This interview appeared on Starpulse.com on October 31st ,2007
Director Steven Sawalich’s feature debut, Music Within, tells the story of Richard Pimentel (Ron Livingston), who, after losing his hearing in the Vietnam War, becomes a public crusader for the rights of the handicapped, leading to the eventual passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For Sawalich, the film is more than just a biography of a man he greatly admires; it’s also a part of a decade long campaign to fit underprivileged children with hearing aids and now a means of creating awareness of veteran and handicap foundations. Starpulse sat down with the award winning auteur to discuss inspiration, dedication, and the little things that make it all worthwhile.
With this being your first feature length film, how did making the actual movie compare to what you expected the experience to be like?
Getting it made was a whole feat in itself. I think that everything exceeded my expectations. You go in hoping to get things completed and when you think about how tough it is you realize that it’s truly an amazing process. And the response we’ve gotten from the audiences has been outstanding; I don’t think we could have asked for anything better.
Were there any unforeseen difficulties that you encountered?
I think that the biggest difficulty was just the scope of the film we were trying to make as far as spanning fifty years of someone’s life on a low budget. We didn’t have the luxuries of shooting one page a day. We were shooting about six or seven pages of the script a day and it was like one scene we were in the sixties and in the next we were in the 1980’s and then after that we were in the seventies, so it was really just having to span that great a period of years in such a short time, 32 days.
Did that time constraint force you to cut a lot of footage?
Our first cut was two hours and forty minutes. All the scenes were great, but we had to just cut it down. Unfortunately a lot of the things that were cut was the stuff between his mother and that relationship and it was just too heavy for people. People wouldn’t actually believe that mother would do that to that kind of person. That she left him when he was thirteen years old and moved to Nebraska, and when he said he didn’t want to go the mother told him that he didn’t understand that he wasn’t invited. It was hard for audiences to grasp that. I also trimmed a lot of the Vietnam scenes because they didn’t fit into the overall story of the film; it made it seem like more a war film when were just trying to tell the story of his life.
How is it that you were able to finance this picture?
A lot of people came to the table just because of Richard Pimentel’s story. We were able to produce the film just with the people who showed that initial interest.
What is it that you hope to accomplish with this film?
For the last eight months American Airlines has sponsored us to take the film around to various disabled and veteran organizations to help raise awareness for their foundations as well as for our film. I think that’s an outstanding thing that American has brought to us and that we are happy to do, but many different people take many different things from this film. I remember I did an interview a couple of days ago where the reporter watched the film with her nine-year-old daughter and her daughter came up to her after the film and said that she won’t be afraid of a person in a wheel chair anymore. It’s little stories like that that make it worthwhile
How involved were you in activism for the disabled prior to the making of your film?
My family has a hearing foundation, and I’ve done a lot of work with them since 1997. We’ve traveled the world fitting under privileged children with hearing aids. I’ve probably gone on over forty missions with them since 1997 and continue to help support and raise money for the foundation. But outside of that it’s really just kind of getting involved with different charity events. And Richard’s story kind of compelled me to bring a horizon to the message of the film and that’s what brought me into it.
Where is it that you first heard Richard speak?
I saw him at a conference that we was doing for the Starkey Labs, which is a hearing aide manufacturer. The speech he gave was his life story and he incorporates disability in the workplace. He has this amazing ability to take his audience on a roller coaster of emotions, where they’ll be laughing hysterically and the next moment they’ll be dead silent or crying. And that’s something that I really admire about him, his storytelling and the overall message of his life. I went up to him after, we started talking and I said, “We need to make this into a film.” He said, “Why would you want to do that?” And I answered, “For the same reason you talk about it. It’s a great story that not too many people know.” So a few years went by, we kind of kept in touch. I’d push him to do more and about three to four years ago we sat down and started fleshing out his story.
In preparation for this film, Richard wrote a book about his life. Does he now have plans to release it?
He does, yeah. Most films are based on books and we kind of started at the same time. It was a great tool for us as well. Right now I know he’s got a few offers for distribution of the book on tape and in publishing, but I don’t know if any of them are concrete at the moment. Hopefully he’ll be able to spread his word through the writing.
What do you think of the success the film has seen?
It’s funny how you’re three or four years of making a film boils down to your first three or four days at the box office, and people’s determinations of whether it’s good or not. It’s been an amazing journey and I’ve learned a lot. Hopefully we’ve helped shape a few people’s minds on just what our message is. I think that anything I’m involved with in the future will be something that I have the same feeling for and want to be involved.
What are you involved with?
I’ve got about three to four films I’m working on now, and then we’ll see this one to the finish line. One’s a biopic dealing with a modern social topic and one its a Christmas comedy, which is completely different than anything I’ve ever done, which is a fun story.
(© 2007 Starpulse.com™ all rights reserved worldwide)