World-Renowned Filmmaker Henry Corra, Creator of “Living Cinema,” Reaches the Unreachable with New Documentary Project “Unlocked”
World-renowned Filmmaker Henry Corra of Corra Films, best known for his unique brand of nonfiction “Living Cinema,” is currently working on an incredibly compelling new documentary project entitled Unlocked. In and around St. Augustine, Florida, teenagers and young adults are connecting to the world in a way no one around them thought possible, including their parents and families. A group of severe autistics are speaking their first words. They have lived their entire lives in a kind of exile, unable to translate thoughts into speech. “Unlocked” is a film about the journey of walking out of this prison into the bright sunlight.
With Unlocked, Director Henry Corra attempts to reach the supposedly unreachable with his unique brand of nonfiction filmmaking. Somewhat of a follow-up to his HBO film George, made with and about his own autistic son, Corra believes his true ability is “to connect with people – any kind of person – on film.”
For Corra, Unlocked is as much a laboratory as a film. “With our way of working, our methodology and philosophy, we’ve created an aesthetic platform that promotes empathy for our characters, and a way to take them seriously on their own terms,” he explains. “These young people have a lot to say, and we’re helping them to use film language to say it. Hopefully, with the debut of this film next year, they will be heard.”
For years, it was conventional wisdom that the form of autism the film’s subjects suffer from precluded all forms of communication. Doctors and caregivers assumed the idea of communication – of forming complex thoughts and making them known to others – was an impossibility. The families of the people documented in “Unlocked” have discovered that although these young people cannot speak coherently, what they can do is type. Sitting at a keyboard, their thoughts come pouring out, a lifetime of previously unheard utterances forming a deluge. The results are staggering.
As Lanier, one of the major characters in the film, put it in her first typed message: “I am here. I have always been in here. I have been jailed my entire life. Thank you for freeing my voice.”
Lanier’s mother Leslie Weed, a focus of the film and one of the Executive Producers currently raising finishing funds, says: “For 16 years, I talked to my daughter like she was a four-year-old.” Lanier had been diagnosed with autism when she was 18 months old. Soon after, doctors concluded that Lanier was severely mentally impaired. Leslie admits that when she first learned about this technique, she was highly skeptical. But the results literally spoke for themselves. “My God, I realized, she’s been trapped in there her entire life,” recollects Leslie.
Meeting Corra through mutual friends was another unbelievable moment, notes Weed. “I had heard of Henry for years, but when I met him and he listened to our story, he said this needed to be a film. At first, I didn’t really know what that meant or entailed. But we all trusted that Henry, because of his own experience with his son George, really understood what we were experiencing. We all trusted him to tell our children’s stories.” Unlocked chronicles the experiences of the Weeds and several other families, interweaving their stories.
Corra’s energy proved to be a perfect match for the young subjects of the film, who are just beginning to forge their way into adulthood. No matter who he’s filming, from CEOs to teenagers, he says he gives the same effort and passion to finding true, honest moments, which leads subjects to let their guards down even further. “There are no mistakes when we’re filming,” notes Corra. “Everyone can truly be themselves.”
Unlocked is more than a film, it is a meditation on the nature of belief and the primal desire of all of us to connect and communicate with others. As a Director, Corra is always embedding underlying messages about what he’s doing. There are times when he almost pushes it to the limit, a kind of pressure-cooker creativity in its pace and timbre. It has its own particular sense of humor, as well.
As part of his Living Cinema approach, Corra eschews the “verité” approach favored by traditional documentaries, instead collaborating with his subjects so everyone plays an active role in deciding how the film will unfold. One way that this unique improvisational approach worked out on Unlocked was that the filmmakers faced an unusual challenge – the subjects couldn’t travel more than a mile or so from their usual schedule without risking a meltdown, and there were no traditional places to film in that radius. What to do?
Corra and his team embraced a striking visual vocabulary, building a fully functional studio right in the bonus room of the group home that the subjects lived in. This black-box approach eliminates sensory overload for the film’s subjects – “a connection space,” as Corra calls it – in which the characters type their thoughts. As they do, the words scroll in large type across screens suspended in front of them, a subtle amplification of their voices. “What it boils down to is a desire to try and find a deep connection with another human being, the difficulties of that, sometimes the impossibilities of it. And yet, it can happen,” says Corra.
Unlocked is currently in its final production phase, and will be entering postproduction this spring 2019, with plans for a debut of the film in 2020.
In addition to working on Unlocked, 2018 was a particularly busy year for Corra and his production company Corra Films, based in New York. The Corra Films team completed two PSA campaigns for NYC Department of Health, entitled “Smoking = Suffering” and “Living Proof,” as well as an Enbrel commercial featuring Phil Mickelson. Corra collaborated closely with long-term client Mercedes on an MBUSA campaign “Tech Squad,” and shot and posted the “Every Ounce Counts” breastfeeding awareness campaign for Texas WIC. 2019 has proven no less busy with a reboot of their fundraising film for the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund (in post-production now).