• Apocalyptic Thanksgiving

Special Needs Adult as an anti-hero?

There has been a steep rise in anti-hero films and TV shows. They’re usually about a hero with a checkered past carrying out morally questionable tasks for a greater good. TV shows like “Breaking Bad” where a man, whose well of opportunities dried up, finds a new enterprise to apply his chemistry genius to become the Southwest’s most notorious meth maker and drug lord. We follow him because at his emotional core he began the journey to pay for his cancer treatment, help a high school dropout and take care of his family. It became a smash hit when the word ‘binge-watching’ came in vogue. There is a cultural fetish for the tainted super heroes such as Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Logan also known as Wolverine. Mad Max, Hannibal, Nurse Jackie and even the latest movie THE JOKER feature anti-heroes for their leads. Rumor has it that the Joker movie is s a grounded version of a pathetic, outcast who spirals into madness to become Batman’s greatest arch nemesis.

physical aggression, behavioral disorder

Most movies about special needs, or individuals with handicaps usually portray them as innocent well-intentioned angels that can do no wrong. FORREST GUMP, PEANUT THE BUTTER FALCON, PLEASE STAND BY, LIFE ANIMATED are all special needs films where they are capable of doing anything if someone just allowed them. It’s society would be better off if these individuals are more integrated like regular folks. We have good days and bad days. So do people with special needs. That’s why I wanted to take the risk to let Marcus to be an anti-hero. His unquenchable desire is to connect with a family. But he’s at risk of verbally and physically assaulting anyone in his way to achieve his goal.

Special needs adults have developmental disabilities. It means that they are intellectually and emotionally disabled from learning. Their emotions are as raw as children and their capacity to control them is minimized. As a result, their ability to harness their emotions is severely stunted. Like children, they throw a fit when they don’t get their way, but they are full grown adults that can cause a lot more harm. This is what prompts his caretaker Frank to say, “He’s got a child’s tantrum inside a giant’s body. You’re not safe.“

In the movie, LIFE ANIMATED, they cut short the scene where Owen doesn’t get his way and has a tantrum. PLEASE STAND BY is a film where there are several situations where Wendy should have thrown a fit. Whether it was crossing Market Street or having someone take advantage of her trusting nature, the writer or producers chose not to show this.

Showing their tantrums, I believe, only humanizes them. Think of all the movies where a character falls to their knees, raise their clenched fists in rage at God and scream at the top of their lungs in victory or in defeat. Raw emotions are portrayed when they punch a wall or slam their fist into the steering wheel. We all identify with them because we would probably act similar if that was us. There is even the occasional road rage where we lose control.

But there is a big danger in portraying too many flaws where the audience would lose sympathy and not care.

What if Wendy in PLEASE STAND BY hurt her dog, her sister or her even her new-born nice would we still follow her? The writer highlights this issue in a flashback where Wendy wishes to live with her sister Audrey. As for Audrey, she is terrified of Wendy living with her new-born child.

In developing the screenplay for My Apocalyptic Thanksgiving, this issue came up a few times. How far should we push it to the point that he’s unlikable character?

As the screenplay writer, I placed Marcus in precarious situations where he could easily get frustrated. His typical reactions are to slam his fist, get in your face, hallucinate or even worse. What if he hurt his caretakers Frank and Doris? What if he worked at the laundromat and hurt the Korean family? What if the gang taught him to hurt others for fun?

There was one instance where Marcus pushes Me Young in the shopping cart into traffic. She doesn’t get injured, but we felt that Me Young’s character would not forgive Marcus. He would unlikely be nonredeemable in her eyes since her journey is to learn to forgive. We wanted to make it a difficult one for her but not an unrealistic one to help take him on as her surrogate son.

And it would also make it even that much harder for Marcus to be accepted by a family. The audience may also question his true intentions if he were to be so violent. His would then be his own worst nightmare since he would give people reason to reject him

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  • Apocalyptic Thanksgiving

Perspective from the writer of My Apocalyptic Thanksgiving

Wendy ( Dakota Fanning ) at Cinnabun
Wendy ( Dakota Fanning ) at Cinnabon

One of the greatest challenges for writing characters with special needs is delineating their capabilities and weaknesses. Wendy, an autistic adult portrayed by Dakota Fanning, can work a cash register a Cinnabon, but can she count money and does she understand the value? Wendy can maneuver streets that she knows, but can she figure out the direction for an unfamiliar place? Many autistic adults are capable of simple, repetitive and predictable tasks. In fact, they thrive in them like the Down Syndrome adults at Hugs and Mugs.

During the meeting with the caregiver (Toni Collete ), the writer, Michael Golamco, establishes that Wendy is smart enough to hold down a job and go to work while adhering to a set schedule everyday. Michael even establishes that Wendy can run a cash register! It's due to her attention to detail like how she know everything Star Trek. She proves this in the film when some guys quiz her about it. As a result, her attention to detail can be overwhelming to many of us. But her real goal is to make direct eye contact with others when talking. We later discover this is her personal struggle. She also desires to be with her her sister Audrey (Alice Eve) since Audrey is her only family. It is our primary urge to belong to a family no matter our ‘intelligence.’

Our story MY APOCALYPTIC THANKSGIVING (MAT) is inspired by many real special needs adults. They vary in their capabilities. One can take the bus and describe the bus routes to you using fast food restaurants like bread crumbs to trace his way back home. Yup. This is literal. He would describe directions like, “There’s a McDonald’s on this corner, and the bus stop is right in front of it. Then there’s a Chick-fil-A and you’ll know you’re close by. But order the chicken supreme because it tastes better.” That guy loves fast food. Others simply do what they’re told. They are nonverbal and can only dress themselves and eat when prompted. And others need to be prompted to go to the bathroom.

Something they all have in common is that they don’t know limits. They learn to speak other languages through osmosis. A few of the clients have learned Tagalog and Spanish because most of the staff speak those languages. Some have learned to love and order Filipino food in Tagalog at Jollibee - adobo, halo-halo, chicken-joy and masarap!

Our MAT character Marcus needed to be able to commute from the laundromat to the group home to the Korean Home. He is not capable of taking a bus long distances or visiting places he’s not familiar with. That’s why someone always accompanies him to a place first.

There’s a great scene in PLEASE STAND BY where Wendy attempts to buy a bus ticket. She manages to buy one, but struggles counting her change. I wrote a similar scene where Marcus counts all his money using zombie killing techniques. It ends up scattered all over the floor and he misses his bus. If Marcus were realistically portrayed Marcus, he would have taken a taxi cab. Then he’d get stuck in traffic and end up peeing all over the seat from all the soda he drank. That scene got deleted scene from an early draft of my screenplay. It would have been a great scene to shoot except it was beyond our budget. We're excited that we ended up finding an even better way to incorporate its elements in in other scenes of our film MAT.

In the early 60’s and 70’s most mentally ill and special needs were permanently placed into a mental institute as famously portrayed in movies like RAIN MAN and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. Then the California Lanterman Act was written into law where many in those institutions were placed into small group homes where they could live and thrive in the community. Establishing the group home with its rules and regulations was also a big challenge. Group homes aren’t prominently displayed in today's movies. So we’re introducing them to everyone in MAT. There is no heavy exposition to explain that her home is a group home. We figure that audiences figures it out by the different roles that people play and others behave.

Nicole, the social worker, Ciera Foster
The Social Worker Nicole with our director Charlie Unger

An example is the Social Worker Nicole. Her professional attire and mannerisms define her role as she reviews Marcus’ goals and ensures that everything is copacetic. The group home Administrator Frank also sits in this meeting and speaks up for Marcus' rights and his well being. We learn so much from this scene by the different roles that people play. It’s written in conflict so that exposition could easily pour out. We also learn about Marcus’ obsession with zombies in him wanting a chainsaw as well as his tantrums. “Did you see the hole in the wall?” Frank calls out. What Marcus is told is to work on his tantrums. What Marcus wants is to find and live with his Mama.

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  • Apocalyptic Thanksgiving

A movie that's eerily similar to our movie, My Apocalyptic Thanksgiving.

Please Stand By
Please Stand By

Please Stand By is a wonderful movie about a young autistic woman. She escapes her group home to submit her Star Trek manuscript to a writing contest that’s hundreds of miles away. I highly recommend it. The movie stars Dakota Fanning as the lead with autism. Years earlier, she coincidentally played the daughter of a special needs man played by Sean Penn in the movie I am Sam

This movie has a modern twist. The main character is an attractive young girl who ‘seems normal’ including having her own job but has autism. She is the main driving force in the movie. The story is set up to show that she has autonomy in her group home if she lives in accordance with the house rules. As is the case with other real people in similar situations and conditions, she isn’t locked up. In fact, her home is quite comfortable by most people’s standards, especially with the housing crisis in San Francisco. And she even has her own computer where she writes her screenplay.

Dakota Fanning as Wendy
Dakota Fanning as Wendy

Plus, she’s obsessed with Star Trek which makes her that much cooler. (It just doesn't state which version of Star Trek though because it's a surprise) These are just some of the many similarities to our movie My Apocalyptic Thanksgiving (MAT). I will talk about this in a series of blog on this film since this is the case. My other area will be to shed some light on the challenges of writing a character with special needs.


Spock and Captain Kirk
Spock and Captain Kirk

Millennials relate to each other with shared experiences through our phone and social media. Generation X tends do this with pop culture. My experience shows that special needs adults and children also use pop culture to relate. In Please Stand By, Wendy (Dakota Fanning) uses her favorite TV show Star Trek to connect with others. The filmmakers cleverly intercut Wendy’s Star Trek story during her journey across California. It helps reflect her feelings that she is unable to convey in person. That is a typical characteristic of someone with autism. When they feel emotions it is an intense feeling that they can’t control or verbally share.

The Walking Dead exhibition at Comicon #SDCC
The Walking Dead exhibition at Comicon #SDCC

Our movie MAT also has a lead character with special needs and is named Marcus. He is obsessed with zombies and uses his favorite zombie TV show, Apocalyptic Zombies, to make sense of the world around him including other people. If you don’t understand zombies, you don’t understand Marcus. This creates great subtext into his relationships, motives, and his thoughts. Apocalyptic Zombies conveys many of the feelings that Marcus feels: panic, loneliness and cornered. It also displays his quirky sense of humor for Apocalyptic Zombies is about fast zombies terrorizing people like in the classic 28 Days Later…

As vs Evil Dead
As vs Evil Dead

As I wrote for the character Marcus, I had to go deeper than Marcus’ love for zombies because everybody loves zombies especially me and my wife, Holly Soriano. Both of us adore the Evil Dead and Ash vs the Evil Dead series. Marcus loves Doris in a mother-son sort of way. His caregiver Doris also loves zombies too. Marcus further identifies with the show’s main character Andrea when she loses her own mother for Marcus hasn’t had contact with his mom since his childhood. Andrea’s plight is further desperate for she also needs to charge her cell phone in the middle of the apocalypse… How can a girl really cope if she only has two bars!?! Marcus follows her example by going on his own journey to find his long lost mother.

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