Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Mozart and the Whale: Interview with Jerry Newport

Mozart and the whale set to debut in Spokane

Article from Wrong Planet - April 12, 2006

In this installment of the WrongPlanet.net interview series, movie consultant and author Jerry Newport has graciously given me the opportunity to ask him quite a few questions about life, Asperger's Syndrome, his pets, and the upcoming motion picture, Mozart and the Whale, which is based on his life as an individual with Asperger's Syndrome.

In Mozart and the Whale, Josh Hartnett plays the character based on Mr. Newport and Radha Mitchell plays the character based on Mr. Newport's wife, Mary Meinel. Jerry worked as a consultant for the production, which was directed by Petter Naess and written by Ron Bass. The movie is in post-production and the IMDB describes it as "A love story between two savants with Asperger's syndrome, a kind of autism, whose disabilites sabotage their budding relationship."
Again, I would like to thank Jerry for his time, patience, and generosity throughout the interview process.

WrongPlanet.net: When did you first find out about Asperger's Syndrome?

Jerry Newport:1993 and 1994. I heard about it from various lists, mostly from ANI-L.

WP: You mentioned in another interview that you first heard about Autism because of Rain Man.

JN: I saw it in 1989. I had a friend in San Diego; Dr. Linda Nickell, a fellow Michigan graduate. I visited her in April after losing another job and she was finishing her PhD in Psychology. She had also worked with autistic children when getting her Masters Degree in Educational Psychology. Linda saw Rain Man the week before. It was out in theaters again because of the Oscars it won.
Linda said, " I don't think you are autistic but you aren't normal either :)" " The main character in this movie reminds me of you in an unusual way. I would like you to see it and hear what you think of it. It might help you understand yourself better."

WP: In Mozart and the Whale, your romantic interest (who later becomes your wife) also has Asperger's Syndrome. In real life, the two of you get a divorce. What is your view on relationships in which both individuals have Asperger's?

JN: I think marriage is a lot of hard work no matter who is married. The hardest thing if you have two AS people is that's a lot of inflexibility in one relationship.

WP:Are they harder than relationships where only one individual has Asperger's?

JN: I don't know. I see way too much blaming of men with aspergers as the villains, on lists that are dominated by their "normal" spouses. That is bull. If the spouses don't have some issues too, they don't marry aspie men.

WP: School seems to be a problem for lots of people with Asperger's Syndrome because of the social issues and the fact that teachers don't like it when homework isn't turned in. How was school for you?

JN: High school was generally a happy place. The structure was very reassuring. It didn't hurt to have two older brothers do well enough for me to get the benefit of every doubt. And my parents were both high school teachers. I loved school and don't understand the homework issue. I guess some of us just take too long to finish because we want to explore every option?

I was not a good athlete but running helped me stay in shape enough to not be a target and improved my focus. My father encouraged me to manage the basketball team, where I was also the scorekeeper and reported all of the games to the newspaper. It was his way of socializing my savant skills. Trombone playing in band provided aerobic benefit too and improved my social skills.
So by middle of my senior year, I tied for second out of 180 students and had several 800s on the SATs. My cum for math-verbal was 1411, on the morning of my worst illegal hangover of my 17 years :) Socially, I was late to date but at least I had a few dates and even one girl-friend so it was a start.

WP:Do you have any words of advice for people with asperger's who are currently struggling in school?

JN:Find the most comfortable environment. If you are being bullied and the school isn't helping you with that, GET OUT. Study at home, go to a community college, take the GED instead but DON"T accept daily bullying!! Also, try daily exercise. It will help you with stress, focus and you will feel and look better.

WP:You've been a taxi cab driver and now you're becoming a famous writer, yet you have a brilliant mind for mathematics. Why didn't you choose to become a mathemetician or an engineer?

JN: My problem was being a huge fish in a small pond, intellectually. I was never really "into" math, other than a numerical and sometimes visual, geometrical stim. I hated being shown off to other kids with the mental math stuff. It made me feel like a freak. But I accepted it, assuming that math in college and graduate school would be just as easy and the payoff would be a high-paying job that I would do with little effort. I was a good high school math student, best in my county and one of the top- rated in the nation in one contest. But college proved to be different. High school math is a lot more concrete and concrete is ASD turf.

My math ego crumbled soon after I arrived at Michigan. I was in the honors sections of math but not the best student even after more effort than I had ever made. It became apparent to me, halfway in my junior year, that at best, I would just be another academic and not a hotshot. That wasn't good enough if it came with being a freak to most people. I lost interest in math and had no mentor.
I envy Temple Grandin because while I don't think she is brilliant, she has focused on something that she could do. With the proper mentor, I might have gone into designing running shoes or other athletic equipment as I was always interested in athletics. I just had nobody to guide me out of theoretical math, in which I was doomed to mediocrity, to something more practical and enjoyable.

WP: What drew you to your career in taxi cab driving and then your writing career?

JN: I flunked all of the job interviews for white-collar work. My dad, who might have helped me with that, died in the middle of my senior year. My mom lacked the sensitivity to help me. She just wanted me to "straighten out and take care of myself." So I was walking home in Santa Monica, Ca. one afternoon in 1971 and saw a taxi pulling out of the Red Top Taxi lot. I asked the driver how he liked doing it. Once I realized the advantage of relative freedom, daily cash (tips), use of the taxi for personal business ( as long as you make enough not to be noticed ) and the informality of attire, I decided to try it.

Taxi driving was never what I expected to do for fifteen years but it took me that long to get over the social baggage, the interview block.

Writing became an interest to me because I had plenty of time in the taxi, between fares, to read and write. It started with poetry, really primitive stuff. Then I began writing letters to tnewspaper editors. That led to writing speechs for local Democratic candidates and articles in the more progressive underground papers in San Diego.

By the time I left San Diego and moved back to Los Angeles in 1985, my brother Jim, a movie production designer and scriptwriter, encouraged me to focus more on writing.

WP: How were you approached about the doing a movie? Do you have connections with people who are in the movie making business, for example?

JN: I have some relatives in the movie business but the movie resulted from a front-page article in all editions of the Los Angeles Times about Mary and me. That was 10-23-1995. We thought it was about our entire adult support group but the reporter focused on us. That article was read by enough industry types that eventually, we heard from a half-dozen agents and producers.

One of the producers was Robert Lawrence, originally connected to Rain Man as VP for new projects at Universal Studios. Robert knew that Stephen Spielberg had wanted to direct that movie and had promised to give him the first shot at another autism story. So when Robert met us, he knew it was just a matter of finding a screenwriter. He found Ron Bass, co-writer of Rain Man. Ron met us in spring of 1996 and by June, we were all up at Dreamworks, doing lunch with Mr. Spielberg, who offered to pay Bass and Lawrence a record 2.5 million just for the idea of a story based on the lives of Mary and me.

Ron Bass wrote [the Mozart and the Whale] script. Mary and I helped him by sharing some of our history, but the writing is from Ron Bass and his staff of writers who interviewed us, too.

WP: I know that you've talked with famous actor Josh Hartnett.

JN: Josh Hartnett is an intense, sincere fellow. If I wasn't a dozen days older than his dad, he would be a fun friend but it was fun to meet him. His interest came from having a close friend whose cousin is autistic. He put a lot into his acting and was also a big force in finding financial backing and a director for the movie.

WP: I'm really interested in your movie consulting career so I'd like to know more about that.

JN: Not really a career. I consulted on a low-budget flick back in 1971. It was called Cool Breeze, a Shaft type movie. I helped them set up a bookie joint since I was really into horseracing at the time. I consulted on a self-advocacy tape in 1994, called Robert's Choice. It was about making choices. And there's the current film.

WP: What was it like to be on location [for Mozart and the Whale]?

JN:I have been on a lot of locations before so that was no big deal. Of course, this time it was unusual since I had a connection to the subject. The cast, crew etc were all very friendly and I got to talk to the whole group just before lunch the first day I was there. They said I left a good impression but I think that is because people have such low expectations of us that anything we do or say surprises them. I was up in Spokane for two days and satisfied that they were doing a good job. I didn't stay longer because I didn't see any point and had work to do at home.

WP:Do you have any advice for aspiring actors and writers who happen to have Asperger's Syndrome and want to make a break?

JN: I say this on the basis of my own work on a few films as a consultant and watching my brother for almost four decades. Be flexible. There are lots of aspie types in TV, film and radio but they have learned the hard way, when they can be aspie-particular and when they have to fit in. Just about anybody can do lots of jobs in entertainment. So if you are too much of a pain, you are gone in a New York minute.

Be willing to learn to do and try anything. My brother always wanted to be a director and never got the chance. But he has seen his scripts for China Beach get on TV. He has worked in various roles, usually art director, for about every great director you can think of, on almost every continent. Jim has had a very interesting career despite not getting to do, yet, what he wanted. He lives in Bangkok now. He has also written a triad of novels about a 150 year old French Vampire who lives in Thailand, called The Vampire of Siam trilogy.

The important thing is to really want to do something with your life. Having that makes a lot of stuff make more sense. When I was a kid, I learned about the pyramids and thought it would be really cool to have my own pyramid someday, dedicated to whatever great thing I did. But I figured out there isn't enough space for everyone to have one. So I settled on trying to create things that would still add value to the world after I am gone.

Rain Man helped me find things to do like that. I began looking in my past for what had worked and began running again. That led to helping found the L.A. Leggers, one of the largest marathon training clubs in the USA. And eventually, it led to AGUA, my first support group and my future wife, Mary.

A goal in life doesn't always have to make you money. One of the best things that happened to me was when I helped found an adult support group, by default. I really didn't do anything more than find places to meet and compile the member contact list. But in 1993, such a group was a new thing in autism. It made me feel really good about myself. I always wanted to do something that might last after my life was over and that group finally helped me reach that goal.

I think it is important to have a specific goal, like my brother's one of being a director, but be happy with the jobs you do on the way. My other brother has had similar experiences. Both of my brothers are authors. John, my oldest brother, started out in accounting, went into Hosptal Administration, got a PhD in Public Health and went into substance abuse counseling, which led him to a PhD in Psychology. He has a book out, "The Wellness Recovery Connection", that is selling better than my first two books!

I met Mary through that group and I certainly wasn't the best looking or richest male available but I did feel good about my place in life. Adult life is not easy for us, even in the best of times and we all have to give ourselves credit for stuff we do even if society doesn't generally recognize it or pay us for it. Lots of people have no idea how valuable, for example, the mostly voluntary lists and groups are on the Internet. Those people who run them should be proud of what they contribute.

There is a place for us in this world and a NEED for us too.

WP: When did you first start collecting pets? I'm sure you agree that pets are great for providing a special sort of companionship for people with Asperger's Syndrome. I had a guinea pig and I treasured her because she loved me unconditionally, something that is rare for people (other than family members).

JN: That is it, the unconditional love part. I have always had pets. My family had dogs, cats, budgies, hamsters, rabbits, fish and a garden. I began breeding birds in 1980.

The original article, complete with images, can be found here:

The Los Angeles Times article can be found in my previous blog post:


This is a follow-up to my previous blog post - see the above link.

This interview fills in additional details regarding Jerry Newport's relationship with his wife Mary, along with many of the difficulties that both have face throughout their lives, offering a much more personal perspective.

It is a very interesting read and offers greater insights than the Los Angeles Times article and I feel the two pieces complement each other pretty well.

Robert Mann BA (Hons)

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