Ben Lewin talks his new movie Please Stand By, Star Trek and more.
Please Stand By follows the journey of Wendy (Dakota Fanning), a young woman with autism who leaves her group home on a mission to deliver her 400-page Star Trek script to Paramount Pictures for entry in a fan writing contest. On her own for the first time, Wendy makes her way from Oakland to Los Angeles, while her sister (Alice Eve) and her caregiver (Toni Collette) try to find her and get her back to the safe routines and environments that keep her stabilized.
Part drama, part whimsical comedy, Please Stand By is a warm and empathetic look at a person coming to terms with what makes her different and gaining strength from that. It’s also an affectionate ode to the power of Star Trek, fans and imagination, with several scenes designed to look like they’re taken right from the old series.
The movie was directed by Ben Lewin, the Australian filmmaker whose well-received The Sessions (2013) was also about a person dealing in an unusual way with a disability (Lewin, who contracted polio when he was six and uses crutches to walk, knows a little about this). We spoke about this and more, including Patton Oswalt’s cameo as a Klingon-speaking cop, Fanning’s excellent performance and recreating costumes from Star Trek, when we sat down with him recently in Los Angeles.
Den of Geek: What stood out to you when this script crossed your desk?
Ben Lewin: I guess I’m always looking for a story about an unusual person on a journey. I mean, that’s sort of what every bit of drama is about, in essence. It struck a few chords. I did have at least one close friend with a daughter, that I said, “Oh, that could be her.” And when I talked to her I said well, there’s this whole Star Trek thing and she said, “Yes, of course.” I mean, it’s like the autism community recognizes that connection between Star Trek or science fiction and having autism. And I thought, I mean that’s fascinating, just that world of simple morality, the sense that everyone else is an alien, and that whole thing had never occurred to me. Mr. Spock as the original autistic hero, if you like.
To embody that in a young woman, I thought was particularly unusual, since autism is usually represented … I mean, your typical example is Rain Man and if you look at what’s on TV about autism, it’s usually represented in young men or men. And I thought, well this is a different take.
Does living with a disability yourself help you, in a way, filter out the scripts that don’t have some truth about that experience in them?
You’re asking me whether my personal experience as a disabled person informs my work. Well, of course it does. I mean, you can’t help it, although I’ve tried to resist that. Initially, when I started as a storyteller, I said no, no, don’t tell stories about yourself, tell stories about other people. Get out of your own space. Look at what other people do. But more and more of the time, I’ve been drawn to the idea of telling stories where you’ve got something inside you that also contributes to it. But there’s a lexicon of new language, of euphemisms, which I find very difficult to navigate.
I went to a school called The Urala Hospital School for Crippled Children. Heaven forbid you should use that language today. But you know, one way or another, I kind of get it. And I think that my special take on things is to avoid sentimentality, to avoid the kind of rah-rah aspect of it and try to have a kind of little window into real life, rather than tell a story of triumph. I like to stick to those stories which somehow keep it real, but at the same time, stir your emotions.
There is a bit of whimsy to this one, too. Was it a challenge to find the right balance of all the different tones?
We knew at the outset that we were not making a disease of the week or a bleeding heart movie. I mean, this was not going to be that kind of movie. This was not going to be a definitive movie about autism. In fact, the word autism isn’t even mentioned throughout the movie. But at the same time, it’s really being very much embraced by people in the autism community, who seem to identify with the character. But there was no intention to make a definitive statement.
Everybody has a refuge, especially when they’re kids. I know for me, it was actually Star Trek. Do you think that’s something that everybody can relate to, and did you have something that you escaped to as a kid, to kind of get away from the real life problems?
Yeah, of course. I mean, I suppose as a kid, I developed a rich fantasy world of my own. It wasn’t Star Trek. My childhood was pre-Star Trek, but I think I started writing stories at a young age, probably when I was about 11, and you know, for me in many ways, the function of writing and storytelling is still an escape from reality. So I still think probably much as I did as a child, you know: let’s go somewhere which is more fun to be than the real world.
How deeply did you discuss the character with Dakota, and do you know how much research she did?
It’s a very interesting question, and you know, I like to work with an actor on the basis of them owning the character, and not just doing what I say. I’m not a puppeteer as a director. I think that the most critical choice is who is going to play the role. And of course, Dakota did a substantial amount of research, simply by engaging with people who had autism of different sorts, and I think the realization she had was that there’s no commonality. There’s no point in trying to say, “Well, this is what it’s like.”
I think that she very bravely, really just went into it with an organic sense of what it was like, after meeting people with autism and having some sense of the challenges of communication and isolation. That sense of isolation, I suppose, was the thing that she found in common. But I did not interfere very much at all with her take on the character, her performance. It was really, you know, our working relationship was “A little less, little more,” but she always got it right first time. There was a confidence about what she was expressing.
Knowing what I know about Patton Oswalt, I suspect he came on the set knowing how to speak Klingon already.
He was nervous about his Klingon.
He was a little rusty?
His Klingon was so perfect, it was like he set the bar.
It seems that Paramount was okay with you using Star Trek and shooting on the lot a bit.
It seems they were. I mean, I didn’t have any director connection with Paramount. But my goodness, it’s a totally positive spin on the influence of Star Trek. How could they possibly object to that? And I think we were trying to be very faithful. I mean, the space suits that we used were exactly as in “The Tholian Web,” the location was where they shot Kirk’s battle with the Gorn…
You brushed up on your Star Trek.
Oh, absolutely. I totally got into it. I loved that journey, I really did, that whole Star Trek thing.
This is a road movie, to some extent. Any sequences that were logistically or physically challenging in terms of where you were shooting, or what you wanted to get?
Somehow, that alleyway where she and Patton Oswalt met was impossible to find. I mean, we couldn’t find the right kind of spot, it turned into a little mini-nightmare, but finally we got the right place…I think that making a road movie on a very limited budget is an innate challenge, to make it look as if it’s a bigger tapestry than it was. But then I realized that the landscape of the movie, probably more than anything else, was Wendy’s face. And I stopped worrying too much about not having enough mountain ranges and rushing rivers, and all that, which would have loved to have taken her across America, but I stopped worrying about that.
There’s a lot of talk about independent and smaller budget movies having a tougher time nowadays, and possibly some of the streaming services picking up the slack. Do you see that as a possible route to go down for yourself, to get more projects done?
I’ve got to cope with it. I mean, the way the industry has changed since I started working in film — the Internet just didn’t exist. That whole routine of the family going to the movies every weekend as part of normal life, that’s out the window, and it is a completely different tapestry, and I don’t know what the nature of storytelling is going to be. I hope that beneath it all, people will still be interested in what I just described. You take someone on a fascinating journey, and that’s a story. But rather than having any kind of plan on how to fit, I just hope I can continue to fit in somewhere.
Please Stand By is out in limited release and available on VOD now.