Documentarian Roger Ross Williams on Oscar Nomination for ‘Life, Animated’

Roger Ross Williams
Paul Smith/Featureflash/Silv/REX/Shutterstock

After winning the documentary-short Oscar in 2010, Roger Ross Williams is again nominated this year, for the feature doc “Life, Animated,” about Owen Suskind, whose family helps him find a way to deal with autism through animated Disney movies. Williams, whose sentences are often punctuated by laughter, is a documentary branch governor at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Being nominated, he says, “doesn’t get old.”

How does the second Academy Award nomination feel?

It is so exciting and it doesn’t get old. It’s not like, “oh, it’s my second Academy Award and I’ve been down that road.” It’s amazing. This nomination means so much for people like Owen — people who’ve been left behind. Owen’s parents, Ron and Cornelia, wanted to make this film because Owen said to them, “People look past me and don’t see me for who I am.” In this political climate, where we have a president —  yes, I’m going there — who mocks the disabled, it’s so important that people with disabilities have a voice.

What’s been the response of people within the world of autism?

When people who are on the spectrum see this film, it’s like they’re seeing themselves and their story. When we’ve done screenings, people on the spectrum stand up and say, “Owen, you’ve given a voice to our community.”

How have people without a knowledge of autism responded?

People come up to me at screenings and say, “I didn’t even understand what autism is, but now I get it” or even “I wish I was autistic.”  How great is that? When I first went to Mac Guff, the animation company, their animation leader Philippe said, “By the end of this film, people will pray to be autistic.” I thought that was a beautiful idea. I was flying to L.A. a few weeks ago and my producer, Julie Goldman, was taking a picture of the monitor with “Life, Animated” on the Delta flight. Keegan-Michael Key was sitting across the aisle, and he goes, “Is that your film?” and he starts watching it and he started crying. Then Barry Jenkins, who was sitting behind me, was like, “Well now I’m gonna watch” and they told me, “You made two grown black men cry on a flight!”

What was the filming like?

I don’t know if I’ll ever have — and I hope I will — as much fun as I had making this film. The whole process was creatively rewarding on so many levels. Shooting with Owen was a delight because he’s a perfect documentary subject. He never looks at the camera. He doesn’t have this filter that we all have. He’s just himself, which is so refreshing. He’s just living his life. He’s a perfect subject, which made him a complete joy.

You had known the Suskinds from your collaborations with Owen’s dad, Ron.

I had known Ron for 15 years. We had worked together at ABC’s “Nightline.” When he was writing the book, he came to me and said, “I think this will make a great film and I think you’re a good person to do it.” Immediately after hearing the story, I called my producer Julie. I read the manuscript and was totally blown away. Crying.

But at the beginning,  you were a little uncomfortable?

Yeah, it was my first encounter with people with autism so I had all the prejudices that probably a lot of people have. It was a learning curve for me. This journey with Owen is emotional for the Suskinds but it became this joyous, positive thing when you realize that Owen’s life is a life to be celebrated. A key line in the film was “Who’s to say what is a meaningful life?” I wanted to show the world that.

Some people were surprised that a black documentarian would make a film about a white family.

How many black filmmakers make films, especially in the documentary world, about upper-middle class white people? But this is a film about an outsider who’s been left behind. I totally connect with who Owen is because I understand it, because I too am a sidekick. I’m a black gay man, an outsider, rejected by my religious family — my father’s a pastor and they rejected me for my sexuality — I feel this deep sense of rejection, so I connect with someone with autism who also feels sort of thrown away by society. I wanted to give him a voice. I’m a champion of the outsider.

What kind of creative choices did you make?

The first creative choice was that Owen had to own and tell the story. Owen is the only one who looks the audience directly in the eye, for which we used Errol Morris’ Interrotron, a camera that mimics a teleprompter but instead of words lets me project my face on a screen directly in front of the camera lens. If I was just doing a regular interview, he might not be able to hold eye contact with me. He’d probably get up and start pacing around but with the screen, he’s mesmerized. I could switch the screen to show Disney clips, too, which I used to take him through his life. I would ask him questions then play a Disney clip and he would interact with the clip on screen. The audience is basically inside the clip and he’s interacting directly with them. About a third of the way in the film, we go completely inside his head in “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks.” It’s his autobiography that we ended up animating, a story he wrote about a little boy who at three (Owen is regressively autistic so he became autistic around three) gets swept by a storm into this land of the lost sidekicks, I was always going to animate and bring that to life.

The sound also helps with the feelings of immersion.  

The sound to me was as important to the picture. Owen says he sees and hears all of the classic Disney animation films all at once in his head. He’s constantly in dialogue with the sidekicks. We had to get that right and bring that out, so we worked with Skywalker Sound and a 23-year-old first time composer named Dylan Stark who grew up watching Disney animated films. He uses these sounds — the sounds of VHS tapes fast-forwarding and rewinding and Owen’s self-talking — to create a musical language from inside Owen’s head. He basically brought the noise inside Owen’s head to life and put it on the screen.

What was it like to be elected to the Academy board?

I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t have any role models or mentors who looked like me when I was starting out in the industry. The Academy has a great opportunity here to lead the way in Hollywood. We are an organization of filmmakers and craftspeople who are making films. We should be a shining example of diversity and I want to help lead that effort and in the documentary branch we are doing that. If you look at the nominees this year, I am so proud of the documentary community. Four African-American filmmakers nominated for best documentary feature is extraordinary. I don’t know what other branch you would see that happening in. And maybe it’s because of the nature of the types of films we make but it is a really exciting year for documentaries. Each of their films are so important and every one of them covers an important issues.

Do you think there has been change because of the criticism for the Academy?

The Academy is making an effort. They really heard “Oscars So White” and I think I’m a result of that. Leave it to the documentary community to say “We’re going to elect an African-American governor.” Why should that even be an issue? But it is. As I sit there on the board of governors and I look around the room and there aren’t a lot of people that look like me, but they’ve made efforts. It’s a long road ahead but at least we’re going down that road.

What has it been like now that you’ve been working with the board for some time?

I’m learning a lot. Just to be in that room and looking across the table at Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Annette Bening and I’m like, “How did I get in this room?” But I tell myself, “You know what? You deserve a place at this table. Don’t be intimidated. You have a responsibility to your community, to all the little future Roger Ross Williamses who need that sort of role model and I’m not going to back away from that.”

What do you think of socially-motivated cinema?

It’s been building. As Obama was leaving office, for me at least, I started to get depressed. I was like, “what are we gonna do?” And you think about that and there has been such opposition to Obama’s presidency from the other side and Congress just sort of blocking him. You want to respond to the intolerance in the world and you start to think about that and I think that started brewing a couple years ago. We were sort of getting ready for this moment and now we’re in the moment. It’s shocking but we have to make great art. We have to speak truth to power and put positivity and love out there.

What you didn’t know about Roger Ross Williams:

AGE: 43 HOME: Amsterdam, N.Y. SIDE BUSINESS: He and his husband rent out a barn on their property for weddings FAVORITE DOCUMENTARY: “Tongues Untied” by Marlon Riggs FAVORITE DISNEY FILM: “Peter Pan” FAVORITE 2016 NARRATIVE FILM: Moonlight