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Tony Spiridakis on Making ‘Ezra’ and Fatherhood (Guest Column)

Tony Spiridakis on Making ‘Ezra’ and Fatherhood (Guest Column)

A decade ago, I was asked to do a TedX Talk about being the father of an autistic son, and another who is neurodivergent. That talk helped me decide to write a film that would focus on a father and a son who is autistic. Ezra, in theaters now, was inspired by many of my experiences with my sons Nikos and Dimitri, and was made by artists who had children or relatives or friends who were neurodivergent, and it shows. The film is an authentic portrayal of the challenges that fathers, and mothers, must face when raising a neurodivergent 11-year-old boy. The fact that the title character of the boy, Ezra, is played by a child actor, William Fitzgerald, who is himself neurodivergent, only added to the level of truth that was found telling this story about fathers and sons.

When my boys were first diagnosed — one was 4 and the other 6 — I can see how much I didn’t know at the time. I can also see how much I had to learn. I say this because I made so many mistakes, which never stopped me from acting like I knew how to navigate the lives and needs of two special needs children. The good thing I suppose is that I never stopped making decisions. This included moving every time one of the two got thrown out of a school (we moved 10 times in 10 years in search of the right school); we moved when special ed services were rejected, we moved if the boys were targeted by certain administrators for being too much of a burden. And all of the moving — all the therapies, advocates, services, lawyers — put stress on my marriage, stress on my boys. And that stress was quietly, almost imperceptibly, causing me to unravel.

Thankfully, I’ve always been able to use humor to deflect difficult situations. And let’s face it, fatherhood can be difficult.

Sometimes, if one is fortunate, being a screenwriter can be cathartic, and can actually teach us life lessons. Ezra was that way for me. I was able to be on set because my best friend of 43 years, Tony Goldwyn, was the director. He not only met both my boys at birth, he is the Godfather to my eldest. He also happens to be a filmmaker who believes the writer should be on set, and that this is a benefit to the production. Sounds simple? It’s not. It’s actually a rarity. And it’s how Tony works with everyone. With respect and love. He makes you feel seen and heard. So, by being there on set, I got to see the father character, Max, played brilliantly by Bobby Cannavale, himself a father of three sons. Very few actors can play a father who makes one terrible decision after another, and have an audience end up loving him.

In fact, the film put me in amazing company, and not just with legendary filmmakers, which they were. But through having the privilege to work with fellow fathers (and mothers) who had themselves been through the same roller coaster ride of raising neurodivergent children. I was able to listen to these parents, mothers and fathers, and hear their stories, and feel their sense of hope and hopelessness, and it shook me and moved me to my core. And, I would like to think at the end of it all, that ultimately they all — together — helped me forgive myself a little, and work at being a better father.


Courtesy of TIFF

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Thank you Robert De Niro, who portrayed the grandfather in the film; and Bill Horberg, our indefatigable producer; and Vera Farmiga, who played Grace with transcendent beauty; and Laura and David Fitzgerald, the amazing parents of the boy who played Ezra, who all taught me from their own life experiences with neurodivergent children what strength looks like. Who each helped me — cajole me — to write a better movie about being a special needs father. I gleaned invaluable insights, and received so many moving moments as gifts from them. And, from our true lead actor, William Fitzgerald, who stepped into a leading role after doing a few scenes at his local theater, and who gave the performance of a very young lifetime, also gave this very imperfect father a renewed appreciation of how acceptance is the key to all things.

Fatherhood, as I’ve come to understand, is a journey filled with unexpected turns, formidable obstacles and limitless affection. My perspective on fatherhood has been profoundly shaped by the intricacies of nurturing children who perceive the world through their own magical lenses. William, like my Dimitri and my Nikos, are just such magical gifts to us all. I will always strive to be a better father because of them.

Tony Spiridakis is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer most recently known for his work on the Bleecker Street film Ezra.

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