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Living Up to Their 'Code'

A movie about Tourette's syndrome, jazz, an interracial romance and a young boy's musical dreams was a tough sell, but somehow they did it.

August 05, 2000|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Polly Draper remembers precisely when she got around to asking Michael Wolff about the facial tics he had worked so hard to disguise on their first dates.

"We had gone out a few times," says Draper, perhaps best known for her portrayal of Ellyn Warren in the hit television series "thirtysomething," "and I just couldn't' figure out what was going on."

"So she just turned to me," interrupts Wolff, seated alongside Draper, now his wife, at breakfast at the Four Seasons, "and said, 'What's the matter with you, anyway?' "

It's a memory that now evokes laughter over the sheer awkwardness of the moment, but it was a tough experience for Wolff, a jazz pianist who led the band on "The Arsenio Hall Show."

Wolff has Tourette's syndrome. Like many people with the disorder, he had worked hard to conceal and obscure the multiple motor and vocal tics that are its primary characteristics. First described by (and named after) French physician Georges Gilles de la Tourette more than a hundred years ago, it perhaps is best known, unfortunately, as the "cursing disease." Only a small percentage of those afflicted with Tourette's, however, experience the involuntary public display of cursing and obscenities known as coprolalia.

They eventually married and had their first child. Their process of dealing with Tourette's and the continuing embarrassment it caused Wolff, and Draper's concerned awareness that her husband's efforts to conceal the disorder were often far less effective than he supposed, eventually found their way into her first screenplay.

Called "The Tic Code," it opened Friday, a rare example of an independent film completing its long odyssey through production to release without sacrificing any of its essence.

"I actually started out," says Draper, "with the desire to write something about an intense relationship between a mother and son, particularly because I'd just come off 'thirtysomething,' playing this high-strung, neurotic woman who couldn't be a mother if she tried."

When Draper began to consider using Tourette's syndrome as a complicating factor in that relationship, she ran into a wall of resistance from her husband, who had otherwise been immensely supportive.

"The first thing he said was 'Please don't write about Tourette's,' " recalls Draper. "He had not gone public and was still extremely embarrassed about it. So I backed off. Then, after a week or so, he thought maybe it would be a good idea, so long as the story didn't appear to be based on him."

Draper agreed and did not model the story on Wolff's life, even though it takes place in a jazz setting. One of the principal characters is Miles, a talented 12-year-old pianist (played by Christopher George Marquette), who has Tourette's syndrome and aspires to become a jazz artist. Another is world-class jazz tenor saxophonist Tyrone (portrayed by Gregory Hines), who works hard to conceal his own Tourette's. The third main character, the boy's mother, Laura, is played by Draper.

Wolff's sensitivity to personal comparisons in the script was diminished when he realized how important the thread between jazz and Tourette's syndrome was to the story.

"It couldn't have been anything but Tourette's," he says, "because of the emotional freedom--it's about a person who has no inhibitors in their brain, so everything comes freely--and that's what jazz is."

"Right," adds Draper. "It's an uninhibited form of music. So you put them together and it becomes a very interesting, very compatible combination. And that clearly took it away from another disease-of-the-week sort of thing."

Getting the project off the ground was another matter.

"It's been a seven-year process since Polly wrote the script," explains Wolff. "It took five years to get the money. Then, after we made the film, it took another couple of years getting distribution."

The business people they talked to, says Draper, were convinced the interracial romance between Laura and Tyrone "was a real bad idea. Especially for the foreign markets, they said, that we could never sell in Japan and Germany."

Draper was asked why--if it was not really an issue that the character was African American--he couldn't be white.

"In the jazz world, an interracial romance wouldn't be an issue," Draper says.

"I wanted the Tourette's to be highlighted. I wanted to show that he was more comfortable with the fact that he was black than he was with the fact that he had Tourette's--so deeply seated that he uses his blackness as his excuse to avoid being in the relationship, when he knows that's not the problem at all, that it's because he can't deal with his Tourette's."

But that was only the first obstacle. Tourette's was another.

"They thought it was just too weird," says Draper. "They asked me, 'Can't you use some other adolescent problem?' And I said, 'You mean, like acne?' "

A Litany of Strikes Against the Film

A third issue was a young person in a starring role in a picture that was not a "kids' film."

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