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2015, 88m, biography, documentary
Brad Williams, aka "the Human Google", is only the second person ever studied for "highly superior autobiographical memory", which lets him recall in amazing detail the events of nearly every day of his life. Brad's rare mental gifts vault him to sudden notoriety, appearances on national TV, and thought-provoking encounters with "Jeopardy!" champ Ken Jennings and talk-show legend Dick Cavett.
Produced by: Rona Edwards
Cast: Brad Williams, Ken Jennings, Dick Cavett, James McGaugh, Larry Cahill
10 questions with Unforgettable director, Eric Williams at the half-way mark.
Sunday, March 6th, 2016
1Hi Eric! Brad (the subject of your documentary) is your brother. What was it that made you want to make a documentary about him at that specific moment in time? After seeing "Spellbound", Jeff Blitz's documentary on the national spelling bee, I had a desire to make a documentary someday, but I had no idea what my subject could be. Then, in the spring of 2006, I saw an article online about a woman with so-called "perfect memory" who was being studied at the University of California - Irvine. The article said that no one else with this type of memory had ever been studied -- yet the article's description of her abilities sounded uncannily like those of my brother, Brad. So we got in touch with the doctors at Irvine and, on Brad's next visit to Los Angeles, we paid a visit to them. The doctors didn't allow me to videotape that first interview with Brad, but after about half an hour of questioning, they agreed that Brad would be their case study #2. I had no idea where things would lead, but I knew I had been handed my subject for a documentary on a silver platter.
2What was it like growing up with Brad? When did you realize his memory was far beyond normal? The family story is that Brad taught himself to read at age two. He skipped first grade and, at age 12, represented Wisconsin in the national spelling bee. I was seven at the time of the bee, so I always took it as a given that Brad was crazy smart. Over time, we also realized that he was far better at remembering specific details of family vacations or the exact dates of past events than the rest of us, but we just assumed that was part of him being bright in general. Later on, we would see the actress Marilu Henner demonstrating similar memory skills on talk shows, so we knew there must be other people out there like Brad. We had no inkling that it was so astoundingly rare or that it had never been studied by science.
3This is your first feature film. Did you always want to be a director or did you just want to document your brother's unique ability? I studied film at the University of Wisconsin, and had been writing screenplays for many years in L.A. with a modest degree of success. Fairly typically for a screenwriter, I think I viewed directing as an eventual goal, if only to make sure that my scripts were realized in the way I envisioned, but I definitely viewed writing as my path to get there. The notion of making a documentary never really came to mind until I saw "Spellbound". Around that same time, a close friend had made a low-budget feature, and seeing him do that with digital video and Final Cut Pro suddenly made the prospect of shooting a movie on my own seem within the realm of the possible.
4Would you want to have a memory like Brad's? When I'm playing against him in trivia, I would sure come in handy. I think I have a fairly decent "normal" memory, which has served me well in school and life, and I'm not sure that having Brad's particular form of memory would dramatically improve things for me. Some of those who've been studied for this phenomenon describe the condition as a curse, as they can't keep bad memories from flooding their minds, which wouldn't be fun, although Brad claims not to be troubled by this problem. Given that our mother has developed dementia, it is interesting to ponder whether Brad's memory will act as a buffer against that kind of deterioration in old age. If so, I might be wishing I was more Brad-like in years to come.
5What was the most challenging aspect of making this film? How did you solve it? It was tricky to figure out the exact structure out of the hundred hours of video I had shot over three years. As a writer, I always need to know my ending before I start, so I know what I'm setting up to pay off later, but I was initially trying to edit "Unforgettable" before I had what turned out to be the climax of the film: Brad's first meeting with someone else with this type of memory. Until I had that section -- and was able to organize the bulk of the film around the events of a single tumultuous calendar year -- I didn't know how all the pieces could fit together or what the trajectory was. My first pass also had very little narration, and it took some convincing before I unlearned the "narration is a lazy man's crutch" lesson that is pounded into screenwriters. In this case, because it was a story from my own family and my personal observations could bring worthwhile insights to the viewer that weren't inherent in the footage, I think the narration helped drive the narrative and brought in some extra bits of humor.
6I think Brad's memory is a bit upsetting to some because he has this incredible memory and yet he doesn't have an intellectual handicap in any other way. We're comfortable with Rain Man having a memory because he lacks in other areas. This is something people can wrap their mind around but the fact that your brother has near perfect memory and functions normally in every other way tells us something else. What do you think about all this? This seems to be more disconcerting to the researchers than it ever has been to me, likely because they had never met anyone like this but I've known one my entire life. Now that we've met a number of the other people being studied by UC-Irvine, it's clear that there is no single "type" of person with HSAM (highly superior autobiographical memory). Some seem to be perfectly well-adjusted, others have some degree of social anxiety, many appear to have OCD or are obsessive collectors, so they definitely exist on a spectrum. At its most extreme, HSAM does seem to interfere with the ability to hold down a job.
7Was there ever any point to playing trivia games with Brad growing up? Brad most often would take the Art Fleming role if we were playing the "Jeopardy!" home game. During the Trivial Pursuit craze, I know Brad once played with our other brother Greg and some of Greg's friends who did not know Brad. When they discovered how good Brad was, Greg's friends demanded that, in order for Brad to win the game, he would need to correctly answer ALL SIX questions on a card, rather than just one as specified in the rules. I believe he still won. I have a few narrow areas where my depth of knowledge can exceed Brad's. I helped his trivia team win a "Back to the Future" trivia contest, where I was clearly the expert of the bunch, and the only time I can recall outscoring Brad at Buzztime satellite trivia (the game he plays vs. Ken Jennings in "Unforgettable"), I won because I knew something that Brad didn't about Prince.
8It must be surreal to go on so many nationally televised shows and meet so many famous people so suddenly. What was that experience like for you? Because I was always filming when Brad had those encounters and didn't want to stop shooting for fear of missing something good, I always felt slightly detached from the experience. So, yes, technically, I did meet Dick Cavett, but really I was just there when Brad met him. We had a bit more off-camera time with Ken Jennings, and I've enjoyed staying in touch with him from time to time since. Perhaps because he is on the radio every day and has been acting in plays for years, Brad rarely seemed fazed by the experience of meeting these celebrities or appearing on national television.
9What's the film that made you want to become a filmmaker? "Annie Hall" is the key film that made me seriously think about making movies. Around the same time, "Star Wars" blew me away with an experience unlike I'd ever had in a theater, but "Annie Hall" felt like the sort of thing I could actually do. (Yeah, right.) And, as I mentioned earlier, "Spellbound" inspired me to do a documentary. I attended what I believe was only its second public screening, and I was mainly interested in the subject matter because of our family's own involvement with spelling bees, so I was unprepared for how phenomenal the film would be.
10What's next? I'm searching for inspiration for a new screenplay. I would also be open to making another documentary someday, although I don't expect that another subject matter could ever fall into my lap and hit as close to home as happened with "Unforgettable".
About the Interviewer: Ben Hicks
Ben Hicks is a writer/director and co-founder of Fandependent Films. Ben is currently working on making Fandependent Films awesome and is finishing up his first feature film entitled Kids Go Free to Fun Fun Time which was selected for the 2017 IFP Narrative Lab.
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