Interview: Nicholas Ryan-Purcell
Nicholas Ryan-Purcell is an autistic filmmaker from Co. Tipperary. His latest film is called This is Nicholas – Living With Autism, a documentary about his experiences of growing up in Tipperary with autism and depression. Following its premiere at the 2018 NYC Mental Health Film Festival, This Is Nicholas is screening at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin on Wednesday 7th November at 6.50pm, followed by a Q&A with Nicholas Ryan-Purcell himself, and tickets are available here. We spoke to Nicholas about his new film, his special interests, and his advice for young autistic people who want to break into film.
What is This is Nicholas – Living With Autism?
The documentary film chronicles the personal experience of living with Asperger’s Syndrome and autism spectrum disorder but also touches on depression, which was brought on by an early childhood trauma. The story is supported by interviews, old video footage, and photographs from childhood years.
How did you decide to make a film about your experience of having autism? Where did the idea come from?
In October 2016, my previous documentary film about a racehorse was screened in Birr Theatre in Co. Offaly and when I got up on the stage I was asked by the interviewer, “What’s next?” So I thought for a moment and something came into my mind saying “Do one on your own experience.” Just like that, when I announced it, the whole auditorium stood up with a rousing applause, and I thought, maybe I should do it so, if I get that response.
I actually enjoyed making it and the documentary wasn’t planned like a storyboard from the beginning. I typed out my life story into bullet points first, and then I went along as I found more information. So it wasn’t all initially planned out from the beginning and saying “Okay, this this this will only be in it,” I literally had to go through every part of my life. I even uncovered documents at home which I never knew existed and I thought, “My God! That was from, like, back in the year 2000!” and that was part of my life as well which I’d totally forgotten about. I couldn’t really plan it from the beginning, it was just a step by step process because something was uncovered as I went through the process.
What was the most enjoyable part of making the film?
The most sentimentally happy part of making it, I can tell you that. I’m really really passionate about trains in general, both steam and mainline passenger, because they were my release from depression. The really really noisy old engines just fascinated me so much – wondering how they worked, how they were driven and even when they were driven they got more noisy again and then the steam came along and therefore the excitement of trains was my release, hearing these engines, seeing these engines, and the presence of these engines, just… I used to get on a absolute high when my mother said “Come on, let’s go to Limerick Junction for the craic,” or “Let’s go to the level crossing,”. I used to spend up to eight hours per day watching trains going by at our local level crossing and watching the speed of them, that’s how enthused I was by them, they were my saviour from depression, were trains.
And then one man came along and changed my life, a man called Wesley Riddle, who features in the documentary. Wesley’s from Templeogue and we met him because my dad saw an advertisement for a stream train trip from Dublin to Wexford. So we went on the stream train trip, Dad got talking to one of the stewards, and lo and behold, Wesley turned out to be a guardian angel figure. And going back to your actual question, the most sentimental part of making the documentary was reflecting how much he meant to me, and reading over his letters, because I kept the majority of his letters. One of them said “You are a wonderful person for a sixteen year old and a great asset to the RPSI (Railway Preservation Society of Ireland), I am very lucky to know you and count you as my friend.” Reading that letter fresh after not seeing it for a few years literally brought me to tears.
That was the most joyous part of making the documentary, trying to recreate how much of an impact he had on me and how he was my saviour, and it was extraordinary to recount that.
A former teacher of mine said to me last night that “If I was in the shoes of Wesley or another person reflecting how much they meant to me, I would be so touched.” Wesley hasn’t seen the documentary yet, and it will be a surprise!
What was the most challenging part of making the documentary?
The most challenging part of making the documentary was recreating what brought on the depression. That was the most challenging part of it, the most emotional part of it, because I used to hear terrible voices that I nearly took my own life when I was seventeen, very nearly did it because of all this impact on my mind. And I used to [feel like I was] followed by a ghastly black figure, that had a very cold energy field, it felt like a cold breeze was around me all the time. That’s all gone since 2016.
It was emotional to recreate the depression because firstly, I had to think back so many years to what actually started it. I was thinking and thinking and thinking, and then one day when my mind was wandering, doing something completely different, it said “John Joe McGrath.” And I thought “Yes! That man died when I was ten.” And I remember absolutely roaring, bawling my head off at his funeral, absolutely literally could not control myself crying.
Then I went back to the church where the funeral was held in Emly village, and I stood in a particular set of pews in the church when we were filming for the documentary, we being the drone operator, myself, and the parish priest. I turned around to face the front door of the church and I can convince you I saw a flash moment of that man’s coffin being carried out on shoulders. And I thought to myself, the fact that I could see it when I was filming the documentary really made me more aware of how much his death had an impact on me and the absolute shock of his death absolutely set me spiraling into depression. And I never spoke about it at the time. I was a very shy kid, I was always very shy, didn’t come out of my shell until I was about nineteen or twenty, I only ever mixed with adults until the age of twenty four I suppose, mixed with adults because I always felt more comfortable around then. Now I’m getting used to people in my own age group which is great. But it was quite emotional recreating all of that, what brought on the depression.
I was told what car he [John Joe McGrath] drove and so I contacted a vintage magazine and lo and behold a man in Swords contacts me saying he has the same type of car. When I saw the car I became rather emotional in a happy way because I saw that same man driving it. And when I got into it the interior was exactly the same as the man’s car.
When I saw the film first a few months ago, what struck me was that it was really seeping with love and affection for the village of Emly, where you’re from in County Tipperary, and for the people of Emly. It really brought to life the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”. Can I ask you as the director, does the film have anything to say about rural Ireland, and about Irish people?
Very much so. I can give you feedback from one particular private screening I had – It was a feedback screening, it wasn’t a finished film. The feedback screening was held in December 2017, in my new village called Cloughjordan in Tipperary. And the response from that was community. How much a community helped you. People who have watched this on a private basis have all said that the film covers community inclusion, it covers compassion, it covers love for the autistic person, and it covers how people can help you thrive and bring you along. Last Wednesday was the first school screening of the documentary, and that was shown in one of my former schools in Nenagh CBS in Tipperary. One lady stood up during the Q&A session and she said what she got from it was compassion, of how much people bring you along. A former teacher of mine actually watched the documentary amongst the crowd in the school, which was really nice, it’s always nice to see former teachers of yours actually watching your story. She said she was crying at the end of it, she actually literally said that. So basically I wanted to thank all those people who helped me during my early life.
I’d agree with all that feedback as well. I was just thinking of the new Autism Friendly town, Clonakilty in Co. Cork, and how much the values of that project are exemplified in Emly in the film. You’ve made two films so far, both of those were documentaries. Is that your preferred medium or genre?
At the moment it is because I like fact, I always liked everything to be fact for fact for fact, but now I’m deciding to take a break from documentary after completing the autism documentary. I’m going to think about creative writing, which I like a lot, because you’re very limited with documentaries, everything has to be fact for fact for fact and I’ve since found out that you can’t actually add in a fictional event that never happened, therefore everything has to be spot on. But from my creative writing, I would like to branch into filmmaking eventually, and with filmmaking you can fictionalise events. But I really like documentaries because it’s real events. When I was younger I only liked things that really happened, I didn’t actually like fiction much, I always liked fact.
So you’re going to be looking at writing your own screenplay?
Possibly, eventually. When I was younger, my mother always said to me, “You should learn to read [for leisure], you should learn to read.” I never had a purpose for reading, so therefore I never read books until recently. But I’ve taken an interest in it and now I have an interest in creative writing because I have taken an interest in reading. Documentaries, I feel, the time has come to stop doing them for a while, because my body’s telling me, take a break, for about a year. Maybe I’ll get back to them.
Why do you use the medium of film to tell stories? What is it about film that draws you?
What I like about the film medium is you can actually visualise everything up on the screen as events unfold. With my Asperger’s I’m a visual thinker, so therefore when I was much younger I learnt everything through colour, through Powerpoint slides, through seeing things for real through my own eyes, through photographs. I was very poor at reading text, always, I could never learn information through looking at text, it always had to be colour. So for people seeing it on the screen, it will give them a better understanding, same as me.
You mentioned a little while ago about how you feel a lot more comfortable disclosing your autism now than when you were younger. Did making this film have a part to play in this?
Very much so, making this documentary had a real part to play. Firstly getting that standing ovation in Birr Theatre really was a signal to make it. And I wouldn’t have made it if I hadn’t got that reaction. Then I wanted to really show people who I am, that I’m not an idiot, that I’m not a fool, because I noticed that, I used to put Asperger’s Syndrome on all job applications and all of them refused, I never got a job offer, ever. But yet looking now, it’s a good way because I have a film made. So I could concentrate on my own things!
I do feel more comfortable talking about my autism since having made the documentary and people being more aware of it, and when I talk about making an autism documentary, people’s eyes just literally open wide and they say “Wow!” So it’s nice to get that reaction… Before Adam Harris came on the scene, it was very difficult to tell people I had autism, because people used to look at me in absolute disgust and walk off. It was really hard to deal with that, really hard. But yet I was told that I was the first person to be diagnosed with Asperger’s in my primary school and I went back there now, it’s a brilliant school. They are building their third autism unit, because autistic student numbers are increasing tenfold. But even it was so nice going back to the primary school, and one of the pupils spoke about his absolute fascination with dinosaurs, and was telling me all sorts of facts about dinosaurs. That brought me back to the time when I used to know a lot of facts about what I was particularly interested in when I was younger, so it was really relevant.
What can the film industry do to make it easier for autistic people to get involved?
I think firstly, film companies would have to be prepared to offer autistic people trial runs, to see how capable they are at doing a certain thing, and some people can excel in certain things. I think autistic people need to be prepared as well to do some things voluntarily without getting paid, just to get a trial run, to show what skills they have. And that’s what I had to go through, I had to do a lot of things for free when I came out of college. It’s hard not getting paid directly by the film company but I feel even a week or two weeks trial practice is the best way in. The way I went, after I came out of Ballyfermot College was to start doing videos myself, and I felt that’s how people began to recognise what I actually do.
So firstly autistic people need to be prepared to give some of their time, and to show the film company what they’re actually really capable of doing. Secondly to go out and do projects on their own. For example, what gave me a tremendous boost was I was in college, we had to make a short film, and I made a romantic silent drama of my wishes for relationships, wishes for all this, and I recreated what I’d like to happen even though it didn’t happen. And that ended up getting an award in Kentucky for Best Foreign Film in a short film competition, and that gave me a tremendous boost, that I was in the right game. So that’s where it all began, making a short film, and the best thing to do is a life experience. Making projects about life experiences touches people.
Do you feel that your autism has affected your filmmaking, the way you make films?
I think the only way it has affected it is, as my family say, I’m an absolute perfectionist, and everything to the finest detail. So that’s the only part – perfectionism makes me really really slow. That’s the only aspect. Wanting the right shots, wanting so many shots of the same thing, wanting it to be edited this way or that way, it’s perfectionism is what makes me so very slow in my work.
What are your influences in film, or your favourite films?
One of the best films I saw that really related to me, that touched me so much, was The Drummer and the Keeper. Firstly, the autistic character knew all the facts that were ever to be known about football and that was the same for me about trains and whatever my interests were, I was interested in trucks, I was interested in other things, although the trains stuck with me most. Another reason why The Drummer and the Keeper touched me so much is because I was reliving the depressed character [Gabriel]’s experience, it was portrayed
so well in the film, played by Dermot Murphy, he played it really well. How it related to me was his depression was brought on by the sudden death of his mother, and we saw him bawling over the coffin and that was the same as me when I was ten and that man died, how much it shook me. And that character’s drums, he played drums a lot in the movie, drums were his release, the same as trains were my release. I was reliving the life of that man who had depression. I was literally watching myself on screen.
That’s the power of representation, being able to see your stories told. What advice do you have for any young person, autistic or not, trying to get into film?
Perseverance is key, I just feel if a door is closed in front of you – if, for example, a job application is turned down, don’t take that as, “Okay, that’s me finished,”, just keep persevering and maybe go out and make films, or, what moves people a lot is life stories, so from my experience, life stories is how people noticed what I do, so that’s the best way – that’s my experience, just perseverance.
What’s next? Any future projects?
I am working on a documentary project now where I am solely editor only, which is a completely new task for me. Once that is done, I’d like to focus for a little while on creative writing, because I am acquiring a passion for it three months ago. Maybe eventually I’m going to film probably from there.
This is Nicholas – Living With Autism has the following screenings at time of writing:
For more information, or to contact Nicholas, his Facebook page is facebook.com/NicholasRyanPurcellProductions.
by Eleanor Walsh - 2 November, 2018
Last updated by Eleanor Walsh - November 19, 2018
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Laura Crean is a member of AsIAm's Youth Leadership Team and currently in her first year of study...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 2 October, 2017
Louise Ryan from Co. Limerick, a mother of two young boys on the autistic spectrum, talks about h...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 25 September, 2017
The AsIAm team travelled to Limerick City on Friday, where our Founder and CEO Adam Harris delive...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 22 September, 2017
It’s the time of month again to go back to school and starting third level education, even going ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 11 August, 2017
The internet can be a powerful platform and a huge resource for the autistism community. A wealth...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 2 August, 2017
This week, Sligo’s Clayton Hotel became the first hotel in Ireland to establish a room specifical...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 14 July, 2017
WHAT IS THE NATIONAL DISABILITY INCLUSION STRATEGY? The National Disability Inclusion Strategy 2...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 13 July, 2017
AsIAm Ireland has warmly welcomed the passage through Seanad Éireann of the Autism Spectrum Disor...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 10 March, 2017
A blog by Brian Irwin, AsIAm Volunteer & Secondary School Speaker in the Cork Region [captio...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 8 March, 2017
We are very exciting for the release of a new RTE One Documentary, produced by Firebrand Producti...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 9 September, 2016
During the month of September, AsIAm is excited to be bringing you a whole range of new content, ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 8 September, 2016
There is so many different people and organisations doing great things to support people with Aut...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 8 September, 2015
Yvonne Newbold is a parent and advocate for those affected by Autism in the UK. Yvonne wrote a bo...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 1 September, 2015
Starting or returning to Secondary School can be a big change and a challenge for all students, h...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 22 April, 2015
As part of our “AsYouCan” Campaign, for World Autism Awareness Month, each day in April we will s...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 22 April, 2015
AsIAm.ie is pleased to announce that the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, has kindly agr...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 1 April, 2015
This World Autism Awareness Month, AsIAm is calling on every individual, organisation and sector ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 12 February, 2015
Being a parent of a child with Autism can be challenging but, as Julie Direen shares, it can also...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 2 February, 2015
[caption id="attachment_3318" align="alignleft" width="300"] Carrie, centre, at our recent "Back ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 10 December, 2014
The online support and advocacy group for people with autism, AsIAm.ie, has said Ireland needs ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 5 December, 2014
Jonathan Victory shares his positive experiences of Martial Arts as someone with Aspergers Synd...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 31 October, 2014
One stressful aspect of being a parent of a child on the Autism Spectrum is getting the right sup...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 1 October, 2014
Lisa Domican, Founder of Grace App, talks about the challenge for parents in identifying pain in ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 10 September, 2014
The challenges of "Back to School" for students with Autism, and the launch of the AsIAm.ie "Back...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 25 August, 2014
Many families affected by Autism may be considering possible suitable extra-curricular activities...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 24 August, 2014
There is an old adage: "If you know one person with Autism, you know one person with Autism" It ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 22 August, 2014
Yesterday we were delighted to launch our AsIAm "Back to School" Handbooks for teachers, parents...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 21 August, 2014
AsIAm.ie has today published a series of guides to help people with autism deal with the major ch...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 20 August, 2014
Tomorrow, AsIAm will launch its "Back to School" Handbooks on Autism, for parents, students and t...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 17 June, 2014
Sinead Farrelly bravely tells us what it's been like being an 'aspie' in college. Originally publ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 3 June, 2014
Yvonne Newbold is the author of "The Special Parent's Handbook", a practical, hands-on parenting ...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 23 March, 2014
Dr Aoife Lyons, licensed clinical psychologist and university lecturer in UCD and DCU, puts herse...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 2 May, 2013
Ann Kennedy is a 60 year old lady living with Asperger's Syndrome. In this incredibly honest pie...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 1 May, 2013
In this article our regular contributor, Carrie Burton, shares her experiences of preparing her d...[...]
by AsIAm.ie - 14 February, 2013
Today we finally got an opportunity to catch up with Dr. Gillian Smith, Founder and Principal Pr...[...]