KEEP THE CHANGE: A Conversation with Film Director Rachel Israel

CANY welcomes guest blogger and film maker Rachel Israel in a conversation about her new film Keep the Change- a love story about people on the autism spectrum.

CANY: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Rachel: My name is Rachel Israel. I am a NYC based filmmaker and adjunct professor of film at Rhode Island School of Design. I received my BFA from RISD in 2007 and my MFA from Columbia University in 2013, where I made a short film from which I developed my feature directing debut, Keep the Change, a love story which we filmed this past summer. The film features leading cast members who are on the autism spectrum.

CANY: What inspired you to create “Keep the Change”?

Rachel: Keep the Change was inspired by the experiences of a dear friend of mine Brandon Polansky, who is on the autism spectrum. Brandon plays the lead in our film, a fictionalized version of himself named “David Cohen”. Brandon and I collaborated to create David, a young man experiencing romantic love for the first time. While the story is fictional, its sentiments are inspired by Brandon’s personal experiences and character growth. When I decided to start this project I was not only inspired by Brandon’s rich emotional life, but also by a desire to help correct the misrepresentation that I saw of people on the autism spectrum. There is a common misconception that people with autism don’t yearn for love, physical affection and companionship. But this is untrue.

Actors Will Deaver - Samantha Elisofon - Nicky Gottlieb and Brandon Polansky discuss a scene on set.jpgActors discussing a scene on set

CANY:  “Keep the Change” began as an award winning short film, what made you want to expand the story into a feature length film?

Rachel: I felt that our characters deserved a feature length film and that the actors would be able to carry it. It’s sadly uncommon to see characters with disabilities given the leads in feature films, and often when they are the leads they are portrayed as strangely passive. I wanted to make a different statement with Keep the Change.I wanted to make a feature in the hopes that, if the film was good, people would see it. There’s more of a market for feature films than there are for short films, so a good feature can have an impact.

CANY: As you mentioned, the cast you worked with on this film are all adults on the autism spectrum. What made you want to work with actors on the spectrum, as opposed to actors who created characters on the spectrum?

Rachel: Working with my cast for over four years, from the development of our script through production, inspired me constantly. I have developed close friendships with cast members Samantha Elisofon, Will Deaver and Nicky Gottlieb and, along with Brandon, we all had a blast working together. Aside from the wealth of energy that our cast brought, they also kept the script in check. I can’t possibly know what it is like to live with autism, but my cast members are experts on their personal experiences and they kept our story honest.

CANY: In the movie some of the scenes were based on the CANY drama therapy groups run at the JCC. Why did you choose to include this perspective in the movie?

Rachel: I wanted our cast to feel at home and able to throw themselves into their fictionalized selves with a sense of empowerment and the creative gusto that many of them already enjoy in CANY. By incorporating CANY, I hoped our film might tap into an existing pool of energy. This not only worked, but I think our cast carried the filmed CANY scenes as a reference to the acting that they did in our film even beyond the CANY scenes. I’m very grateful to CANY, particularly Heidi Landis, for having worked with us. There’s a level of joy, empowerment and openness that we will bring to the screen due to this collaboration.

Filming a Drama Therapy Scene led by Heidi Landis.jpgFilming a drama therapy scene

CANY: At CANY and in the field of drama therapy, we play with the paradoxical boundaries between everyday life and the life of the imaginary world, the roles which are simultaneously “me” and “not me”. Many of the actors in your film have very similar life experiences to that of their characters. How did you navigate that “in between” space?

Rachel: Navigating the in-between space required that trust be built up over time with my cast. This trust is important between all directors and their actors, but for me the trust I gained with our cast was a particularly humbling gift – because it would be such a tragedy to mistreat that kind of trust. From the actors’ end, I didn’t perceive that they had any special difficulty navigating between their imaginary and real selves. For several members of our cast this ability to create and analyze personas felt as if it were common ground, learned as a means of coping in socially intimidating situations. I am not an expert in this subject, so this is only my speculation. Regardless, the trust our actors gave to me in this personal space was very precious.

CANY: In our work at CANY we plan therapy sessions in advance, but often end up letting go of these plans as we tune in to the clients’ need in the moment.  In rehearsals for your film, you provided your actors with a fully scripted narrative but when it came time to film, you asked the actors to put the story into their own words and improvise. Why did you feel that was important?

Rachel: During rehearsals, we actually did not depend heavily on the script. Rather, we used rehearsals as an exploratory space to find the essence of scenes. Rehearsals were a tool to generate writing. Before filming, all the lead actors read the finished script, which was important for them in order to contextualize scenes since we were not shooting everything linearly. However, it was very important to me that the actors remained free and focused on using improvisation during production because I did not want any aspect of the scenes to be forced. Improvisation empowered them to act honestly in scenes.

CANY: In working with a community of actors on the autism spectrum, did you find yourself considering and seeking guidance from these members in the film? Did the presence of the community on set shift your original concept of the film?

Rachel: Yes, the film was developed in collaboration with our primary cast. Their involvement as actors was not merely on set but also in the creation of fictionalized versions of themselves that were meaningful to them. I would not have wanted to make this film without our cast’s involvement on this foundational level. When we went into production, the creative input of the cast and community did continue to shift the story creatively. But this was also a very good thing. A feature film shoot is a marathon. We shot for 23 days over 5 weeks and it was the surprises and growth on set every day that kept us all energized and happy.

CANY: Therapeutic theater is a form of drama therapy. Would you call what you have done therapeutic movie making? Do you believe films and film making have the potential to heal?

Rachel: While the end product of this film was never designed to be therapy, I believe our creative process ended up being therapeutic for many of the actors involved. The film required our cast to work from an emotionally honest place while empowering them as actors to choose scene and life objectives, and to define who they wanted to be as characters. For people on the autism spectrum who are so often disempowered in their own representation, I think this process was both healing and inspiring. So while therapy was not our original mission, the therapeutic aspect of making this film ended up being powerful and became a fuel for all of us during the long haul of making a feature.

CANY: How does working with people in the very community about which you are creating a film effect the filming and editing process? Do you feel a greater responsibility to tell their story?

Rachel: I feel enormous responsibility toward our cast and their community. I am dear friends with several cast members and admire them greatly. The responsibility I feel to portray their characters with honesty and dignity might be overwhelming and even terrifying were it not balanced by the continual joy I’ve felt in working with them. Making this film has been a great challenge at every stage, but the excitement I’ve continually gained by my collaborators has made this project the greatest privilege of my career.

Watching my dream come true on set in LI.jpg

Rachel Israel, Film Director for “Keep the Change”