Although the movie is called Adam, it is not a film about the first man on earth.
Rather, the film is focused on a man with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.
Further, it’s a romantic dramedy to boot. Not your typical Hollywood product—indie or otherwise. While this subject could warrant a sappy, manipulative Lifetime cable movie or a Rain Man redux, Adam delivers in a fresh and winning way.
Adam stars Hugh Dancy (Confessions of a Shopaholic) as the title character, Adam Raki, a lonely, young man in his late twenties whose father recently passed away. He toils as a mechanical engineer and is consumed by astronomy. On the surface, he’s good-looking and polite and, well, normal. But Asperger’s has left him socially disconnected. He’s apt to store a surplus of macaroni and cheese in his freezer; he has trouble looking people in the eye, and doesn’t quite get it when people are joking or ironic. Also, he obsesses about, well, astronomy and all matters pertaining to it. In fact, his Manhattan apartment converts into a home planetarium.
Enter Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne), a pretty elementary schoolteacher new to Adam’s apartment building. Fresh off of a relationship gone wrong with an investment banker, Beth isn’t aware of Adam’s emotional state, at least upon meeting him. As friendship turns to romance, she learns more about his condition and they both face the hurdles that Asperger’s brings to the situation. At the same time, Beth is having some familial issues with her parents, played by Amy Irving and Peter Gallagher.
The writer-director of Adam is Max Mayer, a veteran theater director, who tackles his second feature film (following 1998’s Better Living with Olympia Dukakis) after helming episodes of such TV shows as The West Wing and Alias.
Mayer’s inspiration for writing Adam arrived to him in an unusual way.
“I came in on an interview on NPR in Los Angeles where a man with Asperger’s was being interviewed and talked about how the world seemed to him,” says Mayer, 54, during a recent stop in Philadelphia with Dancy and Byrne. “He tried to figure out how people knew when to smile and talk and when to stop talking. That was the microcosm of what he was talking about.
“That was five or six years ago. I sort of did research. The Asperger’s seemed like a metaphor for human relations in general, where we live in this paradoxical condition of desire and connection to other people, and we want intimacy. But we’re all wired to be sitting up in our brains, not knowing what to expect by rapport, who the other person was and what their landscape is.”
Dancy didn’t know about Asperger’s until he read the script. “I did plenty of research,” says the 34-year-old British actor. “I was drawn to the script because I was trying to figure out what was happening with the character for the first 25 pages or so, and then discovering what’s going on with the character. I had about five weeks or so and did as much research as I possibly could.”
Dancy, engaged to actress Claire Danes, said the script was something of a puzzle he had to solve. “My sense of a challenge grew and my understanding grew. Max gave me an inkling of that when we first talked, but he reserved 80% of it, so I didn’t know how tough it was going to be.
“I think the most important thing was to be as specific as possible and move past the general condition and symptoms and hone it down so Adam was a rounded human being,” adds Dancy. “I read books and met people, but it was the script that supported all of that. You look for a good skeleton to hang your understanding on and put your take on it, and that’s what Max provided.”
Byrne, the Australian actress seen currently on cable TV’s Damages and who has appeared in such films as Knowing, Sunshine and Troy, has her own take on the film and the disease’s role in the film’s plot. “Asperger’s is an obstacle to romance between two people,” she says. “The film assumes more reverberation for people who are on the spectrum (of having Asperger’s) or families of people who live with people with Asperger’s. Hugh and I wanted to make it accurate and represent the people with this syndrome, and people have responded. Not only for the sake of the condition, but make a real character and tell a truthful story. “
The film’s exemplary acting from the leads—accented in real life, but flawlessly American on film—certainly helps make the romance between the characters believable.
Dancy, meanwhile, found portraying Adam “liberating” because of the limits it put on him. “Things you rely on everyday as an actor, like eye contact and responding to people—acting is, after all, 90% reacting, and emoting and empathy were removed—so I had to be a bit purer about what I was doing. It was difficult, but eventually it was very rich.”
“Eddie Murphy was chasing this role,” jokes Dancy.
So why did Mayer choose Dancy and Byrne for the leads in his indie film that was shot on a low budget in less than a month in New York City?
“Within the reach of our casting directors and producers, I was entirely concerned with finding the two best people for the role,” he says. “I wasn’t concerned with their previous work.”
“But Eddie Murphy had too much of an imprint from Daddy Day Care,” jests Mayer.
Both Dancy and Byrne seem to shuffle around in the acting world, moving freely from Hollywood studio projects to indie films, theater work to TV assignments. One wonders if this is intentional, or simply coincidental?
“Quality is the main factor,” says Dancy. “And looking for something that’s interesting and that can fall in any of those categories (film, TV, theater). It’s less planned out than you think, and the key is not shutting out to other things.”
“It’s great to do all that, but a lot depends on schedules,” adds Byrne. “You do something like this and you wonder if anyone will ever see it. So it’s great when it takes on a life all its own.”
As for the tight 20-day schedule and microscopic budget, Byrne recalls the experiences as being “rough.”
“There was less time and everyone was doing it on a wing and a prayer. I was coming from a TV show, so I was used to the pace. We were holed up in a church and rats ran past me. But the material was so rich that it was all worth it.”
Adam started to get buzz when it premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where it picked up the coveted Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize (which it lost to Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire). Mayer was delighted even more when Fox Searchlight, the company behind Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, and Slumdog Millionaire, picked it up for distribution.
Still, there was the concern about the film’s ending. After all, it wasn’t a typical coda for a romance, especially by Hollywood standards.
“It (the ending) became an issue when I began showing it to people,” explains Mayer. “I didn’t concern myself with genre, but I wanted to keep the film small enough so I can direct it and get it financed and be able to be shot on a budget. But the ending—the first draft was bleaker, and people said you have to get them back together. And I didn’t realize how important that was to me. I wrote a different version. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t realize how much I didn’t like it completely until I showed it to my neighbor (director) Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Babel).
“He read it and said, ‘It’s wonderful but you can’t end it like that.’ It was in that happy ending period, and he said, ‘It betrays the entire story.’ And then I get on the high horse and go back to the producers, and they actually agreed with him.”
“So I was relieved.”