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Writer/Director Janet Grillo on Fly Away

Emotional and involving yet also clear-eyed and with a cool wisdom, Janet Grillo’s Fly Away is a sharply observed and strongly acted tale of a mother learning to allow her autistic teenage daughter to transition into the adult world. Beth Broderick plays Jeanne, a single mom with her own home-office corporate consulting business. Ashley Rickards is her daughter Mandy, and the two have a tight, well-ordered relationship, with Jeanne trying to grow her business during the day while Mandy attends a special needs school. But when Mandy begins a series of violent outbursts at that school, Jeanne’s almost preternatural composure begins to crack.

Exploring not just autism from a mother’s perspective but also the struggle all of us have to maintain our own identities and emotional lives amidst all that life throws at us, Fly Away has a remarkably sagacious insight into all of its characters. The emotional lives and coping mechanisms of a potential boyfriend, an ex-husband, and a no-nonsense administrator are all revealed for us in this cool, nuanced drama.

Grillo has come to make Fly Away after working over two decades as a film executive and producer. She was a New York-based exec at New Line in the 1980s and ’90s, sheparding films like House Party into production. (Full disclosure: I worked as a script reader at New Line for Grillo, and she was a producer on one film I produced in the ’90s, Joe the King.) Below we discuss her journey from executive to director, truth in storytelling, and the film’s fast track from its SXSW premiere to theaters. It opens today via New Video‘s new Flatiron Film Company.

Janet Grillo.

Filmmaker: You were previously involved with Autism: The Musical. How did you wind up exploring the subject again in a fiction feature?

Grillo: I was part of a team who produced that doc, but I didn’t direct the movie, and it wasn’t my story. My [professional] experience until now has been supporting other people’s work — Fly Away speaks to the issue of how I finally came to make a feature as a writer and director.

Filmmaker: Why didn’t you pursue writing and directing earlier in your career?

Grillo: Basically, I froze. I had creative block. When I first got to New York, I just flipped out. I was terrified, and I felt irrelevant. I was 21-years-old, and I didn’t feel there was anything I had to say. So part of it was just that I felt I needed to mature as a person. And, you know, even though it’s been 80 years since Virginia Woolf talked about a room of one’s own, we are still wrangling with the ideas of personal integrity, value and the ability to tell our own stories.

Filmmaker: So you shifted early on to development and producing.

Grillo: Yes, and the filmmakers I worked with at New Line were also writing and directing personal stories. House Party was a personal movie, for example. The kinds of films I was responding to as an executive were ones that came from filmmakers’ hearts, and the stories I am now telling as a director are coming out of my own direct experience, where I have a real authority. The story of a mother with a special needs child — the journey I have been on — is one that I’m exploring [in Fly Away]. So now I’m changing my relationship with film — moving from supporting a different person’s voice to my own.

Filmmaker: How did your earlier short film addressing this same subject lead, then, to the feature?

Grillo: I had made a short about a mother with a kid with autism getting through the day, and whenever there was a Q&A, many special needs parents in the audience would ask if it was going to be a feature. I came to feel I had a responsibility, and because I could, I must. I made the film both for my own reasons as a storyteller and on behalf of hundreds of thousands of parents. In the past decade, there has been a 53% increase in the diagnosis of autism, and those children are now becoming adults. They need to transition to adult living, and [parents] are freaking out. Fly Away depicts that struggle. This coming to grips, this releasing of parental attachment, is something all parents do. But here, all the qualms and fears of a typical parent are heightened. And this is where the benefit of taking 20 years to make my first movie has paid off.

Filmmaker: Because you found material you knew so well?

Grillo: Well, because that [production exec] “critical voice” is what crippled me. I would be “inside” and “outside” at the same time. Voice One would say that a story is not well done, or that there was no reason to tell it. But the value of maturity is that I just outgrew that. Life is too short. It was now or never. And I was at a point in my life when I had nothing to lose. So much of what I had worked for in my life shifted and changed. I had left my career as an executive and producer, married, raised a family, that family life ended, and I was faced with myself. In a way, all of my work as an executive, producer, wife and mother was a detour away from this personal core — as well as having its own great fulfillment, of course. I mean, it’s not like I was pretending! But it was me having that circuit, and now I’m going back to square one.

Filmmaker: I completely understand the pressures applied by that inner, self-doubting, “critical voice.” But, I wonder, did your experience as an executive and producer, your experience thinking about story, help in some ways too?

Grillo: Hugely. The experience of having sat on that side of the table gave me an unfair advantage. And the beauty of working at New Line was that it was a small company, and everyone had the chance to work with everyone else. [As an executive] you had to go to each department and get them to sign off [on a project]. So you had to understand the needs of marketing and the logic of business affairs. Having this experience allowed me to save a lot of time. You know, it’s a relief to be this age — it’s in the vicinity of wisdom, and you save a lot of time and emotional capital. You don’t go down [the wrong] roads and insist on things that aren’t going to happen. You don’t take it personally. You don’t get defensive.

Filmmaker: You just used the word “wisdom.” It’s something I found in your film. Even though the movie tracks much of your own experience, it felt to me that you had a sense of distance from it, particularly in the way you maintained the subjectivities of the other characters in the film.

Grillo: That to me is the difference between drama and melodrama, sentiment and sentimentality. And, at the risk of being grandiose, candor and honesty. When I read a book or see a movie I can always sense if the author is being self protective or avoiding. If you are exploring the human experience, all characters have their own truths. That’s the point of storytelling — to witness the complexity of what it means to be human.

Filmmaker: How long did you work on the feature?

Grillo: I have had the movie in my head for over a year. I was touring the fest circuit with the short film, and Fly Away was gestating for a year. I wrote it in six weeks. And then it changed when Beth Broderick got involved. She is a writer too and she had insights. I went deeper and added material. But the structure didn’t change. I have a friend who is a wonderful playwright, Donald Margulies, and he told me that thinking is writing, and that’s true. Of course, you have to sit down in front of your laptop and do it, but a lot is done before you sit down — when you’re buying groceries, for example.

Filmmaker: What was the biggest dramatic challenge when writing the script?

Grillo: The biggest challenge of the story was to depict boredom, repetition and entrapment without making the audience feel entrapped and bored.

Filmmaker: What were some of the ways you tried to address that?

Grillo: Well, it was important to have [another character] come in to [Beth’s] realm, to have a character who could bear witness to her behavior. It’s a way of dramatizing a person’s behavior — by having someone else react to it.The character of Susan, her workmate, was originally an off-screen character. I wanted to show the mother’s world as so damn isolated that she had very little human contact, but then I felt that was a lost opportunity to bring more life into the movie.

Filmmaker: How did you find Ashley Rickards, who plays Mandy?

Grillo: I feel we didn’t find her — she was delivered to us. I said to our casting director, Erin Toner, that I knew in my gut we would find the real deal, someone with class and soul who will look like she’s 14 but will be 18. On a low-budget film, it’s difficult to work with an actual child. I remember, I was out of town with my son, and Ashley put herself on tape. I looked at it on my laptop. Fifty percent of her performance was in that audition. I brought in my son and asked him if she looked autistic, and he said, “Cast her.” Then when I met her, she walked in and she was in character. I like to talk with people first, but we ran the scene and then I started throwing questions to her as Mandy, and she answered them as Mandy. And then she said, “In two weeks I turn 18.” You know, 90% of the work is casting and 10% getting out of the way. In Ashley I found someone who could do the work, and then we had two months to develop a rapport.

Filmmaker: Did you have any special techniques or directions to help her get more fully into the mind of an autistic character?

Grillo: You explore quirks in your own nervous system. For example, I get migraines. If you focus on stuff in your own nervous system and then go further and imagine that those are your 24-hour baseline reality, then you start to understand an autistic nervous system.

Filmmaker: What was your set like?

Grillo: I shot the film in my own house, and we had a supportive, warm, good-natured set. I have a small house and big backyard, and we made the shoot small, intimate and cozy. We put tents in the backyard, and each tent was a different department. That [vibe] contributed to what you see on screen.

Filmmaker: Why did you decide to sell your film before SXSW and launch it immediately thereafter as opposed to screening it, fielding offers, etc?

Grillo: This is first and foremost drama of the human heart, not an issue film, but it does correlate to a specific issue. Our [initial] target is the community of people who are affected by autism. April is Autism Awareness Month, and it was important to get our movie and message out in that month. We can get a lot of media attention [in April], and every small independent film needs as much on its side as possible to get people to notice. The other benefit I had is that over 20 years I’ve had wonderful friendships and a relationship with New Video. They were aware of the film, and were starting a new division, Flatiron, to do theatrical fiction. They did Autism: The Musical, so they had experience targeting this audience. So, the timing of the release worked out; it was “kismet.” We’re doing a limited theatrical, and at the end of the month we’ll be on Time Warner Digital on VOD and Netflix, Amazon, and all of that.

Filmmaker: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the film?

Grillo: It stands on its own as an independent film, not an issue film. It’s a human experience first, and a film that can be of service to a community of people in need second. This is not a Lifetime movie, nor a documentary. And it also isn’t a big drag. The story presents a challenge to our characters, but there is joy, levity, pleasure and hope. And that’s why I love independent film — they give you a real meal, and, at the end, your soul is nurtured.

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