Directed by Ben Lewin (The Sessions), Please Stand By follows Wendy (Dakota Fanning), a fiercely independent and brilliant young woman with autism, who also deeply loves Star Trek, which she uses to filter and understand what she can’t make sense of herself. When she learns about a screenplay competition, Wendy completes a 500-page Star Trek script and becomes determined to enter, even if it means traveling hundreds of miles outside of her sheltered and protected life to submit in person, much to the concern of her big sister (Alice Eve) and therapist (Toni Collette), both of whom are impressed with Wendy’s determination and drive.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Ben Lewin talked about how he connected with Wendy, why Dakota Fanning was perfect for this role, gaining a new appreciation for Star Trek, having his actors speak Klingon, working with a dog, the sister relationship, his process for screening his films, and which types of projects he’s looking to do, in the future.
Collider: In what ways did you immediately connect to this young woman’s story, and how did that connection evolve through the making of the film?
BEN LEWIN: I’m driven by the journey of an unusual character. That’s what underlies pretty much every good drama, for me. One of the things that struck a nerve was that I knew people who had kids with these sorts of challenges. There was one young woman, in particular, that this reminded me so much of. When I spoke to her mother and talked about the whole Star Trek connection, she said, “Of course!” I never quite understood this connection with the Star Trek world, where morality is so simple and it’s all the others who are aliens. It was really very illuminating. After all, Mr. Spock was the first real hero with autism on TV. The fact that this was embodied in a young woman also intrigued me because autism is most typically represented in male character, like with Rain Man, or with the TV series A-Typical and The Good Doctor. Although women are in the minority, in autism stories, the point being made was that women needed more emotional connection. That’s what interested both the writer and me. We’re content to live in the world of video games, abstraction, and so on. That’s what really drew me to it. It struck a chord and opened an unexpected door. I never was a Trekkie before.
Did you have to do a deep dive into Star Trek, once you started working on this? Do you have a different appreciation for it now?
LEWIN: Absolutely! We went to great lengths to reproduce the exact spacesuits from the episode called “The Tholian Web.” We also went to Vasquez Rocks, where they shot. And I promise you that the Klingon is grammatically perfect. We cleared that with the world’s leading Klingon authority.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when Patton Oswalt’s character takes the time to connect with Dakota Fanning’s character by speaking Klingon to her. How challenging was that to shoot? Did they mess up the Klingon a lot, or did they take to it pretty well?
LEWIN: Dakota had been practicing her Klingon for weeks, so it was impeccable. We managed to whip Patton into shape, as well. The only difficulty about shooting that scene, oddly enough, was finding the location. It was a lovely scene to shoot because it was so innately funny, yet moving, which is what you aim for. We kept that scene until late in the schedule, just for the pleasure of looking forward to it.
This is the type of movie that lives and dies on who you cast in the lead role. What led you to Dakota Fanning? Why was she your Wendy?
LEWIN: I saw I Am Sam, and you can’t help but be bowled over by what she could do, as a child. Every film I’ve seen her in, her face is a mystery. It really does feel like something otherworldly. Her abilities as an actor are just awesome. When I met with her, I would have begged her to do it. Fortunately, she had really connected with the character right away and wanted the challenge of playing someone she’d never played. To me, it’s her movie. Working with her was just a wonderful experience for me.
Did you guys work on and find this character together, or did she go off and find this character and her performance, and then come back with it fully formed?
LEWIN: As much as I would like to take the credit, she did it, and she did it effortlessly. There was no sense of her struggling to find it. The first moment she stepped into he character, she was the character. I’m not a puppeteer. I don’t tell actors what to do. That’s not how I work. I don’t know how to describe what a director does, really. I don’t interfere with the actor owning the character. I just want the actor to own the character, and for me to enjoy the performance, rather than mold the performance. Of course, we worked together through every moment of it, but I never felt that the character was anything but hers.
Pete the Pup, aka Blaster, is absolutely adorable and the movie made him seem like he was such a good dog. Was that the case? How was he to work with?
LEWIN: I think he was a bit on the spectrum himself, actually. That’s the conclusion we came to. He was great to work with. At first, I was very intimidated by the idea of having to work with a dog on a very tight schedule, but I thought the dog really added to it. I thought they made a wonderful couple. When you work with animals, you just have to plan and work with the handler and be very, very specific. You can’t just say, “Let’s see what the dog does.” If you’re very specific with the dog, you can get what you want. Of course, I tried to cast the saddest looking dog. I have a dog who should be in therapy, as well.
I love the relationship between the sisters, Audrey and Wendy, but Audrey is a very tricky character that could have come across as unlikeable, if not for the humanity and heart that Alice Eve brings to the role. What do you hope people who don’t have someone with special needs in their life learn from watching the relationship between Wendy and Audrey, and the affect that it has on them both?
LEWIN: I don’t expect people to learn anything from watching movies. I grew up in a situation where I had an older sibling, in a family where I required most of the attention. I was the disabled kid in the family and I understood, from a very young age, what it was to be that sibling. There’s also a terrific movie, called Black Balloon, about a family with a child with autism, where you see that tension and conflict of having to look after your younger sibling, as well as trying to manage your own life. I’m not expecting people to learn anything from it, other than to recognize and saying, “Oh, yes, I understand that situation,” with the stresses of being a sibling in a family where you have a special needs child.
Did you screen this film for friends and family, to gauge their reaction and to see if all of these relationship dynamics were working?
LEWIN: I tend to do that, almost on a weekly basis. I’ll review our week’s work and the whole movie, and I’ll usually have one or two people over, who don’t know anything about it, just to get a sense of their understanding or not understanding. I do that on an ongoing basis. I find that pretty useful. Other directors hold things pretty close to their chests, but I like to get a sense for how people are receiving it, very early.
Do you know what you’re going to direct next, or what you’re hoping to do next?
LEWIN: There are a number of projects on the table. I don’t know quite where to start. I’d like to do something which simply moves people, emotionally, in some way or another. I don’t know whether it’s going to be something comic or something tragic. I have a romantic comedy about opera singers, which is very appealing. I have a historical movie about Australia’s greatest composer, Percy Grainger, and the tortured relationship he had with his mother. I have a project that involves a cat as a major character. I have a thriller, called The Shadow Girl, about a young girl escaping a predatory uncle. I don’t know which one of those is going to spark first. It’s very hard to tell. I like all of them. I’m sure that the next thing will also have some off-the-wall characters in it.
I love the line in Wendy’s Star Trek script, “The unknown is for us to conquer, not to fear.” It seems like that could really apply to all of our lives. Do you think that’s a motto that we should all live by?
LEWIN: Yes! That line also resonates with me. I think that’s a takeaway that is universal. I hope it doesn’t sound too pretentious. That’s what life is about for a lot of us, isn’t it?
Please Stand By is in theaters, on demand, on Amazon Video and on iTunes.