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‘I Am Sam’ Director Jessie Nelson Wouldn’t Make Her Movie the Same Way Now

Despite Sean Penn's Oscar nomination for the role, today Nelson would hire an actor from the community.

Sean Penn in I Am Sam

Sean Penn in “I Am Sam”

New Line/Everett Collection

Twenty years after the release of the Sean Penn–starring “I Am Sam,” director Jessie Nelson is looking back on her movie and celebrating that it couldn’t be made in the same way now.

“I wouldn’t make that movie today without a lead being from the [disability] community,” Nelson told The Hollywood Reporter. “But that movie would not have been made 20 years ago. It wasn’t like I had the choice: ‘Make that movie with a lead from the community, or not.’ It was ‘The only way this movie will get made is this.’ ”

Nelson’s journey with “I Am Sam” was apparently a winding one. According to THR, Nelson was fresh off the success of “Corrina, Corrina” when she and longtime friend Kristine Johnson began working on the script for “I Am Sam,” meeting with people from the community and their families. But Fox 2000 Pictures, with which Nelson had a deal, was insistent on hiring an A-list actor over Penn, her top choice. The studio removed her from the project, then her agent negotiated a deal that allowed her to take the script to another studio. New Line, which had released “Corrina, Corrina,” said yes to both the script and the casting of Penn and a then-unknown Dakota Fanning as his daughter.

Penn and Fanning both took home SAG Awards for their performances, with Penn also nabbing an Oscar nomination. But while Nelson said that, today, she would make the film with a member of the disability community in the lead, she pointed to her hard-won fight at the time to cast supporting roles from within the community. “It was such a battle even to just get the friends of Sean to be from the disabled community in the movie, and that was such a victory at the time to be able to hire those actors,” she said. “Everybody quickly realized that those were all misconceptions, and actually bringing that community on board is the best thing that can happen for a film, whether there are disabled characters or not.”

Despite the film’s awards and box office success — it earned $100 million — Nelson didn’t direct another movie for 15 years. “The door did not open for me,” Nelson told THR. “Now, when you look at the statistics, so many women have had the experience that I’ve had, where they couldn’t get their next movie made. At the time, you think, ‘Is it something about me?’ Or, ‘Oh, doing a movie that wasn’t successful, that’s what puts people in directors’ jail.’ But for so many women at the time, it was just being a woman that put you in a different category.”

Since directing 2015’s “Love the Coopers,” Nelson has found success both as the bookwriter for Broadway’s “Waitress” musical and as the creator of Apple+’s series “Little Voice,” both with Sara Bareilles.

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