I recently had a chance to sit down with Tim Disney to talk about his film William. William is the story of a cloned Neanderthal who is raised by a pair of academics who have different visions of who he is and should become.
There were a lot of different movies that could have been made with this premise. It could have been a movie about the ethics, about legal issues. You managed to create the film as a family drama. How did you come to that approach?
Tim Disney: Maybe because as an independent, only sometimes filmmaker, I had no idea how to make a bigger movie. I wanted to do it myself. I didn’t want to sell it to a studio and have them take control of it. Because it did ask to be bigger than it is. It could be a big science fiction movie, and I just didn’t want to give it up that way. I thought that would be surprising and unusual. That would differentiate it. It would be unexpected to do that. And I was most interested not in the science, although the science is interesting, but in the proxy for race and class and otherness. For me that was the core of the story.
And the stuff about story—who controls the stories we tell and how we use that to control other people, to oppress people, even with the best of intentions. What we do ourselves as parents to our children—the stories we make up about our children that they have to rebel against. That was the essence of it for me. At the time I started it I had two teenage sons. We were in the middle of all that ourselves. Maybe every parent-child relationship is a Frankenstein story of some sort. We have children and you think you have some idea about—You say all the things about “I want them to be whoever they are.” I know we all mean that when we say that. I know I meant it when I said it. But then I also had pretty clear ideas about what they should do and who they should be. And they are who they are in spite of my ideas of what they ought to be. In a sense they’re all some kind of monster that rebels against us.
I thought the family setting worked well with the proxy of race of the other things because you look at William and he is a part of that family. Yet he is a different species, let alone a different race. Yet he has a place in that family. Whether he is loved or not by everyone in that family is a question, but still he’s in that family.
He is. And he wants to connect with them. He calls them Mom and Dad. They consider him to be their son. The father, some people say, kinds need a combination of qualified love and unqualified love. Usually the dad is the qualified love and the mom is the unqualified love. You know that’s an oversimplification. Too much of either is not good. In a way they’re both on the extreme edge of that. I think when the father, who I guess is a bit of a villain in the story, when he says in principal’s office “you should go to college like your peers. Your’re holding to your mother. You’re holding him back.” I think that’s real. I think he’s not at all wrong about that. There’s a dialectic between them. He has a point to make too, that kids do need to be challenged and you can’t just approve of everything they do. The mother ultimately, I think, wants to prevent him from asserting his full identity. She’s so afraid of something happening that she debilitates him. Which happens a lot in modern parenting. I think I’m more guilty of that in my own life to some extent.
I found myself thinking at the very start that this poor child is going to end up being like the Dionne quintuplets. But of course the mother takes him away to get him away from all that. That was an interesting choice that she made to give him a chance at trying to be human.
Yeah. But in a controlled way, on the island, away.
Another question that came up for me was what would it be like for a Neanderthal in the world today? Of course they died out in a much harsher environment and conditions. If things were easier for them would they have adapted too do you think?
We considered this quite a lot when we were developing the script. You know Neanderthals were very, very similar to modern humans. They really truly were our equals at the time we coexisted. All the things that we associate with the flowering of paleolithic culture—the cave paintings and all of that—those happened after the Neanderthals were gone. So some other thing happened with the humans some time after they coexisted. Perhaps that flowering would have happened with Neanderthals if they existed later. Who knows? That’s an unanswerable question.
There’s no reason to think that a Neanderthal would have a natural instinct for hunting or any other thing. Those are all learned behaviors. So if they grew up going to school, experiencing all the things that we did, why would they not be basically the same as us in those environments? So we kept getting drawn that he would have some natural facility for anything—hunting—he could survive in the woods. Why? Why would that be the case? So we try to go away from that. But we kept getting drawn towards that.
I think you showed not that he had facilities, but there were some connections he just didn’t make. Like what we consider humor. Or trying to deal with metaphor. He got metaphor; he just didn’t like it.
Yes. He found it offensive. I love the scene where he goes on about Gatsby, because you realize, Wow, he’s super smart. He’s just not a gap filler. He’s not a guy who talks because there’s room for talking. He speaks with intention. He’s laconic, I guess. So one of the hard parts about writing the script was conceiving of the cognitive difference. How could we with our brain, conceive of a cognitive difference. That’s an oxymoron. I can’t think differently than I do. So that part was hard to come up with, so we didn’t really do anything at first. Let’s let him be a black slate—kind of a Chauncey Gardner sort of character. Then eventually as we went forward, developed surrounding story, it became clear what that needed to be. That was one of the hardest parts of writing the script.
What kind of work did you have to do to get the basis of what a Neanderthal would be like?
I read a lot of the popular literature about it. That’s where I started. There’s some crucial book. There’s a wonderful scientist named Jared Diamond. He’s famous for Guns, Germs and Steel. Which I think is an amazing thing. But he had earlier written a book called The Third Chimpamzee that had a big effect on me. There’s a bunch of other stuff. The internet is a Godsend for this kind of stuff because you can get all this academic literature. It’s overwhelming, obviously. Some of the popular literature was a little bit more helpful because it summarized things. It’s not a scholarly work of anthropology. I just needed to get into the realm of plausibility. That was my goal. I was trying to tell a successful story not, you know. I corresponded with some archaeologists and I sent the script to one in particular who offered to read it. This is a woman who goes off and excavates Neanderthal sites every summer. She’s for real. And she just thought it was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever seen. She had no sense of humor about it at all. She had all these minute criticism about how we described. Tools are not tools, they’re points. She got fixated on the terminology. Those folks were really not a great source of information for me.
I do think that it’s important that we deal in the realm of the plausible because this kind of thing exists now. It’s been done already with animal species. In China a scientist has cloned a human being against the government’s wishes, basically. So we need to urgently develop ethics around this. And we don’t have them now. And it’s going to be weaponized. So I worry. But there’s a lot to worry about these days.