Perspective from the writer of My Apocalyptic Thanksgiving
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.
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.