Communication sophomore creates first feature film based on experiences with brother with disabilities

Madeleine Fernando, Assistant A&E Editor

When Communication sophomore Alex Herz set out to make his first feature film, he didn’t know what it would be about.

Herz said the idea for his film came to him when he was sitting in one of his Radio, Television and Film classes during Winter Quarter last year.

“All of a sudden it just clicked,” he said. “A very real experience that had just recently occurred was I had left my brother to come to college, which was a very difficult and meaningful experience. I thought, ‘What a perfect thing to make a film about’.”

The film, “A Normal Life,” follows a character named Michael, who is just about to leave for college. The film explores Michael’s relationship with his family, including his brother who has Down syndrome, Herz said. As Michael prepares for school, he slowly grows concerned about his brother’s lack of independence when he leaves.

Herz called the film a “semi-autobiographical” work and said he drew much of the source material from his own experiences of having a younger brother who has Down syndrome.

“There are conversations in the film that I had verbatim with my parents, and there are also things that are completely made up,” Herz said. “But they say write what you know, so that’s what I did.”

He said he began writing the film in January, right after thinking of the idea in his RTVF class, and he finished the script in March. Before this project, Herz had never worked on a feature film but had experience working on short films, he said.

Herz said his family was very supportive of the film, adding that his brother was “pretty stoked” about the idea of having a film based on him.

“I’ve always wanted to make a film about Down syndrome because I know so much about what it’s like to have a sibling with Down syndrome,” Herz said.

After writing the script, Herz launched an Indiegogo page to raise money, reaching about $10,000. Herz said although the amount seems like a lot, it is considerably lower than what unions consider ultra-low budgets for feature films and was “kind of the bare minimum” needed to produce the film.

Herz said the cast and crew consisted of “a ragtag group of people” that included other college students and experienced professionals in their fields.

The film was shot over the course of 10 days for long, intensive hours, Herz said. The group shot in several different locations in northern California, including Herz’s own home, he said.

Emerson College student Jack Bushell, one of Herz’s close friends and high school collaborator, worked on the cinematography for the film. Their respective strengths in different areas complement each other well, the rising senior said.

“Alex focuses more on the directing and the writing aspect, and I focus more on making things look nice,” he said. “That combination works really well together, and that allows us to be kind of a small powerhouse team in a way.”

The lead role of Michael in the film is Sam O’Byrne, a rising junior at Carnegie Mellon University. O’Byrne said the group quickly became like a family, and that he appreciated the mix of students and veteran artists working on the film together.

O’Byrne said Herz’s vision and drive distinguish him as an artist. In addition to the directing, he said, Herz’s script was especially powerful.

“I remember reading the script and being like, ‘This is how people talk, this is how people interact’,” he said. “My job was so much easier with the words on the page being so authentic and being so real.”

Actor Ross Turner, who plays the father in the film, said he hopes the film gives Herz some recognition in the film industry and allows Herz to take on even bigger projects in the future. As a director, Herz communicated his ideas well and created a powerful film, Turner said.

“(Herz) seemed really clear about his vision for the film (and) how the shots should be set up, which is really impressive when you consider that he was only 19,” he said.

After he finished the film, Herz said he held a private screening in his hometown for his family and high school friends. He then submitted the film to a handful of film festivals, where it played at the Together! Disability Film Festival in London in December and the Vittorio Veneto Film Festival in Italy earlier this month. Now, Herz said, he is looking to find a distributor for the film.

Herz said the title, “A Normal Life,” is woven into the film as a thematic element to show it is normal to have a sibling with a disability and allow viewers to question their own definition of what “normal” is to them.

“The word normal is, in so many ways, so loaded,” Herz said. “My purpose in making this was to show … you can kind of expand your horizons and encompass so many different family dynamics within the realm of normal.”

O’Byrne said acting in the film gave him a deeper understanding about disabilities and normalcy. O’Byrne said Trevor Barella, the actor with Down syndrome who played Michael’s younger brother, was “the biggest source of light in the room.”

“It showed me how much people with Down syndrome and people with disabilities like that are really just like you and me,” O’Byrne said. “(The film) shows how normal those relationships are, how normal those people are … I think it pulled back a lot of layers on that, just the way it is so normalized in the movie.”

Herz said through this movie, he wants to show audiences what it means to live with someone who has Down syndrome and paint as accurate a picture as possible.

“I want people to see Down syndrome as it really is,” Herz said. “I hope they can see (the film) and go, ‘You know, that’s not too far from my own experiences’ … If just one person can look at that and just have their perspective change a little for the better, I think I did my job.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @madeleinemelody