Life, Animated: A Remarkable Story of How a Family Reached Their Autistic Son Through Disney Movies
Today we spend the hour with a young man with autism who learned to interact with the world in an unusual way. Owen Suskind was diagnosed with regressive autism when he was three years old. He stopped talking, and his family said Owen "vanished" within himself. He did not speak for years. Then his father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, discovered a remarkable way to talk with his son involving characters from Owen’s favorite Disney films. Owen had memorized the lines to dozens of Disney films, and this discovery changed all of their lives, opening a new way for Owen to communicate. His story became the focus of Ron Suskind’s best-selling book, "Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism." Owen has since gone to college and now holds two jobs. Last year Owen, who is now in his twenties, even appeared on a Comedy Central special alongside the comedian Gilbert Gottfried who did the original voice of Iago the parrot in the Disney film "Aladdin." Now the story of Owen’s life has been turned into the documentary "Life, Animated," which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. In an extended interview, we feature excerpts from the film and speak with Owen Suskind, his father Ron and Roger Ross Williams, the film’s director, in Park City, Utah.
Below is an interview with the Suskinds and Williams, followed by a transcript:
GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival here in Park City, Utah. Today we spend the hour with a young man with autism who learned to interact with the world in an unusual way. His name is Owen Suskind. He was diagnosed with regressive autism at the age of three. He stopped talking. His father said Owen "vanished" within himself. He did not speak for years.
And then his dad, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, discovered a remarkable way to talk with his son involving characters from Owen’s favorite Disney films. Owen had memorized the lines of dozens of Disney films. This discovery changed all of their lives, opening a new way for Owen to communicate.
His story became the focus of Ron Suskind’s best-selling book, Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism. Owen has since gone to college and now holds two jobs. Last year, Owen, who is now in his twenties, even appeared on a Comedy Central special alongside the comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who did the original voice of Iago the parrot in the Disney film Aladdin.
GILBERTGOTTFRIED: Well, hello, Owen.
OWENSUSKIND: Hello, Gilbert.
GILBERTGOTTFRIED: Owen, you like doing scenes from Aladdin, right?
OWENSUSKIND: Uh-huh, I do.
GILBERTGOTTFRIED: You want to do one with me right now?
OWENSUSKIND: Yes, I would.
GILBERTGOTTFRIED: Which scene?
OWENSUSKIND: How about the lamp scene?
GILBERTGOTTFRIED: OK, let me see if I remember any of this. "I can’t believe it! I just don’t believe it! We’re never going to get a hold of that stupid plan! Just forget it! Look at this! I’m so ticked off, I’m molting!"
OWENSUSKIND: "Patience, Iago, patience. Gazeem was obviously less than worthy."
AMYGOODMAN: The story of Owen Suskind’s life has been turned into the documentary Life, Animated, which just premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival to huge acclaim. The film is directed by Roger Ross Williams, the first African-American director to win an Academy Award. On Tuesday, I spoke to Owen Suskind, his father Ron and Roger Ross Williams here in Park City.
AMYGOODMAN: Owen, how did it feel to stand up at the Sundance Film Festival after a film about your life and to have people giving you a standing ovation, not for one minute, not for two minutes, not for five minutes—how many minutes did people stand and applaud you?
OWENSUSKIND: A couple of great times. And I loved it.
AMYGOODMAN: How does it feel to have a film about your life?
OWENSUSKIND: Feels wonderful, actually.
RONSUSKIND: Are you surprised at how good it feels?
ROGERROSSWILLIAMS: Owen has been thriving in front of an audience. He’s just—the audience loves Owen, and Owen loves the audience. And it’s just been a joy to see.
AMYGOODMAN: So, Roger, can you talk about why you decided to make this film and how it all happened?
ROGERROSSWILLIAMS: Yeah. Ron and I have known each other for about 15 years. We worked together years ago on Nightline and PBS. And when Ron was working on the book, he approached me, and he said, "This is going to make a great film." And I jumped on it. You know, for me, I made a film called Music by Prudence about a Zimbabwean girl with severe disabilities, that won an Academy Award. And for me, it’s about championing the outsider, the other, telling the story of people that have been left behind. And Owen represents a whole vast population of people who have so much to offer us, and we’re losing out by leaving—by not recognizing the genius of people like Owen.
AMYGOODMAN: Owen, what does it mean to be autistic?
OWENSUSKIND: It means you have special talents and skills inside you.
AMYGOODMAN: What are those talents?
OWENSUSKIND: Oh, god. Being a good artist and a piano player and a good writer, author and storyteller, and possibly a good golfer and a great problem solver.
AMYGOODMAN: So each person is individual.
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, yeah.
AMYGOODMAN: And what is your special talent?
OWENSUSKIND: Drawing animation, especially from Disney and Disney/Pixar.
AMYGOODMAN: Let’s take a step back, Ron Suskind, and talk about your life with your younger son, with Owen.
RONSUSKIND: Since the time Owen was about three, he gets whacked with autism. It’s late-onset autism, same as most [inaudible] kids who are born with it. But he’s chatting away at two, and then he vanishes at three, loses all speech.
AMYGOODMAN: What do you mean, he vanishes?
RONSUSKIND: Well, he stops speaking, and he won’t look at you. All the signs that you look for and fear as to autism, it just sort of suddenly comes upon him in a few months, right around the time he’s three years old. Cornelia and I, my wife, are just, you know, stunned. One of the things that we realize in this time of fear is that the thing he loves after the onset of the autism is similar to before: He loved the Disney animated movies. And over the years that follow, he speaks often in gibberish. You’re not sure what he’s saying. And right around the time that this clip occurs, we have a revelation, that he’s memorized 50 Disney animated movies as sound alone, and if you throw him a line, he throws you back the next line. That’s what I discover the night that I hold up the Iago puppet, which is the scene that I think you’re about to see.
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RONSUSKIND: Was that a big night for us?
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, yeah, sure.
RONSUSKIND: It’s the first time we talk since you were two years old.
OWENSUSKIND: I am so happy. Love that night.
RONSUSKIND: Yeah, it was a great night.
AMYGOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip from Life, Animated.
OWENSUSKIND: Why not? Uh-huh.
RONSUSKIND: So, I go up to his room. I see Owen on the bed flipping through a Disney book. And I see—sort of over to my left, I see Iago, the puppet. Now, Iago is the evil sidekick to the villain Jafar from Aladdin. Now, I know Owen loves this puppet.
IAGO: Jafar! Jafar! Get a grip!
RONSUSKIND: I grab the puppet, I pull it up to my elbow, and I begin to crawl across the rug as quietly as I can. And Owen turns to the puppet, like he’s bumping into an old friend. I say to him, "Owen, Owen, how does it feel to be you?"
OWENSUSKIND: And I said, "Not good, because I don’t have any friends."
RONSUSKIND: Now, I’m under the bedspread, and I just bite down hard. You know? I just say to myself, "Stay in character." And I said, "OK, OK, Owen, when did you and I become such good friends?" And he said, "When I watched Aladdin, you made me laugh." And then we talk, Owen and Iago, for a minute, minute and a half. It’s the first conversation we’ve ever had.
AMYGOODMAN: So, that is the moment. Now, is it possible, Owen, that you remember when your dad was talking to you under the sheet with the puppet?
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RONSUSKIND: How did that feel?
OWENSUSKIND: Felt good.
RONSUSKIND: I mean, we never had really talked before. It must have been strange for you to talk to Iago. You knew I was under the sheet, though, right?
RONSUSKIND: But still, Iago, "Well, I don’t know."
OWENSUSKIND: Ha! Love it.
RONSUSKIND: Then you spoke back to me in Jafar—Iago is the sidekick to the villain Jafar.
OWENSUSKIND: You bet.
RONSUSKIND: And what did Jafar say back to Iago?
OWENSUSKIND: "I love the way your foul little mind works."
RONSUSKIND: That was the—
OWENSUSKIND: That’s our Disney buddy Jonathan Freeman.
RONSUSKIND: That was the next line of dialogue, and that’s when we knew, oh, my, we can converse in Disney dialogue. We couldn’t speak at that point. If you threw him a line, he’d throw you back the next line. Of course, he’d outrun you quick, because he had hundreds of hours in his head. And we started to speak in Disney dialogue as a way to communicate. We had no other way.
AMYGOODMAN: Now, before that, Owen had said a few things, and you thought he was really processing. But the doctor told you it was echolalia?
RONSUSKIND: Yeah. That’s a term of art for the idea that the kids just repeat what they hear as sound alone. They don’t understand mostly what they’re saying.
AMYGOODMAN: It’s echoing.
RONSUSKIND: Echoing, just like it says. And I said, "You mean like a parrot?" He’s like, "Kind of." I said, "Can he be understanding what the words mean?" He says, "Our sense"—this is 1994, '95—"we don't think he does." That went on for years, before you have this moment with Iago. Of course, we gave him every therapy. We had great therapists. And he—before he says this to Iago, he’s up to about a three-word sentence, says, "I want juice." That’s about all. But then there’s an explosion when we see he’s got this deep well of understanding, processing all the Disney movies.
AMYGOODMAN: Wait. That word "juice"?
OWENSUSKIND: It’s "just your voice."
AMYGOODMAN: OK. Explain this part, "just your voice."
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, yeah.
AMYGOODMAN: Why was this so important? How old were you when you said something that your parents did not quite understand?
RONSUSKIND: Yeah, you were just shy of your fourth birthday. That’s right.
AMYGOODMAN: And did you guys and your mom think you were asking for juice?
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, but it was really trying to read the dialogue from Little Mermaid.
RONSUSKIND: And what is the dialogue? So, this is one where Ariel is the mermaid, and she makes—has to make a trade to become human.
RONSUSKIND: And the sea witch—
RONSUSKIND: —Ursula, says to her—
RONSUSKIND: What does Ursula say?
OWENSUSKIND: "It won’t cost much. Just your voice!"
RONSUSKIND: At that moment, we said, "It’s not juice he wants. He’s saying 'just.'" I grabbed Owen. I said, "Just your voice." And he says, "Juicervose, juicervose, juicervose." And it’s the first time he’s looked at me in a year. It’s the first time he looked right at me. And we knew something was going on. It took three years, though, before we got to Iago. And that’s when things got crazy.
AMYGOODMAN: You have been listening to Owen Suskind, his father Ron Suskind, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. They are featured in the new documentary Life, Animated, directed by Roger Ross Williams, which just premiered here at Sundance Film Festival. We’ll continue with our conversation in a minute.
AMYGOODMAN: "This Isn’t Disneyland" by The Sisters of Invention. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, from the Sundance Film Festival, as we return to our conversation with Owen Suskind, the subject of the new documentary, Life, Animated. I spoke to Owen along with his dad, Ron Suskind, and filmmaker Roger Ross Williams.
AMYGOODMAN: What is it about Disney movies? Why do you love Disney so much, Owen?
OWENSUSKIND: Because it’s fun and entertaining, keeps me happy and entertaining and upbeat.
RONSUSKIND: What is it about Disney, though, that’s different from other animated movies or movies in general? Why do you think that’s the one you picked?
RONSUSKIND: What do you think? What’s different about those characters?
OWENSUSKIND: Because—because they help me express my feelings.
AMYGOODMAN: So, when you were moving out of your house, when you graduated—
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, yeah.
AMYGOODMAN: —this big moment that’s in the film—
AMYGOODMAN: —what was the school you graduated from?
RONSUSKIND: That’s when—that was, oh, from Riverview School. It’s a college-like program in a school for folks with various developmental challenges on Cape Cod. That was Riverview.
OWENSUSKIND: It was Riverview.
AMYGOODMAN: There’s a part where you’re nervous about moving, and so you say to your dad, "Can we watch just a couple of scenes about moving?"
AMYGOODMAN: What movie did you want to see then?
RONSUSKIND: Was that when we watched Dumbo?
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, Dumbo.
RONSUSKIND: Because Dumbo has a big moving scene in it, doesn’t it?
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, it does.
AMYGOODMAN: And did it help you move to see Dumbo move?
OWENSUSKIND: It sure did.
RONSUSKIND: What is—tell me about why—why do you love Dumbo? What’s it really about, deep down? What’s the big message?
OWENSUSKIND: Finding your inner hero.
RONSUSKIND: That’s what Dumbo is about.
RONSUSKIND: Yeah. And that’s why you love that movie.
OWENSUSKIND: Yes, I do.
RONSUSKIND: But Dumbo’s ears make him an outcast, right?
RONSUSKIND: But you’ve talked about this. It also makes him different. But then he finds out what?
OWENSUSKIND: That he’s special.
RONSUSKIND: The thing that makes him different is what?
OWENSUSKIND: His ears.
RONSUSKIND: Are his greatest what?
RONSUSKIND: Right. And you kind of—that’s part of your discovery, too.
RONSUSKIND: You want to do some Dumbo?
RONSUSKIND: What does Timothy say to—Owen is a fan of the sidekicks, because—what is a sidekick’s job? They do what?
OWENSUSKIND: They happily help the hero fulfill their destiny, with fun-loving gags, too.
RONSUSKIND: OK. And so, what does Timothy say to Dumbo that’s so powerful to help him fulfill his destiny?
OWENSUSKIND: "Don’t worry, Dumbo. We’ll—don’t worry, Dumbo. We’ll get you to fly." Then the crows say, "All you need is 'chology. You know, psychology. Ain't that right, boys?" "[inaudible]" "You want to make the elephant fly, don’t you? Well, then use the magic feather!" "The magic feather?" "Yeah! I gotcha!" "Dumbo! Have I got it! The magic feather! Now you can fly!"
AMYGOODMAN: I was so touched when you went to Paris.
AMYGOODMAN: You were invited to address a group of—what were they? Professionals? Were they psychologists?
AMYGOODMAN: Were they doctors, social workers?
RONSUSKIND: All of them.
AMYGOODMAN: What were you telling them?
OWENSUSKIND: That I have—
AMYGOODMAN: Do you remember standing there?
OWENSUSKIND: Yes, I do.
AMYGOODMAN: I didn’t know you knew French.
RONSUSKIND: Who told you those French words?
RONSUSKIND: When you—
OWENSUSKIND: Mom and Dad did.
RONSUSKIND: Well, Mom. I don’t know any French.
OWENSUSKIND: Mom taught me some French.
AMYGOODMAN: But what were you telling them? Why were you standing there and giving a speech to all these people that could have been your parents and your grandparents?
RONSUSKIND: Remember, you talked about The Hunchback at the end.
RONSUSKIND: What did you find in The Hunchback that it was so powerful?
AMYGOODMAN:The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
AMYGOODMAN: Tell us about what you learned from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. What was he doing at the end of the movie?
OWENSUSKIND: Quasimodo doesn’t get the girl, but he saves the city of Paris and becomes the hero and is no longer an outcast.
RONSUSKIND: Why don’t you do a Hunchback scene you like? How about one of your most meaningful, emotional ones about Quasimodo? Want to do Laverne? That’s a beauty.
OWENSUSKIND: How about Hugo, Victor and Laverne?
OWENSUSKIND: All three of them.
RONSUSKIND: OK. Who are they? Hugo, Victor—
OWENSUSKIND: Hugo, Victor and Laverne are Quasimodo’s three fun-loving, playful, wacky, comic relief gargoyle friends and companions, the comic relief characters of the movie.
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, I can do it. Give me a second. OK. "Quasi, take it from an old spectator. Life’s not a spectator sport. If watchin’ is all you’re gonna do, then you’re gonna watch your life go by without ya." "Yeah, you’re human, with the flesh and the hair and the navel lint. We’re just part of the architecture. Right, Victor?" "Yet, if you kick us, do we not flake? If you moisten us, do we not grow moss?"
RONSUSKIND: And that’s a big one for you.
RONSUSKIND: "Life’s not a spectator sport."
RONSUSKIND: OK, that’s a good one.
AMYGOODMAN: So, today, Owen, you have a job.
AMYGOODMAN: Where are you working?
OWENSUSKIND: I work at Toys "R" Us and the Regal Cinema.
OWENSUSKIND: In Hyannis, Cape Cod, where I live.
AMYGOODMAN: And what do you do at the movie theater?
OWENSUSKIND: I rip off tickets for the customers and show them what theater the movie is playing in. And I sometimes sweep.
AMYGOODMAN: Do you also get to sometimes see free movies?
AMYGOODMAN: Do you like movies that aren’t Disney?
OWENSUSKIND: I don’t mind. I have all different kinds of fun movies.
RONSUSKIND: You know, you were telling me recently about going through some tough times, getting knocked down. You told me a scene from Batman, the Christopher Nolan series. Who did you do? Alfred, right?
RONSUSKIND: Why don’t you do Alfred for Amy? You’ll love this. This is a—Owen grabs scenes from lots of movies. He’s kind of the movie expert.
RONSUSKIND: And he finds scenes that help him navigate the world. What does Alfred say?
OWENSUSKIND: "Why do we fall, sir? So we can learn to pick ourselves up again." It’s like getting back on the horse saddle.
AMYGOODMAN: Can you do a scene with your dad? What would be a good scene to do?
RONSUSKIND: Do you want to Simba—
OWENSUSKIND: Simba and Mufasa.
RONSUSKIND: OK. So, you want to do—
RONSUSKIND: So, who am I? You do both parts. Or do you want me to do one?
AMYGOODMAN: What’s this from? What movie?
OWENSUSKIND: Disney’s The Lion King.
RONSUSKIND: Set it up, so—she might not—
OWENSUSKIND: I can do it. So, when Simba is a grown-up, young adult lion, he sees the magical ghost of his dead dad Mufasa, who was killed by his evil, villainous uncle Scar, and says, "Simba, you have forgotten me." "No. How could I?" "You have forgotten who you are, and so forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the circle of life." "How can—how can I go back? I’m not who I used to be." "Remember who you are. You are my son and the one true king. Remember who you are."
AMYGOODMAN: What does that teach you about life, Owen Suskind?
OWENSUSKIND: You must move on from the past.
RONSUSKIND: What does it say about who you are?
OWENSUSKIND: I am your son and the one true king.
ROGERROSSWILLIAMS: What does it say to you, Dad?
RONSUSKIND: It says that Owen is growing into no longer a sidekick, as he often thought of himself, but to become the hero of his own journey. And that’s happening with each day, and it’s certainly happening here at Sundance. It’s been an extraordinary week.
AMYGOODMAN: Owen, I wanted to talk about two major changes in your life and how you overcame them.
AMYGOODMAN: One was moving from a school-like facility and, before that, home—
AMYGOODMAN: —to being independent and moving into your own apartment.
AMYGOODMAN: How hard was that?
OWENSUSKIND: It was a little bit hard, but not too hard. Would be a great place to have my own place. Yeah.
AMYGOODMAN: And I don’t know if it’s hard to relive it when you see the film about your life, when you see Life, Animated, but you had a girlfriend for three years, Emily—
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, yeah.
AMYGOODMAN: —and then she broke up with you, right when you moved into your own apartment. And she was living right next to you in her apartment.
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, yeah.
AMYGOODMAN: How did you cope with that?
OWENSUSKIND: It took me the rest of that year and the whole year of 2015, last year, to get over it. I’ve finally gotten over it.
OWENSUSKIND: By learning I can always meet another new girl, who have the exact same fun interests like I do.
RONSUSKIND: Like what?
OWENSUSKIND: Like who’s like a fun movie fanatic and loves fun children’s family colorful movies and animated ones and Disney and Disney/Pixar, and also loves other fun things and still collects Disney toys, plushes and collectibles like I do, loves magical, fun, colorful Disney on Ice shows and Disney parks and Universal Studios parks.
RONSUSKIND: You know, at one point after you were working through that breakup, you said something, I think, from Inside Out, didn’t you?
OWENSUSKIND: The emotions.
RONSUSKIND: You used the Inside Out characters brilliantly.
RONSUSKIND: What did you say? What did you say about sadness and fear and joy? What was the thing you were saying?
OWENSUSKIND: I want to put joy back in charge for the rest of my life.
AMYGOODMAN: You want to put joy back in charge.
AMYGOODMAN: What is—what’s joy?
OWENSUSKIND: Joy is the main character of Inside Out.
RONSUSKIND: You know—
ROGERROSSWILLIAMS: What do you mean by that, Owen?
RONSUSKIND: What do you mean by joy?
ROGERROSSWILLIAMS: Joy back in your life?
OWENSUSKIND: I don’t want to be sad forever.
RONSUSKIND: Are you feeling joy now?
RONSUSKIND: You know, it’s hard, because you had to get through something that a lot of people go through, the breakup of a first relationship, a first big one.
OWENSUSKIND: Well, there was a second one.
RONSUSKIND: Right, but this was your first big relationship. And, you know, and that’s something that helps us grow up.
RONSUSKIND: That’s part of what you do in the movie.
RONSUSKIND: Is it odd for you to watch that happening on the screen, though? That’s a little different, right?
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, yeah.
RONSUSKIND: But how does it feel now?
OWENSUSKIND: Feels good and better.
ROGERROSSWILLIAMS: I mean, the wonderful thing about this film, the way I always saw it, is that it’s a true coming-of-age story. It’s a true coming-of-age story that everyone can relate to, because everyone has their first love and their first breakup, and moves into their apartment for the first time and becomes independent and graduates. And so, Owen, the stakes are higher, but he’s experiencing something that we all experience and we all feel, and I think that’s why the film connects with so many people.
AMYGOODMAN: So, Roger, I mean, we wouldn’t know this story if it wasn’t your absolute mastery of this artform. I mean, what you did with this film, going from Owen as the main character, and all of your brilliance in this, Owen, to the Disney characters and going back and forth—now, Disney is known for being very proprietary. How do we get to see so many of these cartoons?
ROGERROSSWILLIAMS: Well, I think—well, early on, Sean Bailey, the president of Disney, I connected with Sean. He’s a trustee on the board of Sundance. I’m on the alumni board. Sundance put us in touch with each other. And, you know, it was a process, many meetings with Disney. But in the end, they were supportive. They licensed the clips. They don’t have any ownership or editorial control over the film, but they’re really supportive, because it’s a very positive story. Why would they not want to support it?
RONSUSKIND: In a way, it’s a universal story about how we use movies to shape our lives. And we all talk about that, how important stories are in shaping our reality. And, of course, Owen, like caught on a desert island with 50 Disney movies, had to make sense of himself and his place in the world from those movies. The universal theme, of course, is how powerful movies are in shaping us, because Owen really had to rely on that.
AMYGOODMAN: Owen, do you do animations yourself?
OWENSUSKIND: Yes, I do. Yeah.
RONSUSKIND: And he draws them powerfully and beautifully, because he has so much emotion he invests in them, in some ways even more than the animators themselves. And that’s why they’re very vivid and powerful, color and splashes of emotions. And he, in a way, communicated through those pictures for years. He’d draw a picture of a sidekick and hand it to you. He turned the whole family into sidekicks. Often I was Merlin or Rafiki. Cornelia, my wife, was Mrs. Potts or Big Mama from—
OWENSUSKIND:Fox and the Hound.
RONSUSKIND:Fox and the Hound, thank you.
AMYGOODMAN: Wait. What are your two famous lines? "No sidekick ..."?
OWENSUSKIND: "... gets left behind."
AMYGOODMAN: What do you mean by that?
OWENSUSKIND: Well, no—what do I mean by that again?
RONSUSKIND: You’re the one who wrote it, a long time ago.
OWENSUSKIND: "No friend gets left behind."
AMYGOODMAN: And you are the protector?
AMYGOODMAN: Of sidekicks?
AMYGOODMAN: What does that mean? How do you protect sidekicks?
OWENSUSKIND: I keep on the sunny side. The sunny side.
ROGERROSSWILLIAMS: Yeah, you know, it was really important for me as a filmmaker to tell the story from Owen’s point of view, to get inside Owen’s head. And that’s why Owen addresses the audience directly, and that’s why we create this world of sidekicks, that Owen himself created, and bring it to life, because a lot of films you see about people with a disability is from the outside looking in. And it’s important that this film was from the inside looking out.
AMYGOODMAN: That’s a part I couldn’t get, is how could you stand, Owen, to be followed by a camera? I mean, these are some of the most difficult times of anyone’s life. I mean, you’re told your girlfriend is breaking up with you, and we’re watching you try to figure this all out. That means a camera was in your face.
AMYGOODMAN: Did you get used to the camera being there?
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, I got a little used to it.
AMYGOODMAN: Did you forgot the camera was there?
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, I forgot.
RONSUSKIND: And Thomas, the cameraman, was with you a lot.
RONSUSKIND: You liked Thomas, though, didn’t you?
ROGERROSSWILLIAMS: Thomas was part of the family. And, you know, I mean, Thomas would be there filming when Owen would fall asleep at night, and there when he would wake up in the morning. And it was really important to have someone who was consistent and who always—who Owen could rely on and who Owen knew, and so that we embedded ourselves with this family.
RONSUSKIND: And one of the things, just briefly, that’s interesting is that Thomas had to be there a lot, because Owen doesn’t do things for effect in a transactional way. When the truths come bubbling up, they come at all kinds of times. So Thomas had to be there when Owen’s great moments of wisdom emerge, often through stress or situations he was in or ways to solve problems.
AMYGOODMAN: Now, there’s someone we haven’t talked about. We’ve talked about your mom and your dad.
AMYGOODMAN: We’ve talked about the camera person.
AMYGOODMAN: What about your brother Walter?
OWENSUSKIND: Oh, he’s good.
AMYGOODMAN: He’s your older brother?
OWENSUSKIND: Older brother and only sibling I have.
AMYGOODMAN: What have you taught him?
OWENSUSKIND: About how to help me through my life.
AMYGOODMAN: He is very concerned about that.
AMYGOODMAN: Because he knows that you guys are a kind of a moon unit for the rest of your lives.
OWENSUSKIND: What’s a moon unit again?
AMYGOODMAN: I don’t know why I use that term, but you two are together for the rest of your lives.
OWENSUSKIND: Together, yeah.
RONSUSKIND: What do you think—what do you think you’ve taught Walter? He always says, "Owen is my best teacher." What have you taught him?
OWENSUSKIND: That Disney movies are a great thing.
RONSUSKIND: OK, definitely that. What else have you taught Walter about courage and resilience?
OWENSUSKIND: Courage and resilience.
RONSUSKIND: What have you taught your brother?
ROGERROSSWILLIAMS: He’s your hero, isn’t he?
RONSUSKIND: He was the only one you drew as a hero as a kid. Hey, I have an idea.
RONSUSKIND: What character, of your many characters, right now, if Walter was sitting with us, would you have talk to—
OWENSUSKIND: I’d say Baloo.
RONSUSKIND: OK. What would Baloo tell Walter?
OWENSUSKIND: "Come on, Baggy, get with the beat."
RONSUSKIND: How about do a little—one of your other favorites, you say to Walter, is Merlin.
RONSUSKIND: What’s your favorite line from—this is from Sword in the Stone.
OWENSUSKIND:Sword in the Stone.
RONSUSKIND: Owen gleans the best lines. What would you say is the—what’s some Merlin lines?
OWENSUSKIND: "You know, boy, that love business is a powerful thing." "Greater than gravity?" "Why, yes, boy, I’d say it’s the greatest force on Earth."
RONSUSKIND: And so, they talk about love, Walter and Owen, about finding love and about love in their life. OK, so, go—two more scenes. Go ahead.
OWENSUSKIND: Disney’s Hercules.
RONSUSKIND: Who’s talking, and what is—what’s up?
OWENSUSKIND: Phil, the voice of Danny DeVito, the little round goat man, who’s Hercules’s pal, friend and lead of his companions.
RONSUSKIND: A key sidekick for you, yeah.
OWENSUSKIND: Key sidekick. Oh, boy.
RONSUSKIND: What’s he say to Herc?
RONSUSKIND: Hercules has some tough times, doesn’t he?
OWENSUSKIND: Yep. "Listen. Listen, kid, I’ve seen them all, and I’m telling you—this is the honest to Zeus truth—you’ve got something I’ve never seen before." "Really, Phil?" "Really, kid. I can feel it in these stubborn legs of mine. And if you keep trying and believe in yourself, there is nothing you can’t do."
RONSUSKIND: Man, that’s a good one.
OWENSUSKIND: And Disney’s Mulan.
RONSUSKIND: You want to do Mulan?
RONSUSKIND: OK, that’s a good one. Who is—who’s talking?
OWENSUSKIND: The emperor of China, the ruler of China, says, "The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare, beautiful of all." That’s the film’s main tagline.
RONSUSKIND: And what would you say?
OWENSUSKIND: I am the rare, most beautiful of all.
RONSUSKIND: The flower blooming in adversity.
AMYGOODMAN: You started a Disney Club?
OWENSUSKIND: Yeah, at Riverview.
RONSUSKIND: That’s the school.
OWENSUSKIND: I am the first official—I am the first official president and the official founder of Disney Club.
AMYGOODMAN: And you would all watch the movies together. And one of your friends played Disney songs, right? On the keyboard.
OWENSUSKIND: Patrick Birmingham.
RONSUSKIND: Special gifts. That’s what we’re talking about, those compensatory gifts. He could play anything, right?
AMYGOODMAN: Well, speaking of special gifts, Ron, this week is the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize.
AMYGOODMAN: And you’re a Pulitzer Prize winner.
AMYGOODMAN: You were writing for The Wall Street Journal in Owen’s early years, so here you’re a man of voluminous words, and your son is, as you say, vanishing—he stopped talking. What was that like for you? And, you know, early on, you won the Pulitzer Prize for covering voiceless people, as well.
RONSUSKIND: You know, part of—well, Cornelia and I say, you know, the book and the movie are about Owen changing, but it’s really about how he changed the rest of us. And not long after he’s whacked with the autism, my career starts to change. I start looking for left-behind people all over the world, in innercity America, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan. And what I realize some years later, that Owen is driving me in a way, shaping me and teaching me. And, of course, the most dramatically left-behind person I know is living in the bedroom, someone who’s deemed uneducable, who was in the discard pile. And what’s powerful is that, in a way, Owen leads all those other characters in finding a voice. And that’s always—well, certainly, certainly, since those days, that’s what my career has been.
AMYGOODMAN: Who is Cedric Jennings?
RONSUSKIND: Well, Cedric Jennings was actually the first of those characters. Right after Owen is diagnosed with autism, I travel across town in Washington to the worst high school I can find in America, and I meet Cedric, who’s the prickly honor student who walks a gauntlet in a gang-dominated high school and dreams of going to the Ivy League. I follow him for three years. That was the series in the Journal that wins the Pulitzer and the book, A Hope in the Unseen. And it’s interesting. Cedric and Owen met early on, and here are two outcasts. And Owen really couldn’t say almost anything in those days, but he and Cedric had kind of a bond. They sat on the couch of our house.
RONSUSKIND: Remember Cedric?
OWENSUSKIND: Cedric, yeah, man.
RONSUSKIND: And what did you do when you first saw each other?
OWENSUSKIND: I don’t know. What did we do?
RONSUSKIND: Well, you were sitting on the couch, and you just started to laugh.
OWENSUSKIND: Laugh! Hahaha!
RONSUSKIND: They just laughed, like they were in on some kind of joke, an inside joke about where human value sometimes hides and how it can shine forth. And, of course, we’re all buddies still.
RONSUSKIND: Cedric is another member of the family, like Roger and a whole gang now that has been brought together around our guy.
AMYGOODMAN: You’ve written about George Bush. You have written books about George Bush, about Barack Obama. Talk about the difference in being this fierce critic, investigator, investigative journalist, and writing the story of your own life and living your own life.
RONSUSKIND: You know, for many years, we had a kind of a double life, where we didn’t talk to folks about this private life we had. I was living a very public life. And I was kind of whipsawed between them, sitting with presidents, often having them tell me things that may or may not be totally true, investigating some of the perfidies of this age, and in the basement we would meditate on the emergence of the hero. And I think part of that dialectic, that dialogue, was one that eventually I said people should know that that’s really what was happening. And interestingly, what people are finding in the story is even a bigger theme, which is one that in some ways all of the presidents, you know, maybe talk about, but often duck, which is about all the left-behind people in this world, who are not on the table more and more with, it seems, each passing day. How do we get them to a place where their voices are heard? You know, and that, of course, is the great, you know, struggle of our age, with inequality, with these enormous gaps between those of privilege and so much of the rest of us.