Rachel Israel makes her feature film debut with “Keep the Change,” a very different kind of romantic comedy about an unlikely couple. Israel, who serves as an adjunct professor of film at Rhode Island School of Design, spoke to Variety about her inspiration for the story, the challenges she faced in making the film and the rewards of collaboration. “Keep the Change,” which expands the story of her award-winning 2014 short film, took the Best Narrative Feature and Best New Narrative Director prizes at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The film screens in competition at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
How did you come up with the story of “Keep the Change” and what was it about the autistic community that inspired you?
The experiences of our lead actor, Brandon Polansky, first inspired me to make this story. I’ve known Brandon now for over 15 years, and he led me to know this specific autistic community in New York City when he met a serious girlfriend there. As I then got to know the incredible individuals in the community, I grew determined that they should be seen in film.
What kinds of challenges did you face in making the film?
Pulling together the financing was challenging, and keeping the actors hopeful during those years was probably the hardest part of it all for me. I needed to maintain the cast’s faith in the project, but I also didn’t want to lead anyone on. Ultimately, during the driest periods, it was the actors’ belief in the project that kept me resolved it would happen.
How did working with autistic actors and their contributions help shape the film and influence your direction?
As a director, I approached working with each actor differently, learning how to best direct each person according to his or her individual strengths and needs. I also collaborated with the cast during the screenwriting process, so the characters were written around the real people, and the cast were involved in crafting these fictional versions of themselves. It was great fun.
How significant was the success of your original short film to the making of the feature film version?
The short not only served as a proof of concept for the feature, but it was also my testing ground for how to best direct such a unique project. When making the feature, we prepared for and budgeted the time to get those happy accidents that had made the short feel so alive. We talked about it during pre-production as “catching fireflies” – catching those electric performance moments within scripted scenes was our highest mission, and required intense planning on our end, so that we could give the performers the maximum space to breathe and play, and forget about the cameras.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is relatively widespread but at the same time it’s a subject that many average moviegoers might not be all that familiar with. In what ways do you think your film can help or improve the general understanding for autism and for individuals with ASD?
I’ve always thought of “Keep the Change” as primarily a love story, rather than a film about autism. So I hope that audiences find the love story compelling first, and leave the movie feeling emotionally connected to these characters, who are each so unique. There is a common misconception about people on the spectrum that they are emotionally limited, and so I think it would be powerful if audiences could overcome this notion not in any didactic way, but rather through having an emotional experience with these characters.
Do you have a next project in the planning and if so, what will it be about?
I’m currently developing two feature scripts, both character driven stories, with strong senses of humor. I’m also developing an idea for a TV series related to the autism world that feels very fresh, and exciting to me.