The indie dramedy Please Stand By delights on many levels, especially in giving a unique perspective to autism, potrayed beautifully by Dakota Fanning.

Fanning plays a young autistic woman named Wendy who learns to cope with the world by relating it to her one main constant in her life, Star Trek. Her obsession with the show and its lore makes Wendy a savant in all things Star Trek.

Wendy lives in a group home after her older sister, Audrey (Alice Eve), can no longer care for her because she is starting her own family. Run by the oh-so-patient Scottie (Toni Collette) – a name that is surely not lost on Wendy – the young woman mostly thrives as Scottie provides a very even-keeled and steady environment and giving her ample time to do what Wendy loves most: Writing a spec script for a Paramount Studios Star Trek contest. When it looks like Wendy can’t get the script in the mail in time, she decides to embark on a life-changing adventure, traveling to Los Angeles, on her own (along with her adorable dog Pete), and deliver the script in person.

ScreenPicks had the chance to sit down for an exclusive chat with director Ben Lewin about autism, Star Trek – and you’re never going to guess what Pete the dog’s real name is.

What kind of research did you and Dakota do with autism?

Ben Lewin: When I read the script, the character of Wendy reminded me of someone I knew, and whose parents we were very close to. I called this lady’s mother and talked to her, told her about Star Trek and she was, “Oh yes!” and understood the Star Trek connection very well. My son, Oliver, also helped me reach out to the local community who worked with austic people. They were obviously thrilled that we were making a movie of this sort.

The more I thought I learned, the less I knew. The deeper you got into it, the more your realize there is no commonality. There is a spectrum or whatever you want to call it, and there are developmental challenges that people face. So, to pretend to understand it…I didn’t pretend. I felt that a certain amount of connection and intermingling with people who had autism on different levels, it just made you more sensitive. But didn’t make me anymore of an expert.

I think Dakota immersed herself what was in the script, which is after all the ultimate blueprint for an actor and director. I think the writer, Michael Golamco, had also developed a strong understanding of the character and what we were dealing with. Together we met autistic people. In one particular case, there were two sisters, who were so totally different, which just showed you that you weren’t going to hit any particular norm to say, “Okay, that’s autistic behavior.” And that was very valuable preparation, in the sense that play the character you believe in. Don’t try to mimic something you regard as stereotype, which is what Dakota did. She created a character unique in her own right. Immersing herself rather than checking boxes.

There’s this amazing sense of growth with Wendy, too, and everything she experiences.

Lewin: People with autism grow like anyone else does. Experience affects them like it affects anyone else. The idea that they are devoid of emotion is really ridiculous. I’m sure there’s a sense of isolation, that is probably common. But I hope the take away from it is that even people who don’t have autism will see themselves. Or like someone with autism is from another planet. And have an affinity for the character, hopefully.

Alice Eve was also quite good as Wendy’s sister. Did she talk with people who has autistic people in their families?

Lewin: I think Alice took the role very seriously and did a lot of research. And really tried to understand that role of the older sibling where you have a kid in the family with special needs. And I understood that when I was kid, with my brother’s situation [Lewin was struck with polio at a young age]. Having to almost be the neglected child. I put that harshly, but when you do have a kid with special needs, that becomes the focus of the family. So Alice really did seem to understand it.

Pete, the dog, is also just fantastic. I wish they gave awards for animal performances. What was his name in real life?

Lewin: I agree, 100 percent. His name was Blaster! [laughing] I chose the tiniest, ugliest dog I could find. I think the name is great. It’s like having a mouse and calling him Godzilla! I actually love working with animals. I think if you’re patient and work with a trainer, they’ll do anything you want them to do. And they’ll do it with feeling. I’ve met some method acting cats and dogs. [laughs]

How much Star Trek did you get into?

Lewin: I watched every episode of the original show. If we were going to relate this to Star Trek, I really wanted the original stuff, the really hokey stuff. The philosophy of Star Trek was more obvious, the morality plays and the sense that it was everyone else that was alien.

And of course Spock is the character Fanning’s character, Wendy, most relates to.

Lewin: He’s the first hero on television with autism! It fascinated me. Some of my favorite moments is when [Wendy] is imagining herself as Spock and trying to solve the riddles of the universe.

Is Dakota a big Star Trek fan?

Lewin: You know, I didn’t ask her! [laughs] I’m sure she got into just like I did. [Screenwriter] Michael, though, he’s the one. He loves Star Trek, immersed up to his neck.

Does he speak Klingon? That was one of my favorite scenes when Patton Oswalt’s L.A. cop speaks Klingon with Wendy to gain her trust.

Lewin: We actually got the major Klingon authorities in the world to help up with that scene. Syllable by syllable. We kept that payoff [for Star Trek fans]. It was a funny but also powerful moment when she connects with this cop. And she understands trust, which is a wonderful discovery.

Wendy’s calming mantra “please stand by” when she’s upset was intriguing. Where did that come from?

Lewin: I just loved that title from the outset but never asked Michael why that title. I think it was related to the idea of a TV test pattern. This mesmerizing, calming thing. It hummed at you and that it became the mantra for calming down. Somehow the mysterious test pattern, don’t touch the dial, it connected a little bit with the science fiction for me.

What are you hoping audiences will walk away with Please Stand By?

Lewin: I don’t pretend that my movies or any movies can change someone. I just hope their emotional needle moves a little bit. And that if they met someone who is a little different, their minds are open to that world. I honestly feel like now I’ve connected to a community and a range of people I was unconnected with before. Regardless of what the film does for other people, it has enriched me. So if it does that for a few others, I’d be very gratified.

Please Stand By is playing in theaters now.