Though the Oscar season has barely begun, I doubt I’ll see a better film this year than Floor Adams’ “Mind My Mind.” Among its numerous recent accolades, this thirty-minute marvel won the Best Animated Short prize at last month’s Indy Shorts International Film Festival in Indianapolis, where I had the honor of serving on the documentary jury. There were a great deal of exceptional selections, yet few were as undeniably Oscar-worthy as Adams’ extraordinarily inventive psychological portrait of Chris, a young man with autism, as he finds himself attracted to a tender-hearted woman, Gwen. As he struggles to shield her from evidence of his affliction, particularly his obsession with model planes, Adams takes us inside his mind, where we see a librarian frantically trying to send him the correct social script for each incoming bulletin of information. The layers of wit and nuance evident in every interaction is worthy of a frame-by-frame analysis, warranting comparison to Pete Docter’s 2015 Pixar tour de force, “Inside Out,” as well as the best work of Charlie Kaufman.
Once I saw “Mind My Mind,” I knew that I had to speak with its Netherlands-based writer/director before leaving Indianapolis. In the following conversation, Adams provided me with a wealth of insight regarding the film’s origins, its basis in truth and the challenge of its editing, which is a spectacular triumph in itself.
I honestly wasn’t thinking about autism during my initial viewing of “Mind My Mind.” We all have degrees of social anxiety, as you mentioned in your acceptance speech, where you told the festival goers, “Let’s get a drink together,” since that would be a less stressful alternative to addressing them all at once. Part of your film’s brilliance is in how it enables the affliction Chris is dealing with to resonate on a wholly universal level.
It turned out to be a very universal story. I had always planned for the film to be about autism. I taught animation to autistic students for a couple of years, and there was this moment during break time when one of my students began talking about the Tokyo subway system. He was so intrigued by it that he knew all about the trains, the tracks, the stations and how many suicide attempts there had been per month. He knew everything about it and as he kept talking, my mouth was hanging open. I asked him, “Where do you keep all of this information? Why do you remember all of these facts and figures?” And he said, “Well, I don’t know. I just read them or hear about them, and then I store them somewhere. It sounds marvelous, but it’s not because I don’t have room for the other stuff. I don’t know how to plan my day, and I have difficulties being on time for appointments or remembering to do my homework.”
He wasn’t talking about the whole social aspect of autism, just the practical things because he was still my student. His experiences struck me as something I could potentially visualize within the realm of film. I was animating at the time, mainly doing commissioned work for Dutch television and documentaries, and this seemed like the perfect subject for my first movie. Around that time, I had fallen in love with a man—who happened to be a person with autism—though neither of us knew it. He knew that he was different, and my thinking was, ‘Well, everybody’s different!’ He was an archaeologist as well as a bass player in a band, just a cool guy. I had been in a relationship with someone who wasn’t open about how he felt, and this man would freely express his feelings, which was really attractive. We talked about everything, and he kept analyzing his behavior. I thought, ‘Dude, you’re okay—we all have difficulties at parties.’
We were together for a couple months, during which he revealed his diagnosis. That got me thinking about what was happening on the inside, in his mind, that I wasn’t aware of. As I began thinking about this film, I asked if he—along with my former student—would answer some questions. Since he was so dear and close to me, he’d open up about his special interests. He’d say, “I have to watch the results of games. Not every game, but soccer, because my father used to play it. I don’t care about the game itself, I just have to see the results.” Then I asked, “What if you’re out with friends?” and he said, “I’ll go to the bathroom and check the results on my phone.” All these secrets were being unearthed about what people do in order to make a good impression, and the affliction was more severe than I had ever imagined.
Then I read a book that his mother had written about his childhood. He had blocked many of those memories because he was bullied, like many people with autism are. The fact he cried very easily made him an easy victim. When he touched something with his left hand, he then had to touch it with his other hand. That sort of neuroses and the need for anger management weren’t anywhere near as visible in his thirties as they were during his childhood. Then it dawned on me: he’s adapting. He’s growing, in a way, but he’s also camouflaging his own problem. Kids who have severe problems during school can appear normal as adults, but they are hiding things that they are trying to manage from the inside, so that you don’t see any of it. These social interactions are so tiring for them that they need time alone, in the dark of their bedroom, to absorb themselves in the things that they love—like building airplanes or reading about WWII—in order to keep their mind at ease.
Whereas “Inside Out,” is more about emotional balance, this film is focused on brain chemistry, with one librarian occupying the protagonist’s mind, straining to keep his thoughts in order.
When people say that the librarian character looks like a penis, I think, ‘Well, it’s a shape I’m used to…” [laughs] He’s the only character in the film whose look remained consistent ever since my early sketches. He doesn’t require the human attributes of the other characters. He doesn’t need ears or a mouth, he just needs a pair of eyes, which is cute, in a way.
His eyes reminded me a bit of Gromit’s—the dog in Nick Park’s classic stop-motion shorts—which convey everything we need to know without the need for dialogue.
Yes! I, along with the other people who made “Mind My Mind,” refer to this character as Hans, which is a reference to Hans Asperger, the pediatrician whom Asperger’s Syndrome was named after. It was only last year that he was found guilty of sending disabled children to their deaths during WWII. You could say that the Hans of our film is an information processor, since people with autism process information in a different way. They’re wired differently. What do you do with all the information coming in at all times, not just sensory stimulation, but also the things that other people do and say? Hans needs to categorize everything and some things happen to go automatically, like daily routines. It’s the things that you cannot predict, like social situations, that prove more difficult to control.
I came up with an idea of placing Hans in storage rooms or some sort of library. Though I researched the science of autism, I realized that the imagery I created from this film had to come out of my own head. I had to invent it myself. It was a long journey to figure out how to visualize the mental space where Hans resides. Where does he keep the information, where does he live? Autism is not limited to one place in the head, it’s everywhere, but in the end, that would be too hard to show. So I decided to have Hans live in a neuron, where he’s capable of sending signals to the main character about what to do at any given moment, while trying to make sense of what he’s feeling.
Many people with autism say that it takes a while for emotions like anger and sadness to build up within them, which is why I had Hans store them in a basement. As Chris has difficulty processing things, or changing from one situation to another, I felt like Hans would occasionally need to distance himself from all the social scripts piling up on his desk, and that’s when the stairs came in. In the beginning, Gwen also had a character in her head. He was more laid-back, and you’d see him in his morning gown and slippers with a newspaper and a cup of tea. It was really nice to think about his world, which was more like “Inside Out” in its high tech design, but ultimately I realized it would be too difficult and unnecessary to cut between four characters, so I wrote it out of the script.
The editing is extraordinary in how it juxtaposes Chris and Gwen’s budding attraction with Hans frantically trying to make sense of it all. How did you go about nailing the proper pace for each scene?
I made a rough storyboard, which my husband [Dennis Pasveer] and I then put into an animatic with sound, which was really awkward since I took some sounds off the internet. Some sentences were in Dutch, others were in English, and I still had to do the translations. Once I cleared that up, it was a tough process to determine, in general, when the audience should see what Hans is doing inside the head. When is it too much or too educational or too literal? Luckily, Luuk Poels, a sound editor on many big Dutch productions, had recently moved to my area, and wanted to continue his involvement in the film industry. He ended up editing the film along with my husband, who makes film festival management software.
Most of the time, people say that in animation, you have to do all your editing at the beginning. A brilliant animatic won’t require the need for any editors. When you are shooting live-action, an actor can walk in and out of the frame, and you decide afterwards where to cut it. In animation, there are no additional options or alternate takes for the editor to work with. Yet Luuk showed how we could tweak certain moments by making them just a few frames longer. If you used this technique on footage with human actors, it would make the people onscreen look dead, but in animation, the character simply appears to be staring for a slightly longer period of time. Independently made animated projects tend to be abstract and experimental, but this film takes an approach to its storytelling that is more in line with live-action. That being said, this never could’ve been a live-action film.
Before this movie, I had only made animated shorts that you can find on my website. About ten years ago, I did a series of shorts that each lasted a minute or two and took a different perspective on a familiar fairy tale. One illustrates how Snow White’s stepmother may have had borderline personality disorder, while another suggests that the wolf may simply have wanted to marry Red Riding Hood. Like all my previous shorts, these were made in the context of something else—in this case, a fairy tale exhibition. I was a bit fearful of making a film where I would be creatively free, and that’s what “Mind My Mind” is. The story fueled everything, and I wanted it to reach a wide audience. I asked people with autism how they thought the story should end, since a lot of autistic people are having difficulties sustaining romantic relationships. A stable relationship is not common for most of them, and yet, the people I asked told me that Chris’s story should end well, inspiring others to have faith.
Chris stops hiding from Gwen in every sense, and she accepts him. The optimism at the end rings true because the characters remain true to themselves.
It’s wonderful to have made something that everybody seems to agree on, in terms of the people with autism who’ve seen the film and supported it. The autism community is a hard audience to please because they are very critical about how they are being represented in films and on shows like “Atypical” or “The Good Doctor.” As for films I’ve seen about the subject, I thought [Max Mayer’s] “Adam” was beautiful, while [Adam Elliot’s] “Mary and Max” was a brilliant animated film about a man who has many layers to his character, in addition to his Asperger’s Syndrome.
Is filmmaking what you want to continue pursuing?
Yes! I just finished a commissioned job for an elderly home. I was busy interviewing people living there who suffer from dementia, and I worked with all these photo albums.
For the next couple of months I’ve decided to invest in new personal film projects rather than doing commissioned work and delaying my personal plans. It’s truly an investment because you are not guaranteed to get funding in the end. You have to apply for funding, and it’s a long process. Now is the time to proceed and I’m working on a new concept as we speak. But, I’ve no idea where “Mind My Mind” is taking us and I’m open for anything interesting that comes along!
For more information, check out the official sites of Floor Adams and “Mind My Mind.” You can also follow the film on Facebook. “Mind My Mind” screens next at the Fantoche International Animation Festival in Baden, Switzerland (for a full line-up of upcoming festival screenings, click here).