"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Nadine Maritz of My Addiction Interviews the Nobody Nowhere Team

Nobody Nowhere

Three Way Interview – Beverly Nero for the road that led her to Nobody Nowhere, The involvement of Donna Williams author of Nobody Nowhere relating to autism and Dan Ireland the dream director for …. “Nobody Nowhere”

Beverly Nero came to know Donna Williams through her own struggles with her autistic son when he hit age 14. Donna became Beverly’s pillar of strength through some treacherous times.  In this interview we aim to cover various aspects of a mother with an autistic child, the assistance of an award winning author and the road taken toward getting Donna’s story to film.

Beverly, it’s a great honour for MA to be able to host this interview today.

Thanks, Nadine, the honour is surely mine.

From what I have seen in some of my research, you come from a very musical background.

Yes, I'm so proud of my dad, Peter Nero, (Grammy Award winning pianist/arranger/composer/conductor). Growing up hearing his warm up exercises every day was such a gift.  It still is, when we visit.

How did you start your career and when did you actually decide to take the leap towards producer? 

I started taking classes in NY when I was 12, got a BFA in theatre when I was 20 and moved out to the west coast.  I lucked out and booked a couple of commercials and a guest starring role in a pilot, and then spent most of my time studying in Emmy Award winning director Joan Darling's acting class where I learned all I needed to know about the business and about life in general.  During that time I worked on TV, film and a lot of stage. I loved the craft so much; I never thought I'd end up on this end of things.  On the other hand, all of the 'day jobs' I had, kept my utilities on and put me in good stead for producing. 

You have been involved in producing and fundraising for the well-known Deaf West Theatre.

Yes, I'd first been exposed to sign language through music, ironically, when we toured with my dad to Australia. The children we met there didn't care much about what my brother and I were performing for them on piano and drums, but I fell in love with the music of their sign language.  Flash forward to arriving in L.A. and a series of events lead me to Deaf West Theatre where I became the Artistic Directors "right ear."  In the non-profit world, everyone wears multiple hats, so all involved in producing became second nature.

How did you end up getting involved with Donna Williams the author?

My husband and I have a 22 year-old autistic son, Gordy.  When he turned 14 it was a challenging time and I searched online for 'a voice' that could speak for our son.  Sure enough, I found the writings of Australian author/consultant, Donna Williams and it was as if I had found an 'autism interpreter' for Gordy, just as I had interpreted for those in the deaf community.   Our conversation was limited to formal consultations through writing emails back and forth and gradually we became trusted friends online and eventually the screen rights came up for "Nobody Nowhere."  In our emails, I was enthralled by her every word - so ironic that a non-verbal child absorbed it all and was able to express herself so magnificently in the written word.  

I told Donna that if she wrote the screenplay herself, I knew enough people in the business that I felt I could help her bring her bestselling book / screenplay adaptation onto the screen.  So every day for the next 4 weeks I received a jewel in my inbox with a scene from her screenplay.  It was fun for Donna because she got to tell even more of her secrets in her screenplay and depict her more of her experiences, spit back dialogue she'd been threatened not to repeat, and in perfect Australian, Birmingham, Welsh, and German accents. She even does a great NY accent having been there as well.  An ill-fated love story became part of the narrative and her ultimate survival and the way she chose to share her story so bravely in case there was anyone else out there who could relate ... I was in awe with what I read, in awe of Donna's once in a millennium mind, and sure enough, when it was finished, my idol, director Joseph Sargent read it and agreed it was something very special and a story that had to be told.  He introduced me to Norman Stephens who came on to produce with me. Very gratefully, Ken Atchity agreed with Norman and has joined our blessed team.

Nobody Nowhere is an award nominated autobiography written by Donna Williams who herself struggled with autism from as early as she could remember. She was thought to be deaf, psychotic, disturbed and retarded. It was only as an adult that she discovered her difficulties to be caused by autism.

As Donna has taught us, there really is no such thing as 'autism' but a combination of conditions, symptoms, mis-wirings, genetics, birthing circumstances, environmental issues, any combo of which results in each individuals "autism as a fruit salad' of co-morbid disorders.  Donna can go on and on about the many 'fruits that make up her own salad,’ and she was able to help us manage the individual issues rather than dissolve into despair that there is no cure for this label that doesn't really exist, except to make sure that medical services can be covered within a system.

To date the first novel has grown into a spectacular nine books of which, Somebody Somewhere, Like Colour to the Blind and Everyday Heaven are some popular titles. How did Donna manage to link her struggles with that of publishing?

Her friend and journalist, Mary Kay Blakely did a series of fabulous articles about Donna when her first book, Nobody Nowhere, shot up to #1 on the NY Times bestseller list.  I have those articles if you'd like me to scan and email them to you.  She was a sought after guest on talk shows, etc. and at the beginning, it was all very difficult for Donna who would rather have a root canal than be famous.  As time went on, she would write to every single reader who wrote her with questions about her book, and she was compelled to keep writing to keep helping people all over the world who were coming to diagnose themselves and relies that had gone un - diagnosed before Donna's book came out.  Temple Grandin was Donna's U.S. 'counterpart'--about the same age, and their books were published around the same time, but they are as different as night and day, from their family backgrounds and advantages they had and didn't have, and the very nature in which they each experience their own worlds, proving that no two 'autistic' people are alike.  

As Norman likes to say, and some of Donna's book reviewers quipped similarly, Donna writes about 'the human spectrum' and after reading Donna's book, one can't help recognize that we're all just a little autistic. I think her favourite interview was walking along 5th Avenue with the late great Peter Jennings who quickly grasped that no eye-contact was much more comfortable for Donna at that time, and that 'she wasn't a huggie.'  Back to the heart of your question: In the beginning, Donna struggled with sharing her story with strangers, but as time has gone on, she's become the best of anyone I know at that--anything to help anyone with any of the conditions (past present or projected) that she grapples with.  She had cancer last year, double mastectomy, and posted brave videos on YouTube walking people through it as she experienced it. 

From what you have told me about Donna I can see that she is hugely influential. Can you tell our readers a bit more about the struggles she had to fight throughout her life, (apart from being autistic) and why she has been your inspiration thus far? 

She tells me--sometimes life gives you shit.  You just have to make it into sculpture.  And metaphorically, she does just that.  She's a hero for our times because in this age of entitlement, she's someone who takes our excuses away. 

When did you decide to start talking about film rights to the novel Nobody Nowhere, when did you know that this was something you definitely wanted to get to film?

I think that somehow got answered above as well--are you okay with that, or would you like me to separate? I got on a roll....

Donna Williams wrote the relevant screenplay herself. Is this a feasible and common thing to happen once author and film collide or was it her ability to actually do it that made it special?

When it had been optioned in the past, apparently there were many writers who took a shot at the screenplay, but how could anyone come up with something that really lived inside Donna's head?  Autism was on nobody's mind at the time.  An inside out approach to the story, letting her secrets and revelations and death-defying struggles come out (painfully for Donna oftimes, I'm sure) not only helped Donna learn even more about herself, but it created a wholly originally and truthful story, so much more relevant than anyone else could have possibly come up with from their imagination or research.  

She 'maps structures' so all she needed was a general structural guideline, which she equated to her slide shows when she lectures (she's a rock-star when she does-amazing how she can anticipate questions and give everyone answers it appears they've longed for forever). She's got a gift for any kind of writing.  Her poetry slays me, as do her song lyrics.  She is also a painter, sculptor, selling her works all over the world. 

Once you started receiving parts of the screenplay you reached out to Joseph Sargent who worked with you while you were part of Deaf West Theatre. He put you in touch with Norman Stephens, his favourite producer who in return brought you to Ken Atchity. After numerous debates you, Norman and Ken decided on the director Dan Ireland. What made you choose Dan?

I'd been introduced to Dan when he did a fantastic presentation on another project I'm working on with other producing partners. They needed a Londoner for that project, but I'd already fallen in love with Dan.  I attended a screening of "Jolene" and flipped out even more, and interestingly, Dan had always been on Donna Williams' list because of "Mrs Palfrey and the Claremont "   I'd given Dan an early draft of the script and asked him to hold on to it until the time was right.  He kept his word, and when I said 'okay, now'--I was so thrilled when he responded as he did, loving Donna's story.  When he and Donna met on Skype, they both felt an instant effortless soul sister/brother connection and they worked hard together to bring the script to the next level, which they did and Norman and Ken and I were ecstatic.

From what I understand, by now, you are in early casting. When do you expect to launch the film?

We have our male romantic lead attached ' a real live Welshman!' who we'd been eyeing for years, waiting for the right moment to approach, and we're very gratified that the feelings are mutual. We can't wait to announce him when the time comes.  He's brilliant, gorgeous, and beyond perfect for the role. 

Our huge female lead actress for the role of 'Donna' is currently pending in the hands of a wonderful actress and as soon as we can get a definite answer there, we will be able to move forward either way. There is so much incredible talent in that age range, and though an Aussie is ideal, there seems to be acceptance between Aussies and UK actors taking turns playing each other, whereas we'd feel uncomfortable casting Americans in the two leads. Authenticity is critical for this piece.  Donna was a 'nobody nowhere,' homeless at times, and there by the kindness of strangers and her own survival instincts did she live to tell the tale, but each location she had to sink or swim in is a clearly defined character in the story. 

Dan Ireland began his career at the age of nineteen. Dan is the co-founder and co-director of the enormously respected Seattle International Film Festival. The list of credits I noted for him runs over an entire four pages. He is behind the rising stardom of many actors like Renee Zellweger, Emmy Rossum, Rupert Friend and Jessica Chastain.

He has received awards such as:
"The Whole Wide World" – Best Film, Seattle Int'l Film Fest., Best Actor  -Vincent D’Onofrio. Seattle Int'l Film Festival, Runner-up National Society of Film Critics, Best Actress - Renee Zellweger, National Board of Review, Mar del Plata Film Festival.
  "Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont" - Best Film, Palm Springs Int'l Film Fest., Best Film, Newport Beach International Film Fest., Best Actress - Joan Plowright, AARP Awards, Best Newcomer Rupert Friend, Golden Satellite Awards.
 "Jolene" - Seattle International Film Festival, Golden Space Needle Award, Best Actress - Jessica Chastain
Dan in short, can you tell our readers a bit more about yourself?

Well, I think you’ve said it all above, but if I had to add anything it would be that I feel that I’ve been so fortunate in my life to have the freedom of living my dream. From creating and running a film festival to acquiring and producing films for a major independent distributor, to my journey of becoming a filmmaker, I’m one lucky guy.  I’ve been in love with film since as far back as I can remember, and as clichéd as that sounds, it’s the truth. To be able to have had the freedom of immersing myself in almost every aspect of the world of film has only pushed me further into my obsession of telling a story and creating the world around it. 

What was it about Donna Williams and Beverly Nero that made you agree to work on the film?

When I first met Beverly Nero on another project I was up for, I was immediately struck by her intelligence, her passion and her deep respect for other people’s opinions other than her own.  She was kind, generous and made me feel at home in what was otherwise one of the most challenging meetings I’ve had in recent years. The two other producers she was working with at the time were trying to make me prove I was worthy enough for their screenplay. Beverly was convinced that I was ‘the guy’ to do it, and she wasn’t afraid to say it in front of her partners. She made me feel worthy; she has a dignity and respect for talent. When she believes in you, there isn’t anything she won’t do for you.  You can’t buy that. We connected instantly, and after attending the screening of my film Jolene (Jessica Chastain), she came up to me and told me she had something special that she wanted to show me, but couldn’t just yet. So, she sent me the script of “Nobody Nowhere” and asked me not to read it until she told me it was okay. I loved that subterfuge, and like a patient boy at Christmas (is there one) I waited for the call.  And when it came, I read the script 10 minutes later. With Donna, she had me on the first page of her book, on which the film is based.  Characters like Donna Williams don’t come along every day, and stories like hers are a gift that any filmmaker with a heart, a soul, a sense of adventure (like Donna herself), and a half a brain would leap through hoops of fire to do. And when I finally met Donna on Skype, it was amazing.  There’s this amazing person whose story just shattered, enthralled and inspired you sitting across the computer screen, larger than life, more real than real, and more heartfelt that you ever imagined.  

How has working with Donna Williams influenced you as a director?

Working with Donna inspires me on a million levels and we haven’t even started shooting yet! As a director, you have to have a sense of objectivity with all of the characters you create, you portray. In Donna’s case, it’s already documented, so if anyone thinks I’m making anything up, all you have to do is read her beautiful novel to see the richness of this
 indomitable spirit. Donna’s story is unique in that it has the potential to help millions of people and families who live with autism.  

From my discussions with Beverly you have been involved with all collaborations regarding the screenplay directly with Donna. When it comes to casting how involved are you in selecting lead characters?

Seeing I’ve already been blessed by the casting gods, I think my producers are now looking to me to find the next big star. The simple truth… for that to happen, you must go with your intuition, trust your gut, never have your mind made up before you start to look for your actors, and above all DON’T SETTLE. Be willing to be surprised and more open than you ever dreamed of being.   

If you could take anything with you on working with this specific project what would it be?

If I could take anything with me on working on “Nobody Nowhere,” it would be the bravery, the fearlessness, the joy, the selflessness, and the innocence that got Donna Williams through her incredible journey. This is the story of an unsung heroine, and even though I can’t sing, I sure as hell am going to give it everything I’ve got.

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