|Roger Ross Williams and Ron Suskind|
It’s not every day that you get to sit and chat with two powerhouse celebrities like Ron Suskind and Roger Ross Williams, so the last thing you want to do is to be late for your interview. I came rushing to the building in downtown Seattle where I was to speak with them and passed Ron talking on his cellphone just outside the room. He eyed me as I walked by and no doubt was wondering if I was the guy he was supposed to be giving an interview with.
I found Roger patiently waiting for me and he greeted me with a nice smile. I quickly took off my Transistions-lensed glasses, that were still in sunglasses mode, so that I could see him. Ron came in soon after, though his phone kept buzzing throughout the interview. He’s a busy man.
Roger is the director of the documentary, Life, Animated which focuses on Ron’s family, primarily his son Owen who has autism. The two came to Seattle as part of the Seattle International Film Festival for promotion of the film that shares how Disney animated films helped Owen to communicate with his family. You can read my review here, but in a nutshell, Owen was born normal and healthy, but at age three, he became silent, Communication with Owen had become almost impossible. Years later, the family discovered that the “gibberish” that Owen was speaking to them was actually dialogue from a Disney film. The film is insightful, heartwarming and at times, heartbreaking too.
Roger was the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) for Music by Prudence and more recently, the award-winning documentary, God Loves Uganda. He and Ron have known each other for about 15 years now. They met while working on the TV program, Life 360 which was a joint venture of ABC and PBS.
“Since then, Roger has become fabulous,” Ron boasts of his friend. “Back then he was, you know, known as a secret weapon inside the TV community like the most creative guy in the room, but then he did Music By Prudence…”
Before meeting Roger, Ron was the senior national affairs reporter for the Wall Street Journal where he won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for two articles. Since then he has written six books dealing with politics and world news, but his most recent book, Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism, is his most personal as it deals with his own family. Roger tells me that he has done news pieces about Ron’s family over the years and even worked on Owen’s Bar Mitzvah video.
“I’m sort of their in-house documentarian,” he says. After the book of Life Animated was released, Roger was just finishing his tour for God Love Uganda and so the time was right to work on another project together.
Life, Animated is very intimate look into the Suskind’s family life including wife Cornelia, eldest son Walt and younger son, Owen. I asked Ron if it was a hard sell to get his family to appear in the film.
“We always did a thing where I was the one out in public but the family lived private lives not affected by that. People would find out that Owen was autistic and wanted us to get more involved more publicly but we would say, ‘No, we already live so much of a public life through me,’ but the book opened us up to the world. And then you know, a movie takes you to a whole another level. There would have been no one else but Roger that Cornelia, the guiding force of the family, would have said yes to.”
Roger explained that he felt that it was really important to tell Owen’s story from his own point of view. He wanted to allow the audience to get inside Owen’s head to better understand and have empathy for who is he.
“It’s really about showing people the gifts that people with autism offer us if we would just not look the other way,” says Roger.
In Life, Animated, we learn that Owen has his own Disney club where others with autism come enjoy a movie and then discuss its themes at the end. The kids identify with the Disney characters that are most like themselves. At one meeting that Ron attended, the group sat and watched Dumbo. One member, who was also Owen’s girlfriend at the time, told Ron that Dumbo was her favorite movie. “Dumbo doesn’t talk and for many years I couldn’t speak,” she told him. “Dumbo is an outcast and I was also an outcast, but then I learned that the thing that made him an outcast, that made him different…those ears…turned out to be his greatest strength. That’s how I am. What makes me different is my greatest strength and allows me to soar. That’s why I am a Dumbo girl.”
Ron then explains that identifying with Dumbo is a statement of purpose and of identity. “[Those with autism] are different. They’re not less. It’s just different. You can see that in the movie. That’s the beauty of it.”
In the documentary, it is shown that Owen not only owns a lot of Disney films, but other films as well. I asked him if Owen responds well to other films too.
“Well, Disney is clearly first but there are other animated films that he likes,” says Ron. “He’s very judicious on which ones he likes, but he has selected live action movies as well especially in the last few years. He also uses some of the Christopher Nolan Batman series. He can do all the voices.”
Even just with himself, Owen will rehearse scenes from movies as a coping tool.
“When he was breaking up with Emily and was wondering about their relationship and what it had been and how he would move on, he used Alfred’s fantasy scene from The Dark Night Rises. It’s a very complex conversation about Alfred wanting Bruce to have a life and so Owen sort of summoned the character of Alfred saying how Owen needs to move on and have a life. It’s an incredibly complex mirror that allows him to get all of the emotions of a situation that is common to him. Another one that he does is Michael Caine talking to Bruce Wayne, “Why sir do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
At the end of the documentary, Owen is given a chance to speak about autism to large group of people. Ron made Owen write the speech himself. “It was the only way that it would work,” Ron says. “We would tell him ‘You’ve gotta write it. We’re not helping you here’ and you see him in the movie saying “think, think, think,” so he wrote the speech. When it becomes time for Owen to give the speech, he pauses for about 45 seconds and you can hear a pin drop. “Everyone is thinking, ‘Please God, let this work.’” Remembers Ron. As it turns out, Owen had made some last minute revisions and got a little lost in his notes, but in the end, he nailed the speech and a collective sigh was heard by all.
Today, Owen is living on his own in his own apartment. He works at a movie theatre, of course, and has traveled with Ron and Roger on the promotion tour of Life, Animated.
“He’s doing great,” says Roger. “He’s been touring all of the film festivals and he has been a rock star. He loves being in front of an audience. He’ll run the Q and A. When he comes out at these film festivals, people are standing and cheering and he takes a bow – he’s in control. He’s running the show. It’s great to see him thriving and what is amazing is that all of these festivals, someone with autism will stand up and say, “You’re my hero. You’re representing my community.”
Related: Review of Life, Animated >>>
I finish our interview by asking Ron about his marriage. He and Cornelia have been married for 30 years and I remind him that many couple have split up over much lesser issues. What advice would he give other married couples who go through trying times?
“When something hits you like this, it summons the question, ‘What is the nature of the union?’ Cornelia and I were always a tight pair. We always had a beautiful, powerful fit within one another.”
At this point in the conversation, Ron puts his phone down for the first time and speaks from his heart.
“Cornelia is a pretty unique person in the world. She understands the almost mystical connection between truth and intimacy and how everything must be shared if it is to grow into intimacy to the ever-deepening bond. When we were facing the truths together, they were changing both of us simultaneously. When Owen gets hit with the autism. He changes, but it is ever bit how all of us changed as well. Part of those changes we went through together and as we did that, side by side, grew in depth and in the power of our bond deeper. Friends of ours get it, but people don’t understand.”
Roger is quick to remind me that Life, Animated is really a film about the love of a family and their amazing bond. “People come up to me and always say, ‘That is just an amazing family with so much love for each other’ and that is so inspiring.”
Then Ron points out that Walt is a “real hero” of the movie as well. He clearly loves his brother and makes it known that he will always stick by him.