Michael Tranquilli serves as OT consultant on film: ‘Little Accidents’
Do you feel frustrated when people get their facts completely wrong while showing disability at the movies? Well if you do, you’re not alone. Michael Tranquilli, a private practice occupational therapist and Adjunct Professor at the NYU Steinhardt Department of Occupational Therapy felt the same way. That’s why when Tranquilli, a ’01 alumnus of the post professional program in OT at NYU, got the opportunity to use his technical knowledge to consult on a Hollywood movie, he seized it. Read on to find out about his experience understanding movie scripts, working with actors, attending the film premiere at Sundance, and why he thinks, occupational therapists should look beyond traditional roles in their careers.
How did an occupational therapist like you get associated with a Hollywood movie?
My affiliation with this movie project started through my association with NYU, and my professional experience in Stroke Rehab. One of my students at the NYU Steinhardt Department of Occupational Therapy, Sharon Yi, approached me to inquire if I would be interested in speaking with her friend who had recently got a movie role in which he portrayed a character who sustained a stroke. Sharon’s friend, the actor Boyd Holbrook, was finding it difficult to grasp the complexity of the character by just reading about the condition, and speaking with various professionals, so he asked Sharon for some help. I felt an immediate instinct to support the writer and the actor, in identifying with this devastating condition.
What is the movie about and what role did you play as a consultant during filming?
The movie ‘Little Accidents’ is set in a coal mining town in West Virginia where one day due to a gas leak explosion, carbon monoxide spreads through the mine, which kills ten men, leaving a sole survivor who is rescued after days of being trapped. The movie addresses the changing personal, community, and work place issues associated with this tragic event.
My initial role involved educating Boyd in the complex array of deficits and behavioral characteristics associated with neurologic injuries such as CVA, hypoxia, aphasia, and the psychosocial aspects present with victims of stroke. Through an activity analysis of each of the characters’ scenes, I designed an occupational profile and a progressive framework for cognitive, motor, and speech patterns, that could guide the actor’s conceptualization of each scene.
The rest involved an adrenaline-charged schedule of continuous rehearsal. We were constantly evaluating and critiquing the most effective solutions to improve the performance outcome.
How did you find entire experience of being on a film set?
In general, the experience of working with the diverse group of talented professionals associated with this film was extraordinary. I particularly enjoyed working with Boyd and the cast and crew, to design solutions that could help take the characters and the story to a desired outcome. From pre-production through film production, my contributions to the collaborative effort were very well received.
Working on this movie also gave me the opportunity to later advise Boyd on wheelchair mobility and transfer skills for another film project, ‘Cardboard Boxer’. In that film, Boyd’s character is an Iraq war veteran and bilateral lower extremity amputee, who finds himself homeless on Los Angeles’ Skid Row after an IED changes his life forever.
Could you describe certain aspects that went into helping the actor prepare for this role?
We spent a lot of time in New York City and West Virginia, going into stores, restaurants and community environments, where Boyd could rehearse his character. He was extremely dedicated to synthesizing these core constructs of his character. We did a tremendous amount of work applying the characters total body movement patterns for activities like dressing, feeding, ambulating, driving, and intimacy.
While working with the costume designer, Meghan Kasperlik (who also worked on American Hustle), I made a few suggestions on wardrobe for the character to emphasize postural disproportions, such as scuffing the footwear on the affected side or conjoining different sized shirts to make one shirt for Holbrook to discriminate muscle tone. I instructed Holbrook on how he should exercise only the left side of his body to accentuate the body’s atrophy on the right side, to prepare for the scenes in which he wasn’t wearing a shirt.
What do you think was the most difficult task in showing this character’s disability on screen?
One of the most challenging aspects for the actor and me throughout the movie was to show the progress of that character’s recovery, in terms of cognitive, speech and physical abilities. Working with Boyd to establish his knowledge and comprehension of neurologic deficits laid the foundation to his strong performance. To his credit, he grasped this information quickly and we were then able to hone in on the performance components. Developing an upper and lower body postural alignment chart based on a clock face, allowed Boyd to be consistent in replicating postural asymmetries and motor activity across scenes.
The challenge was teaching someone to behave like an individual who had a stroke, which is a completely opposite of our OT practice that usually focuses on teaching individuals how to correct these associated deficits.
Sara Colangelo, the writer and director on the film, did a great job of crafting the role of Amos Jenkins, which made my job a bit easier. There was never a time when the character was too far from the realm of doing something he could realistically do. Initially, I was concerned about how an able-bodied person could learn to portray someone who had suffered a stroke, but the respect and intensity that Boyd put into the character study was very impressive, and it shows in his performance.
What did you think of the movie when you finally saw it?
I was invited to attend the premiere screening of the movie at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and was overwhelmed with the final result. It was a tremendous amount of hard work getting to that point, but seeing the premiere at Sundance definitely made it well worth the effort. I was fortunate enough to learn a great deal from this experience and be given a lot of credit for my participation. It was a phenomenal professional and personal experience.
What was the biggest takeaway from this experience for you? Can consultation on movie projects, be a viable career option for young therapists?
One of the most rewarding benefits I pulled away from this experience, beyond the unique professional collaboration, is that occupational therapy as a profession is well suited to advise on the functional or dysfunctional aspects of a character’s performance in film or television. Our domain of practice stems from an interest in people’s abilities to pursue meaningful occupation after injury. So any film or television role that encompasses that overall component is well suited to have an occupational therapy consultant on hand to accurately depict healthcare and disability.
My colleagues at other universities and clinics are not aware of any occupational therapist consulting on film or television projects. I feel quite honored to have done so. But, to other occupational therapists, I would say that the diversity and expertise of our knowledge base is very applicable for consulting in industries outside of healthcare. There is work out there for occupational therapists.