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This Director Made an Ambitious Movie About Having Autism and Falling in Love

March 24, 2014
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This Director Made an Ambitious Movie About Having Autism and Falling in Love
Director William Sullivan and writer Jarret Kerr on their new film. YouTube
Our one-on-one conversation with William Sullivan on the making of his new feature film, 'Jane Wants a Boyfriend.'

Dating is no small challenge even in the best of circumstances—just look to the online dating industry alone, which raked in a whopping $2 billion in 2013. Now imagine if you’re somewhere on the autism spectrum. Even if you want to be romantically involved with someone, you might not like eye contact, small talk, or being touched — all typical signs of affection. It’s a sensitive issue, but the new film Jane Wants a Boyfriend, starring Louisa Krause and Eliza Dushku, is putting these difficulties front and center in an effort to raise awareness about autism.

A developmental disorder that affects social and communication skills, autism isn’t portrayed onscreen very frequently. As one of the fastest growing disabilities (about one in 88 children fall somewhere on the spectrum), it’s clear that a larger—and louder—conversation is needed.

The film, currently raising funds on Kickstarter, is the second feature-length movie by 26-year-old New Yorker William Sullivan. We recently spoke to the filmmaker about the difficulties of portraying autism on screen, why fans of the “Buffy” actress are in for a treat, and why we all might see a little of ourselves in Jane, as well.

Besides Rain Man, Nell, and Temple Grandin, there aren’t many mainstream films with autistic characters as the lead that come to mind. Why do you think that is?

As far as putting someone on screen from the autistic community, it’s a very sensitive endeavor. You want to create a character that feels right and feels authentic and doesn’t cross any lines. It’s a very risky move. However, this person we’ve created, Jane, is her own unique person. And there is an expression the autistic community has adopted that, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

So, I hope that people will be able to identify with her. It’s so prolific — the amount of diagnoses that are out there right now — and there are some positive representations out there. There’s a show on FX called The Bridge that came out recently [and] there are some smaller parts, but that’s why this film is being made. It does need to be out there. And people need to see a positive message like this.

Can you explain why a person on the autism spectrum would find it difficult to date?

I see a lot myself in Jane and we all have those moments where, for example, we’re not able to make eye contact, or don’t feel socially confident, or just feel plain “different.” Jane has some tough obstacles to overcome, but ultimately it’s her courage that people are going to relate to. You leave the movie thinking, “I get her. I’ve been her.”

MORE: This Special Comic Book Makes Autistic Kids Feel Like Superheroes

How do you show the dating difficulties that Jane has in your movie?

We highlight in this film that Jane’s older sister, Bianca (played by Dushku), tries to set her up with someone else on the spectrum. And I think that’s ultimately what’s most frustrating for Jane because she doesn’t want to date someone with autism, she wants to date someone from a 1940s Casablanca movie.

So the first date she gets set up on, she gets really frustrated and tells her sister, “You only set me up with the guy because you think that’s all I’m worthy of.” And ultimately she is capable of so much more than what people expect of her.

Is there anything that needs to change with society’s perception of autism? There’s this stigma that a person with autism has a savant-like memory like in Rain Man.

I think our film embraces some of those notions but also shakes them up too. You use those cliches to enter a story and once you’ve hooked the audience, you turn the cliches upside down.

Were you or Louisa (who plays Jane) cautious in any way that you portrayed a person with Aspergers?

We had an Aspergers consultant that we worked with, and he made us feel very good about trying things and seeing if they worked. Louisa Krause and I spent so much time in Jane’s head that we just followed our impulses based on the research we had done. I felt prepared with enough knowledge to tell this story.

How has your experience with crowd-funding on Kickstarter been like?

Extremely humbling and we’re deeply, deeply grateful. We’ve had a really good mix of friends, family, and strangers who have stepped up to help us — and the autistic community has been really great about helping spread the word. Also Eliza does have a significant fan base. I think people will be really excited to see her in a role like this. It’s unlike anything she’s ever done. Usually she wears leather pants and holds weapons — but in Jane, she’s very beautifully stripped down and vulnerable. I think fans will be really excited to see her do something that is so different but at the same time it’s so her.

 ALSO: When This Dad Looked at His Autistic Son, He Saw a Business Opportunity Not a Handicap

What message are you trying to send with your film?

It’s about courage. Ultimately, I think by putting Jane’s story on screen we’re trying to raise an awareness that people on the autism spectrum have wants, desires, hopes and dreams just like anyone else’s.

We’re presenting a sense of hope that no one should be ashamed to stand up for the desire to be treated like an equal. It’s taken Jane a huge amount of bravery to even voice that she wants a boyfriend and it takes courage to take action on that. I hope that everyone walks out of this saying, “I’m a person, I deserve love like everyone else.”

 

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