2015 Tribeca Film Festival Filmmaker Interview – (Matt Fuller, ‘Autism in Love’)

Autism in Love is a feature length documentary that explores the lives of four adults with an autism spectrum disorder as they pursue and manage romantic relationships.

Lenny is young man living in Los Angeles who has been struggling to accept autism and himself.  This label has been the biggest hurdle in his life and has made meeting and dating girls seemingly impossible. The expression of his sexuality and longing for intimacy continue to consume him as he searches for himself.

Dave and Lindsey have been together for eight years. Like most committed couples, they’ve been in different places at different times during the course of their relationship. Now, they have finally reached the point where they need to align themselves as individuals so they can unite as a strong couple ready to enter marriage successfully.

In the twilight of their 20-year marriage, Stephen and Gita are faced with the ultimate test of terminal illness. Despite his limited speech and her physical deterioration, their intimacy thrives as Stephen supports Gita and her battle with ovarian cancer.

After celebrating its 2015 Tribeca Film Festival run, we spoke with Autism in Love‘s Director Matt Fuller on his decision in choosing documentary subjects, the mainstream media depictions of Autism, Tribeca, and much more.

Find more information on ‘Autism in Love’ at the 2015 Tribeca Film FestivalHERE

How did you pick your subjects?
It was important to find subjects who were at different places on the spectrum, so we could accurately represent it. The autism spectrum is far and wide, and people are affected by it in very different ways. And we also wanted to represent the spectrum of love—people who are looking for love, people who are in it, and people who are in the twilight of it. So we cast a wide net to meet people in the autistic community, and then we just had conversations with a lot of people. Everyone who made it in front of the camera just jumped out at us as being articulate or in a very interesting and unique place in their life.

And why did you settle on Lindsey, David, Stephen and Lenny in particular?
We actually filmed nine subjects, and four made it into the movie. Vérité

[documentary] filmmaking is so speculative. We knew that all the people in front of our lenses could articulate feelings and thoughts and give us context, but we didn’t know what was going to transpire in their lives. When we got into the cutting room, we saw that the specific stories that wound up in the film were the ones that served our agenda: They represented people approaching love in different ways—and from different places on the spectrum—as comprehensively as one documentary can.

The editorial process is always crucial, but it sounds like it was especially so here.
It was. I was fortunate enough to work with a really talented editor, Alex O’Flinn. We had over 300 hours of footage, and from that we delivered what you see in the documentary. And there’s a tragedy in that process, because you fall in love with everyone you film. They’ve all got meaningful, complex, and important stories. And they took the time to let us in and share those things with us. It felt a little painful not to include them in the final film, and to break the news to them.

But you have to follow your art.
Yeah, exactly. I think the solace I find in those decisions is that the kind of meta-conversation that this movie is having is best served by the decisions we made. I think that’s why everyone signed on to make it: To deliver a positive and honest comment on this topic.

In recent years, the media has covered the subject of autism exhaustively—and yet your film feels fresh. In what ways were you trying to cover new ground?
First of all, I haven’t heard many conversations about the adult life of people with autism. So that in and of itself felt like fresh ground. Most of the time those conversations are about kids, from a parent’s perspective. It was also really important that we created an environment where our subjects were the ones telling their own stories. I felt like that was something I hadn’t seen before either. I didn’t want the experience of watching this film to feel like you were taking your medicine and learning about autism. I wanted it to feel like you were learning about these people, who were going through important, meaningful, and relatable situations. I wanted you to care about them.

Your questions to Stephen are audible. And at one point, when Lenny is discussing some particularly painful emotions, he notices you crying off-camera; he forcefully tells you to let him cry, rather than crying yourself. Why did you decide to make your presence known to the audience at certain points in the film?
In some instances it was just a practical decision, particularly with Stephen. His answers, in and of themselves, don’t make much sense without the context of the question. But with Lenny, I think that moment is served by a filmmaker’s presence. I think [Lenny acknowledging me] gave the audience permission to be there. It’s such an intense moment, and I didn’t want it to appear voyeuristic. Acknowledging that I’m there and that Lenny knows it—that he’s protecting me from the tragic, horrific things he’s going through—creates a bit of a permission slip for the audience to experience those things along with him, without it feeling voyeuristic or exploitive.

Each storyline in the film plays out as a complete arc. Did it just work out that way
I didn’t control the events that transpired. For instance, I didn’t know Lindsey and Dave were going to get engaged. And when I was introduced to Stephen and his wife, Geeta, I knew that she was battling cancer, and of course, that can go one of two ways, but I felt their story was fascinating in any event. A lot happens in the editorial process. Nothing is misrepresented, but you choose what you don’t show. You highlight events in a way that makes them more viscerally climactic than they are in real life. So it’s a combination of factors: editing, choosing what to shoot, and luck.

The film runs the gamut of emotional experience. Stephen’s wife died over the course of filming, and Lenny ends the film feeling alone and a bit hopeless. Meanwhile, Lindsey and David get engaged and have a happy ending. Was it important for you to capture a mixture of tones and feelings—both highs and lows?
Absolutely. For me, a good movie makes you laugh, makes you cry, and makes you feel like you got to know characters and went on a journey. I didn’t want to make a flowery, dishonest movie that’s about empowerment and nothing else. It just felt critical to be honest, and let the darker side of this kind of experience be available to the audience.

You actually caught David’s proposal to Lindsey on camera. It’s an incredibly moving scene. Did you know ahead of time that he was going to do that?
Oh yeah. As I spent months with Lindsey and Dave, it became clear to me that that the possibility of engagement was on the table. So when Dave privately shared his plans with me, I told him I’d love to be there to shoot it. I said, “I think it’s such an important part of your story, but also, wouldn’t it be great for you to have a copy of your proposal?”

Have your subjects seen the movie?
Lindsey and Dave have seen it—they were at the premiere [on the 16th]. They loved it and they’re very happy to be a part of it. Stephen has not seen the film—he was going to come out to the premiere, but traveling became too much of an obstacle. And Lenny hasn’t seen the movie yet either. That’s because he’s kind of continued some of the patterns you see in the film. His mom and I decided that reliving that difficult year in his life wasn’t going to be conducive to his growth. I want him to see the movie, but only when the time is right in his life.

Good for you for having foresight and empathy.
Thank you. Lenny’s a friend now, so I want to do everything I can to take care of him.

How do you hope the adult autistic community will react to the film, and what impact do you hope to make with it?
I hope that they’re both inspired and feel like they’ve been accurately represented. And I hope that the film opens up a conversation about adults with autism, and about how they can have meaningful and fulfilling lives in spite of their disability.

– Interview Conducted, Edited, and Transcribed (on-site) by David Teich

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