An Interview with Thomas Griffiths, Director of ‘Autism: A Curious Case of the Human Mind’
Before the film, Autism: A Curious Case of the Human Mind, takes off, I conducted an interview with its director, Thomas Griffiths. If you have yet to read my full review, Thomas has gained my respect as a director with very noble intentions. This is certainly a trait that is lacking in the industry. Congrats to Thomas as he is the first interview conducted by MovieBabble. Enjoy!
From a filmmaking perspective, are there any films that influenced you during the making of the documentary?
From a filmmaking perspective, because the project was to follow me learning about my brother’s condition whilst sharing our own story with the audience, I felt that it should be a mixture of two elements. The first was to use a participatory documentary approach in the film to highlight my place in the story and the second was to implement photographs and home videos to ground the film and help put the audience closer to the events of mine and Owen’s life.
I can’t choose a specific documentary that influenced the use of home videos, but I have always felt more invested in a story when they’re used. However the participatory approach to my interviews was inspired by none other than Louis Theroux, but used for different creative reasons. I am a huge fan of that man, although I don’t think I’ve quite managed to pull off the “Louis Theroux stare” just yet.
I imagine this probably your biggest foray into film. What has this entire process been like for you? Has the festival circuit been grueling?
You’re right, I haven’t done anything like this project before, both in genre or scale. This entire project has been amazing, surreal and more challenging than I had ever imagined. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions for both myself and my film crew. I worked with a small crew of film students on this film and this required all of us to cover multiple job roles.
All three stages of production have had their moments of being a huge learning curve, from issues with equipment, availability of our tiny crew or even acquiring contributors to talk to me on camera. I think one issue we had was that some people, local groups, etc. didn’t take us or the project seriously as we were just teenage film students, but it was important that we treated that kind of attitude as a motivational tool.
It’s arguable that I’ve learned more about finding funding and film festivals through actually having the guts to try it myself than what gets taught to me on my courses – although my college was extremely supportive towards the project. The process of hitting obstacles during production, not having a higher power there to bail you out and learning from them struggles is something that I’ll definitely take with me into my next project, it’s been tough but it’s the only way you’ll learn about film on the production side.
I’ve got no experience from the film festival circuit, the personal goal for me as a film student was to get selected in at least one film festival and I’ve achieved that. I’m over the moon with the response it’s had from audiences so far and I would love for it to do well throughout the rest of the year as it puts the film out there to so many more people. I wouldn’t describe the festival experience as grueling, I thought it would be but I actually find myself incredibly excited keeping up to date with how the film is being received.
One thing that I will admit, I went into the festival circuit blind and without a laid out plan. I’ve learned a lot about how to prepare and plan a festival run so I’m hoping to put what I’ve learned into action for whatever comes next. I’m actually attending my very first festival next week, Carmarthen Bay Film Festival, so I’m looking forward to meeting other creatives there and seeing all the other work that’s on show – I’m obviously hoping our film manages to snag Best Documentary Feature, but we’ll just have to wait an see.
What’s the reception been like from your local community? Have any reactions surprised you?
The local community has actually been really supportive of the film – it’s heartwarming. If we’re not receiving support from the wonderful people following our social media pages then we are normally receiving kind words and support in person. I even had a woman in a coffee shop ask me if I was ‘that local lad who is making the autism documentary’ before having a wonderful chat with her, the community has been great. We had £100 donated towards The National Autistic Society when we screened an early cut of the film last year at a local bar too, it’s madness. I was positively surprised at how many people could talk to me about autism and their experiences with it, but this was also met with the less positive news of how many people were not comfortable with being on camera.
As you documented in the film, Autism: A Curious Case of the Human Mind was made primarily to help understand your brother and his condition. Was there a specific moment that you can recall that made you want to pursue this project?
For years now, and I really do mean for years, my mum has always being asking me to read more into autism and start dedicating some time to research it so that tensions might finally settle between me and my brother in our household. I had made a very spontaneous decision to make a documentary and whilst I was deciding on what I could document, that moment happened. It made perfect sense. I could create a documentary whilst learning about my brother’s autism, and putting what I was learning into a film provided a platform for other people in our society to learn about the condition too. It was a perfect opportunity for me to learn, educate and raise awareness for the autistic community.
I noticed during the film that you made a conscious effort to give the interviewees a relaxed, comfortable environment. Did you focus on this idea during filming or was it just a natural progression stemming from the solid relationship you felt with each person?
We did originally plan to film all of our interviews as talking heads, even sometimes in front of green screen if the environment didn’t help strengthen the subject matter, but after we had filmed our first interview with Alex Lowery we decided that the interviews may be more insightful whilst interviewing them inside their own homes as they are more relaxed and comfortable. Being interviewed for a film isn’t exactly a relaxing experience so I felt that it was for the best that our contributors felt at ease as possible. I think that decision shined particularly whilst going to speak to Claire Smith because her autistic son, another contributor named Jake, was so settled and natural in his own household. I don’t think we would have had such intimate insights into these people if we had met up with them anywhere else.
You mentioned that you had a working budget of £370, what was the biggest difficulty that this brought to the film’s production?
I think that the biggest difficulty that came with the size of our budget was how much needed to be spent on travel. A lot of the money we had raised went towards making our way to and from interviews and this really hindered what we could achieve in terms of production value. Our crew and I went unpaid and we also worked to cover our own food costs on set, etc. We underestimated the importance of sound, which is one aspect of the final film which I wish could be improved upon. I believe if we got a second chance at the film without the stress of preparing for university and a slightly bigger budget for a better mic to attach to the camera, the film’s overall production value would be a step higher – but I’m incredibly proud with what has been achieved with the budget we had.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself throughout this process?
I’ve learned an awful lot throughout the production of Autism CCHM but the overall attitude that I’ve taken away from the experience is that you’ve got to be brave enough to actually go out there and make things, even if they ultimately fail, because you will either benefit from its successes or learn from its failures.
Obviously this documentary has done its part to help shed a light on Autism and its effects on those who have it. But what do you hope viewers take away from watching it? What’s the one thing that they absolutely need to know?
I personally think that the most important message to take from the film is that despite it being found in over 70 million people worldwide, autism is actually a very individual condition and those who are on the spectrum aren’t ‘wrong’ in any way but just different. One of the contributors that I met for the documentary, Jake Cartwright, sums it up well – “people hate what they don’t understand”. It’s important to understand that everybody’s experiences with autism will vary and the people who do have the condition go about doing things like your average neurotypical person does – just a little differently. I think it’s our job to understand that and adapt our society to better suit the needs of autistic people and their families.
Now that you’ve had some success with this documentary, what’s the next step? Do you plan on pursuing a career in film?
I’ll be supporting the film throughout the remainder of the year, but I really don’t want to be focused on just that. I’m itching to start another ‘big’ project but I need to make sure it’s the right one and the preparation is done correctly. Right after finishing the film, I had enrolled into university to study “Film Studies with Film Production” so I’ve got that to think about too. I guess I’ll take in all I can from my course, making a few smaller projects along the way, whilst putting into place the pieces for another project – which will most likely be fictional this time.
I think I speak for most people when I say I hope for the best for Thomas moving forward. He’s a very genuine young man, and I look forward to seeing what he has in store for up next!
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