Jeffrey Blitz, writer and director of Rocket Science, answers SFA questions.
Q: Is there one incident in your childhood that inspired you to write the screenplay for Rocket Science?
A: There wasn't a single incident that inspired Rocket Science but there was one moment that I kept in mind as I wrote. When I was a high school sophomore, I went to my first debate tournament. I blocked on my very first word and stayed blocked on it for the entire 8 minutes I was allocated. I tried to never forget the frustration (and, in a dark way, the humor) of that moment.
Q: What has been your reaction over the years to the many movies that display people who stutter in a negative light?
A: To be honest, I never took it personally. It always seemed ridiculous to me the way stuttering was used ' as a kind of metaphor for a bigger problem in any character. How many movies do we have to see where the seemingly weak kid with a stutter turns out to be the killer before that idea starts to seem idiotic. I mean, if the hollywood version of stuttering was true then we'd all be in jail for murder. But, to be fair, stupid hollywood movies treat everyone except supermodels in a negative light. Yes, stutterers get the short end of the stick, but so do many other sorts of people. I think it says more about bad and thoughtless filmmaking than anything else.
Q: What thoughts were going through your head when/if you watched A Fish Called Wanda?
A: I actually really enjoyed A Fish Called Wanda when I saw it years ago. The whole movie is over-the-top including the portrait of the stutterer. I know that many stutterers hate that movie but I somehow never felt personally savaged by it. I just remember laughing really hard through most of it.
Q: Do you want people in the industry to work to foster more positive portrayals of people who stutter in film and television?
A: I think this is actually a dangerous kind of wish. I don't think any group should be treated such that all you see is a positive portrait. What I hope for is more honest portrayals of life in general. For myself, I don't need to see a stutterer succeed in a movie as much as I want to see a stutterer experience life as I know it to be. Realism is the more important goal, I think.
Q: You, no doubt, have gotten many personal responses as a result of Rocket Science. What is the one that stands out most in your mind?
A: Well, I love it when stutterers tell me that I've captured something essential about the experience of stuttering. That always lands well for me. My favorite response came when the movie played at the Edinburgh Film Festival and one young stutterer came up after and said that the only thing that would have made the movie better was if two people stuttered in it and not just one!
Q: Did you get any negative feedback from people who stutter and if so, what was the general gripe?
A: Before Rocket Science came out, I read some hilariously negative stuff on stuttering boards where some people worked themselves into a froth imagining on the basis of just the 2 minute trailer that the lead character didn't have a real stutter, that this was yet another bogus portrait of stuttering and that they'd skip the movie. I get it that people are sensitive about this but what about waiting until you've actually seen the movie before judging it? Luckily for me, I think most stutterers who actually see it really like it.
Q: What has been the reaction of your childhood friends and peers to the movie, and to you after its release?
A: One old friend said, I had no idea it was so hard for you. Another said, I didn't realize it was all so funny to you at the time. So you just never know. But the truth of it is that the movie is only vaguely autobiographical. It's not meant to be the literal truth of my life as a teen, just an artful extrapolation from that.
Q: If you could give a simple message to high school kids who stutter, what would it be?
A: Sometimes you want to cut out those parts of yourself that are frustrating or painful or make you different. But those parts are as responsible as the good and easy is for who you are. Stuttering makes you who you are and it can inspire some great things. It's because of stuttering that I got involved in debate, that I developed a passion for words and reading, that I found myself drawn into the power of film. I am who I am because of my stuttering and I'm finally very glad for that. When you're blocking on a word, you wish it gone. But when you step back and look at the big picture there are some great things that come along with stuttering.
Q: Do you anticipate doing any more movies with characters who stutter?
A: I think my next movies won't be autobiographical at all so I don't have plans to revisit that. But you never know.
Q: What do you think of treatment for stuttering ?
A: Well, in the movie, Hal Hefner, my main character, gets no real help for his stuttering. I have been lucky enough to work with some excellent people and have made some gains in my speech because of them. I know that some people believe that you should just work to accept stuttering and not try to 'fixƒ? it. That's never been my approach. I'm kind of a born fighter when it comes to this stuff, and I like trying to lick a problem even if it's thought to be unlickable. I think most anything's attainable if you're dedicated enough.
Rocket Science, which received 3 1/2 stars from movie critic Roger Ebert, is now available on DVD. The release includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, as well as a music video by film's composer and singer/songwriter Eef Barzelay (Clem Snide).