Max Mayer is the writer/director behind the sensitive and insightful new film, “Adam,” the story of a young man with Asperger Syndrome (Hugh Dancy) who is befriended by his new neighbor (Rose Byrne). He is an exceptionally thoughtful and engaging person and I truly loved talking with him about the film.
Tell me how this film came about.
I listened to an NPR radio show with a young man who had Asperger Syndrome, talking about his challenges, how the world seemed to him, about trying to figure out how to interact, how it felt when people nodded and smiled and he was feeling outside of the joke. I was really moved by that, and I am not that moved that often. I thought I should figure out what this is about and the more I learned the better it seemed a metaphor for human relations in general.
And then this guy started talking in my head. And the script began to come together.
Did you and the cast do a lot of research on Asperger Syndrome?
Yes. By chance, Hugh is engaged to Claire Danes and she did a movie about Temple Grandin [a well-known professor who has Asperger Syndrome]. So, Aspy is spoken here.
Many people with Asperger Syndrome become extremely focused on fact-intensive subjects, and in this film Adam is very knowledgeable about astronomy. Is that a particular specialty of yours?
The spaceman metaphor happened organically. I’ve always been interested in cosmology and astronomy, but as soon as it becomes mathematical I can’t do it any more. And it is always on the list of interests for people with Asperger Syndrome. It made sense to me that Adam’s dad would have gotten him a space suit that was a prize possession, and he would wear it not for fun or to pretend but because it was utterly logical and sensible to use.
How do you project yourself into the mind of someone whose thinking patterns are so different from those of a writer, who is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of being attuned to others?
I was a psychology major at college, but it was all about rats and chemicals so I retreated into theater. I was trained as an actor to begin by interpreting the text extremely literally. It’s the first time I’ve thought about this but that was part of why it felt easy to me to write this guy. It is so easy, especially for young actors, to read sarcasm or irony or some sort of off-kilter interpretation into the text and not investigate what the words mean, and that was beaten into us at NYU, to begin with just the words. And that is how Adam speaks.
The movie treats all of its characters with great tenderness.
When I first wrote it, it was a bit bleaker, he was more clearly on his own. But the people who read it said, “You can’t do that! Why was I watching this?” Then I tried it the other way and let them get back together, but I didn’t like it and had to figure out why I didn’t like it. It was like saying “just kidding” about the rest of the movie. I did want to say something positive about their development and make it clear that they had ended up some place that was a good place for them to be.
I got so enthralled with Adam that as I started to write it Beth was a little bit of a cipher. I had to round her out and round her parents out. I wanted to make sure everyone had a legitimate point of view. The father makes the point about care-taking, to give the stronger point of view in the voice of the heel. It needs somebody that good because it comes late in the movie structurally.
Central Park plays an important role in the film.
I love Central Park. And it is like Adam and Beth. Manhattan is a rock with buildings, and then there is this romantic splash of green in the middle. As they say in the film, they weren’t supposed to be there, but they were. It’s Adam’s place, a place he feels comfortable, in the midst of an unbelievably intimidating metropolis.
Your background is in theater, so as you begin to work in movies, who are some of the films and film-makers who influenced you?
“The Last Emperor, many of Stanley Kubrick’s movies, Hal Ashby’s movies, including “Being There” — some similarity to “Adam” in that one, “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Graduate,” the way some of the music in that film is used — and “Adam” has a scene where we see the characters reacting very differently to that movie. I was also influenced by playwrights like Sam Shepard, Eugne O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, of course, John Patrick Shanley.
What makes you laugh?
Miscomunication makes me laugh, “Who’s on first,” Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, George Carlin.
I can tell you are a writer — that answer is very word-oriented.
Theater is language-based. But what I love about movies is that I still feel like a freshman which is really great. Movie directing is every bit as good a job as it is cracked up to be, working with the actors and finding the moments. In movies, it doesn’t have to be replicable, you don’t have to get there every night, and after it is all over you get this unbelievable time called editing. When you are in the editing room, you can make them do it over and over, make them look at what you want them to look at, you never give it over to the actors. In the theater, you can go out for a smoke when the audience comes in. But in a movie, the director has the final word.
TOMORROW: Interview with Dancy and Byrne