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John Waters Argues For Murderer's Release

Cult director John Waters discusses his friendship with Manson family member and convicted murderer Leslie Van Houten, who he believes should be released on parole.

30:31

Other segments from the episode on August 10, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 10, 2009: Interview with John Waters; Interview with Max Mayer.

Transcript

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John Waters Argues For Murderer’s Release

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

It’s been 40 years since the gruesome murders committed by the Charles Manson
family shocked the nation. On August 9, 1969, Manson followers stabbed actress
Sharon Tate to death, along with four others. Tate, the wife of filmmaker Roman
Polanski, was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant.

The following night, Manson took three of his followers to another house,
chosen at random, where they murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Manson, now 74, and four others are still in prison for the murders. Our guest,
filmmaker John Waters, says it’s time that one of them, Leslie Van Houten, was
released.

Van Houten was not involved in the Tate murders, but was among the group that
killed the LaBiancas. Waters has been visiting Van Houten in prison for 24
years, and he says she’s a different person from the brainwashed Manson
disciple she was at 19 and that she meets the legal requirements for parole.

Waters is writing a book about people who’ve inspired him, called “Role
Models,” and his chapter on Leslie Van Houten is on the Web site The Huffington
Post.

He’s best known for his tasteless films like “Pink Flamingos,” “Polyester” and
“Hairspray,” which was made into a Broadway show and then a new film based on
the show. Waters is also of the books “Shock Value” and “Crackpot.”

Well, John Waters, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I think in the interest of
accuracy and out of respect for the victims of this crime, we really need to
acknowledge the seriousness of what happened here. Remind us what this crime
was and what Leslie Van Houten’s role was.

Mr. JOHN WATERS (Author; Filmmaker): Well, yeah, I completely agree. Usually,
when I come on your show, I come on for humor, and there’s really nothing funny
about this, and there’s nothing to parody.

It was a tragedy not only for the obvious victims that were murdered but also,
in my mind, for many of the middle-class kids that Manson used and turned into
zombies.

Leslie Van Houten met Manson when she was 17. She was looking for a spiritual
leader like all hippie girls were at that time. That was hardly a radical
thing. She joined up with his so-called family. They traveled in a school bus,
and they were anything but violent.

They were hippies, basically, who sang and took LSD, and eventually – Manson
was a released convict, and he had been in jail his whole life. He was much
older than the girls, and he became – he was - treated them really like a pimp
- they didn’t realize that for a long time - and gave them acid and told them
what they wanted to hear and isolated them the same way that Jim Jones, the
same way every cult leader you’ve ever hear of does.

It’s isolation, it’s drugs, it’s repeated lack of sleep, it’s staying up all
night, believing in some group thing, they’re going to survive some apocalyptic
thing.

Leslie Van Houten did not go the night of the terrible Sharon Tate murder. She
is not convicted of that crime, but she went the second night. She is convicted
of the LaBianca murders.

She went – they went out randomly. Charles Manson went in the house, tied up
Mr. LaBianca and Mrs. LaBianca, came outside and told Tex Watson, Leslie Van
Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel to go inside. Tex Watson killed Mr. LaBianca and
stabbed Mrs. LaBianca and then told the girls to, quote, do something, and they
stabbed her.

DAVIES: But I just want to be clear about this one thing. I mean, as I
understand it, when Leslie Van Houten went into Rosemary LaBianca’s bedroom,
she and Patricia Krenwinkel actually grabbed her, put a pillowcase around her,
and then when she struggled - my understanding is that Leslie then held her
while Patricia Krenwinkel tried to stab her, and then eventually, Tex Watson
came in and completed the murders.

So just whatever her state of mind, her actions…

Mr. WATERS: Her state of mind…

DAVIES: But whatever her state of mind, her actions were those of a fully
participating member of this murder party, right?

Mr. WATERS: Yes, completely, and I have never said otherwise. And she has said,
and it’s in the chapter of my book, she said every act that happened in that
house, I take responsibility for. It was me.

DAVIES: Now, of course, they were all captured and tried together at the first
trial. What was she like at the first trial?

Mr. WATERS: In the first trial, she was the Manson – the three other girls
would laugh their way, said sorry is a five-letter word that can’t bring
anybody back. They were under complete Manson’s orders. They carved X’s in
their forehead. They did every bit of completely insane behavior.

DAVIES: They were unrepentant. And did they have shaved heads?

Mr. WATERS: I think during the penalty phase. They shaved their head after he
did. Whatever he did, they did. And they were sentenced to the death penalty.

Then what happened was Leslie’s attorney was found dead in the middle of the
trial. I do not believe the Manson family killed him. There is not the
slightest bit of evidence ever that there was, but tabloids bring that up all
the time. And he had never tried a major case in his life, really. He was
pretty much an amateur. And so she got another lawyer who was pretty good, but
she had an appeal for ineffective counsel, and she got a new trial.

She was then away from Manson. She began to break down and realize this
terrible thing that had happened. The brainwashing started to come off. She
started to realize that what she thought was this insane war - that The Beatles
talking to them, they were going to live in the desert, I mean, complete
insanity that any other person could never imagine really being true - she
started to break down and realized the real terror and the horror of what she
had done.

DAVIES: So years pass. I mean, the crimes were in 1969. She was granted a new
trial in 1976, and it was held the following year. Tell us what she was like
then.

Mr. WATERS: Well, it took some time. I mean, they built them a special death
row, the three girls. And I give really, credit to the women that worked in the
prison because they sort of finally got Leslie to believe, well, where is it?
It didn’t happen. I mean, you know, and they started to, as Leslie told me, her
mind started to break down like a machine breaking down.

She would start spouting this gibberish, and then she would realize wait a
minute, that doesn’t make sense, and it was the first time she ever realize
that she had been scammed, really, that this whole thing she was believing in
was completely fictitious.

By the time she had her second trial, she was away from all them. She was by
herself. She had a very good lawyer, and it was a hung jury. It was seven for
guilty of first degree murder and five for guilty of manslaughter because of
diminished capacity.

She was let out on bail. She had a job. She lived peacefully in Los Angeles.
When the neighbors found out who she was, they were protective. They were not
horrified. And she went back, and then they added a new charge, because some
coins were taken from the LaBianca house, of robbery. And when there is a
robbery, you cannot really bring in diminished capacity.

So she was charged. They couldn’t use that defense on the third trial, and she
was found guilty and sentenced to life, not life without parole.

DAVIES: All right, so she was convicted of murder, conspiracy and robbery. In
that trial, did she take the stand and tell her story?

Mr. WATERS: Oh yes. She took the stand at both, but truthfully, for the first
time, because in the first trial, she made up all these ridiculous stories. All
the girls took the blame so Manson would – he thought he would get off. But no.
She told the truth in both the second and the third trial.

DAVIES: And how did she explain what happened?

Mr. WATERS: Well, you know, she’s been trying to explain it to herself and to
the world for 40 years. It’s a tough thing, but she believed in the beginning
that he was some magic man. She fell hook, line and sinker for it. Whatever he
did to them, he knew how to do it well.

He was a great con man, he was a pimp, and he basically - he got those girls,
he turned them out. They were for him. He got them under his control. He got
them – he’s used the perfect kind of thing, where he gave them more LSD than he
took, and it wasn’t really that much of a sexual thing.

It wasn’t like they all slept with him all the time. It was just this kind of
group madness that people – these were young, runaway kids, hippy kids in a
radical time in the ‘60s when everybody was talking about the revolution
coming. You know, Abbie Hoffman, the revolution for the hell of it - all that
stuff.

It wasn’t so far-fetched to believe in these kind of revolutions. So she fell
for it hook, line and sinker, and as she said at one point, it was too late.
Once the violence happened, they were so far gone, they didn’t even know,
really.

She said that they were living in the desert, like, building roads to
bottomless pits, and they were completely out of their mind, if you want my
opinion. But yet, she doesn’t let herself off that easy.

She said I let him be a leader. I am responsible for making him this cult
figure. I was part of it. So I think part of ever having a real sorrow and real
guilt and really being rehabilitated is to admit that you really did do
something, and she doesn’t just blame it on everybody else.

I actually think that it is more, you know, that it was Manson’s fault, but
it’s too easy to say that.

DAVIES: So after the third trial, she goes back into prison, and she has served
nearly 40 years. What has she done with her time behind bars?

Mr. WATERS: Well, she’s gotten every degree, she’s gotten. She’s gotten every
job you could ever have in the prison. You’re only allowed to work for two
years in one particular job. She’s done the AIDS quilt. She’s taught many, many
women to read. She – for one thing, she has survived in a very violent
atmosphere with not one charge, ever, of violence ever.

Before that night, there was never violence in her life, and there has never
been violence in her life since that terrible night.

DAVIES: And she has been coming up for parole-board hearings and has been
rejected every time. Now, you raise the issue in your piece of what is fair,
and of course, there is no sentence that she could serve nor fine that she
could pay that equals two human lives. But you know, legal systems have to
confront this all the time, and there are guidelines for sentencing and parole,
which take into account a number of factors - such as, you know, the
seriousness of the offense, the need to deter others, the extent to which an
inmate has rehabilitated herself.

Mr. WATERS: Can I say that the last two things she’s done - the first one, she
can never change. She can never take away the crime.

DAVIES: Has Leslie – have you or Leslie ever communicated with any of the
members of the LaBianca family?

Mr. WATERS: Well, Leslie is in the parole hearing with them, and she – you
know, it’s very hard to apologize in there because the rules that they never
announce and that you don’t know about - is you aren’t allowed to look at the
relatives. She is not allowed to even look at them when she talks about them.

So she has always wanted to apologize through the prison system, where they set
up a meeting, and that has not happened. She has certainly apologized in the
parole hearings, but I don’t think to the depth that she would like to do, but
she would, hopefully, like to do that in private.

DAVIES: You know, we said earlier, and you agreed, that there’s no prison
sentence anyone could serve which could equal the loss of two lives, but she
has served nearly 40 years. How does that compare to, you know, the sentences
that other murderers have served?

Mr. WATERS: Well, let’s put it this way. She’s been in jail longer than any
other woman in California. And when they turned – in her first trial, when they
turned over, they made the death penalty illegal, and everybody automatically
got life, there was two other women on death row that had done really hideous
cases and they served seven to eight years and were released to absolutely no
public outcry.

DAVIES: Our guest is filmmaker John Waters. We’ll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with filmmaker John Waters.
He has a new book called “Role Models.” One chapter in it is devoted to Leslie
Van Houten, who was a member of the Manson family, who has served nearly 40
years for the murder of two people in 1969. Waters argues that she has changed
in prison and should be paroled.

How did you get to know Leslie Van Houten?

Mr. WATERS: Well, I was, in the very beginning, very drawn to the case. I went
to the original trial. I had been a journalist for a long time. I wanted to
write about it, and I was more interested – I never wanted to interview Manson,
but Rolling Stone had asked me to interview him, and I thought, I’m not
interested in him. It’s just, like, somebody you’d move away from in a bar, as
she says, now a pathetic, disgusting old man.

But I was interested in a few of the followers who seemed very much like the
kids I knew from my neighborhood that went pretty wild, too. So I wrote to her,
and she said that she did not want to be in Rolling Stone. She later told me
she’s never signed an autograph. She finds it incredibly painful. And I’d seen
that in the visiting room, when people come over and say could I have your
autograph, and it’s, like, I can see the pain in her face when people ask that.

And there was a group called Friends of Leslie at the time that was all her
support group, pretty much a lot of women that had worked in the prison and her
family and her family’s friends and everything. And she said, you know, I would
write to you, but if you’re in a hurry to be friends, it’s never going to work.

And then I realized well, I’m not going to write about her. And so I wrote her,
and then gradually, we did become friends. And I never wrote about it for 20-
some years until I wrote this book. And this book is about people that have
inspired me for very, very different reasons, from Tennessee Williams to Leslie
Van Houten. And because of her patience and because – and I’m always incredibly
interested that if you do something really terrible once, can you ever, ever
get beyond that? So we gradually did become friends, and I never – I didn’t go
to visit her as a journalist.

DAVIES: Could you talk a little bit about the first time you met?

Mr. WATERS: I’m trying to remember. I mean, it’s been in the same visiting room
for many years now. We went, and I remember the woman that was in the Friends
of Leslie that sort of set it up. And she may have had another visitor that day
that was a man that is no longer alive, but he was a high-up editor of the L.A.

Times that was friends of her family’s. And he was there for moral support to
her, also.

She was guarded with me. She should have been. But we talked. I don’t remember
the exact first time, but I do remember we had written for a couple years
before I actually went, I believe. So we certainly knew enough about each other
at the time. And she wrote me in there that she trusted me and that for once, I
made her not feel like a freak, and she needed that. So I never asked her about
the crime. I didn’t bring that up. That’s really bad jail manners. And that
took many, many years for her to ever, ever discuss at all with me.

DAVIES: Why did you persist so in this relationship, do you think, I mean,
write her so many times before you met and then continued to see her?

Mr. WATERS: Because I liked her in the mail. I liked her – you know, I have
very varied friends that have done a lot of different things. I guess I went in
it as a journalist and liked the subject probably too much then, at that time,
to have written about it with much insight. And then we became friends, and I
stopped thinking about it that way. I didn’t keep notes all these years. I did
keep every clipping, all the parole hearings and everything. So I had 25, 30
years of research to go through when I wrote this piece, but it wasn’t so much
about what she did. That wasn’t what we talked about.

We talked about what she could do while she was in there. She liked to read
books. We talked about books. I sent her books. That’s the one thing I did send
her. She tried writing. She went to school. She talked about what she was doing
in school. She talked about the programs she was involved in. She talked – it
was kind of like having a relative that you visit that’s in a hospital or
something. It seemed more that was our relationship. And she grew to know my
friends. She used to ask about people. When Divine died, she wrote me a really
very, very lovely letter. She was good. I mean, we advised each other about
personal relationships. We just became friends like everybody’s friends.

DAVIES: I wonder if you – I imagine that you may have talked to Leslie about
whether it would be helpful to her to have somebody like you, who obviously
has, you know, a kind of a history of making things that some have considered
offensive and outrageous and certainly, you know, kind of counter-cultural
years back. Did you consider about whether you were the right person to be
making her public case?

Mr. WATERS: Very much. And I asked her about it, and I say in the book, are
they going to take any sentences or any parts out of context about this, you
know, 14,000 words I wrote and use it against her again. And I brought that up
to her, and I said before I print this, I want you to know that, you know, that
could happen. And she said, well, you know, the only thing I can base my
maturity on is friendship, and you have been a friend to me. You could help me
get a job when I get out. You taught in prison. You have a successful career.
You’ve made 16 movies. You’ve written three books. You have art shows. You are
an upstanding member of society, whether they like it or not anymore, so yes.
She trusted me to do it. She’s not read it yet.

DAVIES: You make a confession in this piece that you’ve written about Leslie
Van Houten, that earlier in your filmmaking career, you used the Manson
killings in what you described as a jokey, smart-ass way in some films.

Mr. WATERS: Yes, I did.

DAVIES: How did you do that?

Mr. WATERS: Well, I’ll tell you this. When I made movies like “Multiple
Maniacs” and “Pink Flamingos,” they were made for a hippie audience to scare
hippies. The Manson family did that, only in real life. We did it for humor.
They, shockingly, did it for real. I think the big difference was, at the time,
there was no such thing as punk rock. It was coming. But you know, when those
girls shaved their head and put X’s - wasn’t it punk rock? They didn’t know
that. I later asked Leslie: Did you ever feel cool? And she looked at me so
blankly and said we were so far gone, we didn’t even know what that word meant.

I mean no, they never felt cool. But in a weird way, before punk and
everything, I guess I fell for that, for the shock value of them, for the fact
of that they were – they scared the world, and in a way, I was trying to do
that with humor, which is very, very different. I had the outlet for every
unsocial, radical, angry act I could have. I just made a movie about it. I
never did it. But at the time, there was Abbie Hoffman saying revolution for
the hell of it. Kill your parents. I mean, but it was done – we knew he didn’t
mean that. It was revolution, it was play revolution.

DAVIES: Right, I mean, but a couple of films you dedicated to Manson, members
of the Manson family, right?

Mr. WATERS: Yeah – well one, “Pink Flamingos,” which was basically about the
filthiest people alive, and they were.

DAVIES: And I read that you’ve dedicated the film “Female Trouble” to Tex
Watson, who was really one of the, you know…

Mr. WATERS: Well, yeah, and that was really irresponsible, and I admit that.
This chapter is as much of how I’ve changed, you know, through this. Charles
Watson is basically who killed every one of the victims. He was Manson’s best
piece of work ever. But I’m not here to stick up for any of them but for
Leslie. I’m not sure that all of them didn’t have the same thing happen to
them. They were controlled by a madman.

DAVIES: Why do you think you were so fascinated with the Manson case and a lot
of other cases where it seems you do have a real interest in crime?

Mr. WATERS: Well, I always said if I wasn’t a filmmaker, I’d be a lawyer, and
this week, I sort of feel like one because I’ve been sticking up for her. I’m
interested in behavior I can’t understand and extreme behavior and how people
can survive that. I’ve always been interested in things there’s no fair answer,
that I don’t know the answer. If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t be interested in
it anymore. Psychological issues have always been fascinating to me.

DAVIES: Do you think you could have ever been brainwashed and misled the way
they were?

Mr. WATERS: No, I don’t think I could’ve because I was our gang’s leader, and
my people said no to me. I asked Mink Stole to set her hair on fire once. She
said: Are you crazy? I asked Cookie Mueller to smash in a television while it
was on. She said no. So – and I didn’t even think, then, that that was a weird
thing to ask. So in our group madness, whatever you call it that was for film,
no. Everybody said no to me, and I was the bad influence. I was the leader, and
so I was never looking for someone to tell me what to do. All directors tell
other people what to do, but I think my group was pretty healthy because we
were doing stuff for humor and making movies, but when I went too far, they
said no.

DAVIES: So you had a will of your own. You weren’t looking for a messiah.

Mr. WATERS: I was not looking for a messiah, but that doesn’t mean that people
that are are wrong.

DAVIES: Okay.

Mr. WATERS: I was not, no. We sort of made fun of hippies that did that, if you
want to know the truth.

DAVIES: Filmmaker John Waters will be back in the second half of the show. I’m
Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross. We’re
speaking with filmmaker, John Waters who's written a chapter in his forthcoming
book, "Role Models," about Leslie Van Houten, a former member of the Charles
Manson family who served nearly 40 years in prison for the murder of a
California couple in 1969. Waters argues that Van Houten has been a model
inmate who's taken responsibility for her crime and meets the legal standard
for parole. You can read his chapter on The Huffington Post. Walters attended
the Mansion trial and has a longstanding interest in people who commit crimes
and how they rebuild their lives.

You taught in prison, didn’t you?

Mr. WATERS: Yes, I did in the ‘80s. Yep.

DAVIES: Yeah. Tell us what made you do that.

Mr. WATERS: Well, as I said, if I wasn’t a filmmaker I'd be a lawyer. My friend
taught in there and he asked me if I’d like to come in and be a guest teacher
for the day. So I did. I showed all my movies in there. It was a very special
institute called Patuxent. It was run Norma Gluckstern, a warden that was
pretty avant-garde at the time. "60 Minutes" did a thing on it. And it was
mostly people that had done only one terrible crime. They didn't have a history
and had had a lot of psychology treatment. It wasn’t for people that pled
insanity but it was for people that maybe should've. I taught filmmaking in
there. We had, I made them do improv and play the opposite of themselves. My
classes were good and I learned as much as they did, I think, by teaching in
there, about the human condition.

I did learn that they looked like any class in any junior college anywhere and
their parents probably were very, very conservative about what they thought
should happen to criminals before it hit their family. And they were just as
shocked. I mean, Leslie Van Houten's mother and dad, they were so horrified
about what happened. But they stuck by her and they said that when she was in
jail when they finally got her, they would much rather have her in jail than
not know where she was, which it was like before.

So I saw - it's always unfair. It's never going to be fair, but I saw both
sides of it. I saw the victims whose families, of course, are torn apart by it
and want the worst, and the families who their kids have gone wrong. You know,
nobody's parents thinks their kids are going to do these kind of things but it
does happen, and then they have to deal with it. And sometimes it can be very
touching how they do try their very best to deal with it. When they realize
maybe they screwed up the first time. Although Leslie has said at every parole
hearing: My parents had nothing to do with this. They didn't do anything wrong
that caused any of this. None of this is their fault.

DAVIES: You said that you got to know both sides of the crime, those who commit
crimes and the victims. When and how did you get to know victims?

Mr. WATERS: Well, certainly in the courtrooms I went to, and I had different
students and everything, and I would see the victims testify. And it's
incredibly moving. And to be honest, the ones that are badly spoken are better
at it even because it's - you realize how uncomfortable they are to be there
and how terrible this is for them and they're never going to get over it. And
yet, what do you do? The other person is alive. I'm an optimist. I believe in
life. I believe that some people can change. Believe me, I think there's plenty
people that should never get out of jail: the serial killers, people that have
done the same thing over and over, child molesters. I'm not for, I'm talking
about Leslie is a special case.

DAVIES: You know, media coverage and films can certainly have an impact on how
cases proceed and it’s certainly impacted Leslie Van Houten and every other
member of - and, you know, and everyone involved in the Manson case. I mean the
film “Helter Skelter” was made many years ago. And then in 2003...

Mr. WATERS: There's a couple of them. Yeah.

DAVIES: Right. And in 2003, when CBS was considering remaking it, you called
the director, John Gray, right? And told him what?

Mr. WATERS: I did. They did remake it. And I, he took my call. I don’t know. He
probably thought I was calling to say oh, I don't know. But I said please, you
know this is just going to so hurt Leslie Van Houten. It's going to hurt the
chances. It's going to hurt the victims just to do this again. And he listened
and I never talked to him again, but her part wasn't that big.

And then I was eating in a restaurant in LA, and I was meeting my agent, and I
was early, and the waitress said to me, can I ask you something? Are you in the
Friends of Leslie organization? I said well there's not, that's been disbanded.
There's no such thing. But I am with a group of people that support her
release. And she said, because I played her in the movie. And I said oh God.
You know, only in Hollywood. And I said well, you know, I called the director
and I probably made your part smaller. And she said you did. It did get cut.
And I just want to tell you that I believe you were right to, that I tried to
play her and I think she should get out too. And I thought, wow, that was such
a strange experience. Only in Los Angeles could something like that happen.

But it's just another, every time they redo it, every time it's just more, it -
and nobody thought this would happen. It's become a Halloween costume.

DAVIES: You know, you have this career as a filmmaker and it's sort of, you
know, your films are sort of so transgressive and outrageous. I mean, you were
kind of were a cultural outlaw, but over time have really achieved some
mainstream success. And I'm wondering, do you think that's why maybe you
identify with criminals who have rebuilt their lives and rehabilitated
themselves? Is there a parallel?

Mr. WATERS: Yes, I think it most definitely is. Although, I didn’t have to
rehabilitate everything because my crimes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATERS: ...are done for art.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. WATERS: They were done for humor, which certainly, I'm not saying this was.
But at the same time, sure I've always identified with outsiders, people
outside the law, outlaws. Yeah. I'm interested in people that have had extreme
lives and I'm really fascinated by people that had a bad path that have
overcome it. And that to me is very, very important to me.

DAVIES: Well John Waters, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. WATERS: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: John Waters book "Role Models" will be published next year. His chapter
on Leslie Van Houten appeared on The Huffington Post.

Coming up, a new romantic comedy about dating with Asperger's syndrome.

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Director Max Mayer On 'Adam' And Asperger's

DAVE DAVIES, host:

The new film, "Adam" is a romantic comedy about a young couple in their 20’s
who meet when the woman, Beth, moves into Adam's building in New York. Pretty
standard fare, right? It might be, except that the title character, Adam, has
Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning variant of autism.

People with Asperger's are often exceptionally intelligent and verbally gifted,
but socially awkward since they have trouble reading emotional cues from
others. Many with Asperger's have a special interest which can become an
obsession. In the film, Adam's special interests are astronomy and theater
history.

My guest is the writer and director of "Adam," Max Mayer. Mayer has spent most
of his career directing theater and has written three produced plays. His only
other feature film, "Better Living," starred Roy Scheider and Olympia Dukakis.
“Adam” stars Hugh Dancy and Beth is played by Rose Byrne. In this scene from
the film, Adam is meeting Beth's parents for the first time at a theater in New
York. Her parents are played by Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving.

Ms. AMY IRVING (Actress): (as Rebecca Buchwald) We rarely go off-Broadway. I
didn't even know the theater still existed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUGH DANCY (Actor): (as Adam Raki) Oh, the Cherry Lane Theater is the
oldest continuously running theater off Broadway. It was converted from a box
factory in 1924. And then in the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s, it presented the work
of writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Eugene O'Neil…

Mr. PETER GALLAGHER (Actor): (as Marty Buchwald) I used bone up on conversation
topics too when I had date. I expect (unintelligible).

Ms. IRVING: (as Rebecca Buchwald) Marty.

Mr. DANCY: (as Adam Raki) Through 1951 to 1953, Julian Beck and Judith Malina's
"Living Theater" was based here. Oh. Oh, in 1952 Judith Malina chased the fire
marshal down the street with a spear from her production of "Ubu Roi."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANCY: (as Adam Raki) And "Endgame" by Samuel Beckett had its American
premiere here in 1957, followed by other new works such as "Happy Days," also
by Beckett in 1962, "Dutchman" in 1964 by LeRoi Jones, "The Happy Journey to
Trenton and Camden" by Thornton Wilder in 196 - but that's enough about the
Cherry Lane Theater.

Mr. GALLAGHER: (as Marty Buchwald) What about the ‘70s?

Mr. DANCY: (as Adam Raki) Well, in 1971 "Godspell" opened and in 1970...

Ms. ROSE BYRNE (Actress): (as Beth) Adam, Daddy's joking.

Mr. DANCY: (as Adam Raki) Oh. Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: I asked Max Mayer how he imagined the mental state of someone with
Asperger's to write the dialogue for Adam.

Mr. MAX MAYER (Writer, Director): It's almost a question of bandwidth in a way
and I've heard people with Asperger's described it like that, that there's a
sort of narrower bandwidth of stimulus that they receive, in the sense that
many of them are very literal in terms of - and rely on the word that the other
person is speaking, for instance, that rather than reading in, in terms of tone
or inflection.

I think, you know, in choosing Hugh Dancy and also that what I had said to him
originally was that I don’t want an introverted person to play this part
basically. I think that Adam is basically an extroverted person who has gotten
a bit beaten down through experience of being inappropriate or finding, you
know, or finding out that what he said is inappropriate or how he's behaved and
that sort of thing, but is fundamentally a sort of trusting and gregarious
person who, you know, who is trying to connect in a very real way to other
people, but doesn’t understand why one would look into somebody else's eyes to
get information because he doesn’t get any information that way.

In fact, a lot of people with Asperger's say it's sort of, it feels bad to them
to look in someone else's eyes. We did a Q & A a few days ago after a screening
which one of the people in the audience had Asperger's and he - and somebody
mentioned something about the eye contact thing and he just said, well, I look
at mouths because that's where the sound comes from. And people kind of
laughed. But it's - there's a certain, you know, unassailable logic to life in
that way.

DAVIES: In the beginning of the movie, we don't, you know, Adam's diagnosis
hasn’t been articulated. We don’t know what it is and I'm wondering, could you
share with us some of the tales - the visual details that you used to convey,
you know, his life in his world?

Mr. MAYER: Well the - I mean, the movie starts out after his father's just
died. So there's a scene with him at a funeral in which he has a somewhat odd
or slightly, seemingly vacant reaction to this funeral. And you find out a
little bit later when he comes home - because he has a, there's a chart up on
the refrigerator about - for chores and there's Adam's chores and Dad's chores.
And he takes the pen and he crosses out Dad, you know, from Dad's chores and
realizes that now he's going to have to do more of the chores. And that could
be taken as sort of heartless in a way, but it's, as I've come to understand
it, it's a much more sort of present tense sense of the world that many people
with Asperger's have, of rather than sort of dwelling on a feeling or on
something that's happened in the past, it’s actually, you know, the kind of the
next thing and not and feel - the sort of feeling realm is a very sort of
awkward realm. So it's better to get on with it.

DAVIES: I mean the heart of the story is his relationship with this woman,
Beth, who is played by Rose Byrne. They meet because she happens to move into
another apartment in his building and he is struck by her. And when you were
crafting this story, I'm wondering how you decided upon what kind of woman
would be drawn to Adam. How did you decide to - what kind of character to
write for Beth?

Mr. MAYER: Well, I think that some of her outstanding characteristics are, I -
she’s very curious. She has a really good sense of humor which I - which from
what I understand is a sort of absolute must for people who are having
relationships....

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYER: ...with people with Asperger's syndrome. She’s also been - is sort
of in a crisis in the sense that the way she’s been brought up and the sort of
idealized view that she’s had of her family is in the process of crumbling. And
she is in the process of realizing that things that she took for granted or
believed about her family and her family's relationships weren't true. So I
think she’s in a space where honesty and fidelity...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYER: ...are especially salient to her at the moment. So I think some of
the things that Adam offers, in terms of honesty and intelligence and the fact
that he can be counted on, are very attractive.

DAVIES: You know there's a moment in - early in the relationship where Adam
reveals to Beth that he has this issue, this syndrome, Asperger's - and I'm
sure that's something that you thought about when you were crafting the script,
and it comes fairly early in the film so we're not giving away much - but I
wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you decided he would reveal
this to Beth.

Mr. MAYER: Right. First of all, I - you know, it does come a little later than
I think you would ordinarily think to discover it - in our film. I mean, I
think it’s about third of the way through or whatever. And it was important to
me that the audience kind of get to know Adam without necessarily putting a
label on him. Of course, that’s just for the first weekend of the movie because
now everybody who’s going to it - pretty knows - pretty much knows what it’s
about, but in terms of the experience of the film itself, you know, he is not
labeled for, you know, the first half hour or whatever.

And that was kind of important to me, in that I did want people to be intrigued
and sort of leaning forward and trying to figure it out and then - and get to
know him a little bit as - just as a person before you put a label on him

because a label tends to just become that. You know, the person just - then
becomes a label if you sort of learn about it too soon. And that’s actually an
issue in the Asperger’s community too, about when to divulge your diagnosis to
neurotypicals.

But the other thing I wanted was for it to be truthful in the sense that I
think Adam would not - the character I know wouldn’t divulge it until he needed
to. And so I basically waited until Beth was almost out the door at a certain
point and - so that he kind of had to tell her that to keep her in the room.

DAVIES: And what he had done was to say something kind of inappropriate at that
point in the relationship about the fact that he was sexually attracted to her
and it put her off. That’s where he jumps in and says, wait a minute, there is
a reason I said something like that.

Mr. MAYER: Right.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, I wanted to play a clip from the film and this is a point
at the film in which it’s right after Adam and Beth, the woman he is in the
relationship with, have had a fight and Beth shows up and sort of as a peace
gesture has brought him a box of chocolates.

(Soundbite of movie, “Adam”)

Ms. ROSE BYRNE (Actor): (as Beth Buchwald) Sorry. Some chocolates.

Mr. HUGH DANCY (Actor): (as Adam Raki) I’m not Forrest Gump, you know.

Ms. BYRNE: (as Beth Buchwald) Of course not. I didn’t mean - was that a joke?
Are you joking?

Mr. DANCY: (as Adam Raki) I can joke.

Ms. BYRNE: (as Beth Buchwald) I’m sorry. I took it out on you. I’m just – just
scared for my father. You can apologize too now.

Mr. DANCY: (as Adam Raki) Well, you said it was your fault.

DAVIES: And that’s Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne from the new film “Adam” which is
written and directed by our guest Max Mayer. You know, you can hear in that
scene that he is taking things so literally. He can’t understand why he would
apologize also because she just declared that it was her fault. But the scene
begins with him cracking that joke and it kind of threw me because, you know, I
was used to thinking of him as someone who is so literal, does not pick up
subtext and inference in conversation.

Yet, there is this wonderful little ironic joke that he pulls out of, you know,
out of the cinema and this gesture. Is this typical are folks with Asperger’s?
I wonder, is that…

Mr. MAYER: Well, I think that we supply a bunch of the irony, actually. I think
that from Adam’s standpoint - I mean, he is reminding Beth gently that he is
not retarded, you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. MAYER: I mean, that he doesn’t have a cognitive impairment, you know. And
he knows that he’s - he knows that he is, you know, not, you know, coming down
hard on her or anything. But he has a literal purpose, I think.

DAVIES: So, he is not making a joke then, or is he?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYER: Yes, I think he is - I mean, he’s, you know, he’s tentatively hoping
and - that it’s funny. That, you know, that she will both - that she’ll get the
message. And that he’s doing it in a way that’s light. And – but - this is very
far on in their relationship. And he - I think that in a way he’s taking a big
chance because - which he would never do with somebody he didn’t know that
well.

DAVIES: We’re speaking with Max Mayer. He has written and directed a new film
called “Adam.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, our guest is Max Mayer. He has written and
directed the new film, “Adam.” Adam is the central character, he has Asperger’s
syndrome. And it’s about his relationship with a young woman. You know, the
other interesting thing, I mean, you were saying that in some respects, the
difficulties with Asperger’s are sort of a metaphor for the difficulties of
people in relationships.

You know, we all want to connect, but - and communicate, but it’s hard and we
struggle with it. The other thing that struck me here was the fact that Adam -
you know, he just has no filters. I mean, he’s tactlessly honest. He has no
interest, for example, in her friend’s baby pictures and therefore kind of
insults them. And…

Mr. MAYER: Right.

DAVIES: …it struck me that I - a lot of women who think that their guys are
kind of tactless and insensitive and clueless, probably look at this - looking
at this thinking, actually I wonder if my boyfriend has Asperger’s.

Mr. MAYER: Yes. It’s kind of wonderful how you hear sort of higher pitched
laughs in the audience and lower pitched laughs in the audience. And they sort
of - and they kind of take turns - you know, in that clip that you showed, I
think that a lot of men would identify with Adam saying, but you said it was
your fault, why would I apologize? That kind of makes sense to me as a man and
that’s probably something I have to work on it in my life…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYER: …but - and by the same token the reverse is true where he’s, you
know, where he says things that are obviously, to neurotypicals, inappropriate
and - but honest. And comes out as a bull in a China shop or certainly provides
more information than anybody wants fairly often.

DAVIES: You know, I wonder if as this film, you know, gets attention, I mean,
do you feel the presence of advocates for Asperger’s out there ready to either
pounce on something in the film that you got wrong or make you a champion for
their cause? I mean, there are issues. I mean, there are public policy issues,
like the…

Mr. MAYER: Right.

DAVIES: …difficulty of people with, you know, Asperger’s getting needed
services, because they’re not regarded as sufficiently mentally handicapped. I
mean…

Mr. MAYER: Right.

DAVIES: …are you ready to become…

Mr. MAYER: (unintelligible) disability and all that.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. MAYER: Yeah, I mean I very much feel that. I didn’t up until the last three
weeks. We’ve being going sort of around the country on a bit of junket and
showing the movie all over the country. And some of those screenings have had
large numbers of people with Asperger’s. And at the beginning, certainly my
heart was always sort of in my mouth as soon as somebody stood up and said,
well, I have Asperger’s, partly because, you know, they have a right to
criticize. And they have the right to say this is - you know, this is accurate
or representative or not or whatever. Partly that and also because you know
that you’re going to get the straight dope basically because there isn’t the
same kind of filter or, you know, they’re not really invested in being
charitable or, you know, or assuaging my insecurities or whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYER: But fortunately, I must say it’s – the reaction has been
unbelievably gratifying. People have felt – have seemed to be almost humblingly
grateful that this movie is out and they feel like it is an accurate
representation, not of the entire community because that’s, you know, not
possible. But that it’s an accurate representation of someone with Asperger’s,
of a unique human being with Asperger’s, and also a positive representation.
So, that’s been incredibly gratifying and also a little bit - you know,
sometimes I feel a little bit like a fraud because as I said that’s not why I
made the movie.

I made the movie sort of to talk about relationships in my own and - other
people’s and used Asperger’s wanting to be accurate about it but if it has the
byproduct of making the – our neurotypical world a little bit more interested
and compassionate and, you know, and valuing of that community, that’s a great
thing.

DAVIES: So, when you had the screenings and people with Asperger’s rose and
said things, what kind of things did you hear?

Mr. MAYER: Well, there was one young woman who basically started a list of
things that she liked about the movie, starting with the crane shot that
started on the leaf and pulled focus to the van. So, she was being, you know,
very precise and then, you know, went on with a list of maybe 10 or 12 more
things that she really liked, both sort of large and small.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYER: And that was kind of impressive. Then, there are - the most sort of
touching thing about those Q & A’s I think have to do with parents of children
who have Asperger’s because I think the movie touches both on their fears and
their hopes for their children’s future and their concern for sort of what
happens when they’re left on their own.

So, some people are extremely emotional about the film and feel like that the
film does give them a certain hope about their children and moving on and
forming other attachments in life, which is a realistic hope and not, you know,
not sort of just rosy and Hollywoodized or whatever. And then there are people
with Asperger’s who just are, you know, just sort of frankly state that they
think that they’re – that it was well done and they understand - they recognize
themselves in the movie. And there is a lot of - you can hear a lot of, sort
of, laughter of recognition from those audiences.

DAVIES: Well, Max Mayer, we’ll be waiting to see what you come up with next and
thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MAYER: Well, it was a pleasure. I appreciate it.

DAVIES: Max Mayer wrote and directed the new film, “Adam.” You can download
podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

Mike Seeger, the singer, multi-instrumentalist and folklorist died Friday at
the age of 75. The cause was blood cancer. Seeger, with his band The New Lost
City Ramblers, was a major figure in the folk revival of the ‘50s and ‘60s. He
was also the half-brother of Pete Seeger. We’ll close with Mike Seeger playing
and singing on his 2007 CD, “Early Southern Guitar Styles.”

For Terry Gross, I’m Dave Davies.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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