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Wheelchair Warriors: 'Murderball' Tackles, Transcends Sports Doc Genre

By Shelley Gabert

US Paralympic Rugby Team Captain Mark Zupan (center) and teammates in 'Murderball,' released theatrically this summer by THINKFilm. Photo: Jack Rowand.

In a society where the disabled are often invisible or a source of pity or condescension, Murderball, a new film about quadriplegics playing wheelchair rugby, shatters many long-held attitudes and convenient stereotypes. Transcending the sports documentary genre, the powerful and provocative film focuses mostly on the humanity of the players, rather than their disability.
"The most important moment in the film is when you're watching it for the first time, and somewhere you forget the stars are in wheelchairs," says Jeffrey Mandel, a producer of the film along with Dana Adam Shapiro, who also co-directed with Henry Alex Rubin. "It's then that you realize they aren't that different from us."

Structured around the top-ranked Team USA as it prepares to defend its gold medal in wheelchair rugby at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece, Murderball follows these "gladiators on wheelchairs" playing the action-packed, violent sport on the court as well as leading their personal lives off the court. The result is a refreshing portrait of these men, told without the sentimentality usually associated with films about the disabled. The film won the Documentary Audience Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, as well as a Special Jury Prize for Editing for Geoffrey Richman and Conor O'Neill. In addition, Murderball won Best Documentary honors at the Bermuda Film Festival, tied for the Audience and Jury Awards at Full Frame and was chosen as Best of the Fest at both the Sarasota and Philadelphia Film Festivals.

"If Murderball is a good film it's because it's a good story," Mandel maintains. "Our goal was to make a crossover film that showed the lives of these players, and in doing that we found the universal elements of all human drama that are apart from the sports aspect of the film."

Financed, co-produced and distributed by THINKFilm, Murderball opened in New York and Los Angeles on July 8, with a rollout planned for other cities throughout the month. THINKFilm and MTV, which contributed marketing dollars for the film's release, are co-presenting the domestic theatrical release in association with A&E Indie Films, which became a financial and production partner with THINKFilm while Murderball was in production.  Murderball will premiere on A&E in early 2006.

"MTV is known for its powerful brand and commercial sensibility," Mandell says. "We agreed with THINKFilm's decision to partner with them, as their participation will draw in a younger audience."

When Mandel and Shapiro came up with the idea for the film three years ago, they felt strongly that the same audience that watched MTV's Jackass would be interested in these driven male athletes on wheels. Other than the experiences of people like Christopher Reeve, the filmmakers didn't initially know that much about people living with spinal cord injuries, which made their discoveries that much more inspiring.

"I had this vague idea about breaking your neck, something your mom warns you about, which means that your life is basically over," Mandell recalls. "I couldn't have been more wrong."

Shapiro, then a senior editor at SPIN magazine, found a newspaper article about quadriplegics who played a violent form of rugby called murderball. He approached Rubin, who had worked as a second unit director on Copland and Girl Interrupted and co-directed the documentary Who is Henry Jaglom?, about joining them as director of photography. By May, the three of them were headed for the world championship in Gothenburg, Sweden. Shapiro also landed an assignment to write about the sport for Maxim magazine.

While in Sweden, the filmmakers met the Team USA players, including star Mark Zupan, and also met Joe Soares, a former American all-star who was cut from the 2000 USA team. Soares had moved to Canada to coach the Canadian team. "After finding out about Joe's story and his need to exact revenge on Team USA, we knew we had found a narrative and that this wasn't going to be the usual sports movie," Mandel recalls.

Despite a veteran Canadian player's prediction that "nobody cares about people in wheelchairs," the filmmakers decided to follow the players for a two-year period, ending at the Paralympics in Greece in September 2004. With a limited budget and players who lived throughout the United States, the filmmakers were forced to take a very strategic approach about who would be the primary characters in the film as well as what events to cover.

"Whether you're making a feature film or a documentary you want to cast characters that are dynamic and have a look and persona as well as benefit the narrative elements," Mandel maintains. "After we shot in Birmingham, Alabama over Labor Day of 2002, there was a lot of thinking to be done. We had to decide who were the people to invest our time and resources in and who would be the stars of the film."

Certainly, the intense rivalry between Team USA and Team Canada was part of the story, but there were also many layers to the players' backstories, especially in the lives of Zupan and Soares. Soares' struggles to connect with his 12-year-old son revealed a different side to the competitive, driven coach. Over the course of filming, Soares also suffered a heart attack, which changed his priorities and enabled him to forge a stronger bond with his son.

"Joe was a fantastic sport about the whole thing," says Mandel. "He really saw the big picture and he understood what we were trying to do. When he had the heart attack, he called us to capture his days in the hospital and recovery in order to show that guys in wheelchairs are like everyone else; they have their good days and their bad days."

Zupan's story included his relationship with his best friend, Chris Igoe. Unbeknownst to Igoe, Zupan had passed out in the bed of his pick-up, and when Igoe, who had been drinking, wrecked and rolled the truck, Zupan was thrown out of the vehicle. Their story and how they healed their friendship is a powerful part of the film. Zupan also informed the filmmakers' shooting style: He joked about his "ass-level view of the world," and the filmmakers decided that they needed to shoot from the players' point of view.

"Henry was such a talented cinematographer and he felt like we needed to show what their world looks like, so we always tried to have the camera looking up at people," Mandell notes.

The filmmakers shot guerrilla style, using Panasonic DVX-100 cameras, but whenever possible they shot while sitting in a wheelchair or from wheelchair height. They shot the men in bars, at high school reunions, during poker games and in Las Vegas, trying to pick up women. The men were very open about their concerns and struggles, even talking about their active sex lives and how much of a surprise it was that women were attracted to them, despite their paralysis. The filmmakers also captured Zupan and other members of the team visiting patients in rehab.

Since Team Canada beat Team USA at the World Championships in Sweden, where the film opens, everyone hoped for a "Rocky" comeback at the Paralympics in Greece. But it didn't happen. With family and friends, the filmmakers capture these moments after the devastating loss to Team Canada, including the macho Zupan shedding tears. Both Team USA and Team Canada earned medals.

THINKFilm held a special screening for Team USA during the Division I and Division II National Championships in Louisville, Kentucky, and the players were very enthusiastic about the film and the attention it brings to their sport. The stars of the film were on hand along with media from across the country. As the film opens to audiences nationally, for the players it's back to the court. As their website,, says, "We all live the sport every day."


Shelley Gabert is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer covering entertainment, travel and culture.