As the old adage goes, what is most personal tends to be the most universal. That didn't stop screenwriter Tony Spiridakis from spending many years wondering if a film inspired by his unique experiences raising his autistic son would be relatable enough to connect with audiences, especially with other members of the autism community.

"I spent a lot of sleepless nights worrying about whether or not I was doing right by them," Spiridakis says. "There's this beautiful saying, which is, 'If you've met one autistic child, you've met one autistic child.' No one kid is like the other, so how do you make a movie about one autistic child that can still resonate with an entire community?"

For Spiridakis, it took a long time to muster the courage to even try turning his and his son's journey into a screenplay. The resulting film, Ezra, follows Max (Bobby Cannavale), a stand-up comedian juggling his career and co-parenting his 11-year-old autistic son, Ezra (newcomer William A. Fitzgerald). Rose Byrne co-stars as Max's soon-to-be-ex-wife, with whom he is constantly butting heads over how to raise their son, and Robert De Niro plays his surly father, Stan. Everything comes to a head when Max decides to take Ezra on a spontaneous road trip across America.

Ezra might never have come to fruition had it not been for the support of Spiridakis' longtime friend and collaborator, Tony Goldwyn. "I was leaning on him all the time as a human being, long before I was leaning on him as a colleague, artist, and potential collaborator," Spiridakis says. "He'd seen all the things I went through, so reading what I'd written about it all became a regular ritual for both of us."

It was after more than a decade of reading different drafts of Ezra that Goldwyn realized he didn't just want to give notes on the script; he wanted to direct the movie. "It just called out to me," the actor-turned-filmmaker explains. "I felt like I had to do it. Given our relationship to the material, I was the only person who I felt like should do it."

Admittedly, his unique connection to Ezra's story meant that Goldwyn also felt an extra level of responsibility to get it right. "I remember hanging up the phone after I told Tony that I wanted to direct Ezra three years ago and saying to myself, 'If we can do this and I can get this movie made and tell my friend's story, what an incredible expression of a 40-year friendship that would be," Goldwyn tells A.frame. "That was my touchstone throughout the entire process."

A.frame: Before we talk about the film, take me back: How did you two first meet?

Tony Goldwyn: Oh, that's a good story. When I was just 21 years old, my very first professional job was being part of the young company at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, which is kind of the premier summer theater festival in America. Tony was studying acting in New York and I was in college, but we both got hired to be in the company. So, I drove my car from my college in Boston to the festival and, when I pulled into the parking lot, this guy comes running up to me and says, "I've been here for three days already! I'm so happy you're here!" It was Tony, and he immediately was like, "Come on! I'm going to show you around." I didn't even get to take my bags out of my car! I knew, "This guy's going to be my friend for life."

There was just something special about how quickly we connected. He took me to get a sandwich at the local sandwich shop, and we flirted a little bit with the girl behind the counter before Tony said to me, "Oh, my god. There's this woman here you have to meet. She's the most beautiful, amazing woman." I didn't know what the hell he was talking about, but he said, "She's a set designer, and she's incredible. You have to meet her." I think it was that same afternoon, he took me to meet this woman. I remember she was in the middle of stretching and getting ready to go for a run when we walked up. Her name was Jane Musky, and she's my wife. We've been married now for 37 years. We all just became best friends. We've officiated each other's weddings and become godparents to each other's children, so Ezra is very much the organic result of our past 40 years of friendship.

Tony, I know that the film is very personal for you. When did you actually start thinking about writing a film based on such personal experiences, and then how long did it take you to actually turn that into the script for Ezra?

Tony Spiridakis: I think it was about 12 years ago that I started to think about it, and then it was another year after that before I started writing scenes. Around that time, Tony was serving as a guest artist at a summer film program, and I wrote a couple of scenes and tried them out with my son Dimitri. I really just wanted to get my boys involved in the film program, but it also allowed me to start thinking about Ezra a little more seriously. I always thought that what me and my family was going through would make a really interesting story, or at least an interesting chronicle of life. When I started to piece everything together, I knew that there was a script somewhere in there. It took a really long time for me to get to that point though.

My son Dimitri was also still growing up and that was a real evolutionary process. Sometimes, the behaviors of an autistic child are very different between the ages of six and 10. Then puberty happens, and they can go either up or down in terms of behavior. It was a real journey we were all going through, and the more I got to know my son, the more he made me realize just how special and amazing he was. That really became the core message of the film, which is that you can think whatever you want and want the child you want, but the child you have is the one you should learn about. Tony lived through all of that with me. The script went through so many machinations, including this final one that we've spent the past two and half years making with all of our amazing actors. Everything is always very fluid when you're making a film, and I think part of the beauty of knowing your director and having your director know the material as intimately as Tony did is that it really does feel like it can become a living thing, which it did. We weren't afraid of making changes as the actors came in and offered their thoughts on it, because both Tony and I knew it so well. Making it was a really beautiful thing. And it all began 12 years ago.


This is the first film you've directed in quite a few years, Tony. What made you agree to direct Ezra?

Tony Goldwyn: The last feature I directed was Conviction, which came out in 2010. Then Scandal started, and I spent about seven years unable to direct anything but episodes of Scandal. When the show finished a few years ago, I started thinking about what I wanted to do and began looking around at different projects. I was getting the itch to direct again, but I've learned that I can only direct a film if it's something that really hits me. About two or three years ago, Tony sent me a new draft of Ezra and said, "Would you just take a look at it?" I had read many drafts of it over the years, but I read it again as a friend and I was just so affected by it. I called him back and I said, "I think I have to direct this. I think we've got to do this together." It just felt so personal.

It came together relatively quickly too, as far as these things go. Conviction took me eight years to get made. With Ezra, we spent a year working on the script together during the COVID lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, and then around the end of that time, we started pushing to get it made. Everything moved pretty fast from that point on. We cast the film and, by the fall of 2022, we were in production.

Because you guys are such good friends and this is such a personal film, what was it like actually making it together? Making a film is challenging, and things are always changing, and you realize certain scenes need to be rewritten or thrown out. What was that like when you were dealing with material that you're both uniquely close to?

Tony Spiridakis: It was the greatest experience. Nothing changed about the way we are with each other. It was just like when we were both actors working together and giving notes to each other, where one of us would be wrong and one would be right and we'd recognize that. We've always known how to navigate that, come together, and keep going. We've always had a very good friendship and our level of creative collaboration was already very high by the time we started working on Ezra. In a way, I felt relieved to turn the film over to someone whom I trusted so much. I could say to Tony, "Here, you take this," and I knew that if something ever came up or we disagreed about something, I could argue for it and — if I was right — Tony would look at me and go, "Yeah, that's good."

When you have a project that is so personal, I think you always benefit from bringing in some external energies and opinions. You're not taking away anything from the project. Tony and I, we always say, "Addition by subtraction." So, even when we were working on the script and there were moments when I'd inevitably have a lot of baggage that I was still carrying with me, Tony would remind me, "Let's just find what we're trying to say." Our working relationship on set was practically identical to that. He gave me a place to exist on the set and honored it, and I honored his position as the director. Just knowing that he'd check in with me from time to time was all I needed. As a writer, it honestly doesn't get better than the experience I had. We found the greatest producers to partner up with. They not only helped us make the movie with all of our amazing actors, but they also honored the connection Tony and I had on the set in a way that made us both feel supported.

Tony Goldwyn: Our whole relationship was founded on us making s**t together, from our earliest days at Williamstown to, after I finished school and went to New York, we all put on a play in Tony's apartment. Since then, we've made independent films together that Tony's written and directed. Working together is just a natural extension of our friendship and, frankly, the older I get, the more I just want to work with friends that I respect. To have the opportunity to do that with someone I'm so close to was great.

The other thing I would add is I've always considered the writer-director relationship to be a primary component in every film I've done or television show I've made. I'm always trying to join myself at the hip to the writer, which used to freak studios out. I'd say, "I want the writer on set with me all the time," and they'd say, "We don't have the money for that!" But I've always told them, "Believe me, it will save you money." I remember I actually paid out of my own pocket for that to happen on one film, because the studio just did not want to do it. On Ezra, [producers] Bill Horberg and Jon Kilik understood that I wanted Tony around all the time, and they respected that. Tony is, of course, a producer on the film as well, but I brought him on every location scout with me. That made everything really efficient, because we'd be scouting and find some logistical problem with a location and Tony would just say, "Well, I'll combine these two scenes so we only need one location for this section." He'd be literally rewriting on the way to locations. In every way, it proved my theory that the director-writer relationship is important and has to be healthy and productive. That was particularly true on this film, because it was inspired by Tony's own life. It was a really beautiful thing to get to do with him from start to finish.


What was it like bringing this group of actors into a world that you two knew so well?

Tony Goldwyn: In our job, collaboration is everything. When you have one person with a good idea and then you bring another person onboard, you just end up with more good ideas. As soon as Bobby Cannavale signed on, we asked for his notes on the script and we did a reading together. He became a partner, and the same thing happened with Robert De Niro. He was, obviously, our first choice for the role, so we reached out to him and he responded to the script. He also had some concerns about his character. He got on the phone with Tony and was, in the kindest way, open about what he felt was the unrealized potential of his character and the script that we hadn't uncovered yet. Right away, Tony started incorporating Bob's thoughts and notes, and he hugely elevated the script and Bob's character in about a month or so.

He just overhauled the whole thing based on his conversation with De Niro, and that level of consideration extended to everyone, including William Fitzgerald. We found William at the very least minute. We were looking for a neurodiverse child to play Ezra in the film, and William's contribution to it was huge. He didn't have notes on the script like De Niro, per se, but the way that he fully brought himself to the film really inspired us. We have a cast of extraordinary actors, obviously, and they all brought everything they could to the film. We just tried to soak up everything we could like a couple of sponges.

The film has to juggle a lot of plot, emotions and tonal changes. What was the most difficult part of managing all of that?

Tony Goldwyn: That was the hardest thing for me, and probably for Tony as well. If I can speak for him, when Tony first started working on Ezra, he told me that he thought of it as more of a comedy than anything else. I think that was because he felt a certain pressure that, if he was going to write a film about autism, he had better make it f—king funny. Humor was such an important component in how Tony and his son worked through their issues together, but I also think Tony had a certain level of anxiety about it all. Like, if he didn't make it funny, he'd lose the audience.

When De Niro got involved at the beginning, though, one of his first big notes was, "Stop being so jokey. Get real with this. What's the truth?" He just kept asking, "What really happened?" So once Bob was onboard, Tony started stripping away some of the jokes and making the humor itself more character-based. There's still a lot of humor in the movie, but in the cutting room, that became a huge challenge for me again, because I also felt a certain obligation to the audience, like, "We gotta let people know that this is a fun ride!" I was doing that partly with the temp music I was choosing, which was kind of wacky and zany. Around that time, we were constantly screening the film, as you do when you're in the middle of editing. Every couple of weeks, we'd bring people in to give us their perspectives, and people were really digging the movie, but we felt like we weren't quite there yet. Eventually, I showed it to De Niro, and he busted my ass. [Laughs.] He said, "It's not as good as it can be. Don't stop. You're not going deep enough. There's better material in there still. I don't have any specific answers for you. I just know you're not there yet."

I remember he told me, "Take a year," and I was like, "Bob, we don't have enough money to go another year!" But he just kept telling me, "Don't rush it. You've got something here that could be really good. You've got something really beautiful, but you're not pushing yourself enough."

What did you discover when you took that time to push yourself further?

Tony Goldwyn: His whole thing was the tone. He really objected to the film's music, because I had misguidedly told our amazing composer, Carlos Rafael Rivera, to write a score that had a quirky quality to it, and it was Bob who said, "That's bulls--t." His notes forced me to go back in and really think again about what we were doing. Some of that had to do with tweaking the film's pace, but Carlos also rewrote his entire score. I called him and I said, "Dude, I sent you in the wrong direction tonally. We need to get real with this." He'd already written this beautiful cue for the opening of the movie, so I asked him to think about making several themes and weaving them together with that one, like a fugue. He said, "I love that," and that's exactly what he ended up making. His music really grounded the film, and it let us let go of our anxiety about making people laugh. Honestly, I give De Niro a huge amount of credit. It was a very difficult conversation we had together, and I remember I called Tony afterwards and I said, "I just got off the phone with Bob. That was rough." [Laughs.] But he pushed me to push myself, and I'm very grateful to him for that.

William Fitzgerald, Tony Spiridakis, Nico Spiridakis and Tony Goldwyn attend a screening of 'Ezra.'

The film is such a clear labor of love for you both. How does it feel to now release it to the world?

Tony Spiridakis: It's so rewarding, and it's been great to really embrace the reactions we've gotten so far, primarily from the autism community. Seeing people respond so positively to the movie is just the most fulfilling thing. We've hosted screenings at very important organizations that do so much terrific work all the time for autism and families who are dealing with a multitude and range of issues with their loved ones on the spectrum. The response we keep getting is, "Thank you. Thank you for telling our story." Anytime Tony and I hear that, it makes our hearts swell, because we're trying to shine a light on something in a way that's helpful and, hopefully, brings people some solace. The finished film is the greatest testament imaginable to my friendship with Tony and my love for my son. I also personally know the road that families with autistic children have in front of them, but I really wanted this film to let them know how much humor and love can do for them. That's all, really.

Tony Goldwyn: Recently, Tony and I were in Providence for a screening we hosted to benefit this incredible hospital, the Bradley Hospital, which is the oldest pediatric psychiatry facility in the country, and the staff there focuses primarily on working with people with autism. Bill Horberg's son, Diego, is autistic, and he's had some real struggles. The Bradley Hospital saved his life, so we screened the film for an audience there. Diego, who sometimes has trouble connecting with others and hadn't really connected with me the several times I'd met him previously, was present at that screening. When the movie ended, Bill and Tony and I started getting ready to do a Q&A when Diego, who's around 19 and 6'2", leapt up from his seat and made a beeline for me. The most he'd said to me before then was, "Hi," but he threw his arms around me and wouldn't let go. Tears welled in my eyes, and he just hugged me for 10 or 15 seconds before he let go and went to hug his father. We all just stood there, and then Tony asked, "Where's my hug?!" [Laughs.]

Tony Spiridakis: Oh, you know how it is. The writer never gets the attention!

Tony Goldwyn: I said to Bill after that, "Man, that was all the validation I could have ever needed."

By Alex Welch


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