Roger Ross Williams hit a pretty sizable wall while filming his Oscar-nominated documentary Life, Animated: He couldn’t properly interview his main character, Owen Suskind.
Suskind is autistic, which made traditional interviewing a little challenging.
“I would try to just talk to him in typical documentary style, asking questions off-camera and on the side,” Williams says. “He would just walk away and wouldn’t connect on that level.”
Williams’s “Eureka moment” hit when he tried a device invented by another Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker. Errol Morris’s “Interrotron” (a portmanteau of “terror” and “interview”) is essentially a live video teleprompter where the interviewee can look directly into the projected face of the interviewer, lessening any awkwardness or intimidation the subject may feel. It made sense that Suskind would be more comfortable talking with Williams through the Interrotron because Suskind spent the better part of his childhood and teenage years staring at a screen.
Suskind’s father, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, published his memoir Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism in 2014, which chronicles Owen’s diagnosis of autism and the breakthrough Ron and his wife Cornelia had when they discovered they could communicate with their son through the Disney animated films he was obsessed with. Williams’s documentary picks up where the memoir left off, following Owen as he graduates from school and begins living life on his own.
Williams was so hellbent on having Suskind face the camera directly because he wanted to fully immerse audiences in Suskind’s world.
“It was a process to find a way to connect and communicate with Owen. I didn’t know anyone with autism, so for me it was also a learning process,” Williams says. “It was important that Owen told the story from his point of view because so many films about people with disabilities are always from the outside looking in.”
Having that perspective only fortifies the overarching theme of Life, Animated: Suskind, the side-kick, developing into the hero of his own story.
There are several animated sequences woven throughout the film, the principle being an adaptation of a story Suskind wrote when he was little. Land of the Lost Side Kicks features a three-year-old boy who befriends a group of very familiar sidekicks (Baloo from The Jungle Book, Iago from Aladdin, Timon from The Lion King, etc.) and overcomes the evil forces, i.e. bullies, who are trying to keep them down. It’s a simple story but impactful and universal, nonetheless.
“What drew me to the material and to Owen’s story is that I’m also like a sidekick,” Williams says. “There’s this kid who felt left behind, who felt like people looked past him–and there’s me, this black, gay man who also felt left behind and that people looked past me and we’ve come together to tell the story of the underdog, the sidekick. [Life, Animated] is the story of Owen the sidekick emerging as a hero, sort of master of his own destiny.”