The all-Idaho film “Making Sense” was set to premiere at the 2020 Sun Valley Film Festival, and this story was scheduled to run in the arts section of the Idaho Mountain Express on Wednesday, March 18. When the festival was canceled, the story was pulled—and “Making Sense” went on the shelf as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the country.
Almost a year later, “Making Sense” is finally set to premiere, this time as part of the 46th annual Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, Feb. 11-15.
Its screening at the Sun Valley Film Festival was set to be a special occasion. At the time still a work-in-progress, “Making Sense” was going to be presented free to the public at The Argyros. The cast and crew were going to attend the screening and host a question-and-answer session afterwards. It was also one of only a handful of films at the festival that was produced entirely in Idaho by Idahoans.
“Making Sense” is science fiction adventure tonally reminiscent of beloved ’80s classics. Director and producer Gregory Bayne described the film as an opportunity to “pay homage to some of the films of my youth—‘Tron,’ ‘WarGames,’ ‘Back to the Future’—in a fresh and interesting way.”
The screenplay, cowritten by Bayne and Doug Cole, follows an aging neuroscientist who teams up with a group of graduate students to finally prove his long-held hypothesis that people with disabilities hold the key to unlocking a sixth sense.
Striking a balance between fiction and reality, adventure and some credible scientific propositions, “Making Sense” seeks to spin an entertaining yarn and give audiences a thing or two to think about, but what distinguishes it from many other such films is its cast.
“Making Sense” enjoys distinction as the first film to feature five core cast members with disabilities, each one lacking a different one of the five primary senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell).
When he began writing the initial draft of the screenplay, Cole was dismayed to find that roughly 20% of people in the United States self-identify as disabled as of the most recent census, but only 2.7% of characters in the top 100 highest-grossing movies that year were depicted with disabilities.
But Cole did not want to create a story that victimized the disabled characters or painted them in a pathetic light, fully aware that many such projects wind up dehumanizing their subjects.
The script’s fresh perspective grabbed the attention of the actors who signed on, including Miguel Ayala, an actor with cerebral palsy making his big-screen debut in the film.
“It depicts people with disabilities in ways I’ve not seen elsewhere,” Ayala said. “A lot of movies like this, they tend to be on the inspirational side. That’s good and it has its place, but what’s cool about this movie is that the people with disabilities are shown as living their regular lives. They don’t let disabilities define their character. It’s just something they happen to have.”
Mike Barnett, a blind actor and one of Ayala’s costars, echoed those sentiments.
“It’s opened a new door for my disability,” he said. “I’ve only been going through my vision problems for the last couple of years and it showed me there’s something out there for people with disabilities. It was a genuine pleasure and a fun experience. The cast and crew were great and everyone worked really hard. I just want to thank Doug and Greg for the opportunity. Overall, I think this movie will open peoples’ eyes.”
Tilting the balance of representation was a major concern for the production. But the filmmakers were much more concerned with the manner in which that balance shifted. This is not representation simply for its own sake—and they are not just checking off demographic boxes.
“It’s important to note this is not a film about disability,” Cole said. “It’s entertaining, but it sends a message that people with disabilities may have heightened senses, which often they do through neuroplasticity. The goal is that you may look at them differently, not with pity, but with wonderment and a desire to get to know them.”
Cole remembers a story of a friend who became instantly paralyzed when a syst in his neck exploded. “He was one of those people who looked at people with disabilities with pity and then in the matter of a day, he was on the receiving end of that. He said to me, ‘Doug, it was an instant change. Now people look at me that way and it’s totally dehumanizing.’ So it was really important for me and Greg to internalize this story.”
As production began, authenticity was a major priority. It was one thing to write the characters a certain way, and another thing entirely to go the extra mile and cast actors who shared physical traits with those characters.
“It was important for us to have authentic representation. We wanted to find remarkable people with remarkable personal backstories,” Cole said. “We held an audition workshop at the JUMP in Boise.”
A few dozen people with disabilities joined for the informal event. After the initial workshop, they held formal auditions for those who wanted to come forward and be in the movie.
“I felt a lot of pressure,” Ayala said. “I had never done anything like this in the past. It was scary having the camera right in my face, but I had to go in believing the best and putting my best foot forward. Like I said, it was a lot of pressure, but I had a blast.”
Barnett agreed, calling it was both “a very good experience and very nerve-wracking.”
“I didn’t have to worry about seeing a camera in my face, at least,” he said with a chuckle.
For both actors, acting in the film was an exciting challenge, and, as Ayala said, they were particularly pleased to be playing characters who had disabilities but were not defined by them. Cole and Bayne simply approached the writing of those roles as they would with any characters. This, for Bayne, gets to the heart of representation and inclusivity in filmmaking.
“As artists working in a medium that often defaults to the worst kinds of stereotypes, I do believe we have a sincere responsibility to be thoughtful about representation in our work,” he said. “More than that, I’m convinced the only way to push our artform forward is through embracing diversity in front of and behind the camera. It’s not about being P.C. or anything. It’s about being cognitive of other experiences. Being aware of and trying to understand experiences beyond our own can only make us better people.”