March 30, 2008
From Daydreaming to Filmmaking, Through the Lens of Dyslexia
By WENDY CARLSON
WHEN Harvey Hubbell V had difficulty learning in elementary school in the 1960s, his parents had him tested for dyslexia. He had no idea what that was. Nor did he care.
He was too busy making movies in his head.
“I would close my eyes and see pictures. I’d hear music, too — like from a marching band or something — and I knew right where it should come in,” Mr. Hubbell recalled.
When tests determined he was dyslexic, it came as no surprise. He was constantly in trouble with his teachers for daydreaming. He often had failing grades, barely graduated from high school and would eventually drop out of college his freshman year after he was humiliated by his English professor.
Looking back, Mr. Hubbell — whose great-grandfather invented the electric light pull chain among other innovations — jokes that his grade school daydreaming prepared him for a career in films. Now 48, he and his wife, Andrea, own Captured Time Productions, an independent studio on their 80-acre farmstead in Litchfield, where they live with their 9-year-old daughter, Alexandra.
Eventually, the ability to think in pictures earned Mr. Hubbell and his wife numerous Emmys and more than 50 festival awards for documentaries on subjects ranging from women’s reproductive rights and school segregation to comic portrayals on the making of a low-budget film and a travel log.
But these days, Mr. Hubbell is editing what may be his most personal documentary yet.
“Dislecksia: The Movie,” is a 90-minute film on the learning disability, which the Mayo Clinic estimates affects from 30 to 35 million Americans. Mr. Hubbell, who expects to complete work on the project this summer, narrates the documentary, using clips of home movies of his own childhood, vintage stock footage and interviews with educators, parents, experts in the field and other dyslexics.
The film recounts Mr. Hubbell’s grade school angst with candor and humor. But the comedy has a serious purpose, he said, and that is to build public awareness and understanding for a condition that many people misunderstand.
“Is it a sexual disease?” asks a woman at Times Square who is interviewed in the film.
“A sleep disorder?” asks another.
“Everyone still thinks that dyslexia is a reversal of letters,” said Linda Selvin, executive director of the New York Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, who was interviewed for the film. The simple definition of the condition is that it is a difficulty with reading and spelling.
But it is also a complicated neurological condition. In the film, Mr. Hubbell undergoes brain imaging at Georgetown University Medical Center to illustrate how he processes language compared with people without dyslexia.
“Because of his personal struggle with dyslexia, I think the film will convey the experience of this condition in a unique and touching way,” said Dr. Kenneth Pugh, president and director of research at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven. The independent research group, which is affiliated with Yale University and the University of Connecticut, studies language and is one of the film’s scientific sources.
Several members of the film crew are also dyslexic, including the writer Jeremy Brecher, who is also an author and Emmy-winning screenwriter.
Meanwhile, other Hollywood professionals have become involved. Michael Bacon, who is half of the Bacon Brothers band with the actor Kevin Bacon, is composing music for the film. Milos Forman, director of the 1976 Academy Award-winning film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” provided voice-overs.
Eric Gardner, a Los Angeles editor for the televised series “Survivor,” spent his last two summer vacations at the Litchfield studio. “I just love their brains,” he said, referring to the ability of many dyslexics to think creatively. He believes the time is ripe for entertainment-style documentaries, and that a distributor will pick up the film.
Mr. Hubbell hopes the film will sway public opinion and get legislators to make multisensory curriculum available for all dyslexic students.
“I’ve always said that our children are our country’s most important resource,” Mr. Hubbell said. So if we’re failing so many students, “then shouldn’t something be done?”