Buffalo Books interviewed Bill Cowell, president of the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival on Wednesday, February 22, 2012. He works in spacious surroundings filled with props and memorabilia on Payne Avenue in North Tonawanda. We sat down to talk about projects that Cowell is especially happy to produce with Western New York in mind as well as world-wide connections.
Linda Chalmer Zemel: I’d love to know about the autism project you mentioned. What is it?
Bill Cowell: Well, a couple of years ago, Kevin Gersh from the Gersh Academy, which serves kids with autism locally and in New York City, spoke to me to see if we wouldn’t mind taking some of their students and incorporating some of them into our festival activities–you know, give them an avenue to develop some other social skills, tickets, movies, and so on. So every April, we get them involved in the film festival events now.
Beyond just getting t-shirts and hats from us, several of them also help us preview and critique the films. Their ages are mostly from 17-25.
LCZ: So they are young adults, not just teens.
BC: Yes, so they are in the stage where they are getting ready for the real world–to do things and get accepted into jobs that they liked. The Gersh Institute has nice housing in a residential setting where they teach the kids all these skills in hopes that others will give them jobs in their fields.
The ones that really like the entertainment value of what we are doing really shine. And they want to do more and more of it. So I actually took a small group of autistic kids– about half a dozen students– and I started a course last year teaching them right from scratch, script to screen, teaching how to put concepts for movies down on paper and get into doing the casting and produce short films.
LCZ: Can I come?!
BC: (Laughter) We got a few of them to actually participate that way and they turned out to be really good writers. Give them a little direction and they shine. I got a few short films ready and at the stage of getting a cast together so they can edit, get the music together, and so on. Eventually, we can premiere them with a special presentation at our film festival as a finished product.
LCZ: Getting the skills and then having a presentation to the community on the way to regular jobs. Very cool.
BC: Absolutely! It’s been escalating since. It’s not an every day thing– I see some of the kids once a week, sometimes a couple of times a week, depending on the school. Some of them go home, so we take little breaks. But for over a year, it’s been working out really well. About a year ago, we were talking to some of the executives of the Gersh Academy as well and just throwing things out there, and off the cuff, they said, gee, Bill, you should do a documentary about this.
So I said, well, you know I wasn’t taking it seriously at first, because I’m just doing films. But then I said, it might an interesting thing to do, but there’s only one way I’m going into this—if it’s a unique project, different from anything I’ve ever seen or done.
And there’s got to be a really cool hook and premise to this, or else it won’t be worth anyone’s time– because it would be just the same kind of autism thing. People are beginning to know more and more about it, but these special messages are meant to be something unique and creative that will turn heads.
LCZ: And so you came up with something.
BC: Yes, and on the spot, actually, because as I was saying that, I said, “We could have these kids doing the interviews themselves. And a film not just about autism– but a film filmed by students with autism.”
And everybody just stopped and they said, “Yeah!” And I said, “Yeah!”
LCZ: Where will it appear?
BC: Oh, it’ll be national, I am sure. This was just a year ago, and I said before I jump the gun and get involved with this thing, I thought I’d put a couple of feelers out there and see how it would go. And so I came back here and the next day, I put a couple of feelers out to a few people in Hollywood just to see how they would respond to it. Within 48 hours, I had Sylvester Stallone, Joe Montegna, Angie Dickinson, Charles Grodin, and Aidan Quinn.
So I said I’d get involved with the project. And not only that! Three studios said, “We want to have a first look at this thing!” They wanted to get more involved, but I would have lost control of the project if I had gone through a studio. We wanted to make it a really cool, homemade project. When we do movies, we come up with a concept and get everyone attached to it. You have to have some kind of a budget in mind and have some money in place, and then get the people.
Well, this happened so fast that we had the people first, but no money! I said, “Now what are we going to do?” We had all these big people wanting to do it, so we had to raise some money. I didn’t want to say no now because we’d lose them. Celebrities always have something else going on.
And so, what I did was, I said “I’ll take the first hit,” and I put my own money into the project—a few bucks. I said, “I’m going to get a couple of the interviews first and actually have something.” This way, I can show someone what we are doing and where we are heading with this thing. So we went to New York and filmed Aidan Quinn on camera talking about his daughter, because she is autistic.
Then we met up with Charles Grodin in Connecticut, and what a very nice guy he was as well! Ironically, here I am without even enough students to work all these different directions. But somehow miraculously, it all fell into place. Right within 30 days, last year’s festival was going on, and all of a sudden I had these projects submitted by an autistic director in Rochester. He ended up winning Best Documentary Film. It was amazing, about institutes treating those with autism back in the day. Well, this kid just went and did it! And all of a sudden, then I had an autistic musician.
And there I am interviewing Charles Grodin and I knew he didn’t have any kids with autism or if there was an association with it somewhere, but I took the interview anyway and I went to see him.
LCZ: So was there an association?
BC: Oh, yeah! He tells me, you know what, Bill, when you called, it was so intriguing because not too long ago, I got this student I am mentoring—his name is Alex. He showed up to a book-signing of mine. He raised his hand and was so interested in what I was doing and in celebrities, and he’s studying to be a journalist.
And I said, well, there’s my journalist! I need to hook up with him. So Charles and I exchanged phone numbers, and of course I hooked up with Alex. He is such a sharp kid. Grodin took him to a lot of celebrity parties and he met Warren Beatty and Annette Bening and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I said, this is going to be great. We can incorporate this into the film and show that these kids can do anything. He even wrote a book with Charles Grodin. Alex was talking to celebrities and saying, “My people will talk to your people”!
LCZ: Do you have a title for your documentary?
BC: Yes. It’s called “Bad IQ.”
LCZ: I know that autism has a broad spectrum of abilities. The young adults that you are talking about—are they more on the Asperger’s end of it?
BC: Yes, and most are very talented. This is what I know, and I’m not a doctor or psychologist–that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that when these kids can’t normally associate with certain individuals, when they come in and associate with me, even the directors here and some of their supervisors are amazed at how they interact with me.
And I said, hey, I treat them just like anyone else. But the other side of it is that they really like what I am doing here. And when they like what they are doing, they are so open and the conversations are great. I take them places—just like they are my own.
This year, the 6th Annual Buffalo Niagara Film Festival runs from April 12-22. An international film festival, it is open to the public as well as to filmmakers and entertainment professionals.