In Blindsight, Chris Colin has written the true story of b-movie-to-blockbuster producer Simon Lewis’s 16-year recovery from a car crash that left him with a pulse, but little else.
Lewis’s new bride was killed instantly, and he lost one-third of the right side of his brain, some of his vision, his ability to organize his memories chronologically, and his Hollywood career just when it had skyrocketed. Sixteen years later, to listen to Lewis’s clear British accent and see his blue-eyed, beatific expression—which you can do thanks to the Atavist.net’s multimedia platform—you’d never know what the man had been through. So, he’s finally ready to pick up where he left off in Hollywood. Colin holds Lewis’s ambition up against his trauma, and makes us wonder where the scale tips between the creative limitations he has acquired, and the ones he has shed.
Blindsight marks a foray into new media, even for an author like Colin who has reported on everything from George Bush’s pool boy, Slovenian ethnic cleansing and chimpanzee filmmakers, to solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe and mysterious scraps of paper, in publications like the New York Times Magazine, Wired, Smithsonian, Mother Jones, McSweeney’s Quarterly and several anthologies. An early writer and editor for Salon.com, Colin also penned the long-running “On the Job” column for the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s the award-winning author of What Really Happened to the Class of ‘93.
The Rumpus: Neurologically speaking, Lewis is something of a wunderkind. What is this condition called “blindsight”? It doesn’t sound like something a visual artist would want to be afflicted with.
Chris Colin: One day during Simon Lewis’s recovery he walked into a tree. His mother took him to a developmental optometrist, who observed something extremely rare and, to my mind, ridiculously otherworldly: Lewis is indeed partly blind, and if you hold up a piece of paper in his blind area, he won’t see it. But if you later ask him what color the paper is, he’ll get it right. To Lewis it would feel like he’s guessing. In fact that visual information has bypassed his conscious mind and taken an obscure alternate route to his subconscious.
Rumpus: That’s just freaky. I mean, what do optometrists really know about the subconscious? What do any of us really know about it?
Colin: I spent a lot of time thinking about what the subconscious is—it’s relatively new terrain, medically speaking. One way to conceptualize it is to think about those times when you’re driving, and you realize you haven’t consciously noticed the road for the last ten minutes. Your subconscious was at the wheel while your conscious mind was thinking about the dumb joke you made at dinner. It’s an occasional and glancing state for us. Ask Lewis and he’ll say his subconscious never leaves the driver’s seat.
Rumpus: Which is terrifying, if we apply that state of mind to the driver who hit him (and ran). How did Lewis come back from that, psychologically? What motivated him?
Colin: I sometimes wonder if the question of what Simon Lewis wants lost all meaning the moment a ’78 Chevy ripped across Beverly Boulevard at 75 miles per hour and made him a widower—one with a pulverized body and a hefty chunk of brain destroyed. You and I tend to relate to the world in terms of what we want and don’t want. Lewis got bumped to a different plane entirely that night, I came to see, where he’s motivated by other forces entirely.
Rumpus: But those forces were probably at work long before his accident, right? In Blindsight you write that he did his own film adaptation of Macbeth when he was 12, later produced the movie C.H.U.D. 2: Bud the CHUD, and then went on to help make Look Who’s Talking, the 1989 blockbuster that buried all the other films that came out that year and broke box office records. His past would seem to promise that he could overcome anything. Do you think he sees it that way?
Colin: He’s a ridiculously competent and intelligent guy. But of course back then he was working within the system. He’s now an outsider on a dozen levels. But not once have I ever seen him hesitate. I never heard him grumble about having to be driven across town by his mother, or having to work ten times as hard to find the right word or memory in his new mind. I think he believes all things are possible, almost on a molecular level. Like, when you’re a kid and you learn that everything is just atoms, and theoretically you could walk through a wall if they’d just spread out a bit.
Rumpus: At what point in his recovery did he decide to return to filmmaking?
Colin: In those sixteen years, Lewis went from not remembering his own name to reading quantum physics for kicks. I got to know him in 2010, and that’s when he told me he wanted to get back into making movies. He wanted to make substantive ones—but not because he had a new sense of mortality or anything obvious like that. It’s because a chunk of his brain became putty, and brain putty has ideas all its own. He no longer possessed the operating system that helped make C.H.U.D. 2: Bud the C.H.U.D.
The touching thing, to me, was that he had dual reasons for wanting to get back into filmmaking. Partly he has this wild new sensibility that wants expression. But on another level he just wants to work. I found that weirdly poignant. You go through this profound transformation, get rebuilt down to the studs, come to occupy this extraordinary new perch in the universe—and part of you still just wants to clock in somewhere each morning. It’s very human, I think.
Rumpus: I had this feeling while reading that I didn’t want to see that new part of him corrupted by what he would have to become to renew his Hollywood success. And right at that moment, in your story, you reveal that Lewis has a doppelganger of sorts. This blew my mind. What was it like for you as a writer, when you first discovered this double?
Colin: Well into my reporting for this piece it just got full-on bizarre when I stumbled upon something of a parallel universe. I don’t want to give too much away so I’ll just say, imagine you’re writing a book about, say, Gary Coleman, and one day you open the paper to find that some other Gary Coleman exists, but sort of a superior one. He’s even shorter, and he says “What’choo talkin’ ’bout?” even more often, and when he pouts it’s even cuter. What does that mean for your book, and what does that mean for Gary Coleman no. 1? Anyway that’s sort of what happened three-quarters into my thing, metaphorically speaking. The ol’ Gary Colemans problem.
Rumpus: That would have been a very special episode. You open Blindsight saying, “This is a Hollywood story…” Yet, your telling of it dismantles the Hollywood formula so well. Does Lewis still think in those terms? He’s obviously accomplished and survived more than many people ever will, but is he still waiting for his own act three?
Colin: The whole Hollywood aspect of this story was very hall-of-mirrors-y. Here was a Hollywood producer who wanted to get away from Hollywood movies—but in a way his story was very Hollywood. Tragedy. Coma. The unlikely comeback. And then, just when I would’ve appreciated a handy and tidy ending, things just got terrifically ambivalent. If this story ever gets made into a movie (Harvey: CALL ME), at least forty snakes will instantly start eating their own tails.
Rumpus: I was fascinated by the photograph of Lewis’s scar: the three-sided rectangle on the side of his head that looks an awful lot like a drawbridge that opens into a castle. Do you think Lewis treasures, in any way, the mind he has now?
Colin: Yes, but with an asterisk. The asterisk is that he treasures everything now. During our time together he often told me he was the happiest person in the world. It was strange for me, because I always had this theory that, in real life, people don’t actually achieve lasting perspective through big life changes. We’ll undergo our traumas or miracles and pledge never to lose sight again of what really matters. But then we’re the same old dope, getting annoyed about a traffic jam. But in Lewis’s case, the perspective stuck. He told me he doesn’t think he’s been mad in 17 years. And I don’t know many people who have more right to anger than him.
Rumpus: Thinking of non-formulaic movies that really intrigued, or perhaps just stumped, audiences–like Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life, or, say, the last 40 minutes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey–it seems like there’s at least some precedent for outwitting the Hollywood formula. What films does Lewis watch? What inspires him?
Colin: He does love 2001. But he can also find levels of meaning in schlock, even if he doesn’t want to make it himself. He’s utterly without pretension in this sense. But what inspires him these days is just as often watching the trees behind his parents’ house grow. I love that—though I’d be lying if I said I wanted to see Pine Tree: The Movie. Luckily Hollywood seems to have drilled into him the requirement for drama, action, characterization, all that. Abstract as he can get, I don’t think he’d be happy making Warhol-type films any more than C.H.U.D. III.
Rumpus: The multimedia aspect of this Atavist piece is pretty remarkable. All the film clips, the images of Lewis, of his late wife, etc, so enrich this piece that I couldn’t help but wonder how, as a writer, you might change what you’re setting out to do from the outset. There would be details that you wouldn’t have to bring to life strictly with your words, yet the piece works seamlessly because it brings us so much detail. How was it different to work on a piece like this?
Colin: The multimedia stuff is great. I don’t really see the point of being a text-only purist—I’d also have to be a vinyl purist, and a film camera purist, and a pre- ’65 Dylan purist, and I’d have to jump off the purest bridge from the sheer tediousness of it all. So yeah, multimedia.
But from a writing perspective, one of the funnest parts about working with the Atavist is this new length they’ve staked out: longer than a magazine article, shorter than a book. It sounds like a finicky little distinction but in practice it allows for a certain kind of story to be told that otherwise would get squished into something more formulaic, or bloated out to a length it can’t support. The twists and turns and weirdness of this tale were Atavist-dependent.
Rumpus: You wrote this piece over a period of about a year, after you first discovered Lewis through a feature you wrote for the New York Times about legally blind artists. How many visits did you make with him? And how were your interviews impacted by his neurological conditions?
Colin: Lewis lives in Los Angeles, and I went down there for two extended periods over that year, and basically became a fulltime fly on his wall, as well as a fly that drove us all over Sherman Oaks, Beverly Hills and Hollywood. And of course we also talked on the phone for, I don’t know, a hundred hours when I was elsewhere. The first thing you notice about Lewis is how astoundingly unaffected he appears, physically, by all he went through. (Also, I’m convinced that a certain species of British accent can make a category-5 hurricane seem okay.)
But it wasn’t long before I started to notice the effects of those conditions. His ideas sprawl: A question about where he was born could lead directly to a very lovely soliloquy on the nature of consciousness or the flow of time and soon it’s been twenty minutes and I’m enthralled—but don’t know where he was born. As a reporter I was half the time scribbling pages of notes, half the time sheep-dogging him toward more traditional answers.
Rumpus: What do you think will happen to Simon Lewis?
Colin: I really, really don’t know. I find solace in the joy he brings wherever he goes. But at the heart of this story is a deep ambiguity. In a way I came to see it dovetailing with the ambiguity inherent to traumatic brain injury. Listen to an astrophysicist talk. Then listen to someone missing a big chunk of his or her brain. The similarities can be striking. Genius and eccentricity and fantasy and madness have a distinct and uncomfortable overlap, and which one you see in a given situation—and how the world responds to that thing—probably determines what you predict for Simon Lewis’s future.
You can read an excerpt of Blindsight at TheAtlantic.com.