Changing impressions

Rachel Israel talks about autism, authenticity and Keep The Change.

by Jennie Kermode

Samantha Elisofon and Brandon Polansky in Keep The Change
Samantha Elisofon and Brandon Polansky in Keep The Change

Keep The Change is a short film with a lot to say. Originally made as a Columbia University project and voted best of 2013, it tells the story of a young man who meets a woman at an autism support group but gradually realises she has a very different attitude to life which he will have to adapt to if he wants her to win her over. Director Rachel Israel is currently raising funds to turn it into a feature length film, so I asked her where the idea originally came from and how it has developed over the intervening years.

Rachel Israel
Rachel Israel

It actually began life as a feature film idea, she says. "The lead actor, Brandon [Polansky] is a friend of mine, has been for about 12 years, and he was the inspiration for the project. I realised that something I hadn’t really seen before was films featuring protagonists with disabilities where they really drove the plot, especially not a love story... I wanted to tell a love story, I didn’t want to make a film that was about a disability. The disability obviously played into it but basically a love story is about two people changing for each other so they can sustain the relationship."

Having characters on the autistic spectrum played by people with the same experiences was important, she said, because it created opportunity for actors who might otherwise be overlooked and because it added to the authenticity of the film – “I don’t believe I would be able to get at the truth of the experience of being on the spectrum with actor who wasn’t on it” – but because it meant working with inexperienced actors it did impact her working methods.

"It’s not dissimilar to the way I work with typical non-professional actors in that we end up doing a lot more rehearsal and I give them more homework and worth with them to emotionally connect with the imaginary situation. Brandon and Samantha [Elisofon, who plays the female lead] take very different approaches and I have to be more flexible because they’re less flexible, so that affects the process of writing and directing." Casting Samantha’s role was a challenge, Rachel says.

“Initially when we started this it seemed enough of a risk working with Brandon so we started out looking for neurotypical actresses. We auditioned about 100 actresses but it never felt right on screen, it always felt like one person was manipulating the other and they weren’t really in scenes experiencing the same surprises together. When we tried Samantha it worked out perfectly. All the characters are from the same community so they all have existing relationships and they were able to build on those.”

A walk in the park
A walk in the park

Exploring those relationships in more depth is one reason why Rachel is keen to expand the story into a feature. This would give her more opportunity to put across the diversity of experiences that people on the spectrum have and to present a group of characters who are rounded individuals, something she feels is often missing in other films that touch on autism. Though the film would still focus on Brandon’s character being introduced to the community, “friendships are a big aspect of it. What the character really needs is community. The feature can give me the opportunity to go deeper into the two lead characters as well and look at what their home lives are like, their sexuality and other issues. It’s very much our aim to show the complexity of characters who, at a distance, people might say are all the same.”

The people in the real life support group are all very different, she says, but manage to have strong long-term friendships despite that, acknowledging and accepting their differences, which is one of the themes of the film. Although it was all scripted beforehand, the actors were very much involved in the process of developing it and making the dialogue feel more authentic. “They definitely contributed to the short and are contributing to the feature. We went through many, many drafts because the actors were so involved. I would get an initial impression and then we would test it to find out if it needed to be altered when we shot.”

The magic of cinema is the way it can allow us to walk in other people’s shoes and experience life as in a way we ordinarily wouldn’t, she says, and Keep The Change has always gone down very well with mainstream audiences. Getting funding to make the feature has been more of a challenge but she’s confident about reaching her goal. The crowdfunding is partly about building relationships and showing that there’s an audience for the film, she says, but she could still use some help – so if you’d like to contribute, you can do so here.

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