In his new short film Spud, 25-year-old filmmaker Tyler Norman makes use of bullies, Barbie dolls, and a burning building to create something entirely his own: a 1980s comedy for the 21st century. “It’s really inspired by a lot of the movies I watched growing up,” Norman said. “Films like Home Alone and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and that sort of John Hughes comedy that is kind of different.”
If there’s a theme or thesis to Norman’s Spud, it’s that different is, in fact, good. Introduced to us as a “terminal dweeb” with few friends and a preternatural gift for conquering video games, it isn’t long before the twelve year-old central figure of Spud decides to don a superhero cape and right wrongs in his seemingly idyllic suburban neighborhood. In the process, he gains confidence, camaraderie, and the love of a good woman—or as many of those things as elementary school will allow.
“My intention with the film was to show that people who are bullies are really the ones who have the problems, who have some kind of void that they need to fill,” Norman said. “Most of the bullying that I experienced in school was psychological, but on the first day of first grade one of the kids in my class slammed my head into a pole. I still don’t know why.”
Nor does he seem to care. For Norman, who was diagnosed at an early age with Asperger’s Syndrome, talking about films is much more appealing than reflecting on the hardships of adolescence. And why not? Entertainment is in his blood. His father, Lowell Norman, was the primary filmmaker and photographer for musician John Denver, a connection that Tyler says allowed him plenty of access to filmmaking technology in his formative years.
“I used to watch a lot of movies,” Norman said. “I still do. I never knew that’s what I wanted to do later in life, but I was around all this film equipment growing up, so my sister and my friends and I would make our own home videos and stage our own scenes. It was fun.”
With Spud, Norman has come a long way from simple home videos. When his script attracted the attention of producer Joey Travolta at Inclusion Films, Norman suddenly found himself auditioning actors, managing his very first film crew, scouting locations, and negotiating first cut in the editing room. Now he’s sending some of his material off to talent agencies as the film works its way through the festival circuit.
For Norman, the experience of preparing, producing and premiering Spud was largely uncharted territory. For Travolta, however, it was the latest in a string of successful teaching opportunities at Inclusion Films, a creative enterprise that’s part film school, part production company, and which trains aspiring filmmakers with learning and developmental disabilities in all aspects of the storytelling experience. By working in concert with crew and performers without disabilities, Travolta’s students learn the ins and outs of collaboration, socialization and artistic achievement.
“The really nice thing about filmmaking,” Travolta said, “is that you’re essentially forced to work with other people. So for a lot of the students here, especially those dealing with autism, it’s a process of learning how to work with a team. Whether you’re making films or selling t-shirts, that’s a necessary skill to have.”
Travolta, whose industry-oriented family includes brother John, founded Inclusion Films as a method of merging his diverse filmmaking background with his student-oriented experience as a special education instructor. Today the Burbank-based company, replete with a staff of industry professionals and operating on a twenty-week semester system in the training of its students, remains dedicated to lending a megaphone to talented voices Hollywood too often ignores. The key to the program, Travolta says, is its capacity for equipping each student with social, technical and cinematic skills.
“I had always wanted to do a practical film workshop for students who weren’t going to college but who wanted some real-world experience,” Travolta said. “You learn more by doing than by theory. Whether you’re making a movie for nothing or for a hundred million dollars, the organization of it and how you shoot it are important industry standards to learn.”
Working alongside Inclusion Films’ line producer Bill Dion and creative director Raymond Martino, Travolta nurtures a formidable industry network that ranges from producer Fred Roos (The Godfather) to actor Joe Mantegna (Criminal Minds) to screenwriter Bobby Moresco (Crash), not to mention executives at Warner Brothers and other major motion picture developers. Those connections allow the staff of Inclusion Films to help place students on a path toward internships and paying work, each secure in a base of knowledge of how films are written, planned, edited and produced.
“Some of these kids break down when the programs are over,” Martino said. “They cry, they say, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do without you guys.’ Often their parents will even ask if their son or daughter can stay longer. When you touch somebody’s life here, you touch it forever.”
Martino, who struggled against learning disabilities as a child, often tells his students that limitations exist only to be shattered. “I didn’t learn to read until I was age twenty,” Martino said. “If I can make it, any of these kids can.”
With programs in Burbank, Bakersfield and Northern California, as well as a slew of summer camps throughout the country, Travolta says Inclusion Films is now poised to take on its first full-length feature production as it continues to empower young filmmakers regardless of their limitations or disabilities. For Michael Cooney, a former Inclusion Films student who now is a writing instructor for the program, the school has helped shed new light on what he’d always viewed as a personal hurdle.
“I don’t think I’d be a writer if I didn’t have cerebral palsy,” Cooney said. “Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of friends and was left to my own devices, so I learned how to create stories and scenarios just to entertain myself. And I think I’ve come to figure out that when you’re different from everyone around you, the creative process kicks in out of necessity.”
That ingenuity in the face of personal doubts or insecurities has reaped rewards for many of the artists at Inclusion Films, and continues to be nurtured by Travolta and his staff. “You find whatever the student’s strength is, and you try to build on it,” Travolta said of his school’s guiding philosophy. “It may be that there’s one thing someone is good at, but if he can be brilliant at it, if he can somehow make that work for whatever he does in life, then he’s in pretty good shape.”
It would seem that, for Tyler Norman, the future is in pretty good shape as well. Spud has been honored as an official selection of the Garden State Film Festival and the ArtLife World Film Festival and recently held its Los Angeles premiere at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre in Hollywood for hundreds of attendees of various industry stripes.
Better yet, Norman’s experience with Inclusion Films has infused the young filmmaker with the kind of confidence that can only come from full engagement in a personal passion. The kid who was once picked on in grade school is today hard at work revising his next masterpiece, a science fiction script titled Vermillion.
“You don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with you when you’re doing whatever it is you love,” Norman said of his experiences on the set of Spud. “I’ve always loved movies, and for years I’ve studied every aspect of them, so I’m just really glad I was able to pull this one off.”