The idea for Straighten Up and Fly Right — Kristen Abate and Steven Tanenbaum’s Slamdance film about a young, disabled woman with dreams of becoming a writer — came when Tanenbaum saw headlines about former President Donald Trump mocking a New York Times journalist for his disability.
“Obviously I was very angry and I wanted to write something,” says Tanenbaum. “Then I realized that I don’t have to write about that particular situation. It’s obviously a subject I know.”
Tanenbaum has Ankylosing Spondylitis, the same inflammatory disease his character has in Straighten Up and Fly Right. It causes bones in the spine to fuse, resulting in a hunched posture.
Abate’s character, Steven, becomes a mentor to Abate’s character, Kristen, as she navigates life in New York City. Abate’s character also has Ankylosing Spondylitis, though Abate isn’t physically disabled in real life.
As conversations swirl about who should play disabled characters onscreen, Tanenbaum explained that the reason why he asked Abate to play the role rather than a disabled actress is because the characters are based on their real-life dynamic.
“I’d rather my daughter play my daughter. Makes more sense to me,” Tanenbaum said.
The two aren’t actually blood-related, but they consider each other chosen family. They met when Abate began taking acting lessons from Tanenbaum when she was a kid, and they have now been friends for two decades.
“He’s known me since I was nine. We worked together on plays and he was kind of a mentor to me. When my life started sort of unraveling and falling apart, I reached out to him and said, What are you doing, and can I be a part of it? And that sort of turned into us collaborating creatively,” Abate said. “I moved into the same building and then we wound up living essentially together for the next 12, 13 years. So because of that relationship and that trust, we continue to find ways to tell stories with each other. And so this character is really a hybrid of Stephen’s experience and my experience with depression and anxiety.”
“It’s such a personal story, and it’s not just personal to me, but it’s also personal to Steven and our specific relationship where I have been Steven’s caretaker for many years,” she added. “Steven built this bond based on our relationship, but also trusted me being eyes and ears for him in many situations and also watching him very closely… so for this specific role, in this specific project, I think it’s something that couldn’t have been done any other way, simply also because the film, not only is it about disability, it’s about connection, community and really at the end, the sort of chosen family which Steven and I actually are.”
Tanenbaum and Abate hope that Straighten Up and Fly Right will not only inspire other films with disabled protagonists, but also make it more mainstream for disabled directors to helm movies in general.
“It opens up the possibility that it’ll be normal for a disabled director to just be telling a love story or whatever, directing some kind of rom-com, and it’s not going to be a big deal,” Abate said.
Main Image: Steven Tanenbaum and Kristen Abate in Straighten Up and Fly Right.