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Temple Grandin: Awesome autistic, revered ‘rock star’

/ 07:48 PM August 28, 2011

First time he read the script of “Temple Grandin,” British documentarist and filmmaker Mick Jackson knew he wanted to do it, and do it right.

Jackson told the Inquirer during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills: “I had never heard of Temple Grandin, but I was very, very drawn to this real-life character that I was swiftly learning about. A girl born with severe autism—couldn’t speak till age 4, couldn’t bear her mother to touch her—rises above all this to develop a laser-sharp visual intelligence, go to college, become an MA, a doctor, a professor and world expert on animal behavior.”

A hero, no less


Temple Grandin, the extraordinary woman, is all that and more. Over half the cattle in North America are handled in systems that she designed. Taking off from a device that “gentled” the cows before they were killed, Grandin went on to build a chute subsequently proven to reduce the animals’ anxiety in their final hour. Given that Grandin is a female in a macho male-dominated setting, and an autistic at that, this start of a lifelong endeavor should have been like being led to the slaughter herself.

Also noted for her work in autism advocacy, Grandin was listed in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World last year, in the “Heroes” category.

“Temple Grandin,” the award-winning movie, premieres on HBO Asia on Friday, September 2, 10 p.m., heralded by accolades from critics, award-giving bodies in Hollywood and, most important, the tearful gratitude of parents of autistic children who have seen the TV production that took 10 years to reach the screen.

Entertainment Weekly’s Jennifer Armstrong wrote: “The beauty of [the film] is that it makes the title character’s autism—and the unique insight it gave her into livestock psychology—relatable to anyone with a heart, and fascinating to anyone with a brain.”

AV Club’s Noel Murray, who has an autistic son, gave the film an “A” for actress Claire Danes’ portrayal of Grandin as a fully fleshed out personality instead of “a checklist of symptoms gleaned from a medical journal.”

Director Jackson (“LA Story,” “Tuesdays with Morrie,” “The Bodyguard,” “Live from Baghdad,” “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” are only five of the 32 movies he has made) pointed out, “I wanted to make the movie like Temple was—totally unsentimental. Even those volcanic swings and great stimulations … they’re just what her everyday life is like. She sees things that others don’t, vividly, sometimes in exaggerated form—why this cow is going in circles, why all the marked cattle walk down this kind of surface and not the other kind, etc. On our very first meeting, she reminded me of a definition of ‘absent-mindedness’ that I had come to regard with more than amusement. ‘An absent mind is a mind that is present elsewhere.’ Temple would sometimes seem to be in a daze but she’s not in a daze; she’s somewhere very specific, thinking very specific thoughts.”

Ah, yes, that first meeting. Jackson related, “We were in a coffee shop. She couldn’t stop talking in that booming voice, and I couldn’t stop asking questions. She had an amazing recall of every detail of her life—the exact model of typewriter that she had used in high school, her first camera … she has a literally photographic memory.”

Until then, all that Jackson knew about autism had come from a documentary about parents of afflicted children. “Talking to Temple (and, later on, reading her books), I realized there was a whole world within that mind to explore.”


Cowgirl walk

Executive producer Emily Gerson Saines, in whose mind the idea for a Grandin bio film originated, remembers her first meeting with the savant, too. This account from the production notes: In the late 1990s, through Grandin’s agent, Gerson Saines asked to meet Grandin for lunch. “She came in wearing her cowgirl shirt—in her very Temple way, her very Temple walk. I realized there were people staring at her, and in a different lifetime I might have been one of them, but all I could think of at that moment was, ‘I can’t believe how lucky I am to be here. This woman’s my hero.’”

Gerson Saines is a successful talent agent and a cofounder of the nonprofit Autism Coalition for Research and Education (now part of Autism Speaks). In the mid-1990s, she was a vice president at the William Morris Agency when her 2-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. Her mother told her about Grandin’s book, “Thinking in Pictures,” and around that same time, her grandmother sent her a published feature about Grandin.

“Temple’s story brought me hope and her mother’s (Eustacia) story gave me direction and purpose,” Gerson Saines said in a later interview. “Parents of a child with autism everywhere need to hear these stories, functionally and spiritually. Given my access as a talent representative in the entertainment industry, I felt it was my responsibility to make that happen.”

Grandin, familiar with Gerson Saines’ work with the Autism Coalition, granted her permission to make the film, but the endeavor would not come to fruition immediately. Two directors would leave the project soon after their attachment to it were announced. By 2008, Jackson had taken the helm and negotiations with Danes were underway. Meritt Johnson and Cristopher Monger would be credited for the final script (adapted from Grandin’s memoirs, “Emergence” and “Thinking in Pictures”).

One thing that Gerson Saines was sure about from the start was that she would work with HBO on this one, partly because of her long-standing relationship with the network as an agent. “I knew that by going that route, more people would see the movie,” she said in a 2008 interview. “When you’re trying to do something like this, it’s very rare that it reaches a wide audience. I never pushed to get it made until now because now we got it right.” Shooting began in October of that year.

True enough, in January 2010, when Grandin saw the finished product in the first preview, she roared, as usual, in Jackson’s direction at the Gene Siskel Film Center: “It’s fantastic! I love it! You got everything right!”

And, as usual, she couldn’t stop. Jackson recounted with undisguised delight: “She called me later that night and, as she carried on, it became clear to me that she had downloaded the whole movie onto her mind in one screening and was running it by me backwards and forwards. It was just amazing, amazing!”

Tenacious mother

As a child, Temple Grandin had been diagnosed with classic autism/Asperger’s Syndrome. She was aloof, couldn’t make eye contact, speak and stand human touch. Doctors suggested placing the girl in an institution but her mother (played by Julia Ormond) was adamant that she shouldn’t be hidden away; in fact, Eustacia was determined to expose Temple to the world, because it was the girl’s only shot at a normal life. She hired a speech therapist who succeeded in teaching her daughter to speak.

One summer in her teens, Temple visited her Aunt Anne’s (Catherine O’Hara) ranch, where she discovered that the device used on the cattle to calm them down, worked on her as well. She was so in tune with the animals that she said they definitely “thought like me.” That same summer break sparked the idea for the chute that would make Temple famous.

Today, at 63, she is a full professor at Colorado State University, a best-selling author and consultant to the US livestock industry. She has a Ph.D. in Animal Science from the University of Illinois.

Asked once how she understood animals so well, she replied, “The normal mind drops out details. An autism mind sees all of it, which is more like the animal mind, because animals think in pictures, smells, sounds—not words.”

Not vegetarian

For all her pro-cattle work, though, Grandin is not a vegetarian. Jackson told Inquirer, “She loves to eat meat. She gets very cranky if she can’t have some good meat in a day … a very good chunk of steak … she’s quite clear about that. As she puts it, nobody’s going to stop eating meat anytime soon. We can’t outlaw meat eating, she told me, adding that it meant cattle is here for one reason only—for us to kill them and eat them. The least we could do, she said, is give them the respect that such a position demands and make every fraction of a second of their lives as calm and comfortable as possible.”

No one but Danes

“For the role of Temple, I wanted only Claire Danes,” Jackson said. “As an actress and as a person she has this fierce seriousness, much like Temple Grandin’s. She’s a person of great integrity of focus, who always has to do things right. In an actress you call that determination; in someone like Temple, you call it obsession, a determined moving forward through life, like the headwind.”

Jackson said it took a while to persuade the actress. “We were on the phone—as it happened, she was in London, I was in LA—and I said to her, ‘You’ve got to do this, it’s acting like you’ve never done before … like walking on a tightrope without a safety net.’ I didn’t know it then but, at the time, she was in a friend’s apartment on the 14th floor of a high-rise building looking down. She would later tell me that, almost like Temple Grandin … she actually visualized the drop!”


Once she said yes, Danes threw herself into preparations. Jackson related: “Claire asked Temple to come to her New York apartment, in Soho, where she lived with her boyfriend, now her husband, the British actor Hugh Dancy. He had earlier played an autistic person in the movie ‘Adam.’ For the meeting, Claire asked her dramatic dialogue coach and her movement coach to sit in. She talked to Temple for six hours and videotaped the conversation. Then she downloaded it on her iPod and listened to Temple’s voice all day long. She said it was like some kind of autopilot in her head … so it would be not acting like Temple Grandin but being Temple Grandin. She kept herself in some kind of vacuum fit. It freed her up to be in the same kind of psychic space that Temple was in.”

In a separate account, Danes said the six-hour marathon ended with a hug from Grandin. “For her, that’s not easy,” the actress noted, and took it as a validation that Grandin approved of her.

‘Spectacular’ actor

The critics agreed. Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times noted, “Ms. Danes is completely at ease in her subject’s lumbering gait and unmodulated voice. She makes Temple’s anxiety as immediate and contagious as the rarer bursts of merriment … And as the character ages and learns more social graces, Ms. Danes seamlessly captures Temple’s progress.”

Robert Bianco of USA Today wrote, “‘Temple Grandin’ belongs to two women—the real Temple, who appears to be a spectacular human being, and Danes, who is clearly a spectacular actor.”

The movie earned multiple nominations for Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards 2010, and won quite a haul.

From Primetime Emmys: Outstanding Made For Television Movie; Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special (Jackson);  Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie (Danes); Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie (David Strathairn as a supportive schoolteacher); Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie (Ormond).

From Creative Arts Emmys: Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special (Leo Trombetta); Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special (Original Dramatic Score, Alex Wurman).

Golden Globes: Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film (Danes). Screen Actors Guild: Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie (Danes).


Needless to say, Jackson is proud of all that the movie has accomplished but, he said, “What has been most gratifying to me is that many parents of autistic kids who’ve seen ‘Temple Grandin’ have been approaching me to say one thing: ‘Thank you. Now I understand what’s going on inside my child’s head.’ To me, that is just priceless.”

As for Grandin, Jackson figured, “She found her role in a world of macho men, whom she dominated, in a way, by the sheer force of her personality. Today, she hops on a plane and, wherever she lands, she is besieged by cattlemen who want her autograph … because in this sector that used to scoff at her (not that she minded, or even noticed) she is now revered like a rock star!”

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