Filmmaker 5 with Dan Crane: Let Me Be Me

Let Me Be Me traces one family’s journey raising a child with autism in the mid-1990s, amid the backdrop of a medical community struggling to find ways beyond behavior modification and even institutionalization to help. Jenifer and Jeff Westphal’s middle child, Kyle, exhibited symptoms of autism at age three. His constant spinning and inability to make eye contact prompted his parents to examine a very specific approach to getting Kyle to engage. Adopting the specialized program and employing its techniques, the family and a team of support workers met Kyle on a level he was comfortable with to achieve astounding results.

Today, Kyle’s lifelong love for fabrics, which he used to hide under as a child, has given way to an education in and burgeoning career in fashion design. Let Me Be Me shares this unique story as a way of reaching other families and demonstrating what is possible when real connection is made with people with disabilities to support them in living vibrant lives.

Our Classic Couple Academy Filmmaker 5 with Let Me Be Me writer and co-director Dan Crane follows.

Filmmaker 5.1: This is a deeply personal story to bring to film, especially for Kyle Westphal. How did you collaborate to tell this story?

Filmmaker Dan Crane

By the time I jumped on the project, most of the interviews with Kyle had already been completed. We had to do a few additional bits to fill in story holes, but it was really my co-director, Katie Taber, who collaborated with Kyle and the family to tell the story. 

Says co-director Taber of the project, “When you see those archival shots, and how Kyle reacted to the fabric and dresses when he was young, you say, ‘Oh, this is it, this is the moment.’”

Filmmaker 5.2: You weave together a variety of material in Let Me Be Me—years of family videos, archival footage, in-person interviews, current location film and original animation. How did these elements inform how you structured the film?

We started with the archive, as that was the foundation of the whole film. Having access to years of Kyle in his program really helped build out the story of his time in the Son-Rise program. From there, we knew we wanted to tell the family story as well: what was it like for Kyle’s siblings; what was it like for his parents to have to put this kind of time and energy commitment into Kyle’s program? Beyond that, I wanted to get a sense of what Kyle really felt during his time in the room—and that’s where the animation came in. 

Filmmaker 5.3: Let Me Be Me can be described in many ways: as an autism journey, a family saga, a coming-of-age story, an artist’s awakening. As the film’s writer, how did you anchor your storytelling?

At a certain point in the process, I felt like “fabric” became the anchor for the film—this notion that Kyle used to hide in and under blankets and used them as a form of protection from the outside world, and then grew up to use fabric to express himself. Once we put that “thread” together (so to speak), the rest of the film fell into place. 

We wanted to tell the story very honestly. With the camera on, you really have to be

willing to go there and pour your heart out, knowing some of it will get in the film, and some of it

may not because of time reasons. But as imperfect as it all is, I can be myself. You can’t make

this stuff up!

—Kyle Westphal

Filmmaker 5.4: What do you hope your storytelling in Let Me Be Me communicates to audiences about persons with disability living in the microcosm of family and the macrocosm of society?

I think Kyle’s story is just one story amongst thousands—not every treatment will work for everyone—but what I think the story communicates is that if a family commits to loving their child unconditionally and working on their level, progress is possible. And I think it helps remind all parents to continually try to connect with their children. 

Filmmaker 5.5: In making this film, how have you personally connected with the Westphal family’s story? With Kyle’s journey? And what will you take forward to inform your life and future work?

It would be impossible to not connect with the Westphals after making this film! As a father of two girls, I continually found their family’s journey incredibly inspiring. The time, love and commitment they put in to Kyle’s growth is incredible, and a level of unconditional love to which we should all aspire!

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Watch the Let Me Be Me trailer.

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