Ezra – A richly human story of family love, parenthood, difference, and acceptance


With one of out of every 88 children in the U.S. estimated to be on the autistic spectrum, the filmmakers of Ezra were exhilarated to bring authentic representation to a community not often granted a true cinematic voice.  Even more exciting was the chance to do so through a uniquely comic and poignant drama, shot through with both personal insight and universal themes, and featuring some of director Tony Goldwyn’s most nuanced work as he evokes the heartache, mischief, and wonder of a family’s winding journey towards one another. 

Award-winning director (and actor) Tony Goldwyn (A Walk on the Moon, Conviction, television’s Scandal) brings their transformational journey to vivid, often funny, life. “I hope people of all kinds will find a part of themselves inside this story and be moved by its emotional honesty. It can be a messy business trying to be a family but that’s also the beauty and joy of it. Part of the deal is hanging in there with the people you love and going on an unpredictable ride with them. That’s often where you find the gold, as Max and Ezra discover.” 

Throughout the production of Ezra, from start to finish, Goldwyn, Spiridakis, Horberg and Kilik set out to ensure the inclusion of people with close personal or family experience with neurodivergence at every level of cast and crew.  The filmmakers also brought in several outside consultants to prevent them from wandering into their own blind spots.  These included autism activist and actor Alex Plank (The Good Doctor, The Bridge), who runs WrongPlanet.net, a popular community for individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and autism; and Elaine Hall, founder of The Miracle Project, an innovative theater, film, and expressive arts program for individuals with autism, which was featured in the documentary Autism: The Musical

“Having a neurodivergent lead actor was key,” says Goldwyn.  “But in addition to that, we developed a network of people we could go to and repeatedly ask, ‘what are we getting wrong, what are we missing?’ So many people generously helped us to be as real as we could be about life with autism.  Even after we had a first cut, we showed it to people in the community, including young people, to give us their candid thoughts.  I remember one kid coming up to me and saying, ‘this is my life in that movie,’ which was everything to me.” 

Horberg experienced something similar with his son.  “It has been amazing to see and hear how much this movie means to people, just the mere existence of it.  But perhaps the most moving part of making this film for me was showing the movie to my son Diego. He had stopped watching movies because he found them over-stimulating, but he wanted to watch Ezra, and to witness him being so engaged with the movie really moved me and at the end, he came over to me and said ‘Dad, you’re a good producer.’” 

Members of the neurodivergent community were included right up until the film’s final moments—as the Los Angeles-based digital arts school for young autistic adults, Exceptional Minds, crafted the end credits.  “We saw we had a rare opportunity to involve the autism community at the core of this film, and I’m grateful that the producers and everyone involved all felt, let’s really do this,” sums up Spiridakis. 

Doing that, while keeping it at once tartly and touchingly honest, was a fulfillment of what Spiridakis always wanted to give to his son and others by writing Ezra.  “It’s a story that maybe shakes people up a little emotionally,” he says, “but also carries the hope that we can all be more aware, more loving, and more open to the beauty that differences make in the world.” 

Robert De Niro, Bobby Cannavale, WIlliam A. Fitzgerald. © Bleeker Street

Ezra (William Fitzgerald) is a sharp, charismatic 11-year-old whose autism diagnosis is a much bigger deal for his parents than it is for him.  Sure, he always says precisely what he’s thinking, which seems to wreak near-constant havoc at school and elsewhere.  But he also knows exactly what he needs to feel safe.  Meanwhile, his father Max (Bobby Cannavale), a comedy writer starting over as a stand-up, worries about everything, including that Ezra isn’t safe enough.  When Max’s anxieties mount, Max does what comes naturally to him—makes life even more complicated.  In the middle of the night, Max hastily scrambles up his ex’s fire escape and bundles a bleary-eyed Ezra into the car for destinations unknown.  Unsure of where it might lead, Max takes Ezra on an equally hilarious and disastrous adventure as father and son start to figure out how to appreciate each other for who they are. 

Spiridakis had long resisted directly writing about his son, in part because he felt so caught in the middle of his own roiling storm of mixed emotions that he couldn’t see into the center of it clearly.  But in 2013, he gave a boldly personal and popular TED talk entitled Inappropriate Behavior:  Fatherhood and Autism.  In the talk, laced with self-effacing humor, Spiridakis openly admitted to being flummoxed and challenged, in ways both beautiful and upending, by a son who he loved and admired but who sometimes escaped his understanding.  It was the reaction to that talk from other families like his that spurred Spiridakis to conceive Ezra

“I did the TED talk really to broach my own dysfunction,” he confesses.  “I realized this was not my son’s issue at all.  It was mine.  It took a long while for that lightbulb to go off in my head, similar to Max, that as a father I wasn’t supposed to find a solution to this, that my son was just wired differently and in a wonderful way.  And that changed everything.  I wanted to share that story and I wanted to be real about it, to have the audience travel with Max as he reaches the point where he realizes he will probably never stop worrying about Ezra, but Ezra is going to be OK, Ezra is going to surprise him in ways he never imagined, and they will find their path together.” 

William A. Fitzgerald, Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne in EZRA . © Bleeker Street

The script came separately, but near-simultaneously, into the hands of two of America’s most judicious indie producers, Emmy Award winner William Horberg and Oscar nominated Jon Kilik, each known for veering towards the most thrillingly human and artistically ambitious works for film and television.  Horberg had collaborated with Spiridakis and Goldwyn previously.  Kilik was sent the script by friends Chazz Palminteri and Robert De Niro, the latter having agreed early on to play Ezra’s grandfather Stan whenever the film got off the ground.  Both Horberg and Kilik were completely floored by the frankness of the lifelike family dynamics and by the luminous portrait of three generations of men rebuilding their frayed emotional relationships—and saw the potential to make a compelling script even better. 

“As the father of an 18-year-old son with autism, the story nearly knocked me out of my chair,” remembers Horberg.  “It was so honest and real, and you could feel that it was written from an inside point of view, from someone who had this lived experience and was willing to examine it truthfully.   It was very unique in the way it completely avoided treating autism in an ‘othering’ or magical way. I responded very strongly to it as both father and producer.” 

Horberg had just partnered with businesswoman Zhang Xin to create Closer Media, a film and television production company aimed at bringing people closer together by showcasing meaningful stories.  Ezra was a natural fit for that mission. “My first call was to Xin,” Horberg says.  “We talked about how this was the kind of project as a company we most wanted to get behind and how much this story could mean, especially to those who have lived the life and walked the walk.” 

His second call was to Kilik.  “We had just produced Sean Penn’s Flag Day together, and we came out of that experience as brothers-in-arms.  That’s when I learned Jon had also just read the script and it felt like kismet,” explains Horberg. 

Continues Kilik, “The script was such an emotional read.  It goes so deep, it gives voice to people you don’t often see on the screen, and it got under my skin.  I don’t have the personal or family experience that Bill and others in our production have but I’ve always been drawn to cultivating stories that explore human lives that might not otherwise be represented.  There’s also a real responsibility that comes with that.  It’s a producorial challenge to get it right.  And we had to get this right, because we knew a lot of families and kids are going to relate to Ezra and Max.” 

Kilik was gratified by Zhang’s enthusiastic, above-and-beyond backing of the project. “Xin supported us unwaveringly through every part of the process.  Even when we had a finished movie that was pretty good, when we said we needed more resources to make it great, she understood that,” says Kilik.  “Xin’s commitment was a big, big reason we were able to make the film.”

Steve Sarowitz’s Wayfarer Studios also came aboard with tenacity and dedication.  “Wayfarer stepped in overnight and joined us in cashflowing the movie but also allowed us to be in the driver’s seat,” says Kilik.  “They were a great partner with a great attitude.  They loved the film and really stepped up.”

William A. Fitzgerald and Bobby Cannavale in EZRA© Bleeker Street

Tony Goldwyn’s big-hearted but emotionally intimate vision for Ezra drove the film creatively.  The story demanded a director able to thread a delicate needle.  Someone able to work with raw, untamed feelings, yet good with live-wire humor.  Someone open to learning about complex issues of representation, yet able to hard-shift between registers of comedy, anxiety, and love.  Goldwyn had all that, as well as an intensely personal link to the story.  A close friend of Spiridakis, he is also the godfather of Spiridakis’ son.  He read an early draft of the script initially just as a trusted set of eyes, but as soon as he did, Goldwyn felt an irresistible pull to direct it. 

A rare double-threat, Goldwyn is renowned as a popular actor of screen, television, and stage, often cast as clever villains, most recently spending seven seasons as President Fitzgerald Grant in Shonda Rimes’ hit series Scandal and appearing in Christopher Nolan’s globally acclaimed Oppenheimer.  But he is also the director of a handful of highly acclaimed films including A Walk on The Moon, The Last Kiss, Someone Like You and Conviction.  He doesn’t direct often, but when he does, he only takes on projects that mean so much to him that he cannot walk away. 

“I knew Tony had wanted to write something on this topic for many years,” comments Goldwyn.  “And I’ve always loved Tony’s writing—in the darkest things he writes there’s always a touch of outrageous comedy. So, I was excited for him that he’d finally done it.  But when I read it, I was just so moved. I was moved by the way it brought you inside a family trying so hard to get it right even in moments when they are getting it wrong.  And I thought, wow, Tony really cracked the code on how to tell this vital story.  He brought compassion to each person.  Ezra, Max, Jenna, and Stan each has a valid way of seeing things, and they each make mistakes, which is how life is.  I knew it might be a daunting project in some ways, but I didn’t want to miss the chance to tell this story.” 

Max especially intrigued Goldwyn as a man who, underneath a veneer of tough, loud-mouthed cynicism and acid wit, reveals a layer of raw vulnerability—and the honest fears of fatherhood. 

“I loved that Tony wrote Max in such a way that at times he can be unlikable, but you never, ever lose connection with his heart.  If Max was not so real, everything else would have felt emotionally false,” observes Goldwyn.  “The way the story fully acknowledges Max’s flaws and frailties was essential to how I saw it.  It gets deep into what we all share as parents: we all have our failings, we all worry about our failings, and we’re all just trying to find our way through.” 

Horberg and Kilik, along with De Niro, zeroed in on refining the script with Spiridakis and Goldwyn.  De Niro in particular pushed the team to keep honing the balance between the raw truthfulness of the family situation with the biting funniness of Max’s chaotic persona and Spiridakis’ dialogue.  “Bob talked a lot about how the audience has to know they are being told the truth and the humor couldn’t ever interfere with that,” says Spiridakis.  “His input was amazing.” 

Yet laughter was also inseparable from family in Spiridakis’s mind.  When he started writing the screenplay, his way in was through a father who, similarly, always goes for the joke when his heart is cracking. 

“Our salvation as a family was always comedy,” Spiridakis reflects.  “It’s always been my style to go for the laugh when I’m scared, so I brought that quality to Max.  And my son also has his own witty way of looking at the world.  But I was incredibly grateful to Bob, Jon, and Bill for so passionately pressing me to keep going deeper, to not just make the jokes, but to dig further into what is really happening inside Max, Ezra, Stan, and Jenna’s hearts.” 

Equally vital to Spiridakis was ensuring the script would defy stereotypes that have become embedded in the culture.  For one thing, there is no singular definition of what autism is.  Indeed, the word spectrum is always paired with autism because there are so many differing manifestations.  There are people on the spectrum who are verbally gifted and people who do not talk at all; there are adults who live independently and adults who need substantial, life-long support.  Although autism has undergone a radical shift in perspective over the last decade or so—honoring instead of pathologizing those who process sensory input and communication differently—there are still many prejudices, barriers, and misunderstandings.  

“It mattered greatly to me that the writing never made light of this family’s situation, nor of any family’s situation, because there are many people who I know who are in much more challenging circumstances than Max and Ezra,” says Spiridakis. “The most important thing to me was that the audience really believes in Ezra as his own person.” 

Spiridakis notes that the singularly specific persona of Ezra is not meant to represent the entire spectrum, nor could anyone ever do so.  To plumb the depths of that specificity, Spiridakis turned often to his son. “I included my son as a key part of the development process,” he says.  “The more I talked to him about the story, the more I was able to write Ezra, because both are so brutally, sometimes hilariously, honest about how they see things.  Even when he saw the final film, my son came out and said, ‘So that’s it right?  You’re over the autism thing now?’”

That honesty reminded Spiridakis over and over of his aims.  “I’ve seen how good stories can spark important conversations,” he says, “and out of those conversations comes awareness.” 

TONY GOLDWYN (Director/Producer) Goldwyn made his feature directorial debut with A Walk on the Moon.  The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, receiving praise from critics as well as special recognition from the National Board of Review for Excellence in Independent Filmmaking. Other feature directing credits include: The Last Kiss, for which Goldwyn received Best Director from the Boston Film Festival, and the romantic comedy Someone Like YouConviction, starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, earned Swank a SAG Award nomination, won Best Film at the Boston Film Festival and was awarded a Freedom of Expression honor from the National Board of Review. In addition to acting on the shows, Goldwyn directed multiple episodes of Scandal along with episodes of Chambers, Dexter, and The L Word. More television directing credits include: Justified, Law & Order, Damages and Grey’s Anatomy, among others.  

Goldwyn began his acting career on the stage, spending seven seasons at the Williamstown Theater Festival.  New York theater credits include: The Water’s Edge and Spike Heels at Second Stage Theater, The Dying Gaul at Vineyard Theater, Holiday at Circle in the Square Theatre, The Sum of Us at the Cherry Lane Theatre, for which he won an Obie Award, Digby at Manhattan Theatre Club and the revival of Promises, Promises on Broadway.  Additionally, he starred in back-to-back critically acclaimed Broadway productions: Tony and Olivier Award-winner The Inheritance from Matthew Lopez, directed by Stephen Daldry and Ivo van Hove’s Network with Bryan Cranston. 

He also dedicates much of his personal time to philanthropic work. Goldwyn serves as an Ambassador for Stand Up To Cancer, is a board member for the humanitarian relief organization Americares, a Trustee for Second Stage Theater, sits on the MPTF Foundation Board of Governors and is on the Board of Trustees at the Innocence Project.

Tony Spiridakis with Bobby Cannavale

TONY SPIRIDAKIS (Screenplay) is an award-winning director, writer, actor, and producer in film, television, and theatre, known for writing exceptional roles for actors. In addition to Ezra, his film work includes Queens Logic, which he wrote, produced, and co-starred in with Kevin Bacon, Jamie Lee Curtis, and John Malkovich.  He has developed scripts for Dustin Hoffman, Richard Dreyfus, and Diane Keaton as well as for iconic producers such as Laura Ziskin, Stacey Snider, and Mary Parent. Other films include: Tinseltown, based on his play Self Storage, starring Ron Perlman and Joe Pantoliano; Noise, starring Ally Sheedy and John Slattery; and If Lucy Fell, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Ben Stiller.  He also adapted, produced, and directed the film version of his play The Last Word, starring Timothy Hutton; and the post-9/11 drama, Ash Tuesday, with Giancarlo Esposito and Janeane Garofalo, won several top screenwriting honors.

Projects in pre-production include Breath of Life, a true story about the mayor of an Italian village during WWII, and Mike’s Place, the story of a blues bar in Tel Aviv during the Second Intifada that survived the devastation of a suicide bombing.

Spiridakis’s television credits include: co-creating and producing The Heights with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Eric Roth, the CBS crime drama Falcone with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Bob Moresco, and the Netflix legal drama Justice for Emmy-winning writer Bill Finkelstein. He is a writer and consulting producer on Earth Abides, the forthcoming MGM+ series based on the 1949 sci-fi novel by George R. Stewart.

Spiridakis studied at the Yale School of Drama and has also acted in dozens of films and television series, including House, L.A. Law, The Equalizer, Bay City Blues, and Death Wish.  He is also a co-founder of the Manhattan Film Institute, an intensive workshop for emerging filmmakers; a strong advocate for autism awareness; and Founder and Board Chair of North Fork Arts Center (NFAC), a non-profit cinema and live performance venue located in Greenport, New York.