Max Mayer is a highly educated man. He’s witty, quick with a joke, and possesses all the charm of a director any promising young actor would love to work with. With his first feature film about to be released, Mayer is relaxed, and excited to talk about the process of making Adam. He’s not afraid to talk about the obvious obstacles making a film about a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome presented, and confesses his own interest in the disorder began as subtle interest that blossomed into a full-length indie starring Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne.
Our interview being the first of the day, Mayer looked calm, and genuinely happy to see me. This could not possibly have been the successful orchestrator of a film I dare say is the best of 2009. Or, could it? “Hollywood types” weren’t supposed to make you feel at ease at 8:45 AM, or are they? At any rate, we spoke about everything from the origins of his interest in making Adam to why romantic comedies should no longer be made. At the end of the day, I left with a wealth of information about “functional autism,” and a reminder that my fear of heights may one day get the best of me … we did the interview in a window-laden room on the 43rd Floor of The Four Seasons Hotel.
How do you go about making a film about making a film about a young man with Asperger’s, without making it a generic display of someone “out of the ordinary?”
I heard this interview on NPR with a young man who had Asperger’s Syndrome, and he was just talking about how life felt to him. He talked about his sense of isolation. He would sort of peer out at people’s behavior. It’s funny, I sort of look at any group these days, from the point of view of someone with Asperger’s. I was at this reception a couple of days ago, after a screening, and I was watching it in the way he was talking about it. Like, how do people know when to laugh, when to smile, when to talk, when to stop talking? He talked about that inability to connect with someone else, so it moved me. I don’t get that moved that often, so I thought I’d do a little research about it. There’s a lot of information online. People with Asperger’s tend to be comfortable on computers, so there were a lot of examples of people talking about their interests, and experience [with Asperger’s], because they were more comfortable doing so online. As far as the print medium goes, there is this wonderful publisher named Jessica Kingsley who puts out a full range of books on Autism Spectrum. I became her best customer for a couple months. After the research, I wrote a short monologue from Adam’s point of view. It’s not in the movie. It wasn’t much of anything, but it was the first hint to me that I could write in a voice of a character who had Asperger’s.
You use humor in your depiction of Adam and Beth’s relationship. Not in order to poke fun, but to better explain the experience of falling in love with someone with Asperger’s. Adam is a competent person, but was it difficult to believably present him as relationship material?
If I were to ere on either side of the coin, regarding Adam’s relationship with Beth, it would be to blame Beth, rather than blaming Adam for relationship problems. But, I had to remind myself every once in a while that something like this would be really, really difficult. Dealing with someone with Asperger’s is real difficult. But, I was feeling so empathetic towards Adam that I would catch myself siding with him… Going, oh wait… This is real hard on Beth. You know? I mean, how would you like to deal with someone like this everyday? Now that I’ve had the chance to show the film to a lot of people, both with Asperger’s and the relatives of people with Asperger’s, they’ve said the feel well-represented. The fact that it’s an overwhelming emotional experience for them, and that they feel really grateful, is… great. But, I feel sort of fraudulent because the more I learned about Asperger’s, the better metaphor it felt like to me for human relations in general. That’s actually what I wanted to write about.
How do you direct silence? In the scene where Adam’s nervously awaiting Beth’s arrival, how much of that was your direction versus Hugh’s acting instincts?
We cast Hugh [Dancy] six weeks before we started shooting. When you’re the director/slash/writer, you immediately have the attention of the actors. Most actors will give the directors attention regardless, but they won’t necessarily assume that you have something helpful to offer them, if you’re just the director. Unless they feel like you have something to offer them, they feel like they have to essentially protect themselves from you! [Laughs]. Actor’s always believe that the writer has something to offer them, because they created the characters. With Hugh, I had that going for me.
Must have been nice…
Yeah, it was. We spent five or six meetings just going through the script. Beat by beat. Scene by scene. We talked about how Adam is taking what’s being said, and such. It was fun. Hugh would tell me what he had gotten out of it, and once he’d done some research, and understood the parameters of the syndrome, we began to bat around what was possible. Once we got on set, we had a short-hand about which direction to go. What happened between Hugh and I, which was a joyful, wonderful collaboration. In retrospect, Adam was essentially cut off from everybody else on the set. Only he and I were in on the joke… of who he was [Laughs].
That’s a great way to do it!
We had a wonderful communication about that, constantly throughout the shoot, which is just a director’s dream. As far as casting [Hugh] was a concern, he was a huge favorite of my casting director’s, and I’m embarrassed to admit that the only thing I had seen of his work was Ella, Enchanted, because I have a seven-year-old daughter [Laughs]. They showed me Elizabeth, the HBO thing he had done with Helen Miren. I also saw him in the movie Evening, in which he really stood out in a film with Meryl Streep and Vanessa Redgrave. If you can stand out in a movie with them… I was just really delighted he responded to the script.
And in that scene where he’s waiting for Beth, what was the process you two went through to pull it off?
Well, it’s fairly early in the movie, so I didn’t know exactly what level of anxiety was going to be best to use. Hugh’s instinct was basically where it is [in the film] now. I got him to go further, which I’m glad about because as it turns out in a later scene where he’s packing and readying himself to head to California, where you see him grieving… That shot is actually stolen from the earlier scene. It didn’t fit in the earlier scene, because it was too extreme. But it fit later on. That was pretty cool.
I couldn’t help but notice this film is listed as a “romantic comedy” on several online sites. I hate that title, because it’s really not what Adam is to me. What are your thoughts about this?
I don’t like it either. Maybe it’s a romantic comedy in some old sense… But the problem with romantic comedies now, to me, is that it’s become code for, “You don’t have to worry about these people.” Everything is fine. Everything will be fine, and the problems presented are fairly easily overcome. It allows the audience to relax. I didn’t want to make a movie like that.
I agree. I think people who aren’t afraid to think… will love it.
I hope so too.
Quick Questions with Max Mayer
Who would you want to have dinner with, living, or dead?
Lincoln, Jefferson, or Einstein.
Book you wish you’d written?
“The World According to Garp,” by John Irving.
Something you can’t wait to do?
I can’t wait to see my daughter again.
Worst job ever?
I.H.O.P., I lasted three days working as a bus boy.
What’s your weakness?
I can become intimidated.
Who would you want to be for 24 hours?