Please Stand By may not seem like a genre movie at first. It's about an autistic girl and her dog as they slip out of their group home and take a journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles in order to submit a script to a contest. But in this case, the script is for Star Trek, and Wendy, our hero, is definitely a Star Trek fan. I think all of us can relate to the character of Wendy. We have all had our fandom reach obsessive levels before. This isn't a negative; sometimes it helps us get things done. How many beautiful works of art come out of obsession?
The film stars Dakota Fanning as Wendy, Toni Collette as her social worker, Alice Eve as her loving but put-upon sister, and Patton Oswalt as a kindly police officer who happens to be fluent in Klingon.
SYFY WIRE spoke with director Ben Lewin about his work on the film, and we were shocked to learn he wasn't a Star Trek fan -- at least not at first. Check out the entire interview below, where we also found out about possibly setting a record for most Klingon spoken, why Spock was TV's first autistic hero, and working with the real star of the film, Pete the Dog.
How did this job come about?
Oddly enough, I connected with someone who I'd been meaning to connect with for years. I knew the producer's father... I had a movie called The Sessions, and after that I got a lot of interesting script submissions and this was one of the more interesting ones because it featured a very unusual female character. I just connected to the main character, which I think is the same as everyone. All of us just felt it -- she seemed very real to us. I think that was the preoccupation with the writer and producers... certainly with Dakota, she just connected with that character.
Are you a big Star Trek fan?
No. I was never a Star Trek fan. I was never anti-Star Trek, but it never played much a part in my life. I always thought it was kind of hokey. But after, I realized there is this profound connection between the Star Trek world and autistic people who relate to it, the simple morality of it, the sense that everyone else is an alien. Above all, the notion that Spock was really the first autistic hero on television. The guy who had trouble with his emotions and dealing with them. Once all the balls fell into place, I realized that Star Trek had a significance that I never really understood, and I totally got into it. I became a "Trekkie."
Did you have any experience with fandoms outside of Star Trek, or was that new for you as well?
Hanging around with Dakota Fanning I learned something about fandom. Everywhere you went with her, there were adoring fans!
I didn't see the Wendy character as a fan so much as a writer, someone who really lived in the world of the imagination. Rather than idolizing Star Trek, she was kind of part of it. I thought of her as a writer and a kindred spirit to me, rather than a "fan."
What kind of research did you do in preparation?
Researching Star Trek is easy -- you just sit down and watch all the old episodes. I was able to catch up on my Star Trek knowledge fairly quickly. Becoming sensitive to the world of autism is a bigger job. I really only dipped my toe into it. I'm not an expert. We did connect with people who are very active in the autism community. I visited some group homes, daycare facilities, drama courses.
One thing I learned is there is no one common denominator. Just because you have met one autistic person doesn't mean you understand it. I guess I became aware of how much I didn't know. The benefit of reaching into the community was that they were able to participate in the film, and they are all really good. It's always useful when you have people in your movie who don't have to act. I guess, for me, that was one of the more gratifying parts of this project.
Did you have any Star Trek aficionados on set to help nail down some of the details?
Oh, and how! They all came out of the woodwork! The writer, Michael Golamco, is himself a Star Trek aficionado. Whenever there was a Star Trek question, he was the first port of call. The scene where they speak in Klingon, we had an expert on the Klingon language on set. He recorded an amazing tape of how to pronounce every single syllable and blessed the grammar of the scene. So that is expert down to the last letter. We probably have more Klingon dialogue in this movie than ever heard before.
We were actually arguing about whether or not we should have subtitles in that scene! I thought the argument against was that you can see what was happening. They both speak in this kind of strange code, and it connects them, and she trusts him. You can see what is happening. I watch a lot of movies silent, and I totally get everything that's going on. But common sense prevailed and we had subtitles.
How did you get such an incredible performance out of Dakota?
I'd like to take the credit for her performance, but that's not how it happened. She came to the set fully prepared. A lot of actor preparation is a mystery to me -- and it should be. Every actor has their own particular way of becoming the character. Her challenge was to become her own character, not mimic someone else's.
I think what people mostly have in their minds is a kind of Rain Man image, a robotic character who is a mathematical super-brain. I think what Dakota embraced really wonderfully was that women have a different autism experience than men. They're not so much at home in the world of mathematics and video games. They need emotional connection. I think that what she accomplished was opening that door, to show that craving for emotional connection, and try to dispel that notion that people with autism don't have emotions, and that they're all like Rain Man. What she did was play a regular human being; not say, "Oh, I'm playing an autistic person." She was playing a regular human being who had issues, like a lot of people. I think that was her accomplishment -- or one of them.
I have to ask you about working with the real star of the film, Pete the dog.
I almost cut him out of the movie! We had a tight budget and a very tight schedule. I can't get rid of the baby, and I was measuring how much time and trouble it would take. But I love dogs -- I have two at home -- and I could see how important it was that Wendy had a soulmate on her journey. It wasn't just the cute factor; she really did have someone she cared about: the dog. And the dog cared about her. I think that got across. Honestly, the dog was wonderful. I love working with animals because, by and large, they're more obedient than human beings. You have to rehearse with animals, then it's a matter of repeating the same thing over and over until they figure out that's what they are supposed to do.
Please Stand By hits blu-ray, DVD, and digital tomorrow, May 1.