Directors Spotlight presented by waitress

Tricia Regan, Autism: The Musical

Some of the young subjects featured in Tricia Regan's doc Autism: The Musical

JM: Autism: The Musical -- now, that’s an intriguing title. What's behind it?

TR: Actually, we had a lot of difficulty coming up with that title, because this is not your typical issue film about autism. It‘s a film with a lot of humor and love. We wanted a title that didn’t sound sanctimonious, that gives people a clue that they’ll have fun watching this movie -- without being insulting to anybody in any way. We wrestled with titles for months and months and months and months, and finally my editor came up with this idea. We liked it. We tested it around, and people seemed to like it, too. So, it stuck.

The main thing is that we asked the moms of the people in the film how they felt about the title, and they really liked it. So that made me feel we’d really captured the spirit of the film.

JM: What, in your words, is the film about? Why’d you choose the subject? Did you have a personal involvement?

TR: Yeah. Back in college I’d studied autism in an abnormal psych class and became so interested in it I interned for a semester at an autism clinic they run at Binghamton University. But after that, my friend Janet Grillo‘s (one of the movie’s producers) son was diagnosed with autism at age three, and I was brought back into that world.

People approached her to make a film about autism, but she didn’t have any experience. She asked me if I would help guide her through the process and I said yes, but that, basically, I wouldn’t want to make a movie about autism because the subject is tough, painful, hard. I said we’d need to create a structure where autism an obstacle in the film, not its subject -- where people are the subject and autism is the thing getting in the way of their succeeding in doing what they want to do. We’d need to find a group of autistic kids who are trying to do something together, like put on a play. Then, Janet said, “Oh, I know this amazing woman who puts on plays with autistic kids.” That’s how I met Elaine, who runs The Miracle Project, which our film follows.

My idea was to make a movie that would introduce these autistic kids to the world in such a way that the world would value them, understand them. It would demystify autism. And, in return, we would find a place in our world for autistic kids.

JM: So, your primary goal was to reset people’s thinking about autism?

TR: Exactly. And, to do that, we needed to make a movie that will draw people into the theaters. So it needed to have story and structure, and characters who people will care about. We needed to present audiences with a full range of emotions, and we do. With a group of autistic kids who’re putting on a play, the question is: Can they succeed? It’s a simple little story, but our characters are so strong and engaging -- both parents and kids -- that it really works. People respond strongly to the film.

JM: What did people in the film get out of participating in it?

TR: Kids who are autistic spend their days going from one therapy to another --

JM: Gee, that sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Well, it‘s constant. Constant. Constant. The Miracle Project was a place where nobody was trying to fix them. They’d come in, there’d be music playing and they could draw or act or make music. They were encourage to participate, but there was never
anybody making them behave a certain way. There was nobody correcting them.

Parents of autistic kids with musical talents brought them to The Miracle Project because it was a really peaceful oasis for them, and the program really built their self esteem. You see that progression in the film. It’s very intimate with the kids. You get to know each one of them. Someone told me you can really say this film gets you inside the head of an autistic child, and emerge with a new understanding. Many people have
the idea autistic kids and adults don’t want to be social. The truth is that they don’t have the skills. They want to connect -- it’s just really difficult, frightening and scary for them because they don’t have the skills that make communication easy.

JM: Such as?

Well, many autistic kids have difficulty processing language. If you ask them, “Hey, how are you doing?” you expect a response, but an autistic child may just look at you while trying to process what you’ve said. And that takes them time. It’s like if you were in Spain after taking a month-long Spanish course; first you have to figure out the question, then you have to figure out your response. Meantime, if you’ve asked someone a question and they don’t respond, you ask another question -- and now they have two questions to consider and it becomes very confusing.

The film shows you that you have to enter their world to communicate with them. It’s a real lesson in humility. It’s not going to happen on your terms with these kids. You need to be really quiet, to listen and be patient, and they will emerge. And, they are very interesting, very entertaining, very worthwhile.

JM: Did the subject present any particular filmmaker challenges for you -- in getting funding, in working with the cast?

TR: Any film gets made only because of a series of miracle, honestly. It’s really hard to complete a film. This film had the usual running out of money, but it kept appearing and, in the end, the film got made. From my point of view it was just a matter of continuing to show up with the camera -- because we shot 200 hours of footage, and a lot of that is great footage, but nothing happens. So it requires an immense amount of patience. You can shoot a family for 30 minutes and, really, of that there’s only 20 minutes where something happens.

I quickly discovered that whenever I was with the kids, I had to have the camera. For them, the camera and I had to become one. And I had to let them know from the start about what was appropriate and what wasn’t. They were not allowed to touch the camera -- which totally, totally, totally fascinated them. One boy who loved the camera was always performing for it, and I had to find ways to get him to stop doing that. Another kid just wanted to be with me, so he’d always talk about the camera being there -- and I had to find ways to stop him from doing that. So it was challenging to build relationships between these kids and myself with the camera that would enable them to totally reveal themselves while I was filming them.

And it really worked. When you watch the film, you feel you’re in the room with the kids, seeing them for yourselves, not filtered through the camera‘s or my perspective. That’s the advantage of shooting 200 hours for a feature-length film that’s 92 minutes, total.

Posted at April 30, 2007 9:27 AM

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