Murderball: Shapiro, Mandel, and Rubin Talk

In the spring of 2002, Dana Adam Shapiro was a Senior Editor at SPIN magazine, and Jeffrey Mandel was at Columbia. Former roommates, they were trying to start a production company. At the end of one dispiriting meeting, a would-be investor said: “Why a whole company Just a make a film.”

One week later, Shapiro found a newspaper story about quadriplegics who played a violent game that was originally called Murderball. He began doing research. After interviewing the subjects to make sure it wasn't a joke, he called Mandel: “Let's make a documentary called “Murderball.” The world championship wheelchair rugby tournament is in Sweden in a month.” They decided to produce it independently.

Shapiro got an assignment to cover the event in Sweden for Maxim magazine, but neither of them had ever made a film. While looking for funding, they approached Henry Alex Rubin, co-director of “Who is Henry Jaglom” He and Shapiro became friends while working on a screenplay. In May 2002, the directors were on a plane to Gothenburg. They'd met Joe Soares and Mark Zupan, and the Paralympics in Athens were just two years away.

The Players' Cooperation

DAS: These guys aren't exactly the documentary-watching demographic, but they all knew Maxim magazine. I pitched the article as a way to help facilitate the first shoot in Sweden; it gave us credibility right off the bat. It's funny, even though we told the players that we'd follow them for two and half years, they always seemed surprised when we showed up with our little cameras.

HAR: At one point, we were given an earnest lecture by a veteran Canadian player about the realities of film distribution. “Nobody cares about people in wheelchairs,” he said.

Preconceptions of the Handicapped

DAS: I thought they were all like Christopher Reeve. No movement, no sex, no life. Certainly no rugby. One question we kept asking was: “If you had the choice, would you take back your accident” And the answer kept coming back the same: “No.” Any pity or “good for you!” washed away real quick.

HAR: I grew up with a family friend who has cerebral palsy. In my youth, I would be hesitant to be seen with him. Now all I want to do is kick anyone who looks at him twice.

Choosing the Subject

JM: When we started, I knew nothing about spinal cord injuries, wheelchairs or disabilities. There was just this vague idea about breaking your neck something moms warn you about and that means your life is basically over. When Dana told me about the rugby guys, I realized how wrong that was. And it made me think differently not only about guys in chairs, but also about able-bodies. I wanted to make a movie that could have that effect on someone else.

HAR: The subject matter was potentially very cinematic, which excited me as a filmmaker, and it afforded the possibility of subverting the bullshit condescending p.c. attitudes people have in this country about disabilities, which excited me as a troublemaker. We wanted to change attitudes while still being entertaining. We admire films like the Maysles' “Grey Gardens” and “Salesman,” that treat their subjects with interest and compassion. There is a reason why filmmakers spend years of their lives filming their subjects. Far more than fiction films, documentaries can be pure expressions of love.

DAS: As Jim Thompson said: “There's only one plot: Things are not what they seem.” Once we started shooting, people in wheelchairs started to look different. You noticed things: finger function, trunk muscles, handicap parking signs. We wanted to make a movie that changed people's minds.

Following the Story for Two Years and Two International Tournaments

HAR: We traveled to the World Championships in Sweden with a bunch of cameras not knowing what to expect. We knew that at the very least Dana would write an article for Maxim, but we weren't sure if wed find a film. But things looked promising as soon as we met the coach of Team Canada, Joe Soares. Covered from tip to toe in bright red Canadian gear, the first thing Joe loudly pronounced was that Team USA had betrayed him by unfairly cutting him from their team.

DAS: We always knew the movie would end at the Paralympics in Greece. Two and a half years seemed like the perfect amount of time to really get into their lives.

Eliciting Frankness and Openness from the Subjects

DAS: Most of these guys are our age; we had a lot in common, so we just became friends. We don't live in the same states so there were lots of phone calls and emails.

HAR: If you film enough, people forget and the camera simply becomes an elongation of your face, just some big ugly moustache. Werner Herzog says that as soon as you turn on the camera, people behave differently. But we tried hard and discovered that the more you care about those you are filming, the more likely you will be to capture those rare fleeting moments of unguarded intimacy. Wed genuinely grown to love Keith, and his family let us be near him during extremely painfully moments, like him wheeling into his bedroom for the first time, or staring at his broken motorbike.

The Scene When Joe Soares Was Hospitalized for Heart Attack

DAS: Joe called. He knew what kind of movie we were trying to make and he trusted us. We kept telling him: “It's not just a sports film.”

HAR: Jeff was still working out the clearance for us to shoot in the hospital as we were stepping off the plane.

Setbacks during the Shoot

HAR: Team USA losing in the finals was devastating. It was so traumatic that we had to remind ourselves to keep filming. Since the USA was beaten by Canada in Sweden, we hoped that the USA would make a “Rocky” comeback in the third act. We had spent two years hoping for scenes of Team USA partying with gold around their necks, like the Canadians had done in Sweden. After the defeat, Dana, Jeff and I were all so dazed that we almost missed the players coming out of the locker room to hug their families, which then ended up being one of the most moving moments. To see someone as tough as Mark Zupan cry was profound.

DAS: Money, of course, but we always pulled it together. We never missed a shoot. As for story setbacks, it took a very long time to convince Chris Igoe (Zupan's best friend) to be in the film. That's the crux of Zupan's storyhis best friend turned him into a quadriplegic. Or, as Zupan likes to say: “Chris made me.” We were worried that his story would be told by a second-hand chorus.

Integrating a Non-player into the Story

HAR: We figured if we could show just a hint of what it's like for Keith, it might give the audience insight into the monumental willpower it took for our guys to go from sipping their food in rehab, to competing at the Paralympic games in Greece.

DAS: We never wanted to make a sports film, it was always supposed to be about what it's like to break your neck. We decided to incorporate Keith because we realized we were missing the “dark” period that we'd heard so much about. Zupan, Hogsett, Joe, Bob, and Andy were comfortable with their new bodies. But what about a guy who just got injured The idea was to find an “every-quad” so that we could capture the struggle that all of our characters went through. Jeff organized a meeting at the Kessler Rehabilitation Institute, where we met Spinal Cord Coordinator Sandy DeLeon, who introduced us to a few recently-injured guys, including Keith Cavill.

Scary, Funny and Poignant Moments

HAR: I spent my birthday in the hospital with Keith, when he had to undergo surgery on his throat, which was punctured from the bike accident. His family got me a little hostess cupcake with yellow frosting from the hospital vending machine. That choked me up.

JM: For a producer, it was scary when the venue managers in Athens did everything possible to limit our access. We'd worked for over two years for that moment and it almost slipped through our fingers. We were supposedly the only camera crew from the U.S. at the Paralympics, so we just figured that they'd be happy to have us. We were wrong.

DAS: There were moments, like when Keith goes home from rehab, when Henry and I looked at each other, like: “Should we really be filming this” These guys really let us in. Halloween in Las Vegas was pretty funny. The rugby players drink a lot, and they can get away with saying pretty much anything, because they're in a chair. But New Yorkers with cameras There were some close calls with the Vegas girls' boyfriends. Another poignant moment was getting into the rugby chairs and playing with the guys. You know the saying “I could kick your ass with both hands and feet tied behind my back” Well, it was never as true as on their turf. It was like being in a shopping cart and smashing into a wall.

Shooting Guerrilla-Documentary Style

HAR: Very guerrilla. A crew of two, but sometimes we would had a camera assistant to help with the tapes, lenses, filters, batteries and the assortment of clamps and vises which we used to fix the cameras to the wheelchairs. When we met Zupan, he joked that he loved “his ass-level view” of the world and almost immediately this ass-level view became part of our aesthetic. Whenever possible, we shot the film while sitting in a wheelchair or from wheelchair-height. We used spare wheelchairs the way other films use dollies, pushing and rolling our way all over the worldUSA, Canada, Sweden, Greecethrough bars, high school reunions, strip-clubs, bathrooms, rugby tournaments. From the beginning we wanted to make a documentary that was thoughtfully framed as any feature film, and the low-level tracking shots helped capture spontaneous action cinematically. The only drawback to the “wheelchair shot” was the passers-by who kept stopping us to ask how we injured ourselves. We used Panasonic DVX-100 cameras and edited with Final Cut Pro.

Making a Living during the Project

DAS: I continued writing for magazines like Spin and the New York Times magazine. And I finished my first novel, “The Every Boy,” which will be published by Houghton Mifflin in July.

HAR: During that time, I wrote a screenplay called “Mr. Stupidhead,” and I continued to work on a short mockumentary Ive been directing starring Winona Ryder.

JM: It was a long haul — I finished school, suffered the bar exam, and became a corporate tax lawyer.

Updating the Players' Stories

DAS: Zupan is still with Jess, living in Texas. He speaks to Igoe four times a week. Joe was fired from Team Canada and is seeking a coaching position with Team USA. Keith is saving up for his first rugby chair.