'Life, Animated' Director Reveals How His New Doc Left Disney's Top Brass in Tears

Roger Ross Williams Owen Suskind - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Roger Ross Williams Owen Suskind - Getty - H 2016

The Orchard is releasing Roger Ross Williams' documentary, about how an autistic child learned to communicate via Disney movies, in New York and Los Angeles this weekend.

Twelve years ago, documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams shot the bar mitzvah video for an autistic teen named Owen Suskind. Williams knew the boy's father, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, from their work together on ABC's Nightline and PBS' Life 360. From that moment on, Williams became the family's informal in-house documentarian.

But it wasn't until 2014 — when the elder Suskind was putting the finishing touches on his 2014 memoir Life, Animated, about how he and his wife, Cornelia Kennedy, used Disney movies to communicate with their nonverbal son — that Williams began working on a feature-length film about Owen.

"Ron came to me and said, 'I think this will be a great documentary," Williams recalls. "A month later, I was shooting with Owen."

In January, the movie, also titled Life, Animated, had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, becoming a three-hanky breakout (The Hollywood Reporter's review called it "a radiant, uplifting story) and winning Williams a best director prize.

This weekend, The Orchard releases it in exclusive engagements in New York and Los Angeles. The Oscar-winning director talked to THR about his unconventional approach to shooting his subject (now 25 years old, fully verbal and living independently), what Owen thinks of the film and how his original presentation had Disney's top brass in tears.

You used lots of Disney clips in this film. How cooperative was the studio?

Disney was extremely helpful. Keri Putnam, the executive director of the Sundance Institute, put me in touch with Sean Bailey, who is the president of Disney production and a trustee at Sundance. Sean really helped usher this project through the world of Disney. Basically, he took this on and was really moved by the story and by the book. My producer, Julie Goldman, and I really kept a connection and let him know as we were moving forward what was going on with the film. At one point we went to Disney, and Sean had assembled various heads of departments — marketing, legal and animation — and I took them through the film. I showed them clips of Owen and Disney clips. I was really nervous going in, but by the end of that presentation, they were in tears. They were so moved that their work had changed a life. There was still a process, and they didn't have to license the footage to us. But they were just so moved by Owen's story, and I knew that I had them.

Disney was sued — but ultimately exonerated — for discriminating against autistic kids at its theme parks. Do you have any thoughts on that controversy?

I didn't even know about that until I recently read about it. All I know is that Disney totally changed Owen's life, and Disney was a pathway that the Suskinds used to connect with their son. That has inspired a lot of parents and given hope for people who have children with autism. And the fact that Disney didn't stand in our way — I wasn't necessarily a Disney fan or I didn't watch the movies before I did Life Animated, but I'm a big fan of Disney now.

Owen's story unfolds like a classic Disney film. Were you influenced cinematically by the films you sampled?

Yeah. Maybe it was subconsciously. In a sense, most Disney films are about the classic hero's journey, and Owen in his life has taken a classic hero's journey. Owen is now a hero to his community of people with autism. As we've screened the film across the country, many people with autism stand up and say "Owen, you're our hero. You're our spokesperson for our community." That's really touching. His journey of overcoming such incredible obstacles and triumphantly becoming a spokesperson for people with disabilities and an example of what they can achieve.

You tell the story from Owen's perspective as opposed to the parents. What was the mindset behind that?

It was always about Owen as the narrator. I used different devices to achieve it. I used an Interrotron, which is a camera invented by Errol Morris. Owen is looking at me on a television screen because he has spent his life looking at a television screen. If I was sitting across from him, he wouldn't necessarily be able to be as focused and look me in the eye. But by using an Interrotron, he was looking me right in the eye and therefore looking the audience in the eye. The family and everyone else I interviewed in traditional, documentary-style. The effect is that Owen becomes the central figure in the storytelling. And then I played Disney animated clips on the Interrotron and Owen interacts with those clips and mouths the words and is therefore interacting with the audience. The audience is, in a sense, inside the clip. So when you cut to Owen and you see him looking right at the audience doing the sword fight in Peter Pan or reacting to the Hunchback scene [in The Hunchback of Notre Dame], the audience is inside his head.

You won an Oscar for Music by Prudence, which also centers on people with disabilities. What's the common thread between that project and this one?

For me, it's telling stories about "the other," people outside of the mainstream, people who might feel like an outsider or sidekick. I think I connect to that struggle. Prudence was someone who was rejected by society and her culture and rose above it through her art, and Owen is someone who people might look past and not understand, and through this film they not only understand Owen but people with autism.

Have you been approached for narrative remake rights?

I just have the documentary rights. Ron retained the rights to make a narrative film.

What kind of feedback have you received from Owen?

The first time he saw the film was in our office with his father. I was really a nervous wreck as you can imagine because if he didn't like the film, we would have no film. It would be a huge problem. But after the film ended, Ron was crying and was a wreck, but Owen jumped up and hugged me and screamed, "I love it." Owen doesn't hug. He also can't tell a lie. Owen is so honest. He is who he is and lives in the moment. He was just blown away to see his story that he created come to life. Imagine, this is something that's lived in his head and now it's on this big screen in full animation.