Robert Watkins reviews the film Please Stand By from his autistic perspective and interviews screenwriter Michael Golamco about the film’s origins and the inspiration behind his Star Trek-loving, autistic female protagonist.
The act of writing is very comfortable to me. It fits very agreeably inside my autistic skin. Writing, for me, is a matter of being able to express ideas that are important to me in a way that, ideally, resonates with others and spreads understanding of what it is to be autistic. Writing is also a way for me to explore and deepen my own understanding of the world. For Wendy, the autistic protagonist in the newly released film, Please Stand By, writing is a means of escape. And while writing a lengthy, fan fiction script about Start Trek does allow Wendy to immerse herself in her special interest, that’s not the kind of escape that she so desperately seeks. Her completed script, if it wins the contest, will be, she hopes, her way out of the limbo in which she finds herself.
Wendy, played with sensitivity by Dakota Fanning, is a young woman living temporarily in a group home, run by the marvelously named Scottie (Toni Collette). Her mother has recently died and her sister, Audrey, has just had a baby. Wendy wants very much to move back into the house with her sister, niece and brother-in-law, but Audrey (Alice Eve) is concerned that Wendy’s meltdowns might prove a danger to her new baby, Ruby.
But Wendy has a plan.
She is going to enter a contest, put on by Paramount Studios, by writing a script “highlighting the best of the Start Trek universe”. She wants to use the $100,000 prize to provide financial stability for her and her sister so life can go back to normal.
Because Wendy misses the deadline to mail her script in, Please Stand By becomes a road trip / coming of age film. Wendy leaves her group home without asking or telling anyone in order to make the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles on her own so she can submit the script in person. This is quite something for a young autistic who had been admonished never even to cross Market Street, “under any circumstances”. I couldn’t help but think of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, as Wendy, accompanied by her small dog, Pete, goes through a series of adventures on her yellow brick road to Paramount. Parallel to Wendy’s journey is that of her sister and Scottie, who are worried about Wendy and together try to find her to make sure she’s safe.
Please Stand By started not as a film but a short, one-act play, written a decade ago by Michael Golamco, who also wrote the screenplay for the film. Golamco started as a playwright in Chicago but moved to Los Angeles as he broadened his repertoire to include writing for both the big and small screens. Previously a staff writer on NBC’s Grimm, Golamco is currently writing and producing for the upcoming science fiction series, Nightflyers. I asked Golamco, who is not himself autistic, what his inspiration was for writing the play in the first place:
RW: What connection to autism do you have, if any, that led you to write the play?
MG: I’d read an article in The New York Times called, “What are autistic girls made of?”, an article about a summer camp for kids with autism and it focused on the girls. The takeaway for me … there are two things: The first is, the condition, it makes it difficult to connect with people socially, to read people’s cues. So, for these girls, these young girls, it was really difficult because there’s this need to connect emotionally with people. There’s still that need to reach out, to establish relationship. And so that was something that really touched me. The second thing was that one of these girls writes Harry Potter fan fiction and I love that so much because that’s what we do, you know, it’s something that I thought was fascinating. So, from there the character just kind of appeared.
RW: For somebody not touched personally by autism to encounter it and respond in that way is commendable. I thank you for that.
MG: Thanks. It was something that really felt human and something that really felt like … there’s something here. Every now and then I read an article where I think “there’s a story here, there’s a character here, or there is something here that I think needs to be expressed.”
RW: The Shadow of the Moon* deals with mental illness. And while of course autism itself is not a mental illness, it is a neurological difference. Do you have an innate interest in different ways of being in this world?
(*one of Golamco’s plays, currently in development)
MG: My mandate for myself, in the stories that I tell, is to try to find the magic in the real world. And so, part of it is how we experience the world, how we describe that world to other people. What is the magic that we find there? And I think very particular viewpoints, like the viewpoint of an autistic person, the viewpoint of somebody that views the world in a different way, I think is incredibly valuable and that’s something that I want to explore.
RW: When you wrote the play, how did you know that you had nailed the authentic voice of autism?
MG: I did a lot of research. I talked to people. The thing that helped me is that autism presents differently in different people, which is an important distinction, because there’s a stereotype that has been established by other stories and movies. They came out and they seemed appropriate for the time and they’ve lodged in our culture and got stuck there. It’s more interesting and important to me that you tell a story about a character first, what her human needs are, how she lives. She’s definitely dealing with autism but she’s also dealing with the fact that she’s a young woman and she’s trying to gain her own agency. She’s right on the cusp of being an adult and taking responsibility for herself. She just needs to make that extra leap.
RW: One thing that does escape far too many people is that autistic people are simply people. And what everyone goes through in life we go through in life. It’s just that we have differences that makes it sometimes more difficult.
MG: Yeah. And I think it feels like all too often that autistic characters are depicted as being kind of static. They don’t change. And I think that that’s fundamentally incorrect. Autistic people grow and they change because they’re people.
That concept of personal growth is an important part of Please Stand By. Not only do we see Wendy step well outside her comfort zone in order to strive toward the goal of submitting her script to the contest, we see how her sister, Audrey, comes to realize that Wendy has, in fact, changed since childhood, becoming more independent and better able to handle the world around her.
From Stage to Screen
I then asked Golamco how the play became a film, and how he felt Dakota Fanning did in portraying Wendy:
MG: I wrote the short, one-act play in a little black-box theater in Hollywood and it went really well so I thought I’d write a feature version and got my agent. It takes years to get a movie made because all the stars need to align. Financing is the biggest part of it. So maybe about two years ago, 2016 or so, the producers picked it up and those stars did align. Our director, Ben Lewin, came on board, we cast it really quickly, the financing came together and, here we are. It was like a hurry up and wait, classic Hollywood adage. It takes forever for a film to get started, but once it does, it’s boom, boom, boom, boom, and everything falls into place. A film takes so long for it to come together at first and when it happens, the public thinks, “Hey, this just appeared from nowhere.”
RW: I suppose it’s like somebody achieving success in a field where they’re in the public eye once they achieved success: they’re a sudden success, although they’ve been working in theater for fifteen years, you know, that sort of thing.
MG: Yeah. It’s like a 10-year overnight success.
RW: The title of the play and the film, Please Stand By, refers to the phrase that’s used to help Wendy calm down: what was the purpose of choosing that phrase for the title? It emphasizes the handling of stress, but I don’t know if that’s what you were trying to convey.
MG: I think it was that and it’s also something from Wendy’s history, like something maybe her mom came up with or they came up with together, and Scottie has tapped into that. It feels like a phrase that is a fingerprint, it’s so specific to a family, and for an outsider like Scottie to have been able to tap into that feels really great.
RW: Speaking of Wendy, how closely did Dakota Fanning capture what you were trying to convey, originally writing the play and then in the longer treatment for the film?
MG: I think she was great. I’ve worked with a lot of actors in my time and she’s one of the best. She really encapsulates the feeling of the character, which I think is the feeling of what Maya Angelou said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The way Dakota Fanning communicates the feelings, the tone of this character, and the core of the character I think is perfect. Now, when I write something it’s literally like a blueprint. A screenplay is not the completed piece of work, that’s really the film. So, somebody has to come along and they have to interpret it and they have to build it out and figure it out…how do you shoot this and how do we cut it together. And during that process there are a lot of hands on it. I like to be fairly laissez faire and just let people take my script and do what they’re gonna do and elevate it. She really did that.
(Elaine Hall, founder of The Miracle Project, is credited in the film as “Autism Consultant and Coach” who focused on Dakota Fanning’s portrayal of Wendy.)
RW: That’s cool. And it actually leads into my next question: Writing a play is, I would assume, a fairly solitary venture. Whereas writing a screenplay … well, the writing of the screenplay may be solitary, but as you say, it’s the blueprint that the film grows from, but filmmaking is by its very nature, an incredibly collaborative process.
MG: Oh yeah, absolutely.
RW: So, the input that you got from others, and that’s not just the actors, but the producers and the director. Did that input help or hinder what you had written, what you were trying to put across?
MG: I think it really helped because we all have the same the objective, which is to tell a good story and to do the best that we can in telling that story. I worked in television, as a TV writer, and it felt a little bit like a TV process sometimes. We’d come up with changes and I’d implement them and we’d literally shooting them like the next day. I’ll give you an example. The night before we were about to shoot the Patton Oswalt scene the director, Ben Lewin, called me and he said, “Hey, Mike, can we give Patton more lines, specifically about Star Trek?” And I love Star Trek so much so I said, “Yeah, sure!” I thought of the Pon Farr, which is a condition that Spock develops in an episode of Star Trek The Original Series where he has to return to Vulcan and mate or die. So, I was wondering, is it the Pon Farr or Pon Farr? I fired up Netflix, episode 2.01, Amok Time, and Spock says, “I have the Pon Farr”. I think, “Okay, it’s the Pon Farr” and I immediately write this down, send it to production and the next day I’m on set and Patton Oswalt is saying, “Oh my God, you’ve included the Pon Farr, that’s amazing!”. It was crazy because I’d just written those lines about 8 or 9 hours before.
RW: Yeah. Wow. That’s something. Well, you could have just asked Wendy. I mean, come on, she would have known.
MG: I know, I mean, she’s the expert. Although I love Star Trek and I know an embarrassingly large amount about Star Trek.
RW: I presume that’s why the plot of the film revolves around Star Trek then.
MG: Oh yeah, absolutely. That old adage is “write what you know”, but it’s really just automatic now: everything Star Trek I absorb like a sponge.
RW: Do you go to Comic-Cons and that sort of thing?
MG: I went to Comic-Con two years ago. It was my first time at the modern incarnation of Comic-Con, when I was writing on Grimm. Right. Its wild, I love it.
The Hollywood Factor
To any autistic person, and to many of those whose lives have been closely touched by autism, how autistics are represented in the media is of utmost importance. Please Stand By is, in many ways, classically “Hollywood”: it’s an uplifting, feel-good, road-trip, coming-of-age story that doesn’t strain the viewer’s comfort level overmuch. I put this to Golamco, who either didn’t fully understand what I was asking, or skillfully avoided giving me a controversial response:
RW: The film is very clearly “Hollywood”, you know, it’s got the feel-good moments and things work out in the end, all that sort of thing. Is that what you were after when you wrote the longer treatment?
MG: I think Star Trek fundamentally rests in Hollywood, well one foot of it does. There’s a huge contribution by fan fiction writers, and by people who are taking it on in their imaginations to expand the universe. And I think that those people are just as important as the Hollywood component. Now that said, I think that a big part of this is a story of a young woman who wrote something, and wants to get it out there and find an audience for it. So, Hollywood was the most logical place for it. And look: I work in Hollywood! With most writers, I think, everything that they write is at least in some tiny way autobiographical. But I also want to say that Hollywood is not the arbiter of what is good story, it’s not always the Hollywood way.
RW: The premise of mailing in a hard copy of a script feels somewhat anachronistic. I mean in this day and age — even in 2008 when you wrote the play — I would expect that somebody would want to make a digital submission. So how did you figured you could get away with the mailing of a hard copy?
MG: Well, I think that for the average lay person, you still think in terms of paper and pages and I thought for me it was important for it to embody a real physical form. The way that she holds it like a baby. Because it’s hers and she created it. And when you create something you print it out and you feel the weight of it, you know, I’m sure you’ve felt this yourself that this is a real thing that we put out in the world.
MG: Right. People who enter various fellowships, or submit to screenwriting competitions these days send in a PDF. That’s great, but for Wendy, it’s the act of getting her script into that mail slot and making sure that it’s actually in their hands so they’ve got it. If it’s a little bit too nebulous it doesn’t feel real enough.
RW: What do you think of the reactions to the film?
MG: Well, I’m glad that people are responding to the movie and I hope it reaches the people that it needs to reach. I’m also really glad that autistic people and their families have said, “Hey, this feels real”, because authenticity is really important to me. Look, I don’t always get it right, but I try as hard as I can. So, I hope that we’ve gotten at least close.
“I hope we’ve gotten at least close”
The problem we autistics have when assessing any media representation of who we are is not that we’re looking for understanding on the part of the wider, neurotypical world. It’s that we are looking with impatience. We want all the Dr. Sean Murphy’s and the Sam Gardner’s we see to make people somehow understand us. All of us. Now. Today.
Two things are at play here. One, autism is a spectrum. There are many different “us”s the neurotypical world needs to get to understand. (And, it must be said, this need for understanding goes deeper: I’d call for more awareness among those of us with fewer noticeable impairments — often misguidedly referred to as “high-functioning” — for our non-speaking autistic brothers and sisters.) Two, with time and with an increasing number of media representations of autism, understanding will grow in depth. That kind of development is, I think, inevitable: writers and consumers will eventually grow tired of what is currently on the table and nuance will creep in.
Did the film get at least close?
While Please Stand By is not without its problems, by and large I think it did get close. I should imagine that character development is difficult when the character has a rather different way of perceiving the world, being in the world, than the bulk of your audience. That said, parts of the film felt a bit contrived, too obvious.
For example, right at the beginning of the film Scottie is going over Wendy’s daily routine with her. For about three minutes we are exposed to an enumeration of Wendy’s quirks. We see that she doesn’t hug, she lines up colored pens, she has difficulty with eye contact, she needs to prepare for her sister’s visit, she wears sweaters color-coded for the day of the week, she has difficulty recognizing facial expressions, her routine is regimented to make things easier for her, she is learning to manage getting around on her own. Phew! It almost felt as if we went through bullet points in a textbook describing Autism Spectrum Disorder Level 1. I appreciate the need to convey this information to the viewers, but is this really the best way to do it?
While on her journey to hand in her script, Wendy is kicked off the bus and left on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere. In my opinion her reaction was way too calm. Something like that would, I should think, fill her with anxiety. One of the favorite scenes is the cameo appearance of Patton Oswalt as a police officer who spots the missing Wendy. That he’s a Trekkie like Wendy and converses with her in Klingon is great fun, but hardly realistic. Such an unlikely interaction glosses over the very real — sometimes fatal — difficulties autistics face when confronted with first responders.
There are some very good moments.
The scene in which Audrey visits her sister at the group home is a touching illustration of the conflicted dynamics in a family touched by autism. Wendy all but begs her sister to let her come home, describing with breathless urgency how she is able to take care of herself now. But Audrey is the one not ready for this. She naively asks Wendy if she likes it at the home, to which Wendy replies, “No. I have to eat pizza on Thursdays even if I don’t want to. I can’t watch TV when I want to. I can’t write when I want to”, a rather soft commentary on the problems of institutionalization.
Before coming to visit her sister, Audrey watched recordings of her and Wendy when they were younger, and that is where Audrey’s understanding of her sister is stuck. Wendy wants to meet her niece for the first time, but, again, Audrey is not ready. She tells Wendy that she is incapable of taking care of a baby, to which Wendy poignantly replies, “How do you know? How do you know I can’t?” All Audrey can do is repeat her sister’s name with exasperation, as if Wendy’s inability is a given, when what’s really going on is Audrey’s inability to see Wendy’s growth. This leads to a meltdown that is so well played that I had to stim to keep myself from getting too upset — and not only the first time I watched the scene.
Repeatedly seeing issues glossed over or not fully dealt with can be frustrating. But, if I think about it, a film that really showed what life is like for those of us on the spectrum, the difficulties and anxieties and bullying and mistaken assumptions we face every day? That would be hard to watch.
The message might be more on point, but not many people would want to see it. So, let’s take the tidied-up version of palatable autism not so much as misrepresentation but rather as representation at a level that can, at this point in time, be digested. As this sort of representation gets digested over and over, the neurotypical stomach will be become ready for something with a little more substance to it. Rinse and repeat, I suggest, until really honest, gritty portrayals of who we are can be produced and, more importantly, consumed by a wide audience.
So yes, Please Stand By may be all too Hollywood, but I’ll take that on a plate and as many servings like it as possible. Let’s get the world ready for the next level of understanding.
Special thanks to Michael Golamco for his openness and authenticity. We appreciate his time and his storytelling. Please Stand By is in theaters (early 2018), on demand, on Amazon video and on iTunes.
*On Autistic.ly, Robert is reinventing the workplace with and for autistic people.
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*Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures