Film exec makes directing debut with autism-themed feature

When producer Janet Grillo was in her 20s, she relished working on the “House Party” movies and “Spanking the Monkey” at New Line Cinema in the company’s freewheeling earlier days.

But as New Line turned more corporate, Grillo decided it was time to strike out on her as an independent producer of films such as “Joe the King.”

One story she felt compelled to tell was her own experience as the parent of a son diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. She spent years focusing mostly on raising her son, but gradually returning to filmmaking, exec producing docu “Autism, The Musical” and directing the short “Flying Lessons,” starring Dana Delany.

After “Flying Lessons,” other parents of children on the autism spectrum pleaded with Grillo to make a feature exploring the same ideas. The project turned into “Fly Away,” a narrative feature about single mother of an autistic teenage girl that premiered at SXSW and opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Pic stars Beth Broderick and Ashley Rickards.

Grillo is adamant that “Fly Away” is “not an issue movie,” but a story anyone can embrace. “I felt like I was back at New Line, drawing on skills I developed there,” Grillo said of her feature directing debut.

Grillo wanted “Fly Away” to reflect the severity of autism, rather than Hollywood’s typical “Rain Man”-esque view of the disorder, “because that is where the need is.”

Grillo is working with former Fine Line exec Marion Koltai-Levine, who is now a distribution consultant, on the release through New Video. She has partnered with Autism Speaks for free screenings of the film and is hoping to show it to Congress as part of a push to reauthorize the Combating Autism act.

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