter of the book is the story of the sidekicks that Owen created. In Owen’s stories, the monsters and the plots really correspond to the challenges he faced in his life. There’s a monster that represents when he was bullied at school. There’s “Fuzzbutch” who breathes fog and fire and confuses people, and represents autism. It was really about taking Owen’s story and bringing it to life. I always knew I wanted to animate that story and bring it to life, but it was important to me because it’s Owen’s creation. The film is about inspecting the world from Owen’s eyes, from the inside looking out. I was looking at different kinds of animation, and it had to be different from Disney animation, because this is Owen’s world and Owen’s creation. I was looking around at different animation, and I found that I just loved what the French were doing in 2-D animation. I went to Paris to this company called Mac Guff, and they just fell in love with this project, and they put together this team of young, really talented French animators, and we spent a year bringing Owen’s story to life. It was just an amazing process.
MM: The fact that you actually had the Disney clips elevated this story to a whole different realm that wouldn’t have been possible by just talking about them. What was the process of getting Disney involved and getting access to use those clips?
RRW: We just counted yesterday and realized we have material from 15 different Disney films. It was a process that was sort of championed by Sean Bailey, the president of Disney Productions, who I met through Sundance, actually. He really took this on and ushered us through the whole process. He was our personal champion inside Disney. I think they were really moved by the fact that what they created could change a life. I think that really spoke to them.
MM: Were you close to Owen prior to shooting the film? How did that relationship developed as you were piecing the film together?
RRW: It’s a relationship that sort of evolved. I didn’t know Owen that well when I started filming, and I was a little uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to behave. As you see in the film, when you see him pacing and talking and you don’t know what he’s saying, it makes the audience a little uncomfortable. Then you get more and more into his world, and you actually become part of Owen’s world, and by the end when he’s pacing and talking you know exactly what he’s saying, you know exactly what’s going on in his head, because you’ve experienced it throughout the film. I think that’s the beauty of it.
It brings you in and transforms you, and I was transformed. I’ve been on the road with Owen. We’ve been to film festivals all across the country. It’s just an amazing relationship. The other day, we did a screening in New York, and I was coming out to L.A. for the opening in theaters, and Owen was like, “I’m going to miss you, Roger!” He hugged me, and Owen doesn’t hug. People with autism don’t necessarily have that kind of physical contact. When he saw the film he told me, “I love it!”
MM: The film is very much about the power of film. It’s amazing how much power the images and stories we consume can have.
RRW: I think I became a much better storyteller from this experience, just talking to Owen about the power of story. Also, these are classic fables that Disney takes and updates, and these fables are lessons on life. It just reinforces what I always knew: Stories make us human, and we all need stories to survive and connect with each other. Owen reinforces that. He’s an expert, a genius on stories, because he’s grown up on a diet of myth and fable.
MM: In terms of the editorial process and the construction of the film, what were some of the challenges for you, trying to piece together this film and make it emotionally potent?
RRW: I think that it was about, “How do I get Owen to tell his own story?” Luckily Errol Morris invented a camera called the Interrotron, which is basically like a teleprompter, but with images. Owen is talking to a television screen, but he’s really talking to my image on a television screen. He’s looking directly at me, directly at the camera. Owen is the only one in the film who looks directly at the camera, and talks to the audience directly. Everyone else looks off-camera. The effect of that is that Owen is effectively speaking to the audience and telling his own story. Then I play Disney animated clips and he interacts with those clips, and the audience is, in a sense, inside the Disney clip, and in a sense inside his head. I don’t even know if people realize it. It’s amazing how you can do these things, and people experience something. They will be like, “I feel like I’m inside Owen’s world.” They don’t quite know why until I explain that, and then they’re like, “Oh yeah, he’s the only one that looks at us, he’s looking directly into our eyes. How did you do that?” If I’m on a television screen, Owen can look at me. Owen has spent his whole life looking at a screen.
MM: Would you say that this life-affirming story has perhaps even more value given the day and age that we live in?
RRW: Absolutely, yeah. It’s definitely life-affirming. It’s just been amazing. We’ve won audience award after audience award, because people really connect with it. That’s been the power of this film.
MM: Did you have to go through hours and hours of Disney films to find Owen’s favorite clips, or was he involved?
RRW: No, I had a Disney expert, and that was Owen. Owen could tell me what clips I needed to use, and that was determined by what he was watching and when he was watching. He uses these films as a guide to life. He spent the night in his apartment for the first time, and he watched the Bambi shooting scene. It was really about what he was watching, and what he was using to decipher the world.
MM: What are some of the moments that audiences have been most moved by?
RRW: It’s different for everyone. That’s the great thing about a film like this. Everyone has different things in the film they connect with. I think the theme of the film is, “Who decides what a meaningful life is?” I think that what people walk away realizing is that Owen’s life has real meaning and real value, and that he’s an asset to the world. People like him are assets to the world. MM
Life, Animated opens in theaters July 1, 2016, courtesy of The Orchard.