Dakota Fanning in a scene from "Please Stand By"

Interview: Please Stand By Director Ben Lewin Boldly Depicts Communities He’s Never Depicted Before

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Please Stand By, starring Dakota Fanning and based on the stage play by Michael Golamco, is both a love letter to Star Trek and a compassionate portrayal of an autistic protagonist. So, how does a director with very little experience in either community approach material that’s so, so specific? I had a chance to chat with the film’s director, Ben Lewin, about just that.

Please Stand By tells the story of Wendy, a young autistic woman living in a group home who also happens to be a huge fan of the original Star Trek series. When she hears about a screenwriting competition where Paramount is looking for submissions of fan films (could you imagine?), she becomes determined to enter.

Various things conspire to make her unable to mail her script in time for the deadline, so she bucks against her very regimented life, faces her fears, and ventures out to try to make it to Los Angeles to deliver her script in person. Toni Colette plays her compassionate (if slightly inept) caregiver, and Alice Eve plays her estranged sister who struggles between her love for Wendy and her inability to care for her in the way she needs.

A large part of the film is devoted to the relationship between the sisters, and despite the fact that Lewin doesn’t have direct experience with autism, he very much related to being a child with special needs and having a sibling that had to bear a lot of that as a child. Lewin grew up with polio, and he saw in the sisters’ relationship a reflection of his relationship with his brother: cognizant of his brother’s love, but also of the strain that his needs as a child put on him. In fact, his one regret about the film is that he couldn’t devote even more time to their relationship.

So, that sister dynamic was a huge draw for Lewin when signing on to the film, though there were plenty of other reasons why he felt the need to take part in this project. “The fact that the main character was a woman was important,” he says, “because most representations of autism in movies and TV have been of men. Also the fact that she was a writer struggling to get her story out there also connected with me very strongly.”

Director Ben Lewin of 'Please Stand By'

Director Ben Lewin on the set of “Please Stand By”

In order to prepare for the film, Lewin needed to do some research, both into the autistic community, and into Star Trek fandom! To accurately depict Wendy’s specific needs and struggles, Lewin spent a lot of time in group homes getting to know their residents.

One of the things I noticed immediately about the film is that neither Wendy, nor anyone else in the film, actually uses the word “autistic” or “autism.” Wendy’s needs and circumstances are discussed specifically, and this was a conscious choice on the part of screenwriter Golamco, who adapted his own play.

Lewin wanted to honor that choice, noticing that when he visited group homes, caregivers didn’t use labels, like autistic, when referring to residents. Instead, their individual challenges were noted and tended to as needed. “We wanted people to think of Wendy as an individual,” notes Lewin. “Not as a member of a class of people sharing a diagnosis.”

As far as Wendy’s deep Star Trek connection goes, Lewin admits that he, unlike Golamco, knew very little about Star Trek going in. However, since Golamco is such a huge fan, Please Stand By definitely delivers on Easter Eggs that Trek fans will love. For example, the main scene from Wendy’s screenplay, titled The Many and the Few, depicted in Please Stand By was shot at Vasquez Rocks, where Kirk fought the Gorn.

“I totally binged Star Trek,” he reveals. “Particularly the early series. From being a total outsider I came to be a committed fan. This was one of the really fun parts of making the movie.”

He hopes that audiences will first and foremost find the movie entertaining, but that they will gain “a little bit more knowledge and understanding than they had before. And the irresistible urge to tell others to see the movie.”

Well here I am telling you. Please Stand By arrives on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD on May 1st.

(images: Magnolia Pictures)

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Author
Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.