Utah filmmaker highlights neurodivergent talent through ‘Thunderfeather’ organization

Aug 13, 2023, 10:39 PM | Updated: 10:42 pm

PROVO, Utah — A Utah filmmaker is trying to create opportunities for people who are neurodivergent, in the movies.

Levi Harris said it began he was working on a film script about a little boy who befriends a werewolf.

“I just realized he was autistic,” Harris said.  “And like, I’m not autistic. I don’t have a sibling [or] somebody that I’m directly connected to that’s autistic. But it was kind of the beginning [for] me  of exploring that world.”

Levi Harris speaks with KSL TV about his organization and neurodivergent minds in film philosophy. (KSL TV)

That became a short film, “The Thunderbird,” starring a little boy who has autism, Anderson Hazen, and the start of an organization called Thunderfeather.

Harris produced “Ziggy, the Werewolf’s Girlfriend” and “Ogre,” and this summer, he’s been shooting a continuation of the project, “Stories from Another World, a Collection of Interdimensional Fairy Tales.”

There are different definitions of what’s considered “neurodivergent,” but Harris includes autism, ADHD, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia, among other conditions.  Harris said he tries to feature neurodivergent actors but casts neurotypical actors, as well.

In a Utah County warehouse, usually reserved for equipment and supplies for installing tennis courts, a pirate captain, played by 23-year-old Eric Casper, leads a crew of pirates in a small boat.  The set is surrounded by green fabric so the ocean can be chromakeyed in later.

“It’s all wrong,” Casper growls, during his scene.  “There should be an ocean out there. It should be full of monsters. We should be pillaging and raiding and fighting heroes!”

No doubt, Tadd Casper, Casper’s father, couldn’t have imagined his son would end up in that role 20 years ago when Eric was diagnosed with autism.

“[He] wasn’t really talking a lot,” Tadd said.

“The main thing with me is verbal communication,” Eric said as he speaks haltingly, often pausing between words. “It’s all there, in my head, just trying to find a way to get it out there. Often, I would say one-word answers.”

Eric was enrolled in the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, and when he was 13, his older sister, Olivia, now a professional actress, got him involved in theater. He appeared in a community theater production of the musical, “The Scarlet Pimpernel”, the first of many productions.

“[It] opens up a new page in my life,” he said.

“It’s been the thing that brought him out of his shell the most, and, it’s just like a huge confidence booster for him,” Olivia Casper added.

Five years ago, Olivia saw a social media post about auditions for The Thunderbird. Eric auditioned.

“They had us improvise a scene,” Eric said.  “I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do that.’”

Eric appeared as the pirate captain, improvising most of his lines.  This summer, he reprised the role.

Eric Casper at work animating for the degree he earned from UVU. (Peter Rosen, KSL TV)

In social situations, he had trouble speaking, but Eric said on stage and on screen, “it just comes out naturally for me.”

“Any problem he’s ever had communicating or hesitancy kind of goes away when he gets to be on stage or on screen,” Olivia said. “That mindset of not being himself — he’s a character.  That kind of gives him the freedom to say whatever he wants, so he’s maybe not calculating what he’s gonna say.”

Eric, once two years behind in his development, caught up and last spring graduated from Utah Valley University with a degree in animation and game development.

“He’s the one that made it happen. He wanted to succeed,” Tadd said.  “[There’s] nobody I’m more proud of, than [Eric] because no matter what hurdle comes towards him, he gets over it.”

“I think that there’s a wealth of incredible story to be found among the neurodivergent experience. That’s kind of the mission of Thunderfeather to give the stories the opportunity to be told,” Harris said.

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Utah filmmaker highlights neurodivergent talent through ‘Thunderfeather’ organization