August 9, 2007
Film: Teen’s victory over stuttering ignites ‘Rocket Science’
Jeffrey Blitz was a chronic stutterer who in high school won his state's debating championship. The 37-year-old writer-director admits that this background is ripe for Hollywood humor, so it should come as no surprise that his latest film, "Rocket Science," spotlights a teenage stutterer's attempts to become a debater.|
Blitz, in fact, traces his success as a filmmaker to the challenges of growing up in a garrulous Conservative Jewish family in Ridgewood, N.J.
"The sense of being able to discuss issues and to participate in lively conversations felt like such a crucial part of the Jewish household experience, and I didn't want to feel sidelined from that," he says, sans stutter, during an interview at Campanile restaurant. "So while I often felt self-conscious, I would fight it out to say what I wanted, and perhaps even dominate the conversation in order to overcompensate."
Reece Daniel Thompson plays Hal Hefner, the fictional stutterer in this eccentric tragicomedy, which won the directing award at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. "Hal is far more put-upon than I ever was," Blitz says. Shy and awkward, Hal's speech impediment is not his only challenge, though it makes even ordering a slice of pizza an excruciating exercise. A brutish older brother and the aftermath of his parents' divorce also plague him. Hal's luck seems to change, however, when the school's debate champion, Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), professes to spot talent in him; the smitten Hal joins the speech club, with initially disastrous results.
His eventual victories are less grand than Blitz's, but they are no less significant, the filmmaker says. "Hal's quest is larger than conquering public speaking; it's trying to achieve a certain kind of mastery over his life. He perseveres, even as circumstances prove more unpredictable than his stutter, and in doing so he triumphs in ways that have less to do with winning a debate than with finding his 'voice.'"
Blitz says his own mother was his role model for this kind of perseverance, and she taught him that it's possible to improve oneself through hard work. She grew up in the rural, primitive Argentine Jewish town of Moisés Ville, eking out a living selling quilts after the death of her father and dodging anti-Semitic police. Despite her travails, she managed to put herself through medical school -- one of few women to do so at the time -- and eventually secured a residency at a New York hospital, where she met Blitz's father, a research psychologist.
Blitz is the middle child, the second of three boys; he says he has stammered since he began talking as a baby. "I would know exactly what I wanted to say, but I would just shut down; I couldn't force any sound out at all," he says of his particular kind of stutter. "I learned to 'slide' into sentences from different angles, to flip a phrase or to substitute another word for the one that was blocked. I had to develop a tremendous vocabulary, because I needed an arsenal of words I could choose from at a moment's notice. So I was never casual in my relationship with words; I was scared of them, and in awe."
For much of his childhood, he says, he was "pissed off" about his disability, and "being so publicly unable to do something that everyone else could do." At first, he bombed miserably in the debate club, going entire rounds without saying a word. But it turned out that the rapid-fire style of speaking eventually tricked his brain into cooperating. "It was like affecting an accent, which works for some stutterers, he says.
After graduating from USC, film school, Blitz sought out projects that would revolve in some way around words. His Oscar-nominated 2002 movie, "Spellbound," spotlighted the national spelling bee and is one of the top-grossing documentaries of all time.
Blitz's verbal adventures helped inspire "Rocket Science," but he insists that only some of the film's emotions -- not the circumstances -- are autobiographical.
Actor Thompson is not a stutterer, so to help him convey the pain of the disability, Blitz had him memorize a second script, consisting of the words Hal is unable to say.
"Just being around Jeff and talking to him about his experience was most helpful," Thompson said in an e-mail interview. Before shooting a scene in which Hal affects a Korean accent, for example, Blitz described one of his own unsuccessful attempts to speak fluently. As a child, he said, he once wore a headset that sent blaring tones into his ears whenever he talked. "The theory was that you wouldn't stutter if you couldn't hear yourself speak, but the thing just looked embarrassing and gave me headaches," Blitz says.
Even today, the filmmaker goes through periods of struggling to speak fluently. "As a stutterer, you're always cautious, because you know that things can fall apart at any minute," he says. "Someone once said that stutterers tend to be skinny, because you have to exude so much brain power just to get through the day."
"Rocket Science" opens Aug. 10 in Los Angeles.