People with disabilities aren’t seen in films too often and this is a real, real shame because they are people who can certainly hold their own when the cameras are rolling. The awesome folks over at film company Zeno Mountain Farm are responsible for a number of films that feature individuals with disabilities and their latest film, a western, was given the behind-the-scenes treatment in the new documentary ‘Becoming Bulletproof’. The director, Michael Barnett, founder of Zeno, Peter Halby, and some of the cast were kind enough to sit with me and talk about the whole film experience. Here’s how that interview went:
Welcome, guys. Thank you so much for being here. The film is awesome.
I even like the movie, too! (laughs) I’ve seen it five or six times.
Well, it’s awesome, and you guys were all awesome in it, everything you guys did.
Where did you see it?
I saw a screener DVD, so yeah, I loved it. I loved the whole process of the way you guys handled it, shot it, how you just came together to just bring it to life. Just have a few questions here, won’t take up took much of your time.
Take all you need.
How did the project originally come about?
Which project, the documentary or the film?
The documentary came about, a good friend of mine, Susie Barrett, who is the improv comedian in the film, she had been volunteering with Zeno for years and had been asking me to come around, and I didn’t. I just sort of kept thinking up excuses, and she eventually convinced me to just go see one of their films that they made. And I went, and I saw one of their movies, and I loved it and I fell in love with it. I fell in love with what they do, and the next day, I went to camp. I met Pete and Will first, I think before you, and started kind of talking and asking questions about what Zeno is. I think at first, you’re almost confounded by it because it’s so simple, but it seems so confusing. And slowly but surely, we kind of gained each other’s trust. I think Pete was the most skeptical in the beginning. He was the one who didn’t know he wanted to do a movie or not, but you know, I gained his trust. And yeah, eventually, we spent about a year kind of talking with each other and getting to know each other, and then it came time to make their next film, and they decided to do a Western, and then they asked if I would – they didn’t ask, I asked them, and yeah, they allowed me to come and document it.
Pete, tell me a little bit about Zeno Mountain Farm, how it came to be.
Sure. So the mission of Zeno is to support life-long friendships and opportunity for people with diverse needs. It came about out of a love for just that, for community, creating a place where we could bring a lot of people that we’ve met through our other fields of work. So my wife is an OT. She’s one of the directors. My brother Will taught special ed. I taught adaptive sports in the Boston area. We’d met a lot of people. We’d sort of worked at other camps and said, could we start our own organization with our own spin on it and bring people back year after year to do creative projects and sort of support a community for life.
How often do you guys have meetings?
So the documentary is about one of the camps we do throughout the year, so there’s nine camps throughout the year. It’s over a hundred days of camp a year.
Now, what’s the selection process or the audition process for your films? Can anybody join?
Well, no. We have a film team, and it’s been developed for years so that the movie that the doc is about is the tenth movie that we’ve made. So for 10 years, we’ve been making movies. A lot of people have been coming back year after year. I mean, there’s always a few new people who come into the mix each year, but I’d say about 80 percent is sort of the core group that comes back because people love it, and it’s family. It’s community. You keep coming back to see your friends and also to have this project, so it’s all people who love movies, are passionate about movies.
What are some of the disabilities that your actors are facing?
There’s a whole range of abilities at Zeno at all of our camps. You know, people with cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, William’s syndrome, traumatic brain injury survivors, autism, a whole mix.
How did you guys each get involved with Zeno Mountain Farm?
I don’t know how I got involved. It’s weird, like Pete says. That’s how I met Pete one day in Concord and stuff like that. I used to do this program called, what was it?
That’s how I met Steve, through an adaptive works program in Boston.
In Boston, and that’s how I met Pete.
I have known Pete and Will ever since I was a little kid, and I was involved, I was at the original camp called Jabberwocky, Camp Jabberwocky in Martha’s Vineyard. And I was there for about, I’m gonna say, 10 years? Or longer? Because I have no idea how long it’s been, but this whole thing for me has been just a whirlwind of – I’ve never been on a big tour like this before. So experiencing it and getting to go to film festivals and meeting people has been great, but I think this movie shows that, you know, we are people and we are someone, that people will see who we really are, and they won’t judge us for anything. So I got involved many, many years ago, and I’ve been going ever since.
How old are you now?
29 years old, and I’m about to turn 30 next year.
And you started Jabberwocky when you were, like, 8?
8 years old.
So yeah, he’s been going for 20-something years, yeah. 22 years.
Well, I got started, I guess I’m considered kind of the newbie more than these guys. These guys have been going way longer than I have, but I got started because actually, a friend of mine told me about Zeno Mountain Farm. I was looking to go actually to another camp, but that getting a nurse or a caretaker to go with me, and she told me, “I’ll find someone to go with you, and I’ll look for all of that for you, but in the meantime, I want to tell you about this other place.” She told me about Zeno Mountain Farm. She said they do swimming and all kinds of things like art, and she said the coolest things about it is, they have people there to take care of you, and she told me all about it, and it sounded great. So she gave me the website, and I looked online, and I spoke with Will, and I told him all about myself. He said, “It sounds like we would love to have you. The thing of it is, it’s based on space.” So he said, “Let’s correspond online,” and so we started corresponding online, and that took a couple months, and I really wanted to go, but I didn’t think it was going to happen in that particular year. So I was like, “I really want to go, but I guess I’ll go next year.” And then lo and behold, on the Sunday, Will called me on that Sunday, and that was five summers ago.
The thing about the history is a big part of the philosophy is that people come back year after year, and so it’s all about building a collective history together.
Do you guys communicate or reach out to other organizations that work with people who deal with issues like that?
To recruit for your films, like hospitals or centers.
Well, because it’s people who come back here year after year, as A.J. said, we don’t have a lot of space, so no, we haven’t, and it’s really a group of friends who get together. Anyone who wants to be involved, we just meet them and interview and hang out and get to know each other and then as space comes up, there’s a list. But we would love to use this film to reach out to other organizations or hospitals or centers. The documentary is giving us a chance to share this philosophy in a way that we never had before, but it will be interesting to see how they use it.
What do you all hope that this film achieves? What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I hope that takes away their thinking of, are people with disabilities kind of weird? I’m not trying to be mean saying that, but do they think that we’re strange or do they think that we’re normal people. When they see this movie, they’re going to change their minds, I think. I really hope that it comes out that people are very, very proud and happy about who we are. You know, once they see this movie, since it’s going to be screened all around the country, it’s just going to be amazing to see how they react to it, I think.
Well, first of all, I hope it wins an Oscar. (laughs)
Cool your jets, we’re not going that far yet. (laughs)
But second of all, I hope that it can, you know, as AJ said in the film, it’s not that like, you know, I have a disability, but I don’t want to be pitied. I want to be understood, and my hope is that it can help people to have an experience with disability, to reach a greater understanding and to turn the dial towards true inclusion, inclusion that doesn’t have pitying or coddling but that is true and authentic. In our experience, as you know, we find with this kind of true inclusion, things are better and more interesting, and that’s what we hope.
I hope it goes national, on TV and all. I just hope that it leads to, I think it’s a great conversation piece. Hopefully around the country and at these screenings, it opens up several smaller conversations that will lead to an even broader discussion just about more inclusion in society.
Guys, are there any actors or filmmakers out there that you want to work with in the future? This is for everybody.
I want to work with, I really want to work with Judd Apatow or Lena Dunham or Denzel or Will Smith. Basically anybody that I’ve seen on TV because in a way, they’ve been sort of my mentor. You know, all the acting that I’ve seen because I love it so much, the craft of it, and it’s influenced me in some way. But I would really want to work with Judd Apatow or Will Smith.
Like a romantic comedy?
I would love a rom-com! I would love a rom-com with Lena Dunham or Amy Schumer or anyone. Beyonce! Or one of the Williams sisters.
I think Jeremy could star, he could be a guest on the Muppets.
I would like to work with the Muppets, yes, of course. And there are several people I’d like to work with. One of them would have to be Colm Wilkinson, who played the original Valjean on Broadway in Les Mis.
I would also like to work with Jim Carrey, and I would like to work with the Rock, Dwayne Johnson, because I have a big admiration for him. I would like to work with Stephen Colbert, to be on his show. I have a lot of people that I would like to work with.
And I think this is such a fun conversation and fun to dream, but the bigger conversation is about media saturation for people with disabilities, you know, because 20 percent of the population but less than 1 percent in film or TV or commercials.
Less than 1 percent represented, and even of those roles that are represented, people with disabilities, most of them are played by people without disabilities.
Yeah, accurate representation.
And then they win an Oscar. (laughs) So an accurate representation of people with disabilities sharing those stories, that would be my – I mean, for me, it’s actually deeper. It really is. The film is about, on a broader scale, is about inclusion, but I would really, really, really like to see this film hit Hollywood where it hurts because they hold the keys, you know, to the stories that are told. And Hollywood is supposed to be the mirror to society. It’s really their job to tell stories, and they’re robbing generation after generation of any familiarity whatsoever with disability because people don’t have any experience with it. I had zero experience with disability before I came to this community, before I did this film.
That’s what it’s all about.
And it’s actually just about living. It’s very simple. It’s about respect, it’s about humans loving humans and about including people. It’s about equality, and it’s a basic human right.
I think the themes of friendship and working on a meaningful project and being counted on by a group are basic human qualities, qualities of humanity, but when you talk about a group of people with disabilities, it’s the most progressive thing that’s out there. No one else is doing it.
It’s ridiculous that it has to be progressive because it is so simple. So that’s what the film is to me. That would be the biggest takeaway if we could sort of not just start a conversation. Starting conversations is not enough for me. I actually want to see something change, you know, and it’s a film about filmmaking. It’s a film that, you know, Hollywood should take a look at and really, you know, reflect upon, see what they can do to make a difference.
What kind of change do you wish that this film generates?
I think on a very basic level, stories should be told in a diverse way. When I look around, I don’t see a bunch of white dudes walking around. I see a very colorful world, and if an honest story that’s diverse is being told and there is somebody in it with a disability, I don’t say you have to cast somebody with a disability, but you have to let them audition, and if they’re the right person for the part, they should get it. And I think we should start a system that lets people with disability work behind the camera. I’ve never seen somebody, and I’ve been around for 20 years doing this, I’ve never seen anybody with a disability working in Hollywood.
How about you? Everyone, what are your thoughts on disabilities, the world of that, and how people perceive you and how you want that perception to be changed?
I mean, at the end of the day, I just, I think the issue and why we’re not really in the mainstream as far as Hollywood is because disability isn’t seen as diversity. I mean, we still have to make a lot of great strides, but today, we still have so far to go, but today, we’re seeing more women in comedy. We’re seeing more African-Americans in commercials and on prime-time television because of people like George Lopez. You saw a sitcom with Latinos, and you see, you had Roseanne Barr represent, a long time ago, but you had Roseanne Barr represent the blue-collar working mom. But in some ways, we have gone a long way as far as representing diversity but not really for disability, and so I think part of the issue is disability has to be seen as diversity. Like I said, we have great strides to go. There’s lots of conversation today about women being behind the camera, and I watch all kinds of panels about diversity, but I never – disability never comes up.
We think that the diversity that exists in our group is an asset to the films that we’re making, and it’s an asset to the community that we’re building. It’s just, it’s more colorful, it’s more interesting to make films where people are doing things in a unique way. I think that’s our secret sauce.
What’s next for Zeno Mountain Farm?
You know, it’s been tremendous. We’ve been going to film festivals all over, winning at festivals. We’re having a big theatrical release here right now. It’s unreal, so a lot of us are living our dreams right now.
It’s coming true. It came true for me.
And so we’re gonna ride this wave and then beyond that, our next project, we’re hoping to do a feature length movie, starring our cast.
You’ve done a bunch of genres, like sci-fi, now a Western. What other film genres would you want to tackle?
Yeah, we’d love, like I said, we’ve done a soap opera, we’ve done a sports drama. We did a –
Yeah, time travel.
We did a musical that made no sense to me at all. (laughs)
I want to see that!
A mockumentary –
We love period pieces.
What about the one about the dollar bill?
The truth is we still have one in the can that’s gotta get edited. It will be a beast for whoever is going to tackle that, but yeah, period pieces are really funny. The costumes in Becoming Bulletproof were great. We all lived in our Western gear for two weeks.
What was the editing process like?
Long and arduous. We cut the film for two years. I think we had 50, 60 iterations of the movie. There’s a lot of characters. There’s a lot of storylines. We had a lot of footage. I mean, I think the first time I showed it to these guys, it was three and a half hours long. It was brutal, and I thought it was perfect then. But more importantly, it was a really long process because the sort of learning curve of understanding not just the disability community but what was going on with the disability rights movement and sort of learning, having to come to a real understanding of what that meant. I don’t have a disability, so I sort of, I can’t speak for AJ, but I can be an advocate. So it took a long time to kind of wrap my head around what this film was really about. It’s not a film about filmmaking. That’s a façade that gets us through a much deeper, you know, I think rich, emotional, funny, thematic movie. So yeah, it took a long time because we’d cut and we’d just talk it to death, and then we’d go shoot some more, and we shot for two years, and that was, it’s a long process.
Didn’t you tell me it was from 600 hours of footage?
Yeah, yeah, hundreds and hundreds of hours.
I love that. These guys worked really, really hard, and they made us look, it was the proper representation on film about how beautiful this community is. They were able to capture on film in like 81 minutes, so it’s pretty amazing. So my hat is off to Mike B and to Dean.
Yeah, the movie is doing so well because people are having an experience of being in a community that’s diverse as opposed to kind of looking in from afar and having it be more pity or sadness. This is really a view in.
Do you guys have a special memory of the film?
A special memory, I mean, so many. I think for me, I always go back to this moment because when I first started shooting, I walked in with a camera, and there are 45 people, and I had no experience with any disability whatsoever in my life. And it was incredibly overwhelming, and I can’t remember why I was so overwhelmed not. So that’s the change within me. That first night, everyone kind of sits, we kind of sit and pow-wow and talk about the day, and I had wanted to sit outside the circle because, you know, I’m the fly on the wall. I’m the observer, but they were like, “Get in here and talk it out.” So I sat down, and it came to me, and I stood up and I just started crying. And I was like, “I don’t know what’s happening to me!” (laughs) But that moment seems so far for me now, you know, so yeah, I think that moment because I think that’s, I broke down and from that, I sort of rebuilt my definition of what disability means.
My favorite moment I guess from the doc and the process would be that when we were embarking on this project, at first I was a little nervous about having the doc crew coming in. We’d been making these movies for a long time, but personally just a little self-conscious about how I look and how I sound or whatever, and I really took my cue from a lot of the other members in the community and Zach and Steve and Jer and AJ, and it’s kind of like, this is what I look like. This is how I sound like. Let me step up and be seen, and when you have a disability, you’re constantly being seen and scrutinized in that way because you look different and because our culture doesn’t have a rich context for integration and that I was able to just kind of, yeah, step up into that role and be seen, and I really took the lead from my friends with disabilities.
And I like the movie. I do.
What’s your favorite part?
My favorite part was about when AJ’s mom comes and visits him.
Yeah? That’s when I cried.
That’s when I cried. I liked when your mom came and visited you. I wasn’t really expecting that, you know what I mean, AJ?
That was a good one. What about you, Jer?
I think my favorite part of the whole experience was hearing the people’s reactions of, I want a Fanta. That’s my favorite part. That’s the part that gets me because you know, I was so overwhelmed with what was going on in there, and my favorite part is just watching me like sitting there still, and I’m like, “I can’t believe I did that!” (laughs) And when it was all over, I’m like, sheesh, but also my other favorite moment was when me and AJ were sitting out there the last night of the shoot, and I remember Will said, “You both can say, ‘That’s a wrap,’” but I think I was too excited, so I went before AJ even wanted to do it.
And I don’t know if anyone notices but when Jeremy counts down from 5, he goes “5, 4, that’s a wrap.” He couldn’t even get to 3,2,1.
Yeah, we were all really happy and excited
My favorite part from the film is I like the dance party cause it just represents we’re all so happy and it represents like all the culmination of all the work that we did…
That always gets me.
It finally premiered and we saw ourselves on like a real movie screen and it looked so cinematic so the dance party just represents like after seeing the film the fact that we did this work and my favorite part of the process was um last year before the movie premiered we were able to do an in-house Zeno viewing where everybody at Zeno got to watch the film and that’s really my most favorite moment in just watching the film because it was all of us as a family watching it and we were able to see the beautiful work that we did and I was finally able to see, I don’t know if I got on your nerves because I called them like all the time every couple of months like “Is it ready yet!?” “Is it done yet!?” and I don’t know, I was probably getting on your nerves cause you were you, it’s going to be a process but there’s like to see it all come together and we were able to watch it at Zeno that was really special to see like the film that was done.
Yeah, it’s not annoying to have you constantly badgering me when the film’s not done.
He gets mad at me for calling him 25 times a day.
I don’t get mad. You can call me whenever you want. I love the film, I’m incredibly thankful that it’s here I think everyone needs to see it and I appreciate sort of how it shows what happens at Zeno but then how this message can be translated to the world and I love how it shows how hard we work in making our movies I think people hold the bar really low when there is people with disabilities involved and they maybe don’t expect something to be you know good and I think we made a real… I think our film is really good and the work that we do is great and this film shows it all so…
When you set the bar high, people can elevate to that. And people with disabilities aren’t given the opportunities to elevate.
If you guys could sum up Xeno Mountain Farm in one word, what would it be?
Love and respect.
Umm I don’t know, you already said community. Um, friends!
Ditto. (laughter) Fun, love.
Great you guys, thank you so much for your time.
Thank you (applause)
Uhh, next movie I really want you in it.