Last weekend, actors, producers, writers, and directors gathered to educate the faithful Pittsburgh filmmaking community about the craft of storytelling. Over thirty speakers led panels all about the writing process from initial story structure to landing meetings to pitching at those meetings and, finally, to producing. There were also some panels on superheroes and stunts, because why not?
One very important panel I attended was called “Breaking In.” Arguably, the most important, unless you’re Harvey Weinstein’s niece. Panelists included Ashley Miller, Scott Sullivan, Brian Jett, Vivi Gregg, and Lisa Minzey. Some of their advice was obvious, i.e., “Don’t be an asshole.” However, Brian Jett chimed in to note that, while it is a very, very competitive industry, others do not need to fail for you to succeed. While I hope I’m not an asshole, I never really considered that to be the case. I was under the impression it was a rather cutthroat business. And perhaps that is still true. But as the other panelists nodded their agreement, it started to make sense. It is a business of people, of connections, of bridges that should never be burned. Keep your tone positive and talk about what you love, not about what you hate or where others have failed. Don’t be an asshole. Pretty simple.
In another panel about the first thirty pages of a script, Ashley Miller introduced his give-a-shit factor. Why should a mass audience care about your writing? Try to not confuse giving a shit with relevance. Panelist Christopher Lockhart offered Ida as an example, a film about a woman on the verge of becoming a Catholic nun who learns she’s Jewish. Probably not a pickle many of us find ourselves in, but it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Write a story people will give a shit about. Let it mean something to them.
That being said, I’ll move onto one of those stories that made me give a shit. Aspie Seeks Love is a documentary that follows David Matthews for three years as he searches for a lifelong companion, “someone to converse with, someone to share [his] life.” As large and sweet as his 20-year-old cat, Zima, is, she isn’t quite cutting it. A self-proclaimed “introverted extrovert,” David posts flyers everywhere for fifteen years, detailing his smart, whimsical prose and favorite pop culture references. Perhaps because of a lack of psychological and neurological insight when David was a child in the 70s, he isn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome until the age of 41, at which point he decides to lose the flyers and revamp his dating strategy and his artistic drive.
A quote in the promotional poster above notes, “Aspie Seeks Love is as much a critique of American dating culture as it is a portrait of high-functioning autism.” I would also add that it is equally about the fragility of self-esteem. David is not only a person who biologically finds it difficult to be in social situations and to make small talk, but he is also an artist. And artists, well…generally, you cannot find us in da club. So even though David doesn’t want to care about what other people think, he has to and he does (but who doesn’t?). And this makes him self-conscious about sharing his artistic work with the world (but who isn’t?). One of David’s girlfriends in the film (yes, there’s more than one!) says rather poignantly, “All of us have things we didn’t ask for that affect us.” Asperger’s, Cushing’s disease, bipolar disorder, small toes, big nose. Whatever it is, you just have to keep being a person. Keep watering the relationship flowerpots. David has a very firm grasp on this, so he’s already well ahead of the rest of us.
Director Julie Sokolow succeeds in virtually every way a director can succeed. Her Juno-esque music and graphics precisely capture the tone of the story. Her shots do well to show David being David, looking at books, talking with friends. And, perhaps the most difficult of these, is the way she so carefully depicts David’s Asperger’s. Of course, David’s circumstances can invoke sympathy. The guy wants to fall in love! And the audience wants him to. But Julie goes beyond that to accurately incorporate the difficulty David has with social cues and conversation. Even though some of his musings and interactions are awkward and uncomfortable, she keeps filming, usually culminating in David regretfully stating, “I shouldn’t have said that.” She also includes the estranged qualities of David’s familial relationships, the fact that he must ask his friends to take a photo with him to send to his family because they don’t believe that he has friends, the way David indirectly refers to his family as dysfunctional, and how he tells his sister she is lucky she can’t remember much of their childhood. On a cuter and more snuggly note, Julie was sure to sneak in some shots of the closeness between David and Zima, as well (as suggested by Kathy Hoopmann’s book, all cats have Asperger Syndrome).
After the screening, David stuck around to answer some audience questions. He spoke about his book, Meltdown in the Cereal Aisle, and he made it clear that he is interested in doing a sequel if Julie is up to it. He continues to write, stating, “Fiction allows me to twist the facts of the world around me.” More about the film and where to watch it can be found at aspieseekslove.com and more about David Matthews can be found at his website, davidvmatthews.com. Take the plunge on that free Amazon Prime trial, and set aside an hour or so to learn a little more about people and to get ready for that sequel.