What Inspired the Film ‘Please Stand By’ About a Woman With Autism
An interview with screenwriter Michael Golamco by Robert Watkins
Robert Watkins is a member of Geek Club Books’ autistic writing team. He had the opportunity to interview “Please Stand By” screenwriter and find out how Wendy, the “Trekkie” autistic female protagonist came into being.
“Please Stand By” started not as a film but a short, one-act play, written a decade ago by Michael Golamco, who also wrote the screenplay for the film. Golamco started as a playwright in Chicago but moved to Los Angeles as he broadened his repertoire to include writing for both the big and small screens. Previously a staff writer on NBC’s “Grimm,” Golamco is currently writing and producing for the upcoming science fiction series “Nightflyers.” I asked Golamco, who is not himself autistic, what his inspiration was for writing “Please Stand By” in the first place:
RW: What connection to autism do you have, if any, that led you to write the play?
MG: I’d read an article in The New York Times called, “What are autistic girls made of?” about a summer camp for kids with autism and it focused on the girls. The takeaway for me… there are two things: The first is, the condition, it makes it difficult to connect with people socially, to read people’s cues. So, for these girls, these young girls, it was really difficult because there’s this need to connect emotionally with people. There’s still that need to reach out, to establish a relationship. And so that was something that really touched me. The second thing was that one of these girls writes Harry Potter fan fiction and I love that so much because that’s what we do, you know, it’s something I thought was fascinating. So from there the character just kind of appeared.
RW: For somebody not touched personally by autism to encounter it and respond in that way is commendable. I thank you for that.
MG: Thanks. It was something that really felt human and something that really felt like… there’s something here. Every now and then I read an article where I think “there’s a story here, there’s a character here, or there is something here that I think needs to be expressed.”
RW: When you wrote the play, how did you know that you had nailed the authentic voice of autism?
MG: I did a lot of research. I talked to people. The thing that helped me is that autism presents differently in different people, which is an important distinction, because there’s a stereotype that has been established by other stories and movies. They came out and they seemed appropriate for the time and they’ve lodged in our culture and got stuck there. It’s more interesting and important to me that you tell a story about a character first, what her human needs are, how she lives. She’s definitely dealing with autism but she’s also dealing with the fact that she’s a young woman and she’s trying to gain her own agency. She’s right on the cusp of being an adult and taking responsibility for herself. She just needs to make that extra leap.
RW: One thing that does escape far too many people is that autistic people are simply people. And what everyone goes through in life we go through in life. It’s just that we have differences that makes it sometimes more difficult.
MG: Yeah. And I think it feels like all too often that autistic characters are depicted as being kind of static. They don’t change. And I think that that’s fundamentally incorrect. Autistic people grow and they change because they’re people.
RW: So how long did it take to turn the play into a film?
MG: So maybe about two years ago, 2016 or so, the producers picked up my screenplay version and everything fell into alignment. Our director, Ben Lewin, came on board, we cast it really quickly, the financing came together and here we are.
RW: The title of the play and the film, “Please Stand By,” refers to the phrase that’s used to help Wendy calm down: what was the purpose of choosing that phrase for the title? It emphasizes the handling of stress, but I don’t know if that’s what you were trying to convey.
MG: I think it was that and it’s also something from Wendy’s history, like something maybe her mom came up with or they came up with together, and Scottie, her caregiver, has tapped into that. It feels like a phrase that is a fingerprint, it’s so specific to a family, and for an outsider like Scottie to have been able to tap into that feels really great.
RW: Speaking of Wendy, how closely did Dakota Fanning capture what you were trying to convey, originally writing the play and then in the longer treatment for the film?
MG: I think she was great. I’ve worked with a lot of actors in my time and Dakota Fanning is one of the best. The way she communicates the feelings, the tone of this character, and the core of the character I think is perfect. Now, when I write something it’s literally like a blueprint. A screenplay is not the completed piece of work, that’s really the film. So, somebody has to come along and they have to interpret it and they have to build it out and figure it out… how do you shoot this and how do we cut it together. And during that process there are a lot of hands on it. I like to be fairly laissez faire and just let people take my script and do what they’re gonna do and elevate it. She really did that.
(*Elaine Hall, founder of The Miracle Project, is credited in the film as “Autism Consultant and Coach” who focused on Dakota Fanning’s portrayal of Wendy.)
RW: The premise of Wendy having to mail in a hard copy of a script feels somewhat anachronistic. I mean in this day and age — even in 2008 when you wrote the play — I would expect that somebody would want to make a digital submission. So how did you figured you could get away with the mailing of a hard copy?
MG: Well, I think that for the average lay person, you still think in terms of paper and pages and I thought for me it was important for it to embody a real physical form. The way that she holds it like a baby. Because it’s hers and she created it. And when you create something you print it out and you feel the weight of it, you know, I’m sure you’ve felt this yourself that this is a real thing that we put out in the world.
MG: Right. People who enter various fellowships, or submit to screenwriting competitions these days send in a PDF. That’s great, but for Wendy, it’s the act of getting her script into that mail slot and making sure that it’s actually in their hands so they’ve got it. If it’s a little bit too nebulous it doesn’t feel real enough.
RW: What do you think of the reactions to the film?
MG: Well, I’m glad that people are responding to the movie and I hope it reaches the people that it needs to reach. I’m also really glad that autistic people and their families have said, “Hey, this feels real,” because authenticity is really important to me. Look, I don’t always get it right, but I try as hard as I can. So, I hope that we’ve gotten at least close.
“Please Stand By” is in theaters early 2018 and on demand, on Amazon Video and on iTunes.
Photo via “Please Stand By” Facebook page.