Even before the camera is taken out of its case, there is much to think about when making an indie film. Who will we cast? What’s the end goal for our film’s central message? How will we frame the interviews? What questions will Taylor ask in the interviews? My head was abuzz with a long check list of things to do, including supporting Taylor to make our film happen. As I drove to meet Taylor to talk about our sequel film, Normal People Scare Me Too, my thoughts drifted back to a cool blue winter day in 2004.
“Mom, this year I want to pay for the gifts myself. How can I earn some money?”
A few weeks shy of his 15th birthday, Taylor and I were preparing for our annual holiday giving. I had involved Taylor in community service when he was 8 as a way to grow his social and life skills. I reasoned—a still a solid idea today—that community service would help him look outside of himself and relate better to the world around him. Each year, Taylor took on more responsibility toward the goals of his various community service efforts. But this? A desire to earn money to pay for gift giving? This was more than I had hoped for.
“Well … you can clean the swimming pool.”
“Urgh … ahhhhh … ummmm … I don’t think sooooooooo.” Taylor stretched his words and sighed loudly to emphasize his utter disgust for such an uninspired idea. I couldn’t help but turn away, smile, and do a little happy dance in my head. I was amused; thrilled by Taylor’s ability to act like a typical teenager.
“I want to make videos and sell them,” he announced firmly.
Back then, few people—let alone kids—made independent films with the touch of a finger using progressive technology as they do today. YouTube didn’t even exist. Without much thought, my mom-induced diatribe began. “You can’t make a film, Taylor. You’re a teenager. You’ve never been to film school. People in Hollywood spend millions to make a film.” On and on I went, each word further crushing Taylor’s spirit. And then, suddenly Taylor’s younger years flashed before me. Told he might never walk or talk, I mused at how we sure showed them. Taking a deep breath I continued … “Taylor, everything I just said is a lie. It’s not true. You can make a film. I don’t know how to do it, but we’ll figure it out together. What do you want to make a film about?”
“I dunno …”
“Well, I think we should start with something we know. How about autism?”
That night Taylor announced “I want to call it Normal People Scare Me.”
Energy Begets Energy
I believe that when we put out energy in the world, good or bad, we often find exactly what we are looking for. And so it went that a week later we met with Joey Travolta to pitch Taylor’s film. On the spot, he offered to mentor Taylor to make a 10-minute short film for a student film festival he was sponsoring. Joey also invited the kids I worked with in my social skills groups to visit his practical film making school. He had been a special education teacher for a couple of years in the 70s, so autism and our quirky kids were welcomed with open arms.
Taylor’s 10 minute film went on to win awards, including best in show at the film festival, garnering international attention. A teen with autism making a film about autism was big news back then. Soon, people from all over the world responded; wanting to buy his film. “I told you so, mom. I told you I could sell my films.”
The 90-minute feature documentary that followed took us over a year to complete. In the film, Taylor interviewed 65 people affected by autism. After debuting in 2006, Taylor and I began to travel throughout the world to share his film and experiences in autism—and while we were busy traveling, Joey Travolta was also busy. He started Inclusion Films and began teaching practical film school to people with special needs.
10 Years After …
“I need to go for a walk, mom. You know, you know, I’m kinda nervous. This is an important day.”
While Taylor paced about, steadying his nerves for the string of interviews to come, the crew was setting up the room. Jonathan, William, Austin and (a different) Joey, worked seamlessly to create a hot set in a borrowed conference room. “Can we get a sound check here?” “Let’s add some lighting over there.” It was a marvel to watch. While so many with autism are desperate to find jobs, Joey’s 4 former Inclusion Film’s students have been given the opportunity to live their dreams in film making in the now.
“After spending the last ten years running film making camps for children with autism, and vocational film making for adults, it’s a natural progression to produce this sequel to Normal People Scare Me through the workshop. I am so proud to see our former students working as a crew and applying what they have learned in a practical professional situation.” It’s fair to say that Taylor’s idea to make a film way back when created a ripple effect.
Imagine if you will, the impact (ten years from now), of having an all autistic film crew supporting an autistic young man, to make a sequel film about autism. What ripple effect might that make?
The first day of filming went off beautifully. Interviewing a group of remarkable individuals was especially impacting upon Taylor. “Mom, I want to get back up on that horse.” I thought I knew what Taylor wanted to say—a mother learns to read her son’s mind after 26 years, you know. “Well, Taylor, can you use your words to tell me what you mean?” Sometimes it’s hard for Taylor to find just the right things to say what he’s thinking. “I think you know what I mean, can you say it for me?”
“I think some of the interviews today; your friends … I think they inspired you. I think you’re saying you want more for yourself now because of seeing what Vince is doing, or what Dani has achieved.” Vince, who was in the original film, had been Taylor’s best friend in childhood. He was beginning to take classes to learn to be a wrestler—his dream for as long as I can remember. Dani is the creator and owner of Powerlight Animation Studio. She has done incredible things in her young life with her art and animation—even teaching animation to young kids with autism.
While Taylor has also done some amazing things, including traveling extensively, graduating a transitions to independent living (TIL) program to now live in his own apartment with limited supports, the past two years have been, as he puts it, “uninspired.” He neither has a job, nor is in college. Feeling a like he’s been in a rut, those first interviews with his old friends made him want to change that. Making his sequel film has helped him to see he wants more for himself. “Yeah, Mom. That’s it. They really inspired me to get back up on the horse.”
Due to be completed in early 2016, over a dozen people, now adults, return in Normal People Scare Me Too and reflect on what they’ve been up to during the past decade. Sharing the impact autism has made in their lives, they also share what’s still hard for them, how they’ve overcome certain obstacles, and what accomplishments they’ve made. They also share with Taylor how appearing in the original film impacted their lives.
Keri Bowers is the co-founder of The Art of Autism (www.the-art-of-autism.com) and owner of Normal Films (www.normalfilms.com). Her films, Normal People Scare Me, The Sandwich Kid, and ARTS, embody possibilities, disabilities, and the arts. Kerri is a consultant on the “art” of transitions and skills development. Production on Normal People Scare Me Too is currently underway, and due for release in early 2016.