Writer/Director Rachel Israel’s “Keep the Change” is a Revolutionary Love StoryBy Alysia Abbott, July 15, 2015
Rachel Israel has done something I’ve never seen before on film. In her award-winning short, “Keep the Change”, she’s made a feature centering on the romance between two people on the autism spectrum, starring actors on the spectrum. As the mother of a boy with autism I’d love to give my personal insight here but the issues for people on the higher end of the spectrum (who can integrate in society and even pass as neurotypical, as the lead in “Keep the Change” does) are different than the issues facing my son, who’s on the low-functioning end of the spectrum and will likely never be able to live independently. Nevertheless what Israel’s done feels revolutionary. I caught up with her by phone to talk about the “Keep the Change” and what it’s taught her about friendship.
Alysia Abbott: What was the genesis of “Keep the Change”?
Rachel Israel: It comes out of the relationship I’ve had for over a dozen years with the lead actor, Brandon. He has autism and since I’ve known him he was looking for a girlfriend, online and in bars. Finally he found a girlfriend at the Jack and Shirley Silver Center for Special Needs program at the Upper West Side JCC. I was very moved to see this romance, and the positive effects on his life, and wanted to make it into a film in my MFA program at Columbia University.
AA: Why do you think it’s important to show people this side of the autism community?
RI: It’s important to have films that show characters with autism driving their own lives and pursuing the things in life we all want—love, recognition and creative opportunities. And it was important for me to get to know these people and have my eyes open to that, not in a charitable, I’m a good person kind of way. But in terms of the diversity of experience it brings to my life. Because I was learning so much about the variety and emotional richness of people in this community and I felt like people need to see autism on the big screen.
AA: Why’d you choose to work with actors on the spectrum?
RI: Well it gives an opportunity for people with autism to act. And I think it brings a depth and complexity to the characters I wouldn’t know how to achieve otherwise. It was also, to me, the most fun, an exploration. We’ve been working on this for five years and it’s the best creative experience I’ve ever had. The actors and I worked on the script together. I’d write something and then take it back to them and test it out. That ultimately turned into a “beat sheet” — a boiled down version of the script that allowed the actors to improvise so they could put things in their words.
AA: How’d you get interested in the autism community?
RI: First as a friend, and then as a filmmaker, and then as a volunteer.
AA: How’d you meet Brandon?
RI: We met the summer before I went away to undergraduate school at RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design). We were both in a life drawing class with a nude model in the center of the room. At the break I watched as this guy circled the room hitting on every girl sitting at an easel. As he got closer to me I could hear the reactions he was getting and they were pretty nasty. They’d very quickly jump from subtle signals of not interested, no thanks and then, if he persisted, Get the f*** away from me.
He came around and hit on me and I said, No thanks for the date. Well, could he still have my number? What the hell, I thought. Sure! He seemed like a harmless person. Over the years a friendship developed over the phone. I could tell he had a disability, but at the time I didn’t know anything about autism. All I knew was what I’d seen on film—characters that didn’t seem to want connection. Whereas Brandon’s obsession was that he wanted to connect, which frustratingly pushed people further away from him.
People would say Brandon’s very high functioning. He’s almost passing as someone without a disability. Masking is a big part of his character. That’s the thing. When he met his girlfriend, and for the first time had a relationship, there were no barriers. In taking care of her he was no longer able to put all his effort into masking.
AA: If Brandon liked to “mask” his disability how’d you find out he had autism?
In addition to being on the spectrum Brandon also has Tourettes, which manifests with a lot of ticks. He might repeat a noise. Make brrrr.. sound and then he’d say, “Sorry– Sneeze!” He used to do this all the time. He wasn’t aware he wasn’t fooling anyone with saying, “sneeze.” I hadn’t thought too much about it and dismissed it, and then I was on the phone with him and he referred to his ticks. And I said, what sort of ticks? “Those noises I make..” That was the first time he referred to them. In that conversation, or soon after that, I asked more and he talked about autism.
Many who don’t know people on the spectrum might assume it’d be hard to make friends with someone like Brandon. There were differences but it wasn’t hard. What I’ve experienced based in my relationships with the cast, who’ve all become friends, is that you understand their uniqueness. I no longer approach any person assuming that we think the same. There can be great intimate relationships that come from acknowledging each-others’ differences: agreeing to disagree, knowing our inflexibilities, and knowing where we’ll bend for each other.
Every Sunday night people get together for show tunes and play music from [the actor] Will’s iTunes collection. Will’s a music blogger and musical encyclopedia. He’s also the dictator of the group. We go around in circles and take turns talking but everyone knows no one can take off their shoes, only so and so is allowed to sing. He’s got his rules. And we respect them. The kind of friendships that grow within this community, they’re beautiful. I wish I had more friendships like that.