The documentary Autism in Love follows adults on the autistic spectrum (AS) who talk about how they can find and manage romantic relationships. "Beyond that, it is an exploration into the universal human experience in the pursuitof romantic connection," explains director Matt Fuller. He joined producer Carolina Groppa to talk about love, relationships and the making of the film. Autism in Love is available for schools and non-profits through GOOD DOCS.
How did you come up with the story idea?
CAROLINA: I had been working with Dr. Ira Heilveil, who is now our Executive Producer and he wanted to do research on this topic of adults with autism and romantic relationships for a book or blog. We realized that there was very little out there on the topic and it quickly grew from this seed of an idea for a blog to exploring this via the lens of a documentary camera, and that’s sort of how it evolved. From there we did about a month of the research, Matt got involved and we spent a lot of time familiarizing ourselves with autism and the community in Southern California before we actually went into production.
How were you able to find the characters for your film?
MATT: Finding the characters was birthed out of the research project. Once we put all the other resources we needed to actually begin production, we leaned on that network of resources we created, referrals from friends of friends or our social networks and did a kind of casting call whereby we had conversations and interviewed folks we thought would be comfortable being on camera and promised interesting stories. Lindsey and Dave in particular, we found them because they’ve been profiled in Glamour magazine a few years prior.
What were your expectations before starting this film and how did it change over the course of making it?
MATT: My expectations were just to be able to get a little bit more insight into the lives of adults with autism and as the project progressed it became clear to me that the film was going to be about more than autism and much more than love. We were able to become much more intimate and close with our subjects than I ever anticipated.
CAROLINA: We really set out to make an honest film. That was always the one thing we knew, regardless of making a documentary. You never know where the story is going take you, what’s going to unfold for the camera. But we’ve always want it to be honest from the perspective of people on the spectrum and not a clinical sort of approach to the film, and I definitely think we’ve succeeded in that approach.
What were the challenges that you had in making this film?
MATT: There are always challenges in making any film. Like getting the funding and the resources and the trust of everybody to get the film on its feet and actually start making it — that’s a huge challenge that can’t be ignored. I think “trust” was a big challenge and we were able to overcome it. That’s something you really have to consider when making a documentary — is building trust between you and your subjects and that really is going to ultimately dictate the quality of the audience’s experience. Beyond that, once we got into production, we were a low budget, independent documentary, so we really had to stretch our dollars and really do a lot with very little.
You filmed your characters looking straight into the camera. What was the intention and purpose of doing it like that?
MATT: Before we began production, the idea was always to make the audience feel as connected and as intimate to the subjects as possible. There’s this kind of urban legend that people with autism have a hard time making eye contact. For me that’s one of the hallmarks of intimacy and so I wanted to do everything on the filmmaking end to establish intimacy between the subjects and the audiences as quickly as possible. So that was an aesthetic choice that would breed that intimacy as quickly as possible. So that’s where it came from and we chose not to do that with any of the subjects’ parents or additional kind of voices in the film because we wanted to make a visual distinction between the connection the audiences have with those on the spectrum and their families.
Are you still in touch with your characters?
MATT: I speak to all of them pretty regularly, with the exception of Steven. Lindsey and Dave, we’re all in touch, they’re very active in promoting the film and I was at their wedding a couple of weeks ago.
After watching the film, what did your subjects think about the film and also their family and friends?
MATT: Lindsey and Dave are big fans of the movie, they were with us at the premiere. Their family and friends are all big supporters of the project. Lenny has not seen the movie yet and that is a choice that his mom and I made together because of potentially revisiting some of the things that he went through that year that might impact negatively; but his mom has seen the movie and she’s a fan and a big supporter of the project, so that’s good! And Steven is watching the movie in a couple of weeks at a family reunion. His family was with us at the premiere and they are big supporters of the project. They wanted to watch it with him when they’re all together because again, there were emotionally significant and tragic events that happened in his life that were captured there and they want to be able to support him through that viewing.
What do you want audience to take away from the film, something new to learn?
MATT: I want audience to feel a connection to the subjects in the film, but moreover to feel a more empathetic, compassionate, and human perspective towards those who are on the spectrum. Maybe just dispel the myth and offer some inspiration, and confirm that those on the spectrum can, in fact, have meaningful romantic relationships.
CAROLINA: We want this film to hopefully be a conversation starter. There’s a lot of focus on kids with autism, and it’s very very necessary but no one’s been talking about the adults and what’s going to happen to these kids once they grow up and there isn’t any more support from governments for them; where they’re going to grow, and they have these desires, and how this is all going to pan out. So, hopefully that will become the personal part of a larger conversation that begins to happen.
What is it personally that you learned about “love” because of this film?
MATT: The big lesson there is that romantic love requires self love. You know that’s going to sound like a platitude but it really is a requisite, you have to be comfortable and happy with who you are as an individual before you can engage meaningfully in a romantic relationship.
CAROLINA: There’s so many ways that we define love and what a relationship looks like, and should be and shouldn’t be. It’s so different for everyone regardless of having a label of any diagnosis, so I think this also taught me how we’re more connected than disconnected than we think and would like to place people at a distance and say, well your experience isn’t like my experience but in reality, it is very similar. We all have the same wants, desires, and fears.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
MATT: We are working on a bunch of things. The big next thing that I’m starting to work on is the documentary about transgender youth.
CAROLINA: I’m actually in prep right now on a narrative feature film starring Bob Odenkirk. It’s very different from an autism documentary. And I’m also producing another documentary that is still in the works.