You & Me (2018): An interview with director Alexander Baack

“Thankfully, there are so many more interesting things about me than my being deaf.”

Ella (Hillary Baack) says this to a well-meaning person at a party who has been asking questions about her deafness. Ella has answered the questions. She doesn’t seem insulted by the curiosity of the person, but her comment – polite and yet firmly stated – is one of the keys to You & Me, a new romantic comedy directed by Alexander Baack. Ella is deaf, but that is hardly the most interesting thing about her. She’s recently published a collection of short stories, and she’s also a literature professor, specializing in women’s literature. She’s a recent transplant to Los Angeles, and has a busy dating life. She’s not really looking for a husband, or even a boyfriend. She’s too busy. But then she meets Tony (Paul Guyet), a recently-blinded man, just getting the hang of his new life with a disability. Their connection is instantaneous, and it’s based mostly on a shared sense of humor. Both are very funny people. But Ella isn’t sure if she’s into Tony, in that way. She’s also not sure if Tony is ready to get into a relationship, not so soon after his accident. Is he clinging to her as a port in a storm? She knows that wouldn’t be a good basis for a relationship! But maybe she’s over-thinking things? It’s possible!

Alexander Baack and Hillary Baack are married, and they wrote the script together. You & Me is a charming funny story about two eccentric individuals who find themselves in one another’s lives, and – almost before they’ve realized how it happened – can’t imagine life anymore without each other. They are surrounded by a strong support system, friends, relatives, parents. Because Tony’s blindness is recent, his family is still in an adjustment period, although his hoot of a mother – played by Sally Struthers, in an amazing performance – has taken it in stride. You & Me bucks all kinds of stereotypes and in that respect alone it’s like a heaving breath of fresh oxygen. It’s extremely funny, first of all, without ever sacrificing its sense of sweetness, its soft heart. Both Baack and Guyet are wonderful actors, but – because Baack is actually deaf, and because Guyet is actually blind – the issue of “playing the disability” – so often the case in big Hollywood films featuring disabled characters – is off the table, which then changes audience reaction and experience. Once “playing the disability” is no longer an issue for an actor, once you don’t have big stars pretending they are blind, for example, all kinds of other things become possible. This is not to say that abled actors haven’t given incredible performances playing a variety of disabled characters. But you don’t even realize how much you’ve been missing until you see it in action in a film like You & Me.

I was actually surprised at how moved I was by You & Me. By the time the final third of the film came around, I was so invested in these two characters it was devastating to watch them face their first real challenge as a couple (a challenge that has nothing to do with either of their disabilities). I was a puddle by the end of the film. I’ve watched it twice since, and it works every time. [Full disclosure: My brother Brendan O’Malley plays Tony’s best friend.]

You & Me portrays people’s often awkward reactions to disabilities, and it does so with a sense of humor. (When Ella speaks, people often ask her where she’s from because they assume she’s speaking with an accent. Her response is always, “I’m from Estonia.” This, apparently, is taken from Hillary’s actual experience. Unfortunately, one time the person who asked Hillary where she was from was actually from Estonia, so she got busted!) But there’s a critique embedded in these moments in You & Me, a critique of abled people who are uncomfortable with disability, and say stupid shit, like the guy in You & Me (played by Alexander himself) who screams in Ella’s ear at a loud nightclub, “IT’S SO LOUD IN HERE IT’S LIKE WE’RE ALL DEAF. EXCEPT YOU REALLY ARE DEAF SO YOU HAVE THE ADVANTAGE!” (Again, this really happened!) Or Tony’s aunt, who weeps when she sees him because he’s blind. She cries as though he’s died, when, no, he’s standing right there in front of her, blind, sure, but perfectly alive. The film is filled with such moments of insight and observation.

Baack has a light touch as a director, and a good feel for the rhythms of natural conversation. This is a film filled with conversation, and Baack keeps it loose so the talk feels very spontaneous. When Tony makes Ella laugh, or vice versa, it feels 100% genuine. Falling in love with someone’s sense of humor is so common, and yet it’s so rarely shown on film! Being funny for your partner is one of the joys of being in love. Someone who gets your sense of humor? Hang onto that person! You & Me really understands this!

You & Me has played at a bunch of festivals, and won the Audience Award at Cinequest 2018. You can read more about Alexander and Hillary’s careers on their site. You & Me has a strong point of view and acts as a necessary corrective to the reductive portrayal of disability in most cinema (or, worse, the total erasure of disability in the stories being told). This is a beautiful and funny film, and will be available on streaming platforms, including iTunes, on December 4th.

Recently, Alexander took some time out of his day to speak with me over the phone about You & Me.

Sheila O’Malley Talk to me about the conception of You & Me, and I also want to hear about your writing process with Hillary. How was the project born, and how did you figure out all the story elements you wanted to cover? How did that process work?

Alexander Baack: Hillary and I often come up with fun ideas when we’re driving and the kids are quiet in the back. We had just watched the behind-the-scenes of Ricky Gervais’ The Office, and it was the hardest we had ever laughed in our lives. Ever. We were just watching the making of it and we were dying. Hillary, because she’s deaf, is always taken very very seriously by people. Also, probably because she’s really good at crying, in life, and in acting. She’s deeply connected to her feelings and humanity in general. But after watching that making-of of The Office, she said, “I want to do something fun like that.” And she should because she is hilarious. So I immediately said, “How ’bout a deaf girl and a blind guy? Ba-dum-ching.” But then we thought, Okay, why not?

AB: We had never really written together. She’s written things that I’ve helped her with or edited, and she puts in her two cents with things I write, but we had never sat down and written together. I’m always like story story story. I’m very detailed about the characters and the events and once we had that down and we were clear we knew what it was about, then we just sat together and wrote it all out. There were certain scenes where I was like, “You need to write this one because it needs a deaf person’s point of view.”

SOM: Like which scenes?

AB: Any of the girl talk scenes with her and her friend.

SOM: I loved the friend.

AB: Isn’t she wonderful? Natasha Ofili. Most of the cast are friends or friends of friends, which is how I’ve always worked. Hillary knows everyone in the deaf acting community. It’s a small community, everyone knows everyone. And that’s how Natasha really is. To mix a metaphor, she’s a breath of sunshine. I think one of the things that would not be in the movie if I had written it is that there is a strong woman’s point of view. It’s been interesting, both in the reading of the script and after seeing the movie, we had quite a few men say, “I don’t understand why she doesn’t get with him right away.”

SOM: Wow, no way.

AB: And the women don’t question it.

SOM: Of course they don’t.

AB: The women aren’t confused at all by why she doesn’t pick him right away.

SOM: She has an active social life. She is not waiting around for Mr. Right. She’s dating like 4 people, that we know of.

AB: It’s a real ego-killer for men. In the reading of the script, we had quite a few men say, “I don’t know why she doesn’t get with him right away or sooner.” Or even, “Why doesn’t she want to at first?” Since the movie’s been finished, I’ve had a few especially older men say, “I love the movie except for the sex scene, where she has sex with another guy.” I go, “Oh that’s interesting, why?” And they can’t articulate it, or they don’t want to admit why. There’s an instinct to shame her as soon as people see that sex scene.

SOM: I loved the fact that Danny (James Tang) is a good guy. It makes sense that they would hook up. There’s chemistry there. You didn’t write him so that we would think, “Oh he’s clearly not the right guy.”

AB: This is, again, about movie tropes we didn’t want to fall into. We’re writing a romantic comedy and it’s amazing how many tropes there are. Just doing the opposite of those tropes bring up so many truths about how we feel about not only our relationships to other people, but our perceptions through the movies of how we’re supposed to connect ourselves. So we wanted Danny to be a perfect option for her. She could end up with him and it would be great.

SOM: I mean, this is mating. There are always multiple options. It was interesting the way you wrote it, because she was clear with Tony almost immediately. She liked him and wanted to hang out with him, but she sensed he wasn’t ready for a commitment – and that’s valid.

AB: It’s a valid barrier to attraction even. I’m not sure she even knows if she finds him attractive at first.

SOM: I’m fascinated by this reaction from men. Did it surprise you?

AB: Not necessarily. One piece of evidence of our anticipation of it is we did write and shoot a sex scene between Ella and Tony that was to take place after she met his family and she decides, “Okay, we’re going to be together.” And we did it because we were like, “Okay, Tony deserves hot sex, too.” We thought we needed to counterbalance the sex scene with Danny, because people won’t be able to handle seeing her have sex with the wrong guy and not have sex with the right guy. But then, after their first kiss and the scene with the family when she reads his lips saying “I realize I’m glad for the accident” – that’s the moment she falls in love with him for real. And it just didn’t fit in to have a sex scene there. It wasn’t necessary. That moment says everything we need to know without seeing the sex, so we took it out again. And we were like, “People will just have to deal with it: She has sex with the hot guy and we don’t see her have sex with her husband.” And a couple of men can’t deal with it.

AB: It’s been a great learning moment for people, too. Going back to the question: a lot of this is because of Hillary. Hillary has spent the last few years learning about her preconceptions of herself and what is expected of her as a woman – in terms of sexuality and confidence – what she’s allowed to ask for. Just yesterday, my good friend Kate Newman from the Barrow Group had an article in the New York Times about women being empowered to be the one to say what they want. There’s this day at school where the girls can chase the boys and ask them to the dance –

SOM: Sadie Hawkins.

AB: Sadie Hawkins! Kate used Sadie Hawkins as a jumping off point for the article for how she’s just realizing now that she wasn’t allowed to ask a man for what she wants – sexually, emotionally, everything – ask him out, propose to him. So Hillary brought a lot of that point of view to the script, not only as a woman but as a disabled person, because disabled people are very much desexualized in the movies.

“Coming Home” (1978)

AB: When Hillary and I saw Coming Home – she had never seen it – it has the most beautiful sex scene. He’s a disabled man teaching a woman how to have sex with him and it was so beautiful and so sexy too – and it’s so rare to see someone who’s not “perfect” get to have sex – or have sex that doesn’t have a negative consequence or judgment on the part of the storytellers.

SOM: Tell me a little bit about your process as a director. You made a couple choices I really liked. I would say the film is simply shot, but it’s clear a lot of care has gone into every choice.

AB: I like that you said it was simply shot. I know that that’s an effort to find balance between simplicity and budget restraints. I’m always trying to avoid simplicity that looks and feels like that was our only option, as opposed to that was my choice.

SOM: Something like the dinner scene must have been very complex! You capture the vibe of a chaotic dinner where everyone’s talking at the same time, and you laugh out loud every time you drop into a separate conversation. It doesn’t feel like schtick. It feels like you’re eavesdropping.

AB: The crew was dreading the dinner scene. Everyone kept saying, “Dinner scenes are the hardest thing to shoot.” I’m like “What’s the big deal, you point the camera at who’s talking and then you move on.” And it went really smoothly, actually! I love scenes like that. Like the party scene in Annie Hall when they go to Hollywood, and it cuts around to bits of conversation. I love that scene. I’m constantly ripping off that scene. My biggest influence as a writer and as a director is Diner. When I saw that movie when I was 11 it was a revelation. It was the first time I realized how entertaining real life could be. It feels very loose. People think that stuff is improvised but it’s not.

“Diner” (1982)

AB: It’s shot in a way that is unobtrusive but with an energy to the editing. I’m really really organized. Not only do I have to be because of low budgets but I can’t stand the stress of not knowing what I’m going to do. Something’s going to go wrong anyway, and I’ll have to change the plan, but the more organized I am the more I have a foundation and a clarity as to what the intention is – the visual intention, the thematic intention. I always have a specific shooting plan and how scenes come out of other scenes – so when it came to the dinner, I was very organized. We’ll start here, move the camera to those guys, to those guys, and we’ll go in a circle … and that’s how we did it.

AB: I also knew I didn’t want to be up close all the time. I wanted to get some distance. So we have the scene where the two of them are walking across a field, and he’s been humbled, and they’re being careful with each other but still really enjoying each other’s company. I’m really far away from them and I literally had them go from upper left frame to lower right frame for the whole scene. It’s the simplest thing in the world and people have such a strong reaction to it.

AB: I feel like so many movies now – regardless of budget – are either terrified of losing your attention so they amp up the editing speed, or they’re terrified of coming off as not art – so they let things play out on and on and on without any feel of cinema. I’m always trying to balance the two.

SOM: How did Paul Guyet come into your orbit?

AB: We had a hard time casting the role of Tony, and I have to give Hillary credit. She was insistent that the actor really be blind. I should have known better. I’ve lived with her for years. I’ve seen Hillary lose deaf roles to hearing actors, and not even because the hearing actor was a name. So she was like, “No. He’s gotta be blind,” but we couldn’t find the right actor. There was one guy who was wonderful, but he just didn’t get the humor of it, it wasn’t translating. Meanwhile, Hillary’s high school friend Paul was giving us advice on the script. He lives in New York, he’s this big goofy guy, and he’s got 30% vision left in one eye – which is similar to Hillary’s hearing loss, she’s got some residual hearing in lower frequencies. One day, Hillary says, “What about Paul?” I said, “Paul’s great, but if we cast him it’ll be like Beauty and the Beast.” The next day, I was thinking about the story and I thought, “It kind of IS Beauty and the Beast.”

AB: It’s about this girl who knows what she wants, comes to a new town, meets this big beast of a guy and eventually she has no choice, this is who she loves. So she and Paul read a couple of scenes together over Skype – and the chemistry was amazing. He was so funny. He’d never sang before –

SOM: Are you kidding me??

AB: No.

SOM: Wow.

AB: So I had him do a little recording of “You’re So Little” and I told him not to worry about singing, to just tell the story of the song – and he got it, and it was so beautiful. So that was it. He was just magnificent in the role. It felt effortless. I also had a hard time casting the sidekick part. I couldn’t find the right guy and I turned to Hillary and said, “I just want someone I love and trust. I want Brendan.” And that was it. It was as simple as that.

SOM: Their friendship was very believable from the second you see them together in the grocery store.

AB: They had great chemistry! I had them read over Skype together and they hit it off right away.

SOM: I’m clearly biased, but Brendan is so good in this.

AB: Isn’t he great in it? People LOVE him in this.

SOM: I love how you call out the cliches in the role, like “Yeah, I’m Bruno Kirby, I’m the sidekick.” You’re commenting on it but you undercut it at the same time.

AB: I hope so. I’m so aware of movie tropes when I’m writing, and do I avoid them by calling them out or does calling them out call more attention to it? So I wasn’t sure. Every character in not only my movies but every movie I watch … I wonder about their whole life. When I watch Die Hard, the whole time I’m thinking, “Where is his mother in all this?” If I was in Nakatomi Plaza with terrorists, my mother would be on the news screaming, “THAT’S MY SON UP THERE.” I find movies unrealistic when there are no parents. Everyone’s parents get involved in some way, if they’re alive. Something happens, and someone’s parents show up and they’re gonna be a pain in the ass somehow, because how can you avoid it? And that’s the thing with the sidekick. He’s not a sidekick. He’s got a whole life offscreen somewhere.

SOM: You allowed the sidekick to be pissed off about being a sidekick.

AB: We also wanted to express this feeling that Hillary and I always have. She used it in her one-woman show too.

At one point you start to feel guilty about complaining about whatever affliction it is that you have in your life. Yes, I’m disabled, but there are lots of people who are disabled, who have all kinds of problems. And also if you have problems of the heart, they’re yours and they hurt, and so we wanted to acknowledge: yes, we have these problems but we’re not the only ones. There’s something almost comofrting about remembering you’re not the only one. Everyone is going through something. Even the sidekick. It sounds like it should be a slap in the face to have that thought, but I find it to be the opposite.

SOM: Let’s talk about the music and your collaboration with D.D. Jackson.

AB: D.D. Jackson is my secret weapon. We have known each other for over 30 years. He was my assistant basketball coach when I was 12, and he was 17. His family lived around the corner from my family. His brother Charlie and I did musicals in high school together, our moms were good friends. D.D. and I were not friends, but we were aware of each other, and we both moved to New York at the same time, him for music and me for acting. Our moms made sure that we got together. D.D. is a brilliant jazz musician and composer. He’s considered one of the great jazz pianists of his generation.

D.D. Jackson

AB: When he was releasing his first album, he had an album release gig and I went to it and when we hung out after, that’s when we became friends. I always knew when I made my first film that he would score it. For my first film, Untitled A Love Story, I had him do a solo piano score. It was the first time he scored anything and it was so beautiful. He has now gone on to all kinds of things beyond his jazz career. He’s an Emmy-winning composer for children’s television. He arranges and performs with The Roots all the time. But whenever I have something, he’s my first call. My last movie was a musical, Hollywood Musical. Hollywood Musical came about because I was really depressed about my non-career and D.D. was playing the Hollywood Bowl in Bill Cosby’s band at the time, and we were hanging out after, and I was sharing my depression with him. He said, “Why don’t you just go shoot another movie?” So I started thinking and thought, No one’s done a musical in a while, really. This is an example of D.D. and I collaborating from the very beginning. It was the first time we had written songs together. I came to him with the script and knew basically what I wanted. I’ll send him different songs that have a feeling or a style I’m interested in, I’ll write some lyrics, and then we’ll get together. I’m not a musician but I feel like a musician when I’m with D.D. because I push the button called D.D. Jackson and out comes what I want. We had an amazing experience making that musical together and then when it came to You & Me I wanted Tony to do something post-blindness that would be fun and visceral and potentially cinematic. I don’t want to say ironic, because of Ella being deaf – because both Ella and Hillary love music – but I thought it would be interesting to include music in their dynamic.

AB: So D.D. and I wrote 4 songs together over a weekend for the movie. And, as always, the actors go to the little studio in his house and record the vocals and he puts everything together. I was concerned that the songs were going to feel like a musical number, so we lit it and shot it as concert film-y as possible. I think my favorite scene in the movie is when they sing the duet, before they go into the first kiss.

SOM: For me, that was when I saw her fall in love with him.

AB: The song kind of forces her to say the words she doesn’t even want to think. It pushes her, almost against her will.

SOM: Which was smart thinking on his part.

AB: Oh, he was clever! But he didn’t even get to see the look on her face.

SOM: You edited the film as well.

AB: I’ve edited everything I’ve ever done. I don’t even know what it would be like to work with an editor, which is probably terrible, but I love editing. I shoot as an editor, and it really helps. I hate to keep talking about budgets but even at the high budget level, if you’re making The Avengers – there’s never enough time or money. Limits are a gift. I learned very quickly to not only be okay but be happy when something is not possible. It forces me to go, “Oh, there’s a solution that’s better than my idea, I wonder what it is.” I come to set knowing exactly how I’m going to edit the scene. The AD will be like, “We don’t have time to cover this,” and I’ll be like, “Well, we’re not covering it, all we need is this, this, and this” and we move on. The first half of every shoot I’ve ever done is always the same. The crew is constantly going, “I don’t think we have enough time for what you want to do.” And then halfway through the shoot, everyone’s going “I think we’re gonna pull this off.” Every time!

SOM: The look of the film is very romantic. Could you talk about your collaboration with your cinematographer, Leah Anova.

AB: I think I found my Sven Nykvist. We had such a great collaboration. She won’t walk away if the lighting’s not right, I won’t walk away if the performances aren’t right, and neither of us will walk away if the shot isn’t right. She’s brilliant. Hillary directed a short of You & Me about 5 years ago. Her DP couldn’t make one of the days and she recommended Leah. Leah came in for one day on the short and Hillary loved her and recommended her for this. When I met Leah, we immediately found we had these mutual points of reference – Mary Ellen Mark – and The Conformist – which we both think is the best shot movie ever. I finally met a DP I can really communicate with. I can’t wait to do the next one.

SOM: Please talk to me about Sally Struthers.

AB: I think this is her best performance.

SOM: She is absolutely fantastic. She made me laugh out loud at times and she also made me cry.

AB: I am comfortable with drama and deep feeling but I don’t trust drama that has no comedy. Whenever I’m aware that things are getting serious … it’s not that I’m trying to inject something goofy, it’s just that I think about real life, and some funny shit happens in life, man, even in the worst or most serious moments. I’ve been acquainted with Sally for years. She does a lot of theatre and she’s very supportive of young people. I have some friends who did the Broadway tour of Grease with her, and when I came to do Hollywood Musical I wanted someone who was somewhat of a name – because it’s Hollywood – to play themselves in the opening scene. I asked a friend to ask Sally for me and Sally immediately said Yes, and she came and did this one scene, which is the opening scene of Hollywood Musical. She was so generous with her time. She appreciated that I was organized and I didn’t waste her time. When we were writing You & Me, I turned to Hillary and said, “Sally has to play this part.” I was really lucky that Sally agreed to do it. We had no money, she brought her own wardrobe.

SOM: She’s such a pro.

AB: She’ll throw in extra things that you can’t even believe. It was when I was editing the film that I fully appreciated what she brought to the role. I’d suddenly realize, “Oh my God, I didn’t realize HOW funny that was at the time.” I was really struck by the scene she has with Hillary when they go out to tea. Sally was really really connected to the scene, and her feelings. I watched her, thinking, “Wow. She’s been doing this a long time and she’s still so IN it.”

AB: After she saw the movie at Cinequest, she sent me a lovely text about how ever since she was a little girl, all she wanted to do was make people laugh and that’s still the thing that brings her the most joy. It’s wonderful to provide a venue for that, because she really really wants to do it. When I watched All in the Family as a kid, she reminded me of my mom. The character in You & Me is based on my mom, so I did have some surreal moments where I was like, “Sally Struthers is playing my mom.” I hope other directors see the film and cast her in stuff. She’s an untapped comic genius.

SOM: So let’s go back to what you were saying earlier about Hillary losing parts to hearing actresses. How has this formed what you have written? Or has it?

AB: Hillary is a brilliant actress who wants to work. At its core, writing You & Me is no different than Stallone writing Rocky or Matt and Ben writing Good Will Hunting. Hillary wants a great role. And everyone has a hard time finding great roles.

SOM: My cousin Mike always says, “You have to write stuff for yourself.” Otherwise, you’re just subjected to the cruel whims of the industry. This film feels like a strong corrective.

AB: I equate so much to music. Actors are constantly going to other people and saying, “Will you let me do what I want to do?” And people say, “No”. Musicians don’t do that. They get together, they form a band, they write some songs, they get up and do it. Painters don’t ask for permission. Actors are the only artists who ask for permission to practice their craft. That being said, the fact that disabled actors who are perfect for a given role – not because of their disability only – but because of their acting and sensibility and physicality – are still not cast – I’m still trying to figure out why because I don’t want to immediately go to the idea that it’s prejudice or discomfort, but I have to say – once you exhaust all the possibilities, prejudice and discomfort is what you’re left with. If you look up any article advocating for disabled actors representing themselves onscreen, and then you read the comments – the comments are shocking. People are not only resistant but angry at the idea. Hearing actors are cast to play deaf all the time, and in the deaf community it’s almost akin to blackface. They call it “deafface,” and they’re putting up with it less and less.

AB: As we talk about more representation in the culture, this is on a lower rung, even though there’s no real ladder, everyone’s inequality is equal – but it’s something that the deaf community is trying to get more attention brought to. So the fact that there’s angry pushback at the very idea of disabled actors representing themselves points to something a little deeper psychologically. If someone sees Daniel Day-Lewis playing someone with cerebral palsy in an albeit brilliant performance – it’s almost like subconsciously somewhere we know that he’s not actually disabled. Whereas with a disabled character you are faced with the reality of what the disability is, and people just don’t want to go there. Another thing, too: disabled people are usually portrayed in very serious tragic environments, everything’s doom and gloom. Not only that, but the character’s whole life is about the disability. One of the things I love in our movie is the scenes between Hillary and her deaf friend. They’re talking about boys, they’re not sitting around talking about being deaf.

AB: I don’t want to name other films, but there’s a movie by a great director that’s very well-respected and got Oscar nominations, and there’s a deaf character, a teenage girl walking around a city and she doesn’t know how to deal with people, or communicate and she’s scared to cross the street. Hillary and I went to see it in the theatre, and she turned to me at one point and said, “Is this her first day being deaf?” This is an example of someone writing a story and including a deaf person without finding anything out about the actual experience of deaf people. With You & Me, we are trying to have fun, we aren’t trying to make a message movie, but what we’re also trying to do in the big picture is get not only Hillary but everyone to the point where a deaf or disabled actor can play a role that does not have to be disabled. But very few directors and casting people and producers have the imagination – not to mention the will – to do it. In creative circles, it would be nice if people started thinking of disability when creating stories, and start showing disabled characters just living their lives, instead of living the disability every second. I have seen at the studio level actual resistance to people on the creative level who want to include a disabled character in a story – and that’s a huge problem. Hillary was in The East, written and directed by Zal Batmanglij – who recently did The OA.

AB: Zal had the imagination to write a character who was deaf, a character who didn’t need to be deaf, story-wise. This is really really rare. The studio financing his movie didn’t want him to do it. They said, “First of all, you’ll never find an actor to play the part. We don’t want to deal with subtitles. It’s too much, we don’t want you to do it.” But when Zal saw Hillary’s tape he got excited. He had her audition again, and they showed that tape to the studio and they said, “Okay, we’ll let you cast her.” There’s other times where the studio still says No, and the director just wants to get his movie made, and so he changes the role. We’ve been seeing that happen a lot. Or they don’t know what they’re getting into because they haven’t done the research before they wrote the script and then they get to the casting process and realize that they can’t just cast anyone. They can’t expect someone to learn sign language in 5 days. Sign language is a language. It would be like casting someone who’s not Chinese and expect them to be fluent in Chinese. If people want to tackle disability, they have to know what they’re talking about, and do their research. Storytellers make this mistake a lot because they think, “Someone can just learn the signs and it’ll look authentic.” But anyone who speaks sign language can tell if someone has just learned something phonetically.

AB: One of the things I want to say about people’s pushback to seeing disabled roles played by abled actors. You know what it comes down to for me? It’s an acting question for me. I’m at the point now as a director, as a person, that if I see an actor playing a disability, I’m just thinking about the performance and it makes me question if that’s what I’m supposed to be experiencing. People will argue, “But that’s part of the fun of art, watching a performance, experiencing people create things” and I think that’s all totally fine. But it brings up the question of what acting is, or what it’s supposed to be. I, personally, love seeing actors where you can’t tell they’re acting. When it comes to the issues of disability, if I see an actor playing a disability, all I’m thinking is: I’m supposed to admire what great acting this is, as opposed to learning about the character in the story and thinking about the ideas in the story. Breaking Bad would have been very different if RJ Mitte, who played the son, was playing the disability.

RJ Mitte, “Breaking Bad”

AB: What I loved about that character was that he didn’t have to be disabled. His story wasn’t about that. Disability is just part of our world, and so it should be part of the stories being told. In casting diversity, I think representation is important, I think people seeing themselves onscreen is important, but as a filmmaker the most important thing for me is to not be bullshit. Any time I’m casting a role, I’m thinking: If this is America now, and I have a bunch of white people with no disabilities, that’s bullshit. It’s not what I see when I walk out the door. I don’t want to be caught being full of shit. I am hoping that people will see You & Me and enjoy it. I am hoping directors see it and realize you could put Hillary into just about anything and she’d be great. She doesn’t have to just play “the deaf person.” She can do anything.

You & Me will be available to rent or own on iTunes and other streaming platforms on December 4th.

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