Life, Animated’s Owen Suskind and Roger Ross Williams on Autism, Disney, and Celebrating Your Passions

Photo: A&E Indie Films

Tucked quietly alongside the headline-making Sundance premieres of Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation and Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea was a decidedly less flashy, but no less important film: Life, Animated, what might be one of the most affecting documentaries to ever premiere at the festival.

Life, Animated is the story of Owen Suskind, the son of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ron Suskind and his wife, Cornelia. Owen is a boy with autism who memorized dozens of Disney animated movies, which helped him learn how to communicate after years of silence. Directed by Academy Award–winner Roger Ross Williams and produced by Julie Goldman, the documentary explores Owen's love affair with movies like Aladdin, Peter Pan, Bambi, Beauty and the Beast, and more, and how these films became to a key to freeing him from the isolation of his own mind.

Vulture sat down with Owen (now 23, living on his own and working at a movie theater in Cape Cod, MA), Ron, and Roger Ross Williams in Park City to chat about the film’s powerful reception at the festival, the hope families can glean from Owen’s difficult rights of passages (such as the stress of moving away from home and a heartbreaking split with a girlfriend), and why parents of autistic children should celebrate their kids’ passions, in whatever form they take.

Owen, have you enjoyed being at Sundance?
Owen: I have!

How does it feel knowing the movie has been so embraced?
Owen: It feels great!

Did you learn anything watching the movie that you didn’t know before?
Owen: [Looks at Ron] Did I?

Ron: You have Dad in the room, but you’ll have to answer the questions for yourself.

Owen: I learned that the film is about my coming-of-age.

Roger, you had a rapturous reception at the premiere. What did that feel like?
Roger: It was like a 10-minute standing ovation. People were crying. It was unreal.

Why do you think the film resonates so much?
Roger: It’s a classic coming of age story. And everyone experiences a first love.

Owen: Actually, Emily was my second love. Ellie was my first love.

Ron: But Emily was your biggest relationship so far. How long was it?

Owen:  Two and a half years. My first love was two years.

Roger: Everyone has relationships. Breakups are hard. Everyone graduates from school. There are so many films about people with challenges and disabilities that are about the outside looking in. The goal here was to get inside Owen’s mind and be on the inside looking out. Really get in his head, which we do with the soundtrack, the animation. Animation is Owen’s story. So playing all those clips of the Disney films; you’re experiencing them with Owen.

Owen: One thing — I hope I find a third love who has a happy loving family like I do.

Have Disney animators seen the film? Or people like Alan Menken, who composed the music for The Little Mermaid? So many people’s work are referenced in the documentary.
Owen: Thanks Alan!

Roger: Yes. Owen is friends with Alan now, and also with all the animators. We actually went to Disney Animation Studios. It didn’t make it into the film, but we filmed Owen drawing with the all the animators. Owen, who were you drawing with?

Owen: Eric Goldberg, Ron Clements, Chad Stewart, and John Musker. Eric animated the genie in Aladdin, Hercules, the carnival-animal segment in Fantasia 2000, The Princess and the Frog, and a Winnie the Pooh animated film from 2011.

Ron: And he’s kind of a specialist in what?

Owen: The sidekicks!

Ron: Okay, we need to do one of your favorite lines now.

Owen: Treasure Planet!

Ron: Tell Stacey one of your favorites riffs from the movie. Set up the scene.

Owen: Okay, it’s the "makings of greatness" speech. [In a pirate voice.] “You’ve got the makings of greatness, Jimbo. Just chart your own course and stick to it! No matter the squalls. When the time comes, you’ve got the light in your sails and show what you’re made of.”

In revisiting the poignancy of these movies as an adult, one realizes the emotional resonance of these stories. They are full of sage life advice, no matter who you are.
Ron: I once asked Owen, "You’ve been watching Beauty and the Beast since you were a little peanut. Help me understand. What do you see now when you watch it?" And Owen, remember what you said? "The movie doesn’t change" and that’s what you love about it. "The movie doesn’t change, but ..."

Owen: I change.

Ron: Right. What Owen does is mark his own progress and change in his life by watching the movies, so Beauty and the Beast looks different to him upon every viewing. Owen, what is Beauty and the Beast about?

Owen: Finding the beauty within yourself and you can see the beauty within others. [Pauses.] I hope I’ll be done with showbiz sometime soon. I’m tired of interviews.

Ron: I’ve spent my life as an investigative reporter, trying to get people to tell the truth. And Owen can only tell the truth! Like Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar. It’s amazingly refreshing isn’t it?

Owen, do you want to be an animator like the people you met in Burbank?
Owen: Yeah! I want to be an animation artist at the Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Roger: Owen, what did it feel like to be there with those guys?

Owen: It was wonderful!

You probably know more about their movies than they do.
Ron: That’s exactly what they said! "Owen understands our movies better than we do, and we made them."

Roger: The great thing was, at the premiere here at Sundance, Owen was on stage with Gilbert Gottfried [who did the voice of the parrot in Aladdin] and Jonathan Freeman [who did the voice of Jafar in Aladdin]. They’re doing bits from the movie and Owen was feeding them their lines. That was so touching.

Owen, when you were making the movie, was it weird to have cameras on you all the time?
Owen: Yep.

Roger: Owen grew up with a steady diet of media. He understands the camera. It was so natural. He ignored it and forgot we were there, he just made us part of his family and his world. And Tom Bergman the D.P. was there when Owen fell asleep. He was there when Owen woke up. Tom became a good friend.

Ron: What was he to you Owen?

Owen: A sidekick!

Ron: And sidekicks are important why?

Owen: They help the hero reach his destiny.

Is your dad your sidekick?
Owen: Yep!

Owen, you seemed like a natural teacher in those scenes in the film where you’re leading the Disney club that you started at your school.
Roger: Why did you start the Disney club?

Owen: To get friends and have people know me.

Roger: What did you talk about in Disney club?

Owen: What the movies mean to us.

Ron: What they do is turn their passion into [a way of communicating]. And now neuroscientists are getting involved. These passions become a kind of code breaker to help them crack the codes of the world around them. All of a sudden we are looking at them not through a blind spot but wait — this is a way in! So we ask parents all the time: What is your child’s passion? And they come up with all sorts of things: dinosaurs, maps, Harry Potter, Thomas the Tank Engine, Star Wars. We’ve surveyed thousands of people with these challenges and most have some video-related affinity. The passion is almost always one of a video nature. They can stop and rewind the images, slow it down and use them like the Dead Sea Scrolls to figure out social interactions; to hold a mirror up to the themselves.

Are animated images specifically more powerful or effective?
Ron: There’s no doubt that animation, especially hand-drawn animation, holds a special place. The characters can be so vivid, easily represent emotions. Owen is a definitely more of a hand-drawn animation guy. Right?

Owen: Yeah.

Ron: But now that he is working through moving on after his breakup, he’s watching more live-action movies. Owen, do your Dark Knight thing. Remember, that movie is about Bruce Wayne moving on after a relationship has ended.

Owen: [In a Michael Caine voice] “Remember when you left Gotham? Before all this, before Batman? You were gone seven years. Seven years I waited, hoping that you wouldn't come back. Every year, I took a holiday. I went to Florence, there's this cafe, on the banks of the Arno. Every fine evening, I'd sit there and order a Fernet-Branca. I had this fantasy, that I would look across the tables and I'd see you there, with a wife and maybe a couple of kids. You wouldn't say anything to me, nor me to you. But we'd both know that you'd made it, that you were happy. I never wanted you to come back to Gotham. I always knew there was nothing here for you, except pain and tragedy. And I wanted something more for you than that. I still do.”

Owen, what do you hope people learn from the documentary?
Owen: I hope they will have a good life, too.

Ron: Owen is an extreme version of the rest of us; he shows us things that we miss or we thought were invisible. How powerful stories are. And how we should say how we feel.

Owen, how do you feel now that this interview is over?
Owen: So happy.