“Adam” is an unconventional romantic comedy with dramatic overtones, in which a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome—a type of autism that makes it difficult to relate to how others are feeling and react accordingly—develops a relationship with a schoolteacher who moves into his apartment building. It’s the second film—the first to receive wide distribution—by writer-director Max Mayer, who visited Dallas along with his stars Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne on a promotional tour.
“I’ve worked in theatre for about twenty-five years, and started a theatre called New York Stage and Film that worked only on new plays,” Mayer explained. “Originally we were interested in artists crossing over into film. We produced a bunch of short films and actually produced one feature before that I directed. That first movie was an adaptation of a play that I’d directed. Olympia Dukakis was the lead in that play, and she then she won her Oscar, and all of a sudden she said, ‘Well, why don’t we make a movie?’ and so we did. Roy Scheider was in it, and Ed Herrmann and some other wonderful actors. And it has some really good stuff in it. But I think it never quite stopped being a play, largely because I didn’t have much experience with the medium. That was ten years ago, and then about eight years ago I went to L.A. for three months, and I’m still there. I started getting some work in television and took some classes at UCLA extension and learned a bit more.
“I knew I wanted to make another movie. Directing movies is every bit as good a job as everybody thinks it is. And my way into that would be to write a script. And so I wrote a script that could be done on a budget small enough that somebody might let me direct it, and that’s pretty much what happened. I didn’t shop it to studios—I showed it to a few people…[and two] basically funded the movie.”
Mayer got the idea for “Adam” by sheer accident. “I heard…an interview on NPR, a young man who had Asperger’s who was being interviewed and I was stopped in my tracks by the way he was talking about how the world felt to him—his challenges and his sense of peering at groups of people and their interactions and trying to figure out how people knew when to smile and when to talk or stop talking. It was amazing, and very moving to me. And so I started doing some research.
“You want to do enough research so that it doesn’t have to be first and foremost when you’re actually writing it, so that you can just write the character, and the rules of the character—the way the character behaves—become second-nature. So that you can speak in his voice and not worry about that while you’re actually writing scenes.
“It was also very important because of the specificity of it. I really believe that in order to write a universal story, you have to be real specific about the characters, or else the great quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald that’s on my desk [applies]—‘If you start with an individual you will inevitably wind up with a type. If you start with a type, you will inevitably wind up with nothing.’ That was a touchstone.”
Once the script was completed and financing secured, casting began, starting with Dancy. Did the young British actor have any knowledge of Asperger’s Syndrome beforehand?
“No, I had none,” Dancy said. “I read Max’s script without knowing anything about the script, let alone Asperger’s. And when I got to that point in the movie where Adam announces that he has the condition, I was very grateful because I thought it was a really clever piece of writing—I’d been hoping there was going to be an answer to why he was behaving the way he was—and I was impressed Max held it back that length of time. And at the same moment I thought, ‘Oh God, this is really going to be a lot of work’—if I did it.”
What persuaded him was the quality of Mayer’s writing and Mayer himself. “It fell into the tiny percentile of good scripts you ever get to read,” Dancy continued. “And then after being impressed thoroughly by Max and being impressed with his background in the theatre, and just hearing him talk about [how] the Asperger’s would be [handled]—he was clever, he just hooked me in, he just portrayed the interesting bits. And then I went away and thought about it for a week or so and did some work and became, frustratingly, simultaneously fascinated and daunted. But my fascination was always just ahead of my dauntedness. I didn’t audition for it, and I’m really grateful for that—that it went on trust, because we had so little time [and] it’s such a strange thing to try to portray, that I had to have enormous trust in Max, and vice versa. And it took me six weeks to even be halfway there. So if he’d set me down on day one and said, ‘Read the scene,’ I’d have been blown out of the water. The first three days of the shoot, my anxiety levels were spiking anyway.”
Mayer recalled Dancy’s acceptance of the part: “He came on six weeks before we started shooting, and it felt more like writer-actor than director-actor. We’d just sit at the table and go through the script, not talking about how to do it but about what was in it, what it was that Adam was hearing in these transactions. Then we went through the meetings with the Asperger’s people. So by the time we got onto the set, he and I had a kind of backlog of Adam information, character information. It was kind of a joke between us that we were the only people who saw the world in the same way, the Adam way.”
Dancy remembered his preparation for the shoot: “I began on the Internet. Aspies who have trouble talking to other humans sometimes don’t have that trouble sitting in their room talking to a camera. So there’s a lot of surprisingly frank and forthright descriptions of their own lives—which is very useful in one sense and in another is actually not very representative of how they would be in a normal situation. And meeting people with Asperger’s and people who work with them, talking to them. Some were very generous with me—members of an organization called Adaptations in New York. And then also just watching people as they went about their business, the things they were sharing with me without realizing it.”
Byrne had much less time to prepare. “She came on board like three days before we started shooting,” Mayer recalled. “We actually had to shoot a few days [without her] because we couldn’t get her a visa in time. So I had one meeting with her and like a five-hour day of rehearsal with her and Hugh before we started shooting.
“She had been in India, vacationing. And when we contacted her agent, he said, ‘Forget it, she’s in India.’ She’d just been offered a big Hollywood movie and was going to be so-and-so’s girlfriend. And I said just send her the script, and we finally got her the script, and like two days later she said, ‘Yeah, I’ll come back—I’ll do this.’ Which was fantastic. I got very lucky with the contrast between them, between the ways they work. Hugh is extremely analytical—he’s a very feeling person but he kind of starts it in his brain. And Rose is a kind of impulsive, spontaneous creature who reacts truthfully—she’s one of those people who can’t lie. It was exactly what I needed in the character.”
“I just lean toward working, whether it’s the show [her TV series ‘Damages,’ with Glenn Close] or something like this. Diversity’s always great, a small role in a big film or a big role in a small film,” Byrne said.
She did have some personal experience to bring to the role, however. “A close family to my family, their son has Asperger’s,” she said. “It was a very parallel experience to doing the film. He’s younger that the character of Adam, but I’ve known him since he was about twelve. He’s about eighteen now.
“But I didn’t know enough about it in terms of exactly what it was like to interact with someone with Asperger’s. I’d also read a great novel called ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,’ by Mark Haddon, a British writer, which is about a boy with Asperger’s. And I read some stuff on the Internet, but I wanted to keep that organic in terms of Beth’s discovery.”
Mayer couldn’t say enough about what Dancy and Byrne brought to the roles he’d written. “What’s amazing about really, really fine actors is that as a writer you sort of inhabit the character as you’re writing—that point of view—but you inhabit not only his point of view but Beth’s point of view, or [Beth’s] dad’s point of view. When you see an actor take your material and actually take the singular responsibility for that point of view, that imaginative circumstance, it’s revelatory, because they take it to a deeper level than that to which you ever went as a writer.”
And though the hook in “Adam” is that one of the characters has Asperger’s, Dancy pointed out that it’s still a relationship film, not a didactic one. People with the syndrome who have seen the picture, and family members and friends, have praised it, but, he said, “For them, what they’re seeing is that somebody’s finally told an honest story about Asperger’s with its difficulties, and the humor and everything else—and how valuable that will be for the world in general. And that’s true, and it’s great.
“But of course it wasn’t our driving motivation, day in, day out. We were thinking about how do we represent this one guy and this one girl and tell their little story. So I feel that sometimes we’re given credit more than we deserve.”