“Life, Animated,” the new documentary from Roger Ross Williams, is one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen. It chronicles the journey of Owen Suskind, an autistic boy who learns how to connect with others through watching Disney films. Now a young man on the cusp of independence, Owen must learn how to engage with the world existing outside of his thriving fantasy life. Based on the book by Owen’s father, Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Suskind, this film is one of the most profound explorations of how visual storytelling can alter our perception of existence and ourselves. Williams is the first African-American director to win an Academy Award (for 2010’s documentary short, “Music by Prudence”), and this film could easily earn him another nomination.
During opening night of the film’s run at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, Williams and Emmy-winning producer Julie Goldman (“3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets,” “Weiner”) spoke with RogerEbert.com about envisioning Owen’s animated world, garnering Disney’s seal of approval and working in the realm of virtual reality.
What impact did film have on you in understanding the world at a young age?
Julie Goldman (JG): My mother was a huge filmgoer, and so I grew up going to films from a very young age. Phillip Lopate taught a college film class to fourth and fifth graders as an experiment and I happened to be in that class. We watched films like “Battleship Potemkin,” “Citizen Kane” and “The Bicycle Thief” and a lot of people in that class went on to work in the arts. They are filmmakers or producers or arts educators. It just changed how we saw everything, and a lot of us wanted to stay in that world on the screen.
Roger Ross Williams (RW): I never knew that! I had the opposite experience. I didn’t have a lot of exposure to films as a kid, and I never went to the cinema. I had a single mom who just planted me in front of the television. But while growing up, I lived in my own fantasy world. I had kind of a rough childhood, so I created my own reality. That is what I was more drawn to—creating stories while changing and altering reality.
How did this project grow out of your friendship with Ron and Owen?
RW: I didn’t know Owen very well, and in the beginning, I was uncomfortable. But as I started to understand him, I realized that he was much freer than many of us are. He doesn’t have social barriers, he just is who he is, and he created such a rich world for himself. The film reflects my experience of getting to know Owen. When you see him in the beginning, you are uncomfortable because he is walking around talking to himself. You don’t know what’s going on, but by the end of the film, you know exactly what’s going on. The whole idea was to tell the story from Owen’s point of view and to transport the viewer into his reality. I got transported into that reality and was totally enriched because of it.
What was the process like of envisioning Owen’s dream world onscreen?
JG: The last chapter of Ron’s book, “Life, Animated,” is Owen’s story that he wrote. We knew that we wanted to take that story and distill it into something that wouldn’t be very long, and that would be continuously referenced throughout the film.
RW: I looked at lots of different types of animation. Since this is Owen’s world, I didn’t want the imagery to be Disney-like. We wanted it to have a different feel. Mac Guff is a company in Paris, and the French have been doing great work in 2-D animation. I went to Paris and met the guy who runs the company, Philippe Sonrier. He’s this character who has lived for 15 years on a boat on the Seine, and has sold his company to Universal—they made “Despicable Me.” But he kept a small group of animators in this little office next to the Eiffel Tower. When I pitched him the idea, he just fell in love with the story and he said that when people finish watching this film, they will “pray to be autistic.” That’s when I was like, “He really gets it.”
JG: He brought in these two young, creative guys [Mathieu Betard and Olivier Lescot] who he had been circling for some time. They signed on and were completely all over it. The use of pencil drawings and minimal use of color all came from discussions with them.
Was the decision to parallel Owen’s ascension to adulthood with the classic Disney hero narrative something that came out of your collaboration with editor David Teague?
RW: I think that was something we had planned pretty early on. As I was talking to Ron, he told me that Owen was about to go through a transformative year. He was like, “Owen is graduating,” and I’m like, “What? That’s great!” He said, “Yeah, he’s moving into his own place, and his girlfriend, Emily, will be living upstairs.” From the beginning, David was always like, “We’ve got to follow Owen vérité-style, and then flash back to moments in the book that show how he got where he is today.”
JG: David edited for a year, but early in the process, we had a lot of creative conversations. He’s very smart, and we just thought that it would be great to have that collaboration start early enough in order for it to have an impact on the shooting as well.
RW: The relationship between a director and an editor in documentaries is so important. We were screening at Full Frame and David’s parents were there. When I told them about how amazing it was to collaborate with their son, I started crying and found that I couldn’t speak. He is my creative soul mate.
How did you go about choosing the right Disney clips to include in the film?
JG: That took a long time. There were certain films that we knew we were going to use, particularly “Peter Pan,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Aladdin.” But “Bambi” came out organically from the scene when Owen watches it one night. Certain films provided recurring themes in the film, such as “The Lion King,” which we included because Owen was showing it at the Disney club [he held for his peers in school].
RW: Our young production assistants were our in-house Disney experts because they had grown up with films like “The Little Mermaid.” Ayesha Nadarajah was one of our biggest experts.
JG: We were like, “We need something really sad where somebody cries.”
RW: And she would give us a whole list of scenes to choose from. After making this film, I see Disney in a whole new light. I didn’t grow up watching their films, except for maybe “The Jungle Book.” But I really identify with “Peter Pan” in that I’m kind of like a kid who doesn’t really grow up.
JG: You are like that [laughs]. I have nephews who are insane Disney fans, so I saw all those films just by being around them a lot. I personally love “Lady and the Tramp.” I just loved the character of the Tramp, and I thought that the romance was really sweet. But Disney was very good to work with.
JG: We went into the presentation with a bunch of the executives, and they were really moved. Initially they were concerned that the film would portray their characters and their brand in a negative light, but when they saw the cut of the movie, they realized that it was about Owen’s perception of the films. They were totally okay with it and gave us permission to use the footage. That was it.
I’d love to ask about Roger’s interactive project, “Traveling While Black,” which is said to feature a virtual reality component.
RW: I wanted people to have empathy with the African-American experience in America and how we are restricted in our travel. I thought that the best way to do that is through virtual reality, and to create these situations that aren’t just set during the present day. We’re basing it on The [Negro Motorist] Green Book, which was a guidebook in the ’50s and ’60s that African-Americans utilized when traveling in America. Up until the passing of the Civil Rights Act, you couldn’t travel freely in America. You couldn’t stay at hotels, you couldn’t get gas at the gas station or eat at restaurants, so there were a bunch of safe houses that served your needs. A postal worker [Victor H. Green] living in Harlem got all these African-American postal workers to contribute to this guidebook.
History has changed but our travel is still restricted in many ways today. This project is about how the past informs the present and how the ghosts of the past—and stories I would hear from my parents—inform the way I feel today while traveling even where I live in upstate New York, where I’m constantly being pulled over by the cops. We are creating a world with Oscar Raby, who is a well-known virtual reality artist in Melbourne, and there’s a lot of components to it, including a traveling exhibit. We’re collecting and curating stories, and I believe we’ll be launching it at the New York Film Festival’s Convergence program.
I believe “Life, Animated” could serve as a great empathizing force for audiences as well.
RW: To me, it’s not a film about autism. It’s a coming-of-age story about the power of story. People see autism in reviews and they’re like, “Oh, I might not want to see this,” but the film is about so much more than that.
JG: It’s about a universal experience. A lot of people with autism who have seen the film have said, “Wow, I never felt like I was fully portrayed on film until now.” That’s really exciting for us.
RW: I did an interview with an autistic woman and it was one of my favorite interviews ever. She was like, “No one has ever voiced who I am in a film before. You totally got it.” It was just important for all of us that Owen owned this story.
JG: You know what’s really interesting? After Owen’s peers graduated, they all went to their hometowns and are starting their own Disney clubs.