Inspired by his own disability — having been born with cerebral palsy — award-winning filmmaker Alexander Freeman (Emerson College ‘14) is dedicated to making films that challenge people’s thinking about disability and other marginalized groups. His film production company Outcast Productions takes this idea and runs with it.
“The Last Taboo” (2012) was one of his first big ventures in documentary filmmaking. It tackled the trope of disabled people being abstinent with its storytelling, spotlighting six men and women with varied physical disabilities as well as one able-bodied partner, and focusing on their romantic lives.
In his latest film to take on the taboo, he turns the camera in on his own life, documenting his journey of proving himself as a capable father. The documentary, called “My Own Normal” is set to release in 2024.
In a conversation with Freeman, “The Independent” learned more about these two films, the people that helped him pursue his unexpected, newfound passion for filmmaking, and what his personal mantra means.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nora Onanian: Can you tell me how you first discovered your passion for filmmaking?
Alexander Freeman: I was actually in high school, when I found my passion for filmmaking. I was originally a visual artist, so I was doing a lot of sculpture, a lot of painting, drawing, really nothing to do with film at all. And then my mom said ‘You know, Alexander, you should try video production, you should try filmmaking.’ There was a class that opened up at my high school. And I said ‘No, no, no, I just want to stick with what I’m doing. It’s completely different from what I do.’ But [then] I said, ‘I’ll try it.’ It turned out to be the best decision of my life. Because that was where I found my real passion in life. I just kind of started coming up with all kinds of projects in that class. I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school, so it was really good for me to have that.
NO: So you [mentioned] your mom, but who were some of the other important people that helped you in pursuing that passion?
AF: It was primarily my mom and my dad. But I think it’s really important to note that I had a lot of help along the way. Starting from when I was really young, I had teachers who helped me. I had physical therapists who helped me. I had occupational therapists that helped me. Because when I was really young, I could barely talk. I had a lot of trouble moving. So all these people really added to my life.
But also there were these producers, their names are Dan and Steve, and they are based out of Boston. They gave me a great opportunity out of high school to direct a professional short film that they produced… And I really owe everything to them. Because they saw my potential and nourished it. [That was] actually one of the films that got me into Emerson College.
There were a couple of people that really helped me when I was [at Emerson]. One was Brandon Golden, who was originally asked to assist me with projects. He was another student there at the time. And because I can’t shoot by myself, I need help to do it. But I got much more than I thought. I got a great friend out of it. Brandon and I had a real connection and we started collaborating on a lot of different projects. And then let’s fast forward to now, Brandon and I are actually in business together… He’s actually my producer now.
Now the other person who really changed my life when I was at Emerson, is also someone very dear to me. His name is Kevin Bright (Executive Producer of “Friends”)… He understood how difficult it was being someone who has [a] disability going into the film industry… He has become really a mentor to me. But he also became one of my first funders as well. Which really helped a lot, because he really believed in me.
NO: I read in other interviews this notion of you wanting to defy the odds. What does that mean to you?
AF: ‘Defying the odds…’ It’s my whole philosophy. It’s at the core of everything I do. And what that means to me is taking obvious assumptions that people have of me and of my abilities and converting that. Saying, ‘Oh, you think I can’t do that? Ok, watch me!’
I don’t just do that as a person in my own life, but I also do that in the films I do. Sometimes I’ll have a story and you would think it would go a certain way; [that] the characters are going to act a certain way. And then I purposely throw a twist in there.
And then in documentaries I do that as well, where I purposely take on a subject or a topic that people that don’t want to talk about, or touch, or go near. And I focus on that very topic not to make people uncomfortable, but get them to think in a different way. Or reconsider what they thought they knew ahead of time.
NO: I love that philosophy. One of those films that you do that very thing in was one of your first big ventures into documentary filmmaking, “The Last Taboo.” Could you describe the idea behind that film?
AF: “The Last Taboo” was my first major step onto the documentary front. And I made [it] for a couple of reasons. First, I was single at the time. I really wanted a girlfriend. And I also kind of wanted to get laid, too. But then, the more I thought about it, the more it became a lot bigger. I started to think about how the topic of sexuality and disability really isn’t explored that much. And I thought, ‘Well, why is that? Why is it that it’s not something that we want to talk about?’ As I kind of thought about it more, it really lit a fire under me. And I felt like I had to find out what it’s like for different people with disabilities as far as sexualities go.
When I was done with the film, I ended up with not a story about sexuality and disability, but about just love and acceptance. Which is not at all where I thought it would go. But it made it a lot better.
NO: You tackle [a] taboo again in your latest feature-length documentary, “My Own Normal,” (releasing in 2024), which documents your journey to proving yourself as a capable father to your parents. From what I can tell, that’s your most personal film yet. What was that like for you to turn the camera in on your own life?
AF: Oh my god, it is my most personal film yet. It was a very long, very emotional, very tearful journey throughout the whole project. At first… it was going to be people with disabilities telling their stories, again. And then I sat down with a couple of my producers and we talked, and what we decided was that the story I wasn’t talking about was the pain that I felt [after] my parents had [their initial] reaction.
As the film really took shape… I realized that the story became about redefining what is normal for all of us… Normal doesn’t really exist, does it? And so we have to make our own version of normal. And that’s what I’m trying to call attention to in this film.
I’m kind of using my whole story of my wife and the story of my daughter to say, ‘This might not have been normal for my parents at the time, but it’s normal for me.’ And what it’s really calling attention to is this idea of who are we to judge what is normal for someone else? And what I want people to do is, in response to that, stop for a minute, and reassess all the choices they made in their life or assumptions they’ve made of other people.
NO: Have you gotten any memorable feedback on [the] film, maybe from someone disabled or maybe from someone non-disabled who had their perspective changed from your film?
AF: During the process of putting [“My Own Normal”] together, we did send a cut out for pre-write from different people. And it was kind of all over the place. Some people said that they really related to it, and it really touched them… And then there were others that said that they really didn’t like certain parts. But most people who have seen it are very impacted by it… And most people who’ve seen it end up crying. If I’m getting that kind of response, I know that I’ve done a good job.