PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Sitting on a hotel patio, Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro, and Mark Zupan share the verbal rhythms of good friends. Alternately slouching, perched forward, and animated in their chairs, they pick up on one another’s points, ask each other questions. At the moment, they’re talking about Murderball, their documentary about quadriplegic rugby. Codirected by Rubin and Shapiro, and featuring Zupan, the film won the Audience Award at Sundance, as well as a Special Jury Prize. It focuses on the experiences of several quad rugby players, via the sport (fast and brutal) and their various relationships (competitive and committed).
PopMatters: How did you come to this idea for your film?
Dana Adam Shapiro: I was a senior editor at Spin, dealing with non-music features. And I came across this story on the web about quadriplegic rugby players, and it shattered all the stereotypes I held about them. I thought they couldn’t move, that they were like Christopher Reeve, they couldn’t have sex, and certainly couldn’t play this sport. I called a bunch of these guys and started asking: “How’d you break your neck? What’s it like to break your neck? What is murderball?” I ended up writing an article about it [for Maxim], but the reason it was a film was that I kept saying, “I still can’t visualize it. This is something you need to see.” They’d tell me, “Oh you should see when we smash into each other and the wheelchairs flip over, it’s insane, like Mad Max,” I just pictured it “softer.” Like, “Aw, isn’t it nice that they created a sport for them? And they called it murderball, so we wouldn’t feel bad for them.” And they invited me to see the World Championships in Sweden, where there were like 12 countries playing. Jeff Mandel, the other producer, and I had been looking for a film to make. We had been trying to raise money for some elusive film company, and someone said to us, “Why don’t you have a film to finance first?” We walked away sort of sad that he was mean, but inspired that he was right. I had been doing nonfiction storytelling for a long time as a journalist so it seemed a natural flow.
PM: You decided early on to shoot from a variety of angles?
Henry Alex Rubin: We taped cameras to every place we could tape to. We used wheelchairs as dollies, and the idea was to make it as intimate as possible.
Mark Zupan: From my aspect, that kind of camera takes away the whole aspect that people are in chairs. After the first five or 10 minutes, you don’t see the wheelchair because you’re not looking down at somebody.
DAS: Because it wasn’t, “This is what it’s like to be around quadriplegics.” It was, “This is what it’s like to be quadriplegic.” We talked about Even Dwarves Started Small, the Werner Herzog movie about midgets, shot completely from their point of view… We didn’t want to do the fly-on-the wall perspective, to be looking down… metaphorically or literally.
HAR: It was very subjectively shot. It’s not shot with wides or medium wides, which most documentarians use, because they’re afraid of missing action. They don’t have the balls to zoom in.
DAS: I think documentarians also use wide, because they want to emulate the eye.
HAR: I disagree with that. You see what you look at. When I look at Zupan, I’m seeing his eyes. You focus in on his eyes. If anything, film, not video, mimics the eye. When I look at her, she’s in focus, and everything behind her is blurry. But then if I look at the pole, she becomes blurry.
DAS: But your frame is always there. Even the films that we watched and talked about for this film, like Grey Gardens or like Salesman, are not shot like this film.
HAR: True, but the brain is like a laser, it picks up things. And that’s what filmmakers have discovered through the ages: “Let’s look at what your eyes are doing, what your hands are doing. It demonstrates more the inside of someone’s emotional state than if you stay wide. It’s in the hands, the little things. It’s in Keith [Cavill] putting his hand out the window, that you see what he’s feeling. We wanted to tell a story. We talked about Rocky and a bunch of other movies, Great Santini, Platoon was kicked around because of the key thing, the new guy coming in, and Best Years of Our Lives. We tried hard to make a film that looked and felt and was as engaging as any fiction film. And the film language reflects that.
DAS: We did our best to shoot, edit, and score it like a feature. I wonder if it looks less “real” as a result, or more “real.”
MZ: We get asked a lot about what was scripted. But, that’s life. Nothing’s scripted.
HAR: But it’s true that when you shoot using a cinematic language that is more fiction-oriented, it ends up looking potentially contrived in certain areas. He comes from storytelling, I come from storyboards. That was my first job in the film industry. And when you storyboard, you break up a scene into shots, and then you let the editor take care of the order. In our film, you have to shoot quickly, get as many shots of the action as you can, boom, boom. Then you have a brilliant guy like Geoff Richman, who was our editor, piece the pieces together, so the action is told in the most compelling way. So there are moments where I can see how people would feel it was more constructed.
PM: But all this hinges on a conditioned idea, that documentaries are “objective.”
DAS: There’s also the encroachment of physical space, where you are obviously “in his face” when you’re getting a close-up. The question Mark gets pretty much every time is, “What’s like having a camera in your face?” Herzog talks about this too. Is that “true”? How much does the camera influence reality? Is there any truth if there’s a camera, or an awareness of the camera? In order to get those shots, you are disturbing the natural space.
HAR: But I would respectfully disagree, and say that as we kept going, and halfway through the shoot, we got those longer lenses, it allowed us to hang back much more. And for example, that long lens that magnified things 2.5 times, on top of the long lens on the DVX, made it so I could be, maybe at that bush, and get a close-up of Zupan’s eyes. Suddenly, we were no longer intruding so much on space. Earlier in the shoot, we had inferior cameras, and had to get physically close to get a close shot. Also, we were shooting with an anamorphic lens for the first half, which doesn’t let you do zooms, so you had to find positions in a room in which you were shooting from 3/4, so you wouldn’t catch their eye. Long lenses: we love them.
PM: But even with long lenses, aren’t you [to Mark] aware of being on camera?
MZ: Initially yeah, you’re thinking, “Oh fuck, he’s shooting.” But once you get to know these guys and are comfortable with them, you don’t even realize you’re being filmed. The camera was an extension of [Rubin].
DAS: And we created this wireless microphone, with a shotgun handle… It was like spying… We had their permission to film, but we were trying our best not to be seen.
PM: Do you think the comfort level changed your behavior?
MZ: No, because when you’re comfortable with someone, you’re yourself. You’re not trying to mask, you’re not trying to hide, you’re not keeping shit from them. It’s just like a normal, everyday conversation; they were just fortunate enough to have audio and film of it.
HAR: With the camera there, you get what Herzog calls “the ecstatic truth,” a heightened truth, because they’re being themselves but there’s a camera there.
PM: Your film has an apparently built-in narrative structure, with the conflict between the teams, and between Zupan and Joe Soares.
MZ: Well, you’re focused on one goal, no matter who you’re playing. You want to win. It’s true, if you genuinely dislike someone, there’s more gratification if you do win.
DAS: The desire to win is one thing, and the desire to make him lose is another thing. Ali and Frazier divided the country, and it wasn’t about Ali and Frazier, this was about your political beliefs. [In our film,] this Canadian-American [opposition], it veered off into patriotism. Like these were your brothers at one point. It was personal and then it was political. Henry and I don’t watch sports, so for us to get interested in this, there had to be more to it, I had to see two human beings.
HAR: We tried to make a movie that reflected our experiences. We went over there and that sport dropped our jaws. In the end, we were not as enamored with the speed and the rush and the collision. We were more captivated by the drama of the families and the plays, so it’s shot differently.
DAS: But there’s really only one truth: did it happen? If Zupan and Joe and they’re not talking, but then a guy comes over with a camera and they both know the camera’s on, so one guy starts puffing out his chest and they get into a fight. Is that truth? They were inspired, the camera brought out something inside them that was real, which is, “I want to hurt this guy.” The bottom line is, these things happened. What is it, truth is revealed in a series of fictions?
HAR: Through a structure of fiction: Derrida.
DAS: That, to us, was the only thing. We didn’t tell anybody to do something. But if somebody decides to hug someone or punch someone, when do you step in?
PM: But they also left it to you to edit.
HAR: We tried to be authentic and close to everything that happened. The most nerve-racking screenings were those for the people who were there. When they liked it and said, “Yes, that’s how it felt,” then we were happy.
DAS: And there are two types of filming, the “real,” what’s-happening filming, and the interview. How can you possibly say that when you set up an interview and the person is talking to the camera, that they’re not influenced? They know they’re on the record. You can argue that they forget about the camera and the verité stuff, and they do, to a huge degree, because of the familiarity, because of the friendship. We tried to use as few interviews as possible, because the talking heads stuff [can be] boring…. And you’re never as influenced as when you’re being interviewed.
HAR: He’s taking apart the different textures within the movie, like cinema verité and talking heads. And I would add the third one, which were very strong, formal, aesthetic choices, like putting the camera under the wheelchair or making portraits happen. Even the opening of the film, which was very much written out by Dana and I, you’re watching Zupan, struggling to get into his pants, and he goes into the garage and he suits up and he exits. All that is very constructed. That’s something that definitely happens, every day. But we asked him, “Would you mind doing this?” That’s a different kind of reality. I think that was the only thing that was kind of “written,” in the sense that we said, “Okay, let’s shoot that.” Everything else is, we were there and we were trying to catch up with the action.
DAS: Here’s a great experiment in editing: there was a scene of [Chris] Igoe at a shooting range. The idea were trying to get across is that he’s got some demons that he’s dealing with. A guy, alone, shooting a gun. We shot it wide, and then a lot of close shots: the dropping of the shells, his eyes. We cut it both ways, and it was like, you could make this guy seem like a total bad-ass, or you could shoot it…
HAR: Just to be clear, he brought us there.
DAS: But it’s the way it’s edited: in a wide shot, you see a guy alone, shooting. Or, do you want to see the guy’s eyes, then the shells drop, then the skeet blow up. Cut. One is more cinematic, and it changes the truth. Now I’m seeing a guy who’s not lonely, but kind of looks like an action hero, with the shells dropping on the ground, and his eyes like Clint Eastwood. So it’s the same exact event shot two different ways. We do have the power to change the truth. The only thing that we kept asking was, “What was the truth?” At the end of the day, we left it wide and lonely, because that was the truth. And then we cut the scene, because it didn’t fit in the movie. But you can tweak the truth with shots and with music. We had it scored to speed metal.
HAR: But the bottom line was, what’s left in the film is an honest reflection of our experience of witnessing the event. And that changed over time. The first time we saw the game, in Sweden, it was chaotic… like crazy, smashing stuff. As we learned the rules, the way that we looked at the game and shot the game changed.
DAS: We were so micro in the beginning. It was like: Crashes! Fingers wrapped in tape! We didn’t take a step back. Later, we could watch from back here. It was epic.
HAR: Another interesting example is at Joe and his wife’s anniversary, we went and basically put two cameras there on tripods, and Dana and I walked away. We didn’t monitor, we didn’t know what they were saying. It was the only thing we shot that way, two hours, three hours. And then we said to our assistant editor, “Put anything together that’s interesting.” And we watched it literally, for the first time in the editing room. And there’s this one exchange that we thought was the essence of Joe and his wife. Did they talk about lots of other shit? Of course they did. But we chose that because it was the essence.
PM: Mark, do you think there’s an essence of your life?
MZ: I guess it’s like taking what you forget about. You forget about the hard times, about fucking with your shoes. And it brings it back.
HAR: But what we would have pulled out of an entire day may not have been what he pulled out of that day. It’s exactly that subjectivity of the filmmaker.
DAS: It’s like a sauce. It’s this reduction, because we distilled 200 hours to 86 minutes. We lost all of the fluff. Everything in the film is, hopefully, essential. This is this man’s character. Well, it’s an 86-minute movie, there’s five characters. How many minutes does he actually get? Not that many. This is a guy who went through so much, so it’s all reduction. You have your nice pasta sauce at the end of the day.
PM: You mention the other guys. One is Keith, who’s introduced late, after we’ve been more or less immersed in the lives of Zupan and Joe. And Keith offers another perspective, after we’ve become “comfortable,” we’re discomforted again.
DAS: Keith is the “essence,” to keep using that word, of every one of these guys. These people are defined by their accidents. He is now quadriplegic. Igoe was defined by the accident, in the sense that he turned his best friend into a quadriplegic. All of these guys that you’re seeing, before Keith, you don’t see their transition, you never see that loss. They look like they were born in their chairs. So the question—the elephant—is, “What were these guys like before their accidents?” There must be more. What’s it like to break your neck? So we decided to film someone who just did it, with one foot in the able-bodied world and the other in the handicapped world, and he’s resisting going in there. He’s still saying, “That’s not me.” He has that classic denial, like when he raises his hand to ask, “What if we walk again, do we get kicked off the team?” He’s Zupan 10 years ago.
HAR: He’s also us. We hoped that Keith would be the linchpin of empathy, that he would bring everyone in, to show what it’s like to be in that rehab center for the first time, to go home for the first time, and see a chair for the first time.
PM: When did you guys come up with that idea?
DAS: About a year in. We were making this documentary that we wanted desperately not to be depressing, and then we found out that it was too happy. It was like, “How can we make a movie about what it’s like to break your neck?” And then it turned into “Paralympics and chicks.” Everything was great: they had hot girlfriends and were playing on the world stage, they seemed fine, they were having sex and drinking and playing. So, what about that transition?
HAR: I think we came at it from slightly different angles, which I’m glad we did. You kept saying, “What about the darkness?” But for me, I remember complaining, “There’s not enough cinema verité. What about the stuff happening?” So this was a great device to bring the darkness in, to bring the pain, and the empathy, and to give us something to shot that was in the present. There’s not a lot happening with Zupan. Joe has an unfolding story, we got really lucky.
DAS: [laughs] Thank god he had a heart attack.
PM: That’s another question about documentary ethics.
DAS: With nonfiction, without access, you have nothing. You develop trust, mutual respect, you do grow close to these people. So it’s a very difficult position to be in when your friend has a heart attack. You know, as a storyteller, this is crucial, you’re filming a man’s life. But at the same time, you feel like a vulture, a vampire. You didn’t make it happen, and by shooting it, you’re not making it worse. With Keith too, those scenes were heartbreaking. You wonder, “Should we be here?” But Joe wanted us there, he called us. They have the first line of defense. We would never barge in. Maybe some documentarians would, and they’d make great films because of it. But I would never sneak in, or show up uninvited. It was because of the access that the film is intimate. The best compliment is that they like it, even though it is a warts and all movie.
HAR: They do believe that they’re portrayed fairly, and that means that Dana and I made the right choices, and went for the right “essence,” so to speak.
DAS: And this is two and a half years. I was just quoted in GQ, and I felt so misrepresented because they added an exclamation point after the expression, “laugh out loud.” It’s just one quote, but it changed the essence. I said something like, “We didn’t want to make a PBS, cue-the-violence documentary. This film is actually funny.” You can’t complain about it, because it’s true, I did say it. There’s more laughs than tears in a movie about quadriplegia. But at the end of the day, [it’s important for me] for [the players] to say, “You know what, you got all the commas, you didn’t put an exclamation point.” I lived with huge fear that after two and a half years, and such access and friendship, people were gonna say, “You fucked us, man.” It wasn’t like that at all.
PM: Another narrative turn the film takes comes at the end, after the Paralympics, when the guys meet with Iraq War vets. That was striking, and broadened the movie’s scope considerably.
HAR: That was the instinct, that we had made this movie in a bubble, and these guys didn’t seem connected to the larger universe. They just seemed connected to the universe of people who happened to break their necks. When you see them at Walter Reed, giving this demonstration, it sends you hurtling back to reality and what’s going on now. It does that, and it also does what we were hoping it would do: after the bittersweetness of the loss in Athens, these guys are continuing to proselytize and to communicate their vision of what life can be after an injury like that. They’re continuing to bring it to people.