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Behind the story - <i>Music Within</i> article IBM Ad

Music Within marks Steve Sawalich’s directoral debut as a feature filmmaker. He produced the project, along with partner Brett Donowho, who once served as an interpreter for the deaf. The two met four years ago in Dallas. Here, Sawalich talks about how he got the idea for the film, and stuck with it for the many years it took to bring it to fruition:

I met Richard eight years ago at a conference where he was doing a story about disability in the workplace. He took the audience on a roller coaster of emotions. One moment they were laughing hysterically, the next they were crying. Richard has always lived his life by finding the humor in every bad situation he was dealt–for every cry you get a laugh—which helped him get through it. He was so captivating that I could picture the story in my head. So I introduced myself to him and said, ‘I’d like to make your story into a film.’

He was very reserved and didn’t think it was a good enough story. But I said, there’s a reason you talk on this subject, and it’s something people don’t know about. So we parted ways for a couple of years, but periodically I talked with him about making a film. Then we reconnected about four years ago. We sat down and started fleshing out a story with Brett. It was quite an undertaking. We went out to investors who came together because of the idea. It touched a lot of people. The budget was less than $5 million.

My background is in the hearing-aid community. I grew up in that arena, and met Richard through my stepfather, Bill Austin, who founded the hearing-aid company, Starkey Laboratories. It’s based in Minnesota with 36 factories worldwide. I’ve worked with our Starkey Hearing Foundation for the past 10 years. We’re mostly focused on giving the gift of hearing to people who’ve never heard a sound. One of our main innovations is to put a smaller hearing aid in the ear canal, which looks better and allows the ear to work as an amplifier as well. For some children, the first thing they hear is their mother saying she loves them. To see that smile come across the face is instant gratification. Hearing reconnects people throughout the world.

In the past eight years, I have gone on 40 missions in over 25 countries, fitting children with hearing aids in Vietnam, South Africa and the majority of the Latin American countries. Some of the families walk seven hours, take a bus for two days and then sleep the night before on the steps of the building where we’re doing the fittings. Each year we donate thousands of free hearing aids to people who need them.

We partner with schools for the deaf and government foundations—basically getting to people anyway we can, to make sure they get the proper care before and after. We don’t want the child to go home, have the hearing aid break a day later, and then they have no place to go. We make sure they get follow up once we’re gone. We put an infrastructure in place. A child’s ear continues to grow until they’re about 13 years old, so we make sure the mold stays current during the growing years. After they’re fitted, we find that most kids do better in school and in life.

Before Music Within, the only other film I made was a short when I was just out of college. Back then, I was still trying to learn the ropes of filmmaking. I went to Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. I had thought I wanted to be an actor. But I discovered that I was not in love with acting, and you have to love it. So I started toying around with directing, and found my true passion. Though they had an excellent TV production program, Pepperdine didn’t have a film program, so I got together with some film professors and started studying film on my own during my last year there.

In Music Within, Leslie Nielsen plays my stepfather. He did a good job. He’s been a good friend of the foundation for quite a few years. Though he’s known mostly for his role in comedies, he started out in drama and has a strong background in that. My stepfather’s role was more behind the scenes. He gave us an audiogram that showed Richard’s hearing loss by frequency, so we could use the mix board to give the film’s audience a sense of what Richard was actually hearing with the ringing in his ears. It was like a bucket over the head. The tinnitus we simulate in the film isn’t as loud as what Richard actually hears. One day in the editing room, we had it up as loud as Richard hears it, and it made me ill.

Though Richard’s hearing was muffled before my stepfather fitted him with the hearing aids, his friend, Art Honeyman, spoke with a low, gutteral timber that Richard could hear remarkably well. My main impetus in telling Richard’s story was to show how giving something such as a hearing aid to one person may help that person change the world..... continued in ABILITY Magazine


ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Ron Livingston issue include Autism—A Fathers Story; Green Up!—9 Things You Can Do; Humor Therapy; Yo God, Down Here; Allen Rucker—Stuck at the Starting Line; Disability Legal Rights Center; Fighting Cancer Discrimination; Senator Letter—Hillary Rodham Clinton; Assistive Technology—20 Years of the ATA; Amputee Camp—Fun Without Limits; Extremity Sports—Have Prosthetic, Will Rock!; Wheelchair Games—At 83, They Kick Butt; Horse Therapy—Gallop Your Way to Good Health; Paralympics 2008—Countdown to Beijing; George Covington—To Lawyer or Not to Lawyer?; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...subscribe

More excerpts from the Ron Livingston issue:

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More excerpts from the Ron Livingston issue:

Ron Livingston — Music Within

MS — In Children

Walgreens — Hire & Hire

Behind the Scenes — Music Within

Humor Therapy — Yo God, Down Here

Allen Rucker: Stuck at the Starting Line

DRLC — Fighting Cancer Discrimination

A Father's Story — Adopting a Boy with Autism

Horse Therapy — Gallop Your Way to Good Health

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