Director Max Mayer On 'Adam' And Asperger's Writer-director Max Mayer's latest film is a romantic comedy in which — what else? — boy meets girl. In Adam, boy has Asperger's syndrome; it's a high-functioning variant of autism that can cause social awkwardness. The film won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at Sundance.
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Director Max Mayer On 'Adam' And Asperger's

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Director Max Mayer On 'Adam' And Asperger's

Director Max Mayer On 'Adam' And Asperger's

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The new film "Adam" is a romantic comedy about a young couple in their 20s who meet when the woman, Beth, moves into Adam's building in New York. Pretty standard fare, right? It might be, except that the title character, Adam, has Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning variant of autism.

People with Asperger's are often exceptionally intelligent and verbally gifted, but socially awkward since they have trouble reading emotional cues from others. Many with Asperger's have a special interest which can become an obsession. In the film, Adam's special interests are astronomy and theater history.

My guest is the writer and director of "Adam," Max Mayer. Mayer has spent most of his career directing theater and has written three produced plays. His only other feature film, "Better Living," starred Roy Scheider and Olympia Dukakis. "Adam" stars Hugh Dancy and Beth is played by Rose Byrne. In this scene from the film, Adam is meeting Beth's parents for the first time at a theater in New York. Her parents are played by Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving.

(Soundbite of movie "Adam")

Ms. AMY IRVING (Actor): (as Rebecca Buchwald) We rarely go off-Broadway. I didn't even know this theater still existed.

Mr. HUGH DANCY (Actor): (as Adam Raki) Oh, the Cherry Lane Theater is the oldest continuously running theater off Broadway. It was converted from a box factory in 1924. And then in the '20s and '30s and '40s, it presented the work of writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Eugene O'Neill...

Mr. PETER GALLAGHER (Actor): (as Marty Buchwald) I used to bone up on conversation topics too when I had a date.

Ms. IRVING: (as Rebecca Buchwald) Marty.

Mr. DANCY: (as Adam Raki) ...1951 to 1953, Julian Beck and Judith Malina's "Living Theater" was based here. Oh. Oh, in 1952 Judith Malina chased a fire marshal down the street with a spear from her production of "Ubu Roi."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANCY: (as Adam Raki) And "Endgame" by Samuel Beckett had its American premiere here in 1957, followed by other new works such as "Happy Days," also by Beckett in 1962, "Dutchman" in 1964 by LeRoi Jones, "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden" by Thornton Wilder in 196 - but that's enough about the Cherry Lane Theater.

Mr. GALLAGHER: (as Marty Buchwald) What about the '70s?

Mr. DANCY: (as Adam Raki) Well, in 1971, "Godspell" opened and in 1970...

Ms. ROSE BYRNE (Actress): (as Beth) Adam, Daddy's joking.

Mr. DANCY: (as Adam Raki) Oh. Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: I asked Max Mayer how he imagined the mental state of someone with Asperger's to write the dialogue for Adam.

Mr. MAX MAYER (Writer, Director): It's almost a question of bandwidth in a way. I've heard people with Asperger's described it like that, that there's a sort of narrower bandwidth of stimulus that they receive, in the sense that many of them are very literal in terms of - and rely on the word that the other person is speaking, for instance, that rather than reading in, in terms of tone or inflection.

I think, you know, in choosing Hugh Dancy and also that what I had said to him originally was that I don't want an introverted person to play this part basically. I think that Adam is basically an extroverted person who has gotten a bit beaten down through experience of being inappropriate or finding, you know, or finding out that what he said is inappropriate or how he's behaved and that sort of thing, but is fundamentally a sort of trusting and gregarious person who, you know, who is trying to connect in a very real way to other people, but doesn't understand why one would look into somebody else's eyes to get information because he doesn't get any information that way.

In fact, a lot of people with Asperger's say it's sort of, it feels bad to them to look in someone else's eyes. We did a Q & A a few days ago after a screening which one of the people in the audience had Asperger's and he - and somebody mentioned something about the eye contact thing and he just said, well, I look at mouths because that's where the sound comes from. And people kind of laughed. But it's - there's a certain, you know, unassailable logic to life in that way.

DAVIES: In the beginning of the movie, we don't, you know, Adam's diagnosis hasn't been articulated. We don't know what it is and I'm wondering, could you share with us some of the tales - the visual details that you used to convey, you know, his life in his world?

Mr. MAYER: Well the - I mean, the movie starts out after his father's just died. So there's a scene with him at a funeral in which he has a somewhat odd or slightly, seemingly vacant reaction to this funeral. And you find out a little bit later when he comes home - because he has a, there's a chart up on the refrigerator about - for chores and there's Adam's chores and Dad's chores. And he takes the pen and he crosses out Dad, you know, from Dad's chores and realizes that now he's going to have to do more of the chores. And that could be taken as sort of heartless in a way, but it's, as I've come to understand it, it's a much more sort of present-tense sense of the world that many people with Asperger's have, of rather than sort of dwelling on a feeling or on something that's happened in the past, it's actually, you know, the kind of the next thing and not and feel - the sort of feeling realm is a very sort of awkward realm. So it's better to get on with it.

DAVIES: I mean the heart of the story is his relationship with this woman, Beth, who is played by Rose Byrne. They meet because she happens to move into another apartment in his building and he is struck by her. And when you were crafting this story, I'm wondering how you decided upon what kind of woman would be drawn to Adam. How did you decide to - what kind of character to write for Beth?

Mr. MAYER: Well, I think that some of her outstanding characteristics are, I -she's very curious. She has a really good sense of humor which I - which from what I understand is a sort of absolute must for people who are having relationships....

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYER: ...with people with Asperger's syndrome. She's also been - is sort of in a crisis in the sense that the way she's been brought up and the sort of idealized view that she's had of her family is in the process of crumbling. And she is in the process of realizing that things that she took for granted or believed about her family and her family's relationships weren't true. So I think shes in a space where honesty and fidelity are especially salient to her at the moment. So I think some of the things that Adam offers, in terms of honesty and intelligence and the fact that he can be counted on, are very attractive.

DAVIES: You know there's a moment in - early in the relationship where Adam reveals to Beth that he has this issue, this syndrome, Asperger's - and I'm sure that's something that you thought about when you were crafting the script, and it comes fairly early in the film so we're not giving away much - but I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you decided he would reveal this to Beth.

Mr. MAYER: Right. First of all, I - you know, it does come a little later than I think you would ordinarily think to discover it - in our film. I mean, I think it's about third of the way through or whatever. And it was important to me that the audience kind of get to know Adam without necessarily putting a label on him. Of course, that's just for the first weekend of the movie because now everybody who's going to it - pretty knows - pretty much knows what it's about, but in terms of the experience of the film itself, you know, he is not labeled for, you know, the first half hour or whatever.

And that was kind of important to me, in that I did want people to be intrigued and sort of leaning forward and trying to figure it out and then - and get to know him a little bit as - just as a person before you put a label on him because a label tends to just become that. You know, the person just - then becomes a label if you sort of learn about it too soon. And that's actually an issue in the Asperger's community too, about when to divulge your diagnosis to neurotypicals.

But the other thing I wanted was for it to be truthful in the sense that I think Adam would not - the character I know wouldn't divulge it until he needed to. And so I basically waited until Beth was almost out the door at a certain point and - so that he kind of had to tell her that to keep her in the room.

DAVIES: And what he had done was to say something kind of inappropriate at that point in the relationship about the fact that he was sexually attracted to her and it put her off. That's where he jumps in and says, wait a minute, there is a reason I said something like that.

Mr. MAYER: Right.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, I wanted to play a clip from the film and this is a point at the film in which it's right after Adam and Beth, the woman he is in the relationship with, have had a fight and Beth shows up and sort of as a peace gesture has brought him a box of chocolates.

(Soundbite of movie "Adam")

Ms. ROSE BYRNE (Actor): (as Beth Buchwald) Sorry. Some chocolates.

Mr. HUGH DANCY (Actor): (as Adam Raki) I'm not Forrest Gump, you know.

Ms. BYRNE: (as Beth Buchwald) Of course not. I didn't mean - was that a joke? Are you joking?

Mr. DANCY: (as Adam Raki) I can joke.

Ms. BYRNE: (as Beth Buchwald) I'm sorry. I took it out on you. I'm just - just scared for my father. You can apologize too now.

Mr. DANCY: (as Adam Raki) Well, you said it was your fault.

DAVIES: And that's Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne from the new film "Adam," which is written and directed by our guest Max Mayer. You know, you can hear in that scene that he is taking things so literally. He can't understand why he would apologize also because she just declared that it was her fault. But the scene begins with him cracking that joke and it kind of threw me because, you know, I was used to thinking of him as someone who is so literal, does not pick up subtext and inference in conversation.

Yet, there is this wonderful little ironic joke that he pulls out of, you know, out of the cinema and this gesture. Is this typical of folks with Asperger's? I wonder, is that...

Mr. MAYER: Well, I think that we supply a bunch of the irony, actually. I think that from Adam's standpoint - I mean, he is reminding Beth gently that he is not retarded, you know...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. MAYER: I mean, that he doesn't have a cognitive impairment, you know. And he knows that he's - he knows that he is, you know, not, you know, coming down hard on her or anything. But he has a literal purpose, I think.

DAVIES: So, he is not making a joke then, or is he?

Mr. MAYER: Yes, I think he is - I mean, he's, you know, he's tentatively hoping and - that it's funny. That, you know, that she will both - that she'll get the message. And that he's doing it in a way that's light. And - but - this is very far on in their relationship. And he - I think that in a way he's taking a big chance because - which he would never do with somebody he didn't know that well.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Max Mayer. He has written and directed a new film called "Adam." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Max Mayer. He has written and directed the new film "Adam." Adam is the central character, he has Asperger's syndrome. And it's about his relationship with a young woman. You know, the other interesting thing, I mean, you were saying that in some respects, the difficulties with Asperger's are sort of a metaphor for the difficulties of people in relationships.

You know, we all want to connect, but - and communicate, but it's hard and we struggle with it. The other thing that struck me here was the fact that Adam -you know, he just has no filters. I mean, he's tactlessly honest. He has no interest, for example, in her friend's baby pictures and therefore kind of insults them. And...

Mr. MAYER: Right.

DAVIES: struck me that I - a lot of women who think that their guys are kind of tactless and insensitive and clueless, probably look at this - looking at this thinking, actually I wonder if my boyfriend has Asperger's.

Mr. MAYER: Yes. It's kind of wonderful how you hear sort of higher-pitched laughs in the audience and lower-pitched laughs in the audience. And they sort of - and they kind of take turns - you know, in that clip that you showed, I think that a lot of men would identify with Adam saying, but you said it was your fault, why would I apologize? That kind of makes sense to me as a man and that's probably something I have to work on it in my life...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYER: ...but - and by the same token the reverse is true where he's, you know, where he says things that are obviously, to neurotypicals, inappropriate and - but honest. And comes out as a bull in a china shop or certainly provides more information than anybody wants fairly often.

DAVIES: You know, I wonder if as this film, you know, gets attention, I mean, do you feel the presence of advocates for Asperger's out there ready to either pounce on something in the film that you got wrong or make you a champion for their cause? I mean, there are issues. I mean, there are public policy issues, like the...

Mr. MAYER: Right.

DAVIES: ...difficulty of people with, you know, Asperger's getting needed services, because they're not regarded as sufficiently mentally handicapped. I mean...

Mr. MAYER: Right.

DAVIES: ...are you ready to become...

Mr. MAYER: ...disability and all that.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. MAYER: Yeah, I mean I very much feel that. I didn't up until the last three weeks. We've being going sort of around the country on a bit of junket and showing the movie all over the country. And some of those screenings have had large numbers of people with Asperger's. And at the beginning, certainly my heart was always sort of in my mouth as soon as somebody stood up and said, well, I have Asperger's, partly because, you know, they have a right to criticize. And they have the right to say this is - you know, this is accurate or representative or not or whatever. Partly that and also because you know that you're going to get the straight dope basically because there isn't the same kind of filter or, you know, they're not really invested in being charitable or, you know, or assuaging my insecurities or whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYER: But fortunately, I must say it's - the reaction has been unbelievably gratifying. People have felt - have seemed to be almost humblingly grateful that this movie is out and they feel like it is an accurate representation, not of the entire community because that's, you know, not possible. But that it's an accurate representation of someone with Asperger's, of a unique human being with Asperger's, and also a positive representation. So, that's been incredibly gratifying and also a little bit - you know, sometimes I feel a little bit like a fraud because as I said that's not why I made the movie.

I made the movie sort of to talk about relationships in my own and - other people's and used Asperger's wanting to be accurate about it but if it has the byproduct of making the - our neurotypical world a little bit more interested and compassionate and, you know, and valuing of that community, that's a great thing.

DAVIES: So, when you had the screenings and people with Asperger's rose and said things, what kind of things did you hear?

Mr. MAYER: Well, there was one young woman who basically started a list of things that she liked about the movie, starting with the crane shot that started on the leaf and pulled focus to the van. So, she was being, you know, very precise and then, you know, went on with a list of maybe 10 or 12 more things that she really liked, both sort of large and small.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYER: And that was kind of impressive. Then, there are - the most sort of touching thing about those Q & A's I think have to do with parents of children who have Asperger's because I think the movie touches both on their fears and their hopes for their children's future and their concern for sort of what happens when they're left on their own.

So, some people are extremely emotional about the film and feel like that the film does give them a certain hope about their children and moving on and forming other attachments in life, which is a realistic hope and not, you know, not sort of just rosy and Hollywoodized or whatever. And then there are people with Asperger's who just are, you know, just sort of frankly state that they think that they're - that it was well done and they understand - they recognize themselves in the movie. And there is a lot of - you can hear a lot of, sort of, laughter of recognition from those audiences.

DAVIES: Well, Max Mayer, we'll be waiting to see what you come up with next and thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MAYER: Well, it was a pleasure. I appreciate it.

DAVIES: Max Mayer wrote and directed the new film, "Adam." You can download podcasts of our show at

Mike Seeger, the singer, multi-instrumentalist and folklorist died Friday at the age of 75. The cause was blood cancer. Seeger, with his band The New Lost City Ramblers, was a major figure in the folk revival of the '50s and '60s. He was also the half-brother of Pete Seeger. We'll close with Mike Seeger playing and singing on his 2007 CD, "Early Southern Guitar Styles."

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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