Within a neurodivergent world

Rachel Israel on developing Keep The Change.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Sarah (Samantha Elisofon) is charmed by David (Brandon Polansky) in Rachel Israel's disarming and engagingly outspoken debut feature Keep The Change
Sarah (Samantha Elisofon) is charmed by David (Brandon Polansky) in Rachel Israel's disarming and engagingly outspoken debut feature Keep The Change

Rachel Israel's Keep The Change, a Tribeca Film Festival highlight, deftly brings us into the challenges a couple has with building face-to-face personal relationships. Before the Tribeca World Premiere, Rachel and I discussed the connection to director Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes, At Any Price) and producer Summer Shelton (Sara Colangelo's Little Accidents and Jim Strouse's People Places Things), Adam and Eve-ing with production designer Alina Smirnova (Brian Oakes' Jim: The James Foley Story), casting Brandon Polansky, Samantha Elisofon, Will Deaver, and Nicky Gottlieb, consulting with Drama Therapist Heidi Landis, the Grimms' Frog King, and wanting Keep The Change to be "centered, contained within a neurodivergent world".

Rachel Israel:
Rachel Israel: "I'm working on an adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

David (Polansky), new to a group for people on the autism spectrum at the JCC on New York's Upper West Side, meets Sarah (Elisofon) who is outgoing and thrilled to be teamed up with the new guy in an exercise. Drama therapy sessions about superheroes, a dinner at an Italian restaurant with food orders gone awry, a Coney Island boardwalk stroll that uncovers one person's dread of sand and another's anxiety with carousels, a musical showdown at a party given by David's parents Carrie (Jessica Walter) and Lenny (Tibor Feldman) in their fancy beachside house - relationships don't come easy if they are worth something and we see the two of them eventually confront each other.

Keep The Change tells an intricate love story we rarely get to see on the big screen in a feature film.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Tell me about how the short turned into a feature!

Rachel Israel: Actually I started the idea as a feature, even before I made a short. I had the opportunity while I was at Columbia - I was getting my MFA for directing - to make a short film. So I thought it would be a good opportunity to test out the idea of working with Brandon Polansky as David. The character is based on him and he at that time was a first-time actor and he is on the spectrum. So I made the short film and cast a young woman also on the spectrum opposite Brandon and found that that worked really well.

On Brandon Polansky:
On Brandon Polansky: "The character is based on him and he at that time was a first-time actor and he is on the spectrum."

When I started the idea as a feature, it focused more on the family drama that rose up because of that first romance. In making the short, I decided to focus on the love story.

AKT: And for the feature, the family went back in?

RI: The family went back in in a small part. It had much formerly been the centre. During the process of researching the short, I had met some wonderful people in the community. And I realised that I wanted now rather than make a film that was about a neurodiverse person within a neurotypical world, I wanted it to be centered, contained within a neurodivergent world. I wanted to keep it all within the community of people on the spectrum.

AKT: Neurodiverse is the expression?

RI: Neurodiverse refers to to a world that has people on the spectrum and not on the spectrum. Neurodivergent means that it's kind of non-typical and neurotypical is what is typical.

AKT: The vocabulary is rarely used in cinema. You rarely see a feature film, a love story, with neurodivergent protagonists. It is the first I have seen. Are there others?

Sarah and David in Coney Island:
Sarah and David in Coney Island: "That was always a favorite sequence of mine in the script..."

RI: I'm not the encyclopedia of it. I haven't seen … I think there was a film a couple of years ago that had a woman, not with autism, she had a neurological disability. I think the actor had it and they cast her. I'm sure there had been films with authentic casting for characters on the spectrum. I haven't seen any that focused solely on those characters.

AKT: And a love story.

RI: And a love story. That's something I wanted to see. And I had met these wonderful other people who became supporting characters, like Sammy [played by Nicky Gottlieb] and Will [Will Deaver] in the feature.

AKT: Did you make up the groups?

RI: They are all cast from a single community and they have existing relationships.

AKT: They are at the JCC?

RI: Yes, that's the group at the JCC. The real group is called Adaptations. We call it Connections in the film. They all have existing relationships upon which we could then build the story.

AKT: And the superhero exercise exists?

Sarah and David in Central Park:
Sarah and David in Central Park: "They added a lot of great dialogue!"

RI: Yeah, the woman who runs that class is called Heidi Landis [Drama Therapist]. I consulted with her and told her that I wanted to feature that program in the film. I asked "What are some of the topics that you normally work with in this kind of drama therapy class?" She mentioned she'd often do a class on superheroes. And that thematically really works great with our love story.

AKT: It's very funny when he picks invisibility as his superpower because he could go into the ladies locker room. For the dialogue, how intricate was the script? How much was improvised?

RI: It was a full script. Many, many revisions I did. I think I did 100 drafts when I started numbering, because I worked on it for two years developing the feature script after the short. But when we began to shoot, we allowed for improvisation on all the dialogue. The lead cast had read the script. Nicky Gottlieb who plays Sammy is the only one who actually didn't read the script. He roughly knew the story.

AKT: Sammy is…?

RI: Sammy is the big flamboyant theatre director. He actually wrote a play. In the film you catch a little glimpse of his directing. The other cast read the script and then improvised their dialogue based upon what they knew they had to accomplish in the scene.

"Summer [Shelton] is a terrific producer and she was the first of our producers to come on." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Did they add some of the jokes themselves?

RI: Oh, yes. They added a lot of great dialogue!

AKT: There are many funny moments, for example the date David has in Central Park. Rape jokes are not a good idea on a first date! No matter who you are.

RI: On the subject of these jokes - Brandon Polansky, who plays David, tells a lot of these offensive and proper jokes. It's a big part of his personality and it's something that I wanted to retain for the character of David for various reasons. One is that I thought it was important with all of the characters not to sanitise them.

AKT: That's a good word because that's what we often get.

RI: Right. So, fully human, flawed characters. I don't want to psychoanalyse Brandon at all, but as a writer you have to psychoanalyse your characters. So for David I felt it was an interesting attribute because it was a front, a way of controlling his persona when going into sometimes daunting social situations. He could control the exact way people were offended by him.

AKT: That makes sense.

On Brandon telling jokes as David:
On Brandon telling jokes as David: "It's a big part of his personality and it's something that I wanted to retain for the character…"

RI: And he comes in with a script. I thought it was especially useful because it so directly conflicts with who Sarah's character is and that she takes things very literally and has difficulty understanding the humour in these jokes. It meant that his usual tactic for coping in these situations wouldn't work with her.

AKT: That's why they are actually so perfect for each other.

RI: Right - because they are breaking down each other's normal coping.

AKT: It is like the Grimms' version of The Frog King where the princess actually throws the frog against the wall instead of kissing him. That's what he deserves, he transforms and then the relationship has a chance - for both of them. There is a great moment in your film where she says "Don't interrupt me." Whereas she is interrupting him constantly!

RI: Yes!

AKT: There was a scene where I wasn't sure if you were going for metaphor. David is showing Sarah his film, they have a discussion and there is this toy snake behind them. Were you Adam and Eve-ing?

David with Sarah:
David with Sarah: "It meant that his usual tactic for coping in these situations wouldn't work with her."

RI: Oh that's so funny that you noticed it. I'm sure our production designer [Alina Smirnova] will be delighted that you noticed it. That was actually a key prop in the Coney Island sequence. It's a prize that he won for her. We ended up not using the scenes but we put it in her bedroom.

AKT: In Coney Island we learn a lot about them and discover problems we didn't know of before.

RI: That was always a favourite sequence of mine in the script and felt like a major turning point for them. Starting off their relationship with enthusiasm and high expectations and hopes and also they don't know each other yet that well. The idea of that sequence is that they start off with these grandiose ideas that aren't necessarily based on the individual that they are dating.

Then by the end of the sequence they know each other better as individuals and have been brought down to a place of reality that is actually better than the fantasy they started the date with.

AKT: What is your connection to Summer Shelton? She was the one who made me notice your short in the first place.

David, Sammy (Nicky Gottlieb), and Sarah at Connections in Keep The Change
David, Sammy (Nicky Gottlieb), and Sarah at Connections in Keep The Change

RI: Oh, that's so nice. Summer is a terrific producer and she was the first of our producers to come on. I met Summer through my advisor at Columbia, Ramin Bahrani. He had worked with her.

AKT: David's film within the film - childhood, prom date, graduation and then the bombs go off. Can you give a bit of background?

RI: Actually Brandon Polansky is a filmmaker: he makes these autobiographical films. The film you see in Keep the Change is not entirely his. For rights reasons we couldn't use all the footage that he uses. He'll edit these really interesting experimental autobiographical films using home video footage and things he pulled from movies.

In the film in the film, David has for himself crystalised this moment when things changed. He could go back to before that moment when he sees that his symptoms got worse, his tics came on.

AKT: Right after high school?

Summer Shelton also produced Jim Strouse's People Places Things
Summer Shelton also produced Jim Strouse's People Places Things Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

RI: Right after high school he had a breakdown. He has always been on the spectrum but then, I guess, he felt himself falling, clearly falling behind his peers. He couldn't get into colleges that they could. He has this feeling if only he could go back before the breakdown, he could go back to some kind of better version of himself.

AKT: Is that Brandon's story somewhat or is it invented?

RI: That's how Brandon would tell his story pretty much.

AKT: How did he react to the film?

RI: He hasn't seen it yet.

AKT: He'll see it the premiere at Tribeca? Are you nervous?

RI: Yeah. I think he's going to like it.

AKT: His sunglasses, is that his style? The Bono fan?

RI: Yes, the glasses. Very much.

AKT: Sarah takes the bus to grandma's house from the JCC. That's the only way she finds home. There's a little Red Riding Hood in there?

RI: I hadn't even thought of that. Actually, Samantha is very capable in getting around for herself. So that attribute of Sarah's is more based on other people who may have difficulty navigating outside their routine.

AKT: What's coming up next for you?

RI: It's very much in the beginning stage. I'm working on an adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion. A modernization of it - Jane Austen on the Upper West Side.

AKT: Will the JCC play a role again? Zabar's?

RI: Probably!

Tribeca Film Festival remaining public screenings: Monday, April 24, 4:15pm - Cinépolis Chelsea 03; Tuesday, April 25, 7:45pm - Cinépolis Chelsea 1

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