Roberto Espinosa is a filmmaker with Asperger's Syndrome who recently released the film, Normal People. In Normal People, a young man and woman — both with autism — sit down and get to know each other before going out on a date. In this profile, learn Roberto's perspective on all things creativity, storytelling, and autism awareness.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Roberto Espinosa, 24 years old, I’m a filmmaker with Aspergers. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a fascination with movies from my first Disney films to Jurassic Park which sparked my imagination. I knew more than enough about filmmakers and how movies were made but I never really considered making them until I was in high school and joined the video club there. I taught myself how to write a script and after experimenting with cameras, I made my first short film and I’ve been making them ever since. I’ve put them all on a YouTube playlist if anyone ever wishes to view any of them.
I went to College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois for a few years and I am now currently at Columbia College Chicago finishing my film degree. I’m also working at the Hollywood Palms in Naperville which is a dine-in movie theater as a box office employee and occasionally run meals and drinks to the guests. It’s got its ups and downs but for now, I find it nice to work in a familiar environment while still trying to accomplish what you’re meant to do.
With autism, I was diagnosed at a young age and at the time, I never saw it as a problem. In fact, I thought all the kids were being pulled out of class to take medication and have therapy or speech sessions. Once I started getting picked on or being asked if I was okay which was something I faced daily, I questioned myself and started finding out more about what I had. I still go to a therapist when I can and a lot of my friends have something related to it so I never feel alone. I’ll talk about it a little more in the later questions but for now, I do accept my disability with open arms and I’m glad there are people like me out there in the world.
what inspired your film normal people?
I had considered doing something simple that required only one set and two actors after my last production suffered from too many locations and last minute changes. I decided on a love story but had trouble writing a script and put it aside for a few months. My therapist convinced to keep writing but instead of working on what I had, I instead reshaped it now having included the autism theme instead of both characters just being socially awkward. Just then, ideas started to flow which never happens unless I’m really inspired. As I wrote my outline, I knew I wanted to shoot it like a documentary and that I wanted real diagnosed people to play these roles instead of using actors.
It didn’t take long to find the right people as Mark was recommended from a good friend of mine and Zoe I met at an autism get-together. After interviewing them separately, getting to know their likes and dislikes, their passions, goals, etc., I put them both in the same room and watched them have a conversation together. What came up the most was included in the script and from there, I was able to form a cohesive meeting with these two. Instead of writing dialogue however, I wanted them to play off of each other and improvise which made things a lot easier when it came time to rehearsing.
As it was a very personal story to tell, I put a lot of myself into it and I think that’s what inspired me to do this. I wanted people to see me for who I was and if I ever appeared "weird" or "odd" to certain people, then they can now understand why that is.
I too tend to talk about one subject matter, struggle with eye contact, or have trouble understanding a joke a friend tells me but it's not because there's something wrong with me or anything, it's just how I am. Now being fully open with my disability, I can now say that I’m proud of it, flaws and all, and maybe if someone was struggling with this as well, they can feel a lot better knowing that they’re not alone.
Did you and your filming crew face any challenges or have any eye-opening moments while creating this film?
Production on Normal People lasted only seven hours and the crew consisted of me, a grip, my cinematographer, a camera operator, and our two beloved "actors." We shot the film on three separate cameras going on at the same time in different angles; a Canon T3i, a Nikon D3200, and an iPhone. This was to capture the conversation as if it were going on in actual time and to make editing easier later on. I also didn’t do many takes, just two or sometimes three, as I didn’t want the conversations to feel forced but rather relaxed and on the spot. With the exception of sound problems which delayed us at the start as well as a lot of downtime while saving the footage in the computer which took a while, everything seemed to go smoothly which I was really surprised by. (My last two films before this involved a sound stage with lighting and an actual operating elevator.)
How have audiences reacted to Normal People, and what do you hope they take away from the story of Zoe and Mark?
I’ve shown the film to friends, family, former film teachers, and fellow filmmakers who were moved to tears and told me I had guts to tell a personal story like this. I’ve also shown it at Autismerica, which is a group made up of disabled kids that meet up at College of DuPage, who have reacted very positively to it; as well as the Autism Society of Illinois who even interviewed me for their website. Turning Pointe in Naperville, Illinois is a school for autistic students where some of them saw it and then took the time to write me an email on how much they appreciated it. My favorite reactions come from mothers of autistic sons and daughters who take the time to tell me that they can now relate to them and what it’s like for them to be in a social situation sometimes. It was really cool!
My statement for the film has not changed since I first showed the film to an audience. My hope for this film is that it shows people not just with autism and not just with any type of disability, that just about anyone who feels socially awkward or flawed or anything of the sort that they can do anything. Even if it's something as simple as asking someone out on a date and being able to communicate with another person. Because they may be just as flawed as you are and that no matter what anyone says to bring you down or no matter what you think of yourself, you are all normal people, inside and out.
What makes Normal People so phenomenal is how intimate and personal the story is. Are there other stories and perspectives in the autism community that we need to represent more?
I believe there are several stories that deserve to be told from the autism perspective as well as any other disability. One of the things I plan to do is avoid clichés or stereotypes that Hollywood or television have been using for years now and instead, paint them as real, living, breathing human beings with struggles and problems that prevent them from being able live a normal life. A few feature film ideas I have both talk about this. I hope to make them seem real and relatable to people who actually feel like this and wish to overcome them or at the very least, learn to accept it. I personally think that the reason movies or television usually take the easy way out and just tell simple stories is because they’re afraid of offending or think that some stories will be too much for people to handle. But either way, they need to know so they can understand. People are always going to be offended regardless of what the issue is but at least it’ll start up a discussion and that’s always important.
I’ve been considering making an anthology series for Normal People where we can look at other people with disabilities and see what it’s like for them to have a "normal" life such as trying to get a job to even just simply looking at their daily routine, the possibilities are endless. Haven’t pitched it to anyone yet but if anyone’s interested, I’ll definitely consider it.
What's next in your creative journey?
Well right now, I plan to finish Columbia this fall so I can graduate in the Spring of next year. I’m also currently writing a feature-length screenplay about a woman with post-traumatic stress disorder which I plan to finish with by the end of the year. If possible, I’d like to try to either get a job somewhere career-related or wish that other people see my work in the hopes of them giving me a chance to do something for them. As of now, no current plans on another short film, not while I’m working on school and everything else. I’ll have something by next year if everything goes right.