Asperger’s, the MTA, and the Criminal Justice System: Talking to Off The Rails director Adam Irving

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Off the Rails, which opens November 18 at the Metrograph, is the story of Darius McCollum, a winningly friendly New Yorker with Asperger’s syndrome. McCollum’s obsessive love of the the subway led him to learn all about how its trains and buses operate. At times, he even managed to get behind the controls of one, happily and conscientiously guiding it through its route until he was caught and arrested for impersonating an MTA employee. At first, the documentary appears to be a quirky imposter story, but it turns out to be a bit of an imposter itself. You might think of it as a case study, illuminating our educational and criminal justice systems’ tragic inability to provide properly for people with special needs by tracing one of the lives that has been permanently derailed by their hamfisted mismanagement.

We caught up by phone last month with director Adam Irving, an LA-based filmmaker with a master’s in cinema studies from NYU. Irving talked about what makes New York City a worse place than most to get arrested, why he and his editor decided not to include any discussion of the role Darius’ race likely played in the criminalization of his neurological condition, and the gratifying reaction to his first feature.

I was particularly interested in your movie because I have a lot of Asperger’s in my family. What got you interested in Darius’ story?

One, I love stories about New York. A lot of my favorite movies took place in New York, like Taxi Driver and Annie Hall and Manhattan. And I used to live there.

Two, I love stories about imposters, like Catch Me If You Can, and I felt that Darius’s story was kind of similar. You’re kind of rooting for this almost likeable criminal to see who can he impersonate next and get away with it. At the end of the day, as long as he’s not hurting anyone, I think people kind of enjoy the idea of someone that can get away with a victimless crime, because it shows that they’re clever and that the people that they tricked are not clever. It’s a little victory.

The Asperger’s, to me, was very interesting, because it added this layer of innocence to his crimes. He sort of had this childlike naivete about the world, that he’s like a little boy who loved choo-choo trains that never grew up, and then took his interest just a little bit too far.

And then the last note, which is the heaviest thing, is the whole criminal justice injustice that Darius has spent twenty years in maximum-security prisons, which is a big deal. When I give my elevator pitch about my movie and I say “It’s about this guy with Asperger’s syndrome who’s been arrested 32 times for impersonating New York City transit workers,” they say “Oh that’s so interesting.” Then when I say he’s been in prison for twenty years they’re shocked. That always surprises me, but people somehow assume that when he gets arrested he just gets a slap on the wrist and spends the night in jail and then goes home. But those 32 arrests have added up to decades in prison.

Darius’s mom loves him so much and tried so hard to get him a good education, and he seemed to have grown up in a middle-class household that had resources, yet the system totally failed him even before he got to prison. It seemed to start with all the bullying he got as a kid, culminating in his getting stabbed by another kid with a pair of scissors in class, which made him start dreading and skipping school, as smart as he is. I’m guessing schools at the time [the 1970s] had no idea what to do with him because I don’t think anybody much knew what Asperger’s was.

Yeah. They didn’t know what Asperger’s was. It didn’t enter the DSM until 1982, I believe, and even then it was ten or twenty years before it was a mainstream thing that a teacher in Queens would pick up on and say, “Hey, this kid doesn’t just have a quote behavioral problem unquote. He has a different way of looking at the world, and he has a gift for a particular topic—in this case, trains. Instead of treating him as a kid who’s weird or isn’t good socially, let’s treat him as a kid who’s really good at this one thing. Let’s find a way to embrace his gift and treat his social imperfections with a little more sensitivity than just throwing him in a cage or throwing him in a school for troubled youth.”

I think because he grew up in a time when it wasn’t widely known, and because he grew up in a neighborhood that probably had much fewer resources versus, say, Tribeca or the Upper East Side, he didn’t get the attention he should have gotten—and he didn’t get the right kind of attention. His behavior was criminalized rather than treated like an illness or a challenge.

The film never talks specifically about Darius being black, but I wonder if his skin color played a role. My brother acted out sometimes, I think when he was getting bullied. I remember once he even attacked or threatened someone at school, but he never got arrested. Nobody ever treated it like “This kid needs to go to prison.” I have to think that’s more likely to happen to an African-American kid than a white kid.

Yeah. Absolutely. It’s one of the things we talked about a lot with my editor: How much do we mention the black issue, if at all? In our earlier cut, we had a scene where we had a bunch of experts saying, “Had he been white, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.” We tested it out on audiences—although in fairness, they were predominantly white audiences—and they said: “It’s obvious he’s black. We all know at this point in history that this is a serious problem, and by saying it, it’s almost insulting to the viewers, like ‘Just so you know, Darius is black, and in America there’s discrimination, and blacks are more likely to be arrested for the same crime, and blah blah blah.’ We’ve seen that documentary a million times.” I don’t know if it was the right decision, but we felt that taking that out made the film tighter and shorter and flow better, and it allowed the audience to come to that decision on their own, which I think gives them a little more respect as thinkers.

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One of his lawyers says Darius is “an individual that New York State corrections doesn’t know how to handle, doesn’t want to handle, and doesn’t have the money or support to figure it out,” which sums up what’s going on in the criminal justice system with people who have mental health issues or conditions like Darius nationwide. Do you know if it’s any better or worse in New York than it is other places, or is it this bad pretty much everywhere?

I couldn’t say with authority. I do think it’s pretty typical. What I would say, though, is that the actual city jail system, especially Rikers, is particularly bad. And so because the majority of folks in New York City who get arrested spend their time in Rikers until their trial, they’re in a situation that’s unspeakably bad compared to, let’s say, out here in the Valley in some white suburb. If you get booked for a DUI and you spend the night in jail, it’s really not that terrible here compared to Rikers, where there’s 14,000 inmates, people literally die from heat exhaustion and getting beaten up or forgotten about for three days in solitary. And the way the county jails are organized is they pretty much throw everyone in the same facility. Just by virtue of its size, people end up falling through the cracks who are getting abused or neglected.

You had footage of people rioting in Rikers while Darius was talking about that happening while he was there. Was that footage literally of the riot he was describing?

Yeah, that was the exact footage he’s talking about. Darius isn’t in the footage because he was hiding, but that’s his block. His cell, you could probably see it if you look carefully at the footage. If he was in a gang or was a little bit more aggressive, he probably would have been down there with a bat or a tray or a stick, fighting for his life. But instead, luckily, because of his more docile personality, he chose to hide.

It’s said in the film that he has never been able to keep a job in his life, which seems surprising for someone of his intelligence and abilities. There’s certainly nothing about Asperger’s that makes a person unable to work. Do you think all the time he spent in prison and the fact that he now has felony charges on his record make it hard for him to get hired?

He has had very short-term, menial jobs, like he was a janitor at Burger King for a few days. I believe he did quality control at a factory in North Carolina for a few days or weeks. Six weeks is the most any of these lasted. Yeah, I think the felony thing’s a huge deal because, as you probably know, when you’re applying for jobs, the application says “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” and you have to write “yes,” and that does not look good. There are some programs in New York where, for example, Burger King can hire felons and they only have to pay half of the wage because the state pays the other half, and there’s also a bond so if the person they hired winds up leaving and having to be replaced or causing damage or something else that costs the company money, the state will pay to compensate them. But even with all those incentives, it’s difficult to find places that will hire you.

But I think this is the issue: Darius, when he gets out of jail, his priority is to find housing, to get to his family, to just away from trains and to get whatever he collects from the government to kind of get himself started. And then he’s like, “Okay, let’s see if I can get a job.” And usually by that time, because a month or so has passed, he’s back in jail for getting tempted onto the trains, because he’s addicted. Or he’ll have gotten a job but only been there for a very short time before he got arrested.

As far as I know, he’s been a model employee at all his jobs, as short-term as they’ve been. The only one he got fired from was a volunteer job he had at the Transit Museum.

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It seems like all his problems as an adult have been created by the fact that his behavior has been criminalized.

Yeah. In fairness to people who were hiring, if you’re looking for the most qualified person for the job, even if you erase the criminal record, his resume is very patchy and it has years with gaps in it. And he never even finished high school.

But both of those things—the gaps in his employment record and his dropping out of high school—are a direct result of how his Asperger’s was misunderstood or mishandled.

Yeah, sure.

This is your first feature. How’s the experience been of showing it so far, and how is it being received?

Really good, for a first film—and even for any film. I went to a documentary filmmakers’ sort of mixer last night. Everyone went around, maybe 50 people, saying what they’re working on and what they’ve done, and I had the most successful film in the room. So I’m thrilled about it, because when I was in the middle of making the film, I didn’t even know if I’d have the money to finish it.

Especially in the last couple months, it’s gotten a lot of buzz because the story is being made into a Hollywood movie starring Julia Roberts. And Darius himself is getting into the news because he’s suing the city of New York for $15 million for never receiving treatment, therapy, while he’s been incarcerated. He’s also, as of a week ago, been denied [the right to be tried in] mental health court, so it looks like he’ll receive a criminal trial, which is really bad, because it means he’ll get fifteen to life if he’s found guilty, which means he may never get out.

How did you get the money to make this film?

Mainly self-funded, from my own savings and having about $30,000 in film equipment already. I spent the last few years producing short videos for corporations, universities, nonprofit organizations, so I had the skills and the equipment. I didn’t have to hire a director or a producer or a cinematographer, that kind of thing. The rest of the money I got from my family. They were very generous. And it looks like I’ll actually be able to pay them back because of the film’s success, which is not something most filmmakers can say when they borrow money from their family and friends.

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