Matt and Nikki Swift recount the many challenges of making a big-screen drama about an autistic couple. The movie premieres virtually on Wednesday via the ReelAbilities Film Festival.
“Those Who Spring of Me” is a fictional drama, but during the filming process, directors Matt and Nikki Swift wondered if the film would become a documentary instead.
“We had four cameras running at all times, and the fourth camera was a documentary camera, because we had no idea if the film was actually going to be usable when we started out,” Matt said.
“Every single day, we would get done, and I would look at it and be like, ‘Man, this footage is dark.’ Or, ‘The audio doesn't sound right. I don't know if I can fix that,’” Nikki said.
Given the challenges the film presented, it’s no surprise the obstacles could seem insurmountable at times. The movie tells the story of Will, a young, nonverbal man with autism played by actor PJ Gilmore, and Will’s autistic girlfriend, Tatum, played by Kelsea Cherry. Will and Tatum want to conceive a child together, and they ask Will’s parents for permission.
To lend the film authenticity, and to provide autistic employment opportunities, the filmmakers and producer/screenwriter Audrey Todd cast nonprofessional actors on the autism spectrum to play the roles of Will and Tatum. “The goal of the film was to be one of the first films of its kind to use actors with autism to play roles of autism in a scripted melodrama, but also to play a nonverbal [character], which hasn't really been done,” Matt said.Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
Audrey Todd approached the Swifts, who own and operate Nicolettecinemagraphics, several years ago with the script. Todd has a son who is nonverbal and on the autism spectrum, and she’s also the founder and director of Food for Good Thought, a gluten-free bakery in Clintonville that provides employment services. (Food for Good Thought became a fiscal sponsor of the film.)
Todd plays the role of Sybil, Will’s mother, and Todd's real-life husband, Scott Bogner, plays the father. Nearly all of the film was shot in the couple's home. “She gave up her house to us every few Sundays for four years. It’s their house, their bed,” Matt said. “There's a realism to it and a rawness to it that people with families with autism will recognize.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 18, at 6 p.m., "Those Who Spring of Me” begins screening virtually for free (with registration) for 48 hours through the ReelAbilities Film Festival, and on Friday, Nov. 20, at 9 p.m., Nikki and Matt Swift will participate in a live talk-back event. In the conversation, the directors will undoubtedly recount the unique method of filming the movie required, including the various accommodations for actors on the spectrum.
“Kelsea is hypersensitive to the environment, so we could only shoot for about two hours every few Sundays. We had to limit it to a crew of only three people, and we had to shoot a lot of stuff outside. We had to be very careful about inside lighting,” Matt said. “There were no moving camera shots. These had to be perfectly blocked out where [the actors] come into the scene, do their thing and leave. We’d shoot with multiple cameras at the same time because [often] we wouldn’t be able to get them to do it more than once. … For the most part, the scene you're seeing is that take in its entirety.”
“The film is paced kind of slow,” added Nikki, who edited the entire movie on her own. “But it's paced slow because I wanted the assisted speaking device to have time, so the viewer can actually feel that reality.”
In one scene over breakfast, Will and his mother have an extended conversation mediated by a voice output device. “If it were me and you having that conversation, that would be maybe a two-minute conversation. But that ends up being a 15-minute scene,” Matt said. “That's how long it takes to have a conversation. We take that for granted. We take the immediacy of our communication for granted. And I think that's an underlying theme of the film. … You have to sit and listen and pay attention.”
Other challenges during the filming, which began in the fall of 2016, had nothing to do with the actors or the multiple stationary cameras or the limited days and times to shoot. “I used to drive a Vespa scooter, and a young woman pulled a U-turn in front of me at the Gateway Film Center one night, and I T-boned the side of her car at full speed on my scooter and didn't get up," Matt said. "We had two scenes in the can, and suddenly I had to go through eight months of ocular therapy, almost two years of physical therapy, concussion therapy. ... The film popped out the back of my head when I hit that car. It took a while to figure out how to get my footing again.”
But after about four years, and even longer since Todd initially conceived of the film, the directors and producers reached their goal. And in the end, all those challenges may have helped them bring “Those Who Spring of Me” to fruition. “The fear of it not working out helped keep us all on our toes,” Nikki said.