Screenwriter T. Rafael Cimino and Asperger Syndrome
By Dan Coulter
How'd you like to hear a pitch for a movie with a main character who has Asperger Syndrome?
It's got everything: life and death situations, last minutes rescues, powerboat races, drug running, and glamorous parties. It's got a hero with loads of self doubt who overcomes all obstacles and gets the girl (a beautiful Bulgarian prima ballerina).
We'll establish the hero's Asperger credentials with a restaurant scene where he's so overwhelmed by the routine sounds of customers and cutlery that he has to ask the waitress to repeat the specials six times.
Then we'll...wait...what? You don't think you'd green-light it? Too much to crowd into one movie to be believable?
Because this isn't a movie pitch. It's the real life story of screenwriter and novelist T. Rafael Cimino, also known as Todd.
I met Todd at a film networking event, where we discovered we had Asperger Syndrome in common. I'm always looking for successful people with Asperger's to profile, and Todd graciously agreed to an interview.
Todd got his start in films as a marine coordinator (working with powerboats) on the 1983 movie “Spring Break” and then on the TV show “Miami Vice.” He's contributed to numerous feature films, including, “Lost in Translation,” “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” and “The Other Boleyn Girl.” His writing for television includes work on Aaron Sorkin's “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.” Todd's novels include the best sellers, “Mid Ocean” and “Table 21.” He's now working on a movie version of his novel, “Heavy” and on an HBO project about a self-taught physician and pharmacist who was an American slave in the mid 1700's. The HBO project, based on a real person, is titled “Lesser Endeavors.”
Todd was diagnosed as having an “anti-social disorder” as a child and went through years of therapy trying to sort out his life. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in the mid-1990s, after the condition became recognized in the United States.
What Asperger talents does he have?
“I have the ability to hyper-focus,” Todd explained. “We (people with Asperger Syndrome) have to understand that our emotional and intellectual outlook is like a fire hose. The average person has what you would call a garden hose, and it's easy to hold a garden hose. Now imagine a three inch diameter fire-fighting deluge gun that takes three or four firefighters to hold down. That's our emotional and intellectual output.”
When that output flowed from Todd's brain, it often flowed from his mouth without a filter. “I'd say some of the most inappropriate things,” he admitted.
So while Todd's abilities brought him success, he'd lay awake at night replaying things he'd said, analyzing how they'd sounded to others, and beating himself up about it. More about that later.
Todd's special interests included offshore powerboat racing. He started racing at age 16 and became a national champion when he was 18.
Some of his interests were based in his fears. He used to have panic attacks in noisy environments, such as music concerts or even restaurants. He'd arrange to eat before or after a lunch crowd filled a restaurant, so he wouldn't have to deal with the lunch hour's noise.
But he also discovered that dealing with that panic made him feel alive. It gave him an intensity that he could channel into his writing. So he began seeking out and confronting those situations. “I've been on a U.S. Customs Service boat during a shoot-out with drug runners because I craved the experience,” he said.
Now, he sometimes takes his laptop to busy, noisy airport terminals to write, because he feeds off the environment's energy.
While his father was a doctor, Todd was scared of the sight of blood. He lied about his age and began working as an emergency medical technician before he was legally old enough to qualify. Todd also has a fear of flying. Over the years, as he gained more and more emergency medical certifications, he became part of a Florida county sheriff department's air rescue helicopter team.
Flying was no small fear to overcome.
“When I'd fly on a commercial aircraft, encapsulated with 130 other people, once they'd shut that door, I could smell myself after the flight because I was sweating so much from anxiety.”
Todd's ability to hyper-focus served him well when driving a powerboat or reacting in medical emergencies, and when writing.
“I can micro-manage the smallest issues, whether it be the dialog in a scene as it pertains to the larger package or a glitch in the drive system of a 65 foot powerboat, or an emergency patient's systolic blood pressure problem,” he noted.
Todd pointed out that when pitching projects or seeking film work, he's had some advantages. His uncle is Michael Cimino, who won an Academy Award for his direction of “The Deer Hunter.” Todd met a fifteen year-old Scarlett Johansson at the wedding of a mutual friend in the movie industry. But it's important to note that Todd prepared himself to make the most of his opportunities.
While he could perform brilliantly in multiple areas, including writing, Todd's personal communications were a challenge. In addition to saying inappropriate things, he had difficulty discussing things that didn't interest him.
With Asperger Syndrome, “You either have hyper focus or no focus,” he observed.
Communication was a particular problem in dating, “I've been on a million first dates,” he said. “It's not just acceptance, but the acceptance of women. For us guys, that's a big deal.”
Todd reflected that he often didn't make it to the end of a date before he said something that sabotaged it.
Still, he kept trying, marrying three times before he found a woman who he feels understands and accepts him for who he is.
“I was in Bulgaria working on 'The Black Dahlia' with Scarlett Johansson, and a friend and I were talking about the heart aches we've had. And my friend said there was this Bulgarian girl, and she now lived in America, and that he should hook us up.”
It turned out that this girl, former prima ballerina Svetlina Kiryakova, lived just a few miles from Todd's house in Tallahassee, Florida. When they got together in 2006, Todd realized he'd found the relationship he'd been looking for his entire life. They married four years ago.
“I've gone from being this inner-focused, encapsulated person who had terrible interpersonal skills to someone who, because of her, is very personal, and can interact with the best of them. I owe about 80 percent of that to her.”
And while Todd can still voice thoughts better left unspoken, he says Svetlina understands his mind, and makes allowances, “She's made it clear she loves me for my mind. We're born to love people and use things, but in America, we're transposed to love things and use people. That never happened to her. She's very much about the human asset and the abilities that humans have.”
A few years after they got together, Todd stopped beating up on himself at night for the verbal slips he'd made during the day. He says the last five years have been the happiest and most comfortable of his life. In his words:
“Your support system...having somebody there who loves you for who you are, and who recognizes your brilliance, is the biggest asset that someone with Asperger's could have.
“Also, understanding what your talents are and putting them to work. Asperger abilities are magnified. We have so much to offer. We just need to learn to control it. If Joe Schmo doesn't get you, if the pretty girl twirling her hair doesn't want to see you again, it doesn't matter. I don't want anyone to go through the heartache that I went through, feeling like a freak, that people don't understand you.
“Some people will never get you. That's okay because you're in a different place, you're on a different level. You just have to find people who do get you. Acceptance of your difference is one of the hardest levels of Aspergers, because we all want to believe we're just like everyone else. Once you get past that acceptance, it gets 1,000 percent easier."
My thanks to Todd for sharing some of his Asperger experiences and insights, and perhaps giving the rest of us some insights into ourselves.
And, who knows, someday his story may just become a movie and help people see that it's not unbelievable.
If you'd like to know more about T. Rafael (Todd) Cimino, you can visit his website: www.trcimino.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Dan Coulter is the producer of the video, “Asperger at Work: Success Strategies for Employees and Employers” and author of the book, “Life in the Asperger Lane.” You can find more information and articles on his website: coultervideo.com. Copyright Dan Coulter 2014 Used by Permission All Rights Reserved