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'Temple Grandin' is inspirational

Temple Grandin, left, and Claire Danes, who plays her.
Temple Grandin, left, and Claire Danes, who plays her.
Van Redin, HBO

PASADENA, Calif. — Even the director of the HBO film "Temple Grandin" admits he didn't know what to make of the title when his agent sent him the script.

"I said, 'What is that? Is it about religion? Architecture?' " said Mick Jackson.

Actually, "Temple Grandin" (debuts Saturday, 9 p.m., HBO) is what Jackson called "an amazing story" of an autistic woman — Temple Grandin (Claire Danes). And it's not what you might expect.

For one thing, it's not a disease-of-the-week movie "in which a character suffers from some kind of disability or adversity, and through the force of their personality (and) the people around them, they achieve a kind of normality by the end of the movie," Jackson said. "This was a completely original story of someone who is exceptional to begin with who was trapped inside a cage of autism.

"And when she was allowed to emerge through her own doings (and) the help of the people around her, she achieved not normality, but exceptionality. That's a very unusual story, and that's what made this worth telling."

It's a very emotional story that's told without being overly emotional. Although there are some powerful scenes as Grandin's mother (Julia Ormond) struggles to help her daughter — and with guilt, having been told in 1950 that the autism was her fault.

Danes does an amazing job. She becomes Grandin — just ask Grandin.

"I watched the first screening in the HBO corporate office in California, and I'm going, 'This is, like, really kind of freaky. I mean, she's playing me perfectly back in the '60s and '70s.' " Grandin said.

A child who didn't speak until she was 4, Grandin went on to college, where she earned several degrees. A full professor of animal husbandry at Colorado State University, she revolutionized the livestock industry with her inventive genius. She sees the world (and animals) in ways others can't.

In addition to publishing papers and articles in her field, she's the author of several books, including "Thinking in Pictures" and "Emergence: Labeled Autistic."

While Grandin's story is not typical, it's still powerful.

"I want to emphasize — autism is a big spectrum ranging from somebody who is going to remain nonverbal all the way up to famous scientists. … And you might have people that are just kind of geeky and nerdy. They're on the mild end of the spectrum," Grandin said.

"I can assure you, there were a few of those out on the movie set."

She added that "if you don't have people that were interested in things" — as she is with cattle and designing humane slaughterhouses — humankind would not have advanced.

"Because, after all, who do you think made the first stone spear? It wasn't the yackity yacks around the campfire, that's for sure," Grandin said.

"Temple Grandin" is by no means a preachy production. It may open your eyes, but it's a compelling film that's also entertaining.

Danes spent a lot of time preparing for the role.

"There was no way I could take this role on casually. I have such incredible respect for Temple," she said. "I didn't want to fail her or disappoint her in any way. … And she's wired differently than myself. So I read her books. She's a great resource. She was incredibly generous in sharing whatever information she thought might be helpful, and I grilled her, and she was incredibly open and responsive."

And the task wasn't to play Grandin as she is, but as she was in the '60s and '70s, when the movie takes place.

"The thing about autism is as you learn more and more and more, you keep getting less and less autistic-like," Grandin said. "In order for Claire to get some inkling of how to do this part, I found an old TV show tape from the '80s and an old VHS tape from the early '90s for her to watch."

This is not a movie about curing autism, it's a movie about succeeding with autism. It's the story she told in her book "Thinking in Pictures," which executive producer Emily Gerson Saines — the mother of an autistic child — was given when she was "in a very dark place in my life."

"I think what attracted me to this story is that it brought hope," Saines said. "And when you're trying to teach your autistic child how to speak and function within society, it's a really difficult job, and you're not always getting something back. So Temple's story, I think, brought hope to someone like me who at the time was feeling very hopeless. And I thought it would be fantastic to share this story with others who needed that hope."

e-mail: pierce@desnews.com