One-Woman Doc

Lauren Betesh, CUJ ‘13, produced a documentary about autism called “Aging Out” during her last semester at the journalism school that stood out because of its intimate and poignant depiction of an autistic 18-year-old and the difficulties of finding housing for autistic adults. While most of her classmates worked in pairs of twos and threes, Lauren ended up producing her documentary all by herself. Her video has just been published this week on Narratively. We spoke to Lauren about the challenges and unexpected upsides of producing a video alone, and how she was able to get such great access to her characters.

CV: How did you find out about, or get interested in, this story?

LB: When we were assigned the project, I was thinking of ideas that were trending; ideas that appeal to a lot of people that were emotional, and that could make a difference if I brought light to the subject area.

A friend of mine had also mentioned doing [a project] on autism, and my mom has a very close friend who has children with autism, whom I’ve met. I was just naturally curious about the subject area.

CV: Autism is a broad subject. How did you narrow down the scope of the film?

LB: The first thought that came to mind was, how does it impact and influence the family? Because you see these people with a handicap and you know it’s not just them that are influenced. It’s everyone around them; it’s their family and friends. They have to care for them. So I got to thinking about the burden of care and where it fell. And I thought, these kids, when they’re young, have such a structure, but what happens when they mature and grow older? You don’t see people with autism out and about that much. I just wondered, “What happened? Where do they go? What are their lives like?”

18-year-old Andrew spends much of his day watching videos on his computer. Photo by Lauren Betesh.

18-year-old Andrew Roger often spends hours a day watching videos on his computer on repeat. Photo by Lauren Betesh.

CV: How did you meet your main character, Andrew?

LB: So I did my thesis on The Stand [comedy club] and the business of standup comedy, and the owner of the club put me in contact with Heidi [Andrew’s mom]. He had known her for years. So I made an appointment with them, got in the car, and drove to New Jersey. I went into their house, and it was just – it all clicked. She was so real, and natural, and nice, and open, and he was such a gem in so many ways. She was a single mom – well, she has a boyfriend now – but in a small home, and all you hear is the music that he listens to on repeat coming out of his bedroom. And to me it was so perfect in terms of the scene, to capture a moment and to capture his life. I fell in love with him, and I thought that because I fell in love with him and his mom, the audience would fall in love with them too.

CV: How did you end up making this video by yourself, when most of your class was working in groups?

LB: Everybody ended up either doing story ideas that I liked, but I didn’t in-my-bones connect to as much as I felt I could, or the timing and the logistics didn’t work out. I knew from first semester the effort, and energy, and time that had to go into pulling this together, and I knew that physically I could not commit the time and the hours to be uptown.  I thought it would be easier for me to just do it solo and go from there.

In terms of access, it allowed me to get closer,  and have people open up in ways they wouldn’t normally. That wasn’t my thought process going into it. I didn’t know that would be the case until I was in the scene alone.

CV: How much time did you spend with your characters before you started filming?

LB: It was mixed. I always took the camera with me, because whenever I went to visit them they were 2 hours out of the city. So if I took the trip there, I always took the camera and I said, “Do you mind if I shoot Andrew in his room for a little bit?” Then, I would leave off filming, and spend time talking to them, getting to know them. The first time I met Lila Howard, the older lady, for a pre-interview, we went to a diner on the East side and we sat for three hours. I asked her out for coffee; she ordered everything on the menu. And when I left, I didn’t even know if I wanted to interview her. So I definitely invested the time. I always had my camera with me, but I would put my camera down just to talk because it’s more about the relationship building, but they understood that I was there to make a film.

Lila Howard, 89, and her autistic son Lyndon, 60, at Lyndon's apartment in Manhattan. Photo by Lauren Betesh.

Lila Howard, 89, and her autistic son Lyndon Rochin, 60, at Lyndon’s apartment in Manhattan. Photo by Lauren Betesh.

CV: How did you find your oldest character, Lyndon, and his mother Lila? They were an amazing find.

LB: I met Lyndon and Lila because one of the boys in the group home, Danny, his mom was a journalist. I met his parents and they put me in touch with a woman who has an autistic daughter on a farm, and she has this work program. And the woman didn’t want to be in the documentary. She had an interview with NBC she wanted to do, so she turned me down, but I called her up and I said, “Do you know anyone else I can speak with?” And she happened to tell me in passing, “There’s a woman I know, she’s 89 years old, she has a son who’s autistic, he’s in his 60s, she lives in Manhattan.” And I said, “Well, do you have her contact information?” She said yes, and the rest is history.

CV: Was it harder to build trust with your autistic characters, given that they had trouble with social cues?

LB: No, because they didn’t even really notice that I was in the room. Except Lyndon. Andrew noticed, but because of his disability he was focused on other things. Lyndon, when I was there, he didn’t mind me – he minded me being there only sometimes. But essentially, we got along well, as long as I followed their rules. In Andrew’s room, I couldn’t touch or move anything; everything was perfectly ordered and organized. So as long as I observed his rules, and I always did, I was fine. And I was lucky to have such wonderful parents to work with, because they were allowing me most of all the access and the long hours with their children because they cared so much for me to bring this issue to light. They need so much help, and they need the world to see that it’s a huge issue, and it takes over their lives in every possible way.

CV: You even film your character in the shower. How did you get so close and build that trust?

LB: I got to his house at 6 in the morning, and told his mom I needed to film him waking up and getting ready for school. She said, he’s gonna hop in the shower, and I asked, “Can I film it?” and she said yes. I just knew that it was a moment. I knew not to film – I mean he was standing there naked, and I knew–I didn’t even look, I knew to respect him. I’m not there to exploit my characters. I wanted to show him in the shower, him getting ready for school, part of his day, you know. I wasn’t there to poke fun. I tried to keep it as tasteful and respectful as I could.

CV: Was it hard to get access to the special education class Andrew was in?

LB: I asked Heidi if I could go to school with him; she emailed the school and they were very open to it, very nice. Of course I had to get paperwork signed and approved every time I visited; I had to go to the main office and get clearance; I had to have releases signed by everyone in the class before I even started filming. Heidi helped me arrange it. I was lucky to have such a nice, open school to work with that also wanted me to shed light on their program, and on autism in general.

CV: This story is mostly shot in NJ. Was it hard commuting from J-school in upper Manhattan?

LB: Yes. Yes, it was. It was exhausting. But I just paced myself and I made sure to get rest, and eat well. Thankfully I’m originally from New Jersey, but I have a car in the city, and I would drive myself out there and back at all hours of the night, and it was fine. I spaced out the timing and the shoots when it was most convenient for me, and the fact that I was working alone gave me more flexibility. So it was taxing, but I was in the comfort of my car, thankfully.

CV: How did you get access to the group home?

LB: Barbara Fishkin, the mother of Danny Mulvaney, got me clearance from the AHRC [a government advocacy program for children with disabilities]. I drove out to Long Island, met the manager of the group home and his aides, and everyone was extremely pleasant and helpful. Fishkin continued to arrange my follow up visits. She is extremely active in the autism community and helped arrange a group home for her son Danny. In fact, it was the last group home scheduled to be built on Long Island.

CV: What was the hardest part about doing this on your own?

LB: Having the confidence within myself to make the right decisions. There were so many times I was nervous or hesitant, but I just pushed myself to go forward. When I received positive feedback after my first in-class screening, it was a huge push forward. I was thrilled and channeled that excitement in hopes of having the same response again. And truthfully—I never really worked alone. Duy [Linh Tu] helped me with direction, my classmates provided feedback, and at home, my sisters and boyfriend sat with me to provide comfort and support and criticism – even when I didn’t want to hear it.

CV: What advice do you have for students just starting out who’d like to produce something like this?

LB: Think big. Think about what will move your audience. Care about your topic and connect genuinely with your subjects. Be creative with how you edit your work, be confident, and know CJS will be your support system throughout the process. You’re in the best of hands with [your professors] and your DMAs so just run with your ideas and throw yourselves into them so you can walk away from your work proudly, with your head held high.