Glimpses of heaven
Snow Cake seeks to capture the complexity of autism, writes Stephen Applebaum
WHAT is it that attracts actors to playing characters with autism? Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of an autistic savant in Rain Man remains the best known example. But since then we have had Sean Penn in I am Sam, Juliette Lewis in The Other Sister, Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and now Sigourney Weaver in Snow Cake.
Weaver is a respected actor; the director of Snow Cake, however, was an unusual choice for this sensitive subject: Welshman Marc Evans had made only horror films and psychological thrillers before.
‘‘ I’ve escaped from horror jail,’’ he laughs. He liked what he was doing, but he was pigeonholed, particularly in the US. ‘‘ So I had two or three years of really bad genre scripts. Whereas good horror scripts are really interesting, bad horror scripts are about as bad as it gets.’’
Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom and producer Andrew Eaton saw potential, though, and sent Evans ( he still doesn’t know why) the script for Snow Cake, by first- time screenwriter Angela Pell.
‘‘ As soon as I said I wanted to do it, they didn’t question that,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t know whether that made financing it more difficult, but they never kind of let me feel that.’’
There were problems, particularly during preproduction, when they were ‘‘ haemorrhaging money’’. At one point, Evans reveals, cast member Alan Rickman was helping with the cash flow: ‘‘ It doesn’t get much better than that in terms of commitment, does it?’’
Set in a snowy town in northern Canada called Wawa, the film stars Weaver as Linda, an autistic single mother whose obsessively regimented life is disturbed when a stranger ( Rickman) comes knocking at her door.
He was driving the car in which her daughter was killed when it was hit by a snow plough, and is now racked with guilt. ‘‘ This film is about how her view on life affects his view on life, and how he is somehow healed through a combination of this mad little town and this autistic woman,’’ Evans explains. It sounds like a recipe for sweetness but Snow Cake never trades in sentimentality. A vein of sardonic humour runs through Pell’s screenplay, informed by her own experience with an autistic son.
Before filming began, she sent Evans a memo. ‘‘ It said, ‘ Note to the director: living with autism can be hell but it gives you glimpses of heaven,’ ’’ he remembers. ‘‘ I thought, here’s someone speaking from experience and she really does believe there’s something extraordinary about the way her son sees the world.’’
Weaver’s sharply observed performance captures the complexity of the condition. She is by turns stubborn, fearful, insightful, poetic, cold and childlike. The actor spent a year researching autism and briefly lived with a woman who, says Evans, ‘‘ was Linda, more or less’’. He is thankful for Weaver’s commitment. ‘‘ What I really didn’t want to be was a sort of autism monitor, telling her, OK, be more, or less, autistic. I’m not an authority on it.’’
Accepting Weaver as Linda takes effort. It is fine when an unknown plays someone with a mental or physical disorder, as Daniel Day- Lewis did in My Left Foot, but Hollywood actors carry more baggage. Cynics may say it’s the kind of role actors do with one eye on the Oscars.
Weaver says she was drawn to the project because she ‘‘ thought it had such a wonderful balance of comedy and romance, and I think some real truth about a rather rare subject, which is autism’’.
Weaver discovered that she had things in common with Linda. Despite her years in show business, she says she’s shy and feels uncomfortable in the public gaze. ‘‘ When people approach me, I’m very bad at that,’’ she admits. ‘‘ So the one thing I can absolutely relate to is the self- consciousness of the autistic person who doesn’t want to be looked at.
‘‘ I think a lot of actors are not particularly outgoing in general situations, and the fact that people are staring at you, when you want to study them, is a weird part of this business. So I did totally relate to that.’’
One of the most intriguing aspects of Linda is her apparent inability to connect with the loss of her daughter. She cannot grieve like other people around her; it’s as if she has not comprehended the full weight of what has happened.
Tears appear in Weaver’s eyes and her voice cracks as she talks about a scene in which Linda imagines saying goodbye to the girl who had looked after her as they dance together in the snow. ‘‘ I was kind of sceptical about that because it sounded a little touchy- feely to me,’’ she admits. ‘‘ But when I watched it for the first time, I was so glad, because it made so much sense that Linda would somehow create a way for herself to very privately say goodbye to Vivian. That was the most moving moment to me.’’
According to the findings of a three- year study commissioned by the Australian Advisory Board on Autism, one in 160 Australian children aged between six and 12 has an autism spectrum disorder, which means that as many as 125,000 people may have some form of it. The condition is still misunderstood.
Snow Cake has been praised for its accuracy in depicting autism. It is certainly a far cry from Rain Man, which, by highlighting the savant aspects of Hoffman’s character, helped to fix certain cliches about autism in people’s minds.
The point is briefly raised in Snow Cake, although Rain Man is no longer mentioned by name in the movie. ‘‘ For a long time it was,’’ says Evans. ‘‘ Angela was doing it for the right reasons, but we all felt there was a little bit of hubris in that. You don’t want to have a joke at the expense of another film, because you don’t know how your own film is going to turn out.’’
Against the odds, Snow Cake turned out very well.
Snow Cake opens on Thursday.
Sardonic rather than sentimental: Snow Cake stars Alan Rickman, who helped with the cash flow, and Sigourney Weaver, who researched her performance well