From Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams, Life, Animated is the inspirational story of Owen Suskind, a young man who was unable to speak as a child until he and his family discovered a unique way to communicate by immersing themselves in the world of classic Disney animated films. This emotional coming-of-age story follows Owen as he graduates to adulthood and takes his first steps toward independence. The subject of his Pulitzer Prize-winning father Ron Suskind’s New York Times bestseller, Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, Owen was a thriving three-year-old who suddenly went silent — and for a long time remained unable to connect with other people or to convey his thoughts, feelings or desires. Over time, through repeated viewings of Disney classics like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, Owen found useful tools to help him to understand complex social cues and to reconnect with the world around him.
Life, Animated interweaves classic Disney sequences with scenes from Owen’s life (involving his parents, Ron and Cornelia, and brother Walter) to explore how his identification and empathy for characters like Simba, Jafar, and Ariel gave him a means to understand his feelings and allowed him to interpret reality. Beautiful, original animation sequences offer rich insights into Owen’s dialogue with the Disney oeuvre as he imagines himself heroically facing adversity as a member in a tribe of sidekicks. Owen’s story is a moving testament to the many ways in which stories can help us persevere through the dark times, leading us all toward the light. I sat down with Owen’s amazing parents, Ron and Cornelia Suskind, and spoke with the director of this incredibly moving film, Roger Ross Williams.
Danny Miller: Roger, were there any fears you had when you first decided to make this documentary?
Roger Ross Williams: Before I met Owen, I didn’t know anyone with autism. There was a learning process in which I had to get rid of all my own misconceptions. The whole point of the film was to get inside Owen’s head and see the world from his point of view. In the beginning, when you meet Owen, you see him pacing and talking to himself and you don’t know what to make of it, but by the end of the film I think you can see the world from his perspective.
I was so moved by the woman who stood up during the Q&A at the screening I was at who was there with her autistic son and said how grateful she was for the film. I imagine you hear from people like that at every screening you attend?
Cornelia Suskind: We do. When Ron’s book first came out and we were out in public speaking about it, there were so many mothers who would come up to me weeping — maybe their young children were just diagnosed with autism. What I said to them was the absolute truth: in a million years I would never have imagined that Owen would be where he is now. We received all sorts of grim pronouncements at the time of his diagnosis, and remember he didn’t speak at all for years. I just couldn’t have imagined that we’d ever be where we are now.
Which is why it’s so great that this film is out there to give hope to families who are going through this — and to inspire us all. And the whole Disney connection is remarkable and something many of us can relate to.
Ron Suskind: It was just amazing when we first saw Owen use those characters in such a profound way. He was literally expressing emotions that he couldn’t touch otherwise — big things like love and death and grief and family bonds. Owen has this amazing gift to find just the right crystallized moments from Disney films and voice them at the appropriate times.
In a perfect imitation of the character’s voices, I may add. And then when you and him engage in those Disney dialogues, it’s very moving. You kind of missed your calling as a voiceover artist! Did you always know you had that ability?
(Laughs.) I remember when my book, The One Percent Doctrine, came out and I was up at Dartmouth giving a speech. Someone asked me a question about George W. Bush, and I said, [switching to a perfect imitation of George W. Bush’s voice] “I understand your concern.” People started cracking up and I ended up doing about half an hour of Bush during my speech. But you know what? By talking in his voice, I felt that I understood him a little better. I think that’s true for Owen, too.
Roger Ross Williams: Those classic myths and fables that underlie those great Disney films serve as a kind of roadmap for life — the things that connect us and make us human. For Owen, these films have become like guides for his life, and because of them I think that he’s become an expert on what it means to be human. I learned so much from him during the two years that we worked on this film. I think everyone living with autism has some kind of affinity that we need to tap into.
You touch on some really heavy moments in the film. How is it for Owen to watch the movie? Has he seen the whole thing?
Cornelia Suskind: It’s difficult. I think I’ve seen it four times now and I don’t need to see it again. Owen first saw it in rough cut with Ron, to make sure that there wasn’t anything that made him too uncomfortable. For all the screenings he’s attended since, he just comes in for the Q&As afterward, he doesn’t watch the whole movie.
Roger Ross Williams: He was so amazing at the film’s premiere at Sundance and at all these festivals that he’s gone to. He’s like a rock star at those events. Owen loves to control the Q&As and call on people — he has no inhibitions or fears about that at all. We were recently showing the film at the Nantucket Film Festival and the composer Stephen Schwartz who did all the music for Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame surprised Owen on the stage after the screening. He brought Raul Esparza with him and Raul sang the big song from Hunchback and Owen just went crazy, it was so moving. But then, while Stephen was still playing his music, Owen stepped up to the microphone and said, “I’d like to do a number!” And he belted out this other song from Hunchback. It was an amazing, beautiful moment and of course the audience was in tears.
I must say that seeing Gilbert Gottfried and Jonathan Freeman, who were the voices of Iago and Jafar in Disney’s Aladdin, show up as a surprise to Owen’s Disney group at his school really moved me to tears.
Gilbert has been going around to a lot of festivals with us and Gilbert and Owen were on The View together the other day with Whoopi. I think all of the Disney voiceover actors are very moved by this story. They knew their work was part of the bigger cultural landscape but they didn’t know how it could really change a life.
Even the quotes Owen came out with from Disney films at a very young age showed a remarkable understanding of human feelings and emotions. Ron and Cornelia, has living with someone who lacks the social skills that we take for granted and who is literally incapable of lying affected your own interactions with people in the outside world?
Cornelia Suskind: Oh, that’s such a great question. Yes! Owen has taught us over and over again how to live in the moment and how to be truthful and honest. And more accurate! For example, we had a dog named Annie and when I used to get frustrated and say things like, “Ugh, I’m going to kill Annie, she ate another loaf of bread off the table!” Owen would freak out and say, “Mom, please don’t kill Annie!” Of course that made me stop and say, “No, Owen, of course I’m not going to kill the dog” but exchanges like that made me realize that we all use way too many of these hyperbolic comments.
Including all the negative things we say about ourselves.
Ron Suskind: Yeah, there are so many things we say without even thinking about it. As he’s gotten older, Owen has learned what a figure of speech is. Now when we say something like that, he’ll ask “Is that a figure of speech?”
Cornelia Suskind: It’s been a process. Owen has a pretty good sense of humor now but we literally had to teach him what a joke was.
Ron Suskind: The wonderful thing was that it forced us to look with real clarity at all the parts our lives that we take for granted, all the things that we did instinctively or thoughtlessly — we had to really look at everything we do because we had to explain them to Owen and help him with his playbook for life.
Part of me envies that lack of social filters but I’m sure there have been times where it has led to awkward encounters.
Cornelia Suskind: Totally. There was a lady in our Safeway who had a huge scar on her face and I’ll never forget Owen walking up to her in line and saying, “What’s wrong with your face?” And because he looks “normal,” you can’t see by looking at him what his issues are, some people are very shocked when stuff like that happens. But sometimes it can be very beautiful, too. We were recently at a dinner party with a friend of ours who is around 80 and had lost her husband. Owen had never met her before but we were sitting at a table with her and about 25 other people.
Ron Suskind: And because Owen as a spectrum person can see everything at once even while we’re just focusing on the person who is talking, he would notice this woman’s face even as our perspectives shifted elsewhere.
Cornelia Suskind: And all of a sudden, he looked over to her and said, “Are you very, very sad?”
Ron Suskind: And she just started to cry right there at the table. “Yes, I’m terribly sad.” That’s the kind of thing that happens.
Wow, it must be such a different experience going through life without those filters.
Ron Suskind: Owen lives way more in the present tense than most people do and he only knows how to tell the truth.
Roger Ross Williams: That’s why I always say that Owen was a documentarian’s dream subject. Not only does ne never tell a lie and completely express how he’s feeling at all times, he also completely ignores the camera. Our cinematographer, Tom Bergmann, became like a member of the family, he really bonded with Owen. And once that bond was made, Tom was just there. I remember when Owen spent his first night in his new apartment, Tom was there in the corner as Owen was pacing and when he got on the bed and watched Bambi and then fell asleep, Owen never paid any attention to him. Tom left and then came back early in the morning and was able to capture Owen opening his eyes for the first time in his new apartment. Even then, Owen never looked at the camera. Can you imagine what you would do if you woke up and someone was standing there with a camera in your face?
Of course one of the saddest parts of the film is when Emily breaks up with Owen. And yet he ultimately handles it with more maturity than anyone I know could have.
I know! They had such a perfect Disney-like romance. And when it happened Owen didn’t hesitate to express how devastated he was. He used to sit with me and say, “Roger, what’s going to happen to me? Am I going to be alone forever?”
Ron Suskind: He did handle it with great maturity. He thought about it a lot and said he wanted to remain friends with Emily and worked very hard to do so — they are good friends today. That showed extraordinary maturity. For so long people said that autistic children like Owen and Emily don’t understand emotions. Are you kidding me? They understand emotions with more acuity and depth than many people!
Seeing what Disney sidekicks Owen would evoke in certain situations made me think of things that my own kids have said that we as parents tend to dismiss as “Oh, they’re just talking, they’re just saying random stuff.” Now I think that people say things for a reason and we just have to listen a little more carefully.
That is a really great insight — I think people always do what they do for a reason. Owen chooses his sidekicks for a reason. I remember after Owen was being bullied at school and was really regressing, we went to therapy to talk about it. I talked ot his therapist alone at first — he was the first doctor who had jumped into our world of this pantheon that Owen had created and was very supportive. I suggested to the therapist that he might use the voice of Rafiki from The Lion King to ask Owen how to solve a problem like the one he was going through. So he stars the session as Rafiki using a line from the movie and without missing a beat Owen says, “Well, I’d prefer Merlin right now,” and he starts saying these amazing lines from The Sword and the Stone that totally fit the situation.
Wow. Which also speaks to the broader lesson that we all have the skills to comfort ourselves when we’re in pain if only we can access it.
Roger Ross Williams: Owen is incredibly wise. We’ve had all these amazing moments on the road. We were at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, in April and this girl his age stood up and said, “You’re my hero, Owen, you’ve given my community a voice. You represent people like me.” It was such an emotional moment, I couldn’t even speak.
Ooh, was she single?
(Laughs.) That’s so funny you say that — our executive producer ran up to her to talk to her about that. Owen announces at every screening that he’s looking for a girlfriend. He’s very specific — she must be in the Boston or New York area and really be into Disney movies!