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A Chat with Mick Jackson, director of “Temple Grandin”

Sunday night brings the premiere of HBO’s wonderful new film, “Temple Grandin,” and if you’ve been reading Premium Hollywood lately, then you’ve already seen my interview with its subject, Dr. Temple Grandin. After the panel for the film at the TCA tour, I also caught up director Mick Jackson for a few minutes, which was just enough time to ask him about working with Grandin, to find out why he made one of his casting choices, and for him to offer me a bit of sage directorial advice.

Bullz-Eye: I talked to Temple a little earlier, and she said that she really enjoyed the process of working with you on the film.

Mick Jackson: Oh, she’s wonderful. Part of the story that we tell in the movie is that she has this tremendous eye for detail and uses that to put it together into a pattern and see the whole picture, but, in fact, when you’re dealing with us as movie makers, it’s the same thing. She had the eye for the details that were right and the details that were wrong, but she also had – unusually for someone whose life you’re telling through film – a sense of what it’s like to make a movie, to put it together into a whole picture. We reconstructed what we thought her apartment as a student would be like at Arizona University, based on what she told us and where she lives now, and she visited the set and I said, “That’s supposed to be your rooms.” And she said, “Hmmm. Well, it isn’t. But it could’ve been. It could easily have been.” (Laughs) It really takes a great ability to be able to step outside your own life to be able to say that. And she understood that, when telling the story of someone’s life, you don’t tell every bit of it. Otherwise, the movie would last as long as the person’s life. So she understood that we would collapse things and create composite characters and all that stuff.

It was great. I mean, I watched the movie with her the first time she saw it, and she was in tears. And I said, “Why?” She said, “He was only Mr. Carlock,” referring to her teacher. And the screenwriter and I had decided to call him Dr. Carlock, to convey an eminence that would kind of enhance the impression he made on her. But she thought that giving him his doctorate was a way of her giving back thanks to him for everything he’d done for her. That was lovely. The other thing is that after that screening…she saw the movie once and she was very enthusiastic, and I was driving later in my car and the phone rang, and it was Temple, still enthusiastic… (Laughs) …wildly raving about the movie. And I realized that what we’d shown in the movie, which is her being able to run things in her head, was true. She was quoting me shots and edits and things from the movie that she’d seen once. So she’d obviously downloaded the movie into her head, like a DVD, and she was running it backwards and forwards! “I love that shot where she opens the door and…” (Laughs) So it was literally true…and that was very gratifying.

BE: So how familiar where you with Temple before the script for the movie landed on your desk?

MJ: Not at all. My wife had heard her on NPR, but the name meant nothing to me. So I read this thing and just got dragged into it. I thought, “This is just the most amazing story!” You can’t tell the story of every person who has autism, because it’s such a great range. Not everyone’s a visual thinker or has comfort from a squeeze machine, but…it’s like movies about the Iraq war: you don’t tell the whole war story, but you take something, like “The Messenger” or “The Hurt Locker,” you tell a specific story about one person and, in effect, you’re telling the whole story. So telling the story about Temple is like telling the whole story of autism. If you understand Temple, then you understand what autistics go through, or what being the parent of an autistic child is like.

I hope the main thing that people take away from Temple’s story, which is uniquely true for Temple but is in fact true for everybody who is a parent or a relative of an autistic child, is that you’ve got to put all that energy in there for some of it to come back. You can’t just lean back and say, “This child maybe should be looked after by doctors or go into an institution,” like they suggested with Temple. All that energy, all that pushing of Temple by her mother, her aunt, her science teacher out into the real world did it. It helped her emerge. The title of one of her books is “Emergence,” and that’s just what she did. There was this amazing mind in there that was just trapped and came out. So I think that’s the lesson we ought to take away from it: never let up your energy for a moment, and never let up that sense of constantly pushing them forward. Not really like a stage mother, but just not shielding them from life and just trusting them to find a way of dealing with life. It’s a learning experience. Everything was a learning experience for her.

BE: My wife works with autistic students, and I told her that Temple had said much the same thing, about how her mother pointedly made sure to push her toward activities in the summer and to the activities in high school. And my wife said that that’s exactly what she does every day with the student she’s working with right now.

MJ: And I’m sure she sees that the more energy she puts into it, the more she sees the change. Not immediately, because it’s over a long period of time, but…it’s the one lifeline that they have to the real world, people pushing them into it.

BE: I had one question about the casting for the film. How did Catherine O’Hara come to play Temple’s aunt?

MJ: It’s my experience in casting character actors, as it were, that if you cast someone who has a great comedic career, they know a lot more about the human condition sometimes than straight dramatic actors. And I so much wanted the aunt to kind of be a way into the movie for the audience, a sympathetic, warm figure. You meet Temple with all of her kind of raw orneriness and awkwardly unsocial manic behavior, but you have this reassuring figure there in the aunt, who says, “Yes, it’s all right, dear. Come this way, Temple.” And I thought Catherine just brought all of that warmth that you get from knowing about human foibles from being a comic actress to the role. I thought she was wonderful.

BE: Of all things, my memories of “Home Alone” worked in her favor here, because that’s the movie that first made me think of her as a motherly type.

MJ: (Laughs) Yes!

BE: I know you’ve got to keep moving, but of the other projects you’ve worked on over the years, do you have one that you think didn’t get the love it deserved?

MJ: They all get a certain amount of love, which I’m grateful for. “The Memory keeper’s Daughter,” which was the thing I did before this, for Lifetime…I think it’s probably a little shorter than I would’ve had it, the movie. If I’d been allowed to expand it a little more, I think it would’ve been a more moving story, but that was quite fun to work on. I sound as if I specialize in disease-of-the-week movies: I’ve done Lou Gehrig’s Disease (“Tuesdays with Morrie”), I’ve done Down Syndrome, and now autism! (Laughs) But every one is a movie, and it’s a good movie if it happens to be about the people.

BE: Well, it’s not about a disease, but for what it’s worth, I’m very partial to “Volcano.”

MJ: That was fun, but take some advice from me: if you’re ever directing a movie, don’t get into a race with another movie on the same subject (“Dante’s Peak”). Nobody ever says, “Oh, I saw the second volcano movie!” (Laughs)

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