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Interview: ‘The Last Taboo’ Director Freeman

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Related Story: Sex And Disability: Boston Filmmaker Turns Lens On ‘The Last Taboo’

Hear Margaret’s full interview with filmmaker Alexander Freeman, or read the transcript:

Margaret Evans: Is filmmaking what you would call your driving passion?

Alexander Freeman: Yes. I would say it is. I really can’t imagine myself doing anything besides filmmaking at this point. I guess I knew what I should do when I was 14 or 15. That was it, you know. I had my choice then.

And so since then I’ve just been making more and more films. A lot of what I know is by just doing. Filmmaking is not the kind of thing where you can look at a book and just know. You learn by doing.

You learn by doing and you’ve done by my count at least 10 movies — short and somewhat longer documentaries, as well as fictional films. You’ve done a lot in the past 10 years. Filmmaking is a really, really tough industry. How confident are you that you’re going to make it your profession after you graduate?

Completely confident, completely certain. I mean, it is a very tough industry and it is a very competitive industry. Everyone is competing for the same thing. It is an industry of sharks and vipers.

What do you mean by sharks?

What I mean by sharks is that because it’s so competitive, and because when you’re making a movie you not only invest people’s time and money and things like that, I think it makes you very aggressive. One of the things that I learned was you can be a great artist and you can have a great vision but that’s not what matters. What matters is knowing the right people and being a good communicator. Being able to listen to other people but still get your vision heard.

You seem to have a realistic view of the industry where you have to be sure of yourself, aggressive, know the right people. But you were just talking about… you have to temper that aggression with some consideration so you’re not a shark. I mean, do you think you have to be a shark to make a success of it?

You do have to be a shark, yes. But you need to be diplomatic about it. What I mean is that you have to be able to hold your own ground and, at the same time, listen to other people. Listen to what other people are bringing to the table. If you are just a jerk, no one is going to want to work with you, and so in my own experience I try to … when I’m working with actors, when I’m working with crew, I try to give. I try to let them say whatever they have in mind first before I make my decision. Now I may not agree with it but I will always hear them out because everyone has a voice in the process of making a movie and everyone deserves to have their voice heard.

That seems to be a theme — that everybody deserves a voice — it seems to be a theme that runs through, not only your approach to working, to being the director, the writer, the producer, the editor, taking in what all of your colleagues contributing. Ultimately though, you’re the decision maker. It also seems to be a theme in the movies that you’ve made — that everyone deserves a voice. Talk about that a bit.

(Laughter) Ah, you’ve hit on something. You’re absolutely right — that is a running theme in my own work, not just the crew and cast but in the films themselves. A big theme of mine is giving minorities in society a voice.We are bombarded with movies that have white, able-bodied characters and we see them over and over again, and I sort of realized that there was a serious percentage of the population that was not getting their voice heard.

So I say I am particularly passionate about representing minorities in society: people who have disabilities, people who are gay, people who are from different racial backgrounds, people who are different genders, people who are really overlooked.

Have you ever felt overlooked, as a person with a disability?

Oh yes, I have. I feel it all the time. Just going outside, kind of watching how people look at me. How people react to me. Even though nothing is said, they’re still saying something.

What do you think they’re saying?

They’re saying … well, my mental faculties are greater than his therefore I’m not going to treat him as I would an able-bodied person. A lot of this is just subconscious. A lot of this is just hidden by the filter that I think we all have.

I feel like, in the past, it was more blatant. In the past, before the Americans with Disabilities Act, things were really different. I think that people were more vocal about how they saw people with disabilities. But now I think it’s gotten a lot more subtle. I mean, I don’t think it’s gone away. It’s gotten a lot more subtle, and I think in some ways it was better when people were more vocal about how they felt about people with disabilities. They didn’t quite understand because now I think people are just very, very censored.

How do you respond when you’re picking up a vibe that someone thinks you’re not capable of doing something, such as filmmaking? How do you respond?

There have been times when I’ve tried to tell people what I do and they’ve kind of come back with this response, like, “Oh, that’s wonderful. That’s good isn’t it.” It’s extremely frustrating.

Sometimes I have to restrain myself, emotionally. It’s very frustrating. But I can usually tell who they are because I usually get a response like, “Oh, that’s great. That’s wonderful,” and then I keep talking and they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And really at that point, I know, OK, they’re not taking me seriously and they’re not really seeing me. And so, I just kind of drop it and I stop. I say to myself, “OK, well this person isn’t worth my time.” Or I try to give them a business card that has all the links to my work on it, and hope that they go home and watch some of it, as proof of who I am. Even if I might appear to not be capable.

Physically, I think the first impression is such that the cerebral palsy must put a lot of physical constraints on you. How much more difficult is it for you to do the work, to get through the day? Would you agree you have more physical challenges than an able-bodied filmmaker?

Yeah. I mean the actual speech itself. You know, getting the words out, is very hard. I speak much, much more slowly than the average person, so you know, when people are on the set and one person is trying to hang a light or get the camera at the right angle, or an actor needs to know what he or she has to be feeling, or where they should be looking … it does take that much longer to get the sense across. But I can do it, completely, you know. It just takes more time.

So I think it does take a crew, it does take actors who are patient enough to wait, to take the time. That way it does affect my filmmaking. But speech is the only thing. I think the other thing is that I can’t adjust the camera.

But you work with the lighting person, you work with the camera operator. So on a film set in the industry, the director would not be the one to adjust the lights. In a way, is it a benefit that people who end up working on movies with you, they must be a certain kind of person and that, in a way, you’re requiring, as you said, a very collaborative approach to what extent is this actually a positive thing?

Yeah, I mean, I don’t look at it as a negative at all. In fact, it is a positive thing because it does take certain people to, very special people who kind of put the disability aside and say, “You know what, it doesn’t matter. What matters is making the movie.” I think that when people work on my films, they understand how to work with people in a whole new way.

They must also trust in you. They trust your vision, by the sounds of it. You know, people don’t go into making movies to be nice…

I guess they do trust my vision, and that makes me very happy because … in that setting, it’s an environment where there is no judgment and I’m not judged by my disability at all, assuming that it’s the right people. Giving me respect that I don’t always get in everyday life.

Is there anything you’d like to answer that I haven’t put to you?

What I want to leave behind in my life, yeah.

Your legacy?

Yeah.

You’re so young to be talking legacy. Maybe you want to talk about why you are talking about what you want to leave behind in your life?

I’ve always been aware of mortality because there is no certainty of anything. [What] I want to leave behind is my work because my work is a testament of who I am, not what I appear to look like on the outside. We have a responsibility to make a difference in the world, make a mark in society and not take back and let the world go by. To focus on some problem, to focus on some issue, to change it.

And the issue that you’re focusing on with the goal of changing it is?

Telling the stories of minorities, or what I like to call outcasts, people who are misrepresented, people who are pushed aside, people who are considered not equal.

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