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Life, Animated: How Disney saved an autistic boy

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For generations, children have flocked to the mysterious magic of Disney cartoons — for adventures, for laughs, for romance and heart and humor. But few have connected to the Disney canon as vitally as Owen Suskind.

Suskind is an autistic 25-year-old who, at three years old, inexplicably fell silent. For years, the toddler was unable to communicate with his family until his father, journalist Ron Suskind, miraculously realized that the key to getting through to his son was by disappearing into the voices of Owen’s favorite Disney characters.

The magical discovery by Owen’s family and his subsequent 20-year journey from silent toddler to independent adult became the basis for Suskind’s 2014 memoir and, now, the buzzy documentary Life, Animated (in theaters now).

Helmed by Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams, Life, Animated explores Owen’s early obsession with the animation studio’s classics and the chance encounter that unlocked his ability to communicate with his family and the world. Owen’s now an adult, and the film chronicles one game-changing year in his life, beginning with his school graduation and subsequent move from his parents’ house into his own apartment.

After taking home a top prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Williams spoke to EW about the process of filming the documentary (which is already generating early Oscar buzz) and how Owen’s touching story is more than just a singular case of one boy’s movie magic.

EW: I believe I consistently cried through half of this film. Have you become immune?

ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: [Laughs.] No, I cry. It gets me every time. My editor and I would sit in the edit room just crying. I guess maybe I’m a softie but I’m still emotional.

When did you first get involved in Owen’s story? I remember hearing about it a couple years ago in that New York Times article.

What you read was an excerpt of the book Life, Animated by Owen’s father Ron Suskind, and that was a fairly widely-read article in the magazine of the New York Times. I had done a little before that came out. I had gone up to Owen’s school and shot just a little quick thing with Ron and Owen, a little three-minute teaser, which ended up being in that article. But I’d known Ron for 15 years. We were journalists. I’m a recovering journalist, I should say. [Laughs.] So when he was writing the book, he came to me and said, “I think this would make a great film.” And having known Ron and his family — I did a piece a long time ago about [his wife] Cornelia’s parents and how they met, and I had a hand in Owen’s bar mitzvah video — I sort of feel like I’m their in-house documentarian.

Did you always know about the Disney side to Owen’s story?

When Ron was writing the book, that’s when I found out about the Disney connection. I knew about Owen — I didn’t know much — but Ron came to me and it clicked. I remember very distinctively the moment, because it was the moment when lightning struck. I was screening my last film in Boston, and Ron was at Harvard and we met for breakfast and he told me about [Owen’s monthly] Disney club [for other autistic youths who are passionate fans of Disney], and I started to tear up. And I was like, “Oh my God, this is my next film. I’ve got to do this film.”

As such a close friend of Ron’s, did you worry about maintaining the level of detachment that your role as filmmaker demands?

No, because Ron is a consummate journalist. He understands the separation between subject and filmmaker and he just kept his distance. He let me make the film I wanted to make, and he didn’t bother me in any way. And he didn’t even see the film until maybe the second or third rough cut. He saw the film for the first time — with Owen — and I was there in the room, just the three of us in my office. That was an amazing moment because you can imagine, watching it for the first time, he was a wreck. Imagine how you cried…imagine watching it with Owen. It was unbelievable. If Owen didn’t like the film, then we wouldn’t have the film. Owen needed to sign off on this. And Owen jumped up and hugged me and said, “I love it.” And Owen doesn’t hug. That’s not who he is. So it was an amazing moment.

What was your first day like shooting with Owen?

The first filming happened on Valentine’s Day — it was his school’s Valentine’s Day dance. So it was Owen and [his ex-girlfriend] Emily dancing and really totally loving towards each other. I remember being surprised that they were very physical. They would do this sort of Disney-style kissing. And that was my first contact with anyone living with autism. I didn’t know anyone. And in a way, I was a little uncomfortable. As I began to really immerse myself in Owen’s life and world, which was really important to me, that changed. I think that as I take that journey personally and learn that Owen’s world is so amazing, I think the audience takes that journey as well. It was important for me to take them from when you see Owen in the beginning of the film and he’s talking to himself and he’s pacing and you’re uncomfortable and you don’t know why…by the end of the film, you know exactly what’s going on in his head, which is really my goal. From his point of view, from the inside looking out, not the outside looking in.

What changed for you from the story you thought you were going to tell to the story you ultimately told by the end?

I probably started out thinking I was going to tell a story about autism, and I even followed a bit of a scientific line throughout. Almost like the science of what’s going on in Owen’s head. But there was a certain point where I took all the science out of the film, because I realized that this was a universal coming-of-age story and a story about love and family, a story that everyone could connect to. Owen was going through all these really amazing milestones in his life, like graduation and falling in love and moving out onto his own and becoming independent. We all go through those, and I wanted to stay on that emotional roller coaster and hit those notes, so I realized that the science of it must come out and be DVD extras. [Laughs.]

What sort of feedback have you received from the autism community?

We did a couple of big screenings. The first contact was at Sundance, where we premiered the film. Sundance organized a screening with the autism community in Utah, and they really were so moved. What was amazing was a screening we did in North Carolina, and a woman stood up and she said, “I’m someone who has autism, and Owen, you’re my hero for giving me a voice and speaking for our community.” It was this emotional, powerful moment and we’ve since then had a number of screenings like that. David Remnick and his wife have an autistic child and run an organization and did a huge screening in New York. We’re screening at the UN for various autism organizations. I think the most powerful screening, not necessarily with the autism organizations, has been with kids. High school kids. They were completely gripped by the film and asked the most amazing questions and were totally connected. I think it enabled them to understand people who were differently abled than them. That, for I think all of us, for the Suskinds, was probably the most powerful one.

Tell me about the genesis of Disney’s involvement and licensing of the clips in the film.

Disney very much controls their intellectual property, so it was a process that took a year and a half of really cultivating a relationship, led by Sean Bailey, the president of [Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production], and Keri Putnam from Sundance, who introduced me to Sean. I had been shooting a while, and my producer and I went out and presented to all the different heads of Disney in one room. I was a nervous wreck going in. I had brought some clips of Disney club. I showed them graduation. I showed them various clips of the film and by the end when the lights came up, they were in tears. They knew the animated films they created were hugely popular, but they didn’t know they were changing lives like this, that they were touching people and really helping this person connect to the world. So how could they say no?

Has this changed how you personally see and read Disney films?

Going into this, I can’t say I was a huge Disney fan. I love Jungle Book and all the classics growing up, but what I learned about this is that these Disney films are basically classic fables that have been told for thousands of years. Disney’s just taken them and updated them, so Owen is, essentially, an expert on being human. He has this deep knowledge of the world that just happens to be through these Disney movies. And Owen, as he grew up, has become an expert on the life lessons those stories tell about how we connect with other people and how we survive and be human.

What did Disney think of the finished product?

They loved it. I feel like they really embraced the film. We just had a screening on the Disney lot. They were really visibly moved because these are Owen’s heroes: the animators, the people who created the characters he lived in for so long. So when they saw how it affected him, and him expressing that to them, it was very, very touching. Owen has memorized the credits of all of these movies. That’s how he taught himself to read. So he knows the credits of any one person from Disney who comes up to him; all the animators, he knows their entire résumé. He’ll tell them every film they ever worked on, and they’re just floored. He knows these facts.

Could a job at Disney be in the cards?

That’s his dream. And he does voices so well. That same trip, we did a tour of Pixar and Owen went into the booth and started doing voices with his older brother Walt, who always does Gaston. Owen was just a natural. I would hope that they would hire him someday to either draw or do voices. It would be a dream come true. When you ask him what he wants in his life, what he sees in his future, he says, “I want to work at Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California.” He’s been going to film festivals with us, and he’s very clear about two things: that he wants to work at Disney Animation Studios and that he’s looking for a girlfriend, preferably who lives in the Boston area and loves Disney. He announces that everywhere he goes.

Life, Animated is in theaters now.

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