Oscars: 'Life, Animated' Director on Depicting Challenges of Autism in a Coming-of-Age Story

Coming of Age with Autism -Split-H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance; Off the Rails, LLC.

Roger Ross Williams, alongside 'Off the Rails' helmer Adam Irving, discuss how they found fresh ways to "champion" the outsiders who live with the disorder.

Just as with books and their covers, you can't always judge a documentary by its subject. Exhibits A and B are a pair of films — Life, Animated and Off the Rails — that at first appear to be about autism. A closer inspection, however, reveals something much more complex at work.

Life is the story of Owen Suskind, who connects with the world through Disney movies. Off the Rails follows a man with Asperger's, a syndrome that might be the reason he has been jailed 19 times for hijacking New York City buses and trains.

"I came to see this as a coming-of-age story, not an autism story," says Life director Roger Ross Williams. "It's about a young man facing universal themes in life, like graduation and love and independence. It's just that the stakes are greater because of his autism. We have always looked past people like Owen. After having made this movie, though, I felt just like I hope the audience does. I learned how to not just look at anyone with autism but to look up to them."

Williams became interested in this story when friend Ron Suskind wrote a book about his son's progress in coping with autism. The director followed Owen through "the most transformative year of his life," weaving in Disney clips and original animation based on Owen's drawings to, as he says, "champion an outsider. I admit I was uncomfortable with the illness at the beginning. But my goal was to bring myself and audiences inside Owen's world and his reality."

Rails director Adam Irving went through a similar awakening as he researched and filmed Darius McCollum, who loves trains and buses so intensely that he feels compelled to steal them. At first, Irving envisioned the film as a story along the lines of Catch Me If You Can, about someone with the chutzpah to not care about getting caught.

"It starts off as a character story, but it ends up being a critique of our criminal justice system," says Irving. "I'd heard for years about how the system doesn't rehabilitate. It just punishes. But I'd never known an inmate before. I didn't even know how to call Darius in jail. That's what changed me. Sometimes inmates may not be innocent, but they're not all evil people, either. So I edited the movie to have that emotional response, where you shake your head at what you're seeing — and then your fist."

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.