First-Degree Murderball

Everybody knew quad rugby was a great subject for a documentary, but nobody expected that Murderball could well be the best movie ever made about living with paralysis.

Andy Cohn (left) and Scott Hogsett get into the heat of the action in Murderball.

Andy Cohn (left) and Scott Hogsett get into the heat of the action in Murderball.
Photos courtesy of ThinkFilm

Sometimes movies succeed by giving audiences something they didn’t know they wanted. Megahits like Star Wars, Titanic, and The Sixth Sense succeed as phenomenal entertainment, offering something new, exciting or different. Other films succeed as cultural pivot points, pointing society toward a new way of thinking.

Murderball will not reap Titanic-scale profits, but its critical and popular success suggests it’s a film whose time has come. By demolishing disability stereotypes that have endured for decades, this crowd-pleasing documentary about quad rugby marks a celebratory milestone. It’s arguably the best movie ever made about living with paralysis, achieving in 86 tightly focused minutes something that borders on the miraculous: It makes disability cool.

For those who felt that Million Dollar Baby dealt a poisonous blow to the progressive perception of disability (see NM’s April 2005 cover story), Murderball is the undeniable antidote. It’s a win-win scenario for crips and nondisabled alike, a cinematic summit meeting that says “I’m OK, you’re OK, life is good.” It’s a message that mainstream audiences are ready to hear.

What’s remarkable is that Murderball was made by two guys with little or no previous exposure to the lives of the disabled. When they discovered quad rugby as a potentially dynamic topic for a documentary, co-directors Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin were disability neophytes. Rubin has a relative with multiple sclerosis, but he and Shapiro still had the same questions about disability that most nondisabled people are too discreet or anxious to ask.

The difference, in this case, is that Shapiro and Rubin got it right. In the course of making Murderball, they gained a positive understanding of disability that informs every scene in the film. The beneficial effect of their movie may be difficult to estimate, but this much is clear: Anyone who sees Murderball will have their perception of disability immediately and substantially altered–no doubt for the better.

Just as Murderballwas poised for theatrical release after winning numerous awards and unanimous acclaim in film festivals around the country, Rubin’s enlightenment reached an almost evangelical pitch:

“This country’s perception of disabled people is that they’re weak, delicate, and made of glass, sitting at home under afghan blankets and needing our help,” he says. “We rarely integrate disability into our culture, and when we do, it’s condescending. We sweep the disabled under the carpet, because this country’s all about newness and perfection, even if it’s fake.”

Shapiro concurs: “A lot of films about the disabled are unintentionally condescending with a pat-on-the-back, good-for-you attitude. Those films don’t appeal to me because they feel forced and preachy. I didn’t want to make a film like that, but that priority came a distant second to the fact that these guys weren’t like that at all. If they had been weepy or pitiful or trying to be inspirational, we would have faced the choice of making that kind of movie or no movie at all.”

Instead they made the movie that “these guys”–the quad rugby players featured in Murderball–wanted to see. Taking their cues from the subjects they were filming, Rubin and Shapiro crafted Murderball into an emotionally powerful pro-disability thriller that caused the mainstream media to stand at attention.

Behind the Scenes
A former editor at Spin magazine, Shapiro and his friend Jeff Mandel (a corporate tax attorney) were eager to make a movie. When Shapiro saw a newspaper article about quad rugby–formerly known as “Murderball” from its Canadian origins in the 1970s–his curiosity took over.

Mark Zupan, the central figure of Murderball, brings aggression and intensity to both the sport and the film.

Mark Zupan, the central figure of Murderball, brings aggression and intensity to both the sport and the film.

After interviewing several quad rugby players over the phone, Shapiro, 31, wrote a Murderball story for the November 2002 issue of Maxim magazine that proved to be the catalyst for many good things to follow. Still uncertain of quad rugby’s cinematic potential, Shapiro recruited filmmaker friend Rubin, who had previously worked as a second-unit director on mainstream films (including Cop Land and Girl, Interrupted) and also directed an acclaimed documentary about maverick independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom.

Armed with a $3,000 digital video camera and little else, Shapiro and Rubin ventured to Gothenberg, Sweden, for the 2002 quad rugby world championships. Encouraged by the accuracy of Shapiro’s Maximarticle, Team USA players like Mark Zupan, Scott Hogsett and Andy Cohn welcomed the filmmakers, who in turn found what they were searching for–compelling stories of survival and friendship, fathers and sons, intense competition and painful adjustment, of winning and losing, of love, sex and living life to the fullest. And they’re all stories of quadriplegia.

“It was a high-risk venture,” says Rubin, “because we had no financing in place, and we had no idea if we had a movie or not. We didn’t have a story until Joe beat Team USA.”

He’s referring to Joe Soares, the coach of Team Canada, who beat Team USA in Sweden, giving Murderball its first dramatic twist. Legs paralyzed by polio that struck him as a youth 43 years earlier, Soares had once been the No. 1 wheelchair rugby player in the world, until age slowed him down and he was cut from Team USA After losing legal appeals to regain his position, Soares retaliated by becoming coach of Team Canada, sparking the heated rivalry that injects Murderball with an intoxicating rush of testosterone.

Knowing that the U.S. and Canadian teams would compete again at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Shapiro and Rubin found their movie’s action-packed hook.

With aggressive quad-jocks engaging in gladiatorial mayhem as they crash into each other in customized rugby chairs, Murderball has a Mad Max quality that audiences instantly relate to. But Shapiro and Rubin didn’t want to make “just another sports movie,” and that’s what hooked the players, allowing a level of trust and honesty that makes the film unique.

“There’s no point in making a film that reinforces stereotypes,” says Shapiro. “The device of using smashing wheelchairs to smash stereotypes is literal and obvious, but it clicks. The fact that we knew nothing at first was important, because we were smashing our own stereotypes, and the film allowed us to have a wide-eyed, judgment-neutral perspective like children have–it’s fascination, not pity. Most people have a primal fear of paralysis, and we wanted to show that the ‘nightmare scenario’ of breaking your neck is not as bad as people think it is.”

Like anyone who’s athletically inclined, guys like Zupan, Hogsett and Cohn are competitors out for blood, and the fact that they’re quads is almost irrelevant. Individually classified on a point scale of .5 to 3.5 based on physical function, quad rugby players compete in teams of four on a regulation basketball court. To ensure competitive equality, cumulative point values cannot exceed 8.0 for any four-man team. Players pass, dribble and carry a regulation volleyball with admirable agility, scoring one point when the ball-carrier rolls at least two wheels into the opponent’s end zone. Apart from gloves smeared with pine-tar for ball-handling stickiness, little or no padding is used. As with any full-contact sport, injuries are not uncommon.

Hogsett, a 32-year-old C5-6 incomplete quad from Phoenix, was paralyzed at age 19 when a guy at a Super Bowl party punched him in the face; on the rugby court he’s classified 1.0. Andy Cohn, a 26-year old Arizona native who bears a brotherly resemblance to Eminem, has been a C6 incomplete since he was injured in a car accident at age 16. Classified 2.0, he delivers some of the film’s funniest anecdotes, in addition to an anguished moment of on-court disappointment.

Then there’s Zupan, a civil engineer from Austin, Texas, who is now the official spokesman for Team USA With his bad-ass goatee, shaved head, elaborate tattoos and a no-nonsense attitude that’s both amiable and intimidating, Zupan is the undisputed star of Murderball.

Zupan was 18 and passed-out drunk when he was tossed from the bed of his best friend Chris Igoe’s pickup truck in 1993. Igoe had no idea Zupan was in the truck when he drunkenly lost control on a Florida highway, unknowingly launching Zupan into a nearby canal where he was paralyzed (C7 incomplete) but somehow clung to a tree branch for nearly 14 hours until he was spotted by a stranger who called 911.

Now 30, on good terms with Igoe and enjoying the celebrity limelight with appearances on MTV, in Reebok’s “I Am What I Am” advertising campaign, and in a July Entertainment Weekly article that called him “this summer’s surprise action hero,” Zupan is Murderball‘s defiant force of nature, setting the tone for the film’s progressive pro-quad perspective.

“Zupan is a filmmaker’s wet dream,” says Rubin. “He is stubbornly himself, and he couldn’t give two shits if you were filming him or not. He’d be the same either way, no bullshit whatsoever. Plus he had this arch-rival attitude toward Joe Soares, who was not always himself before the camera. With Joe, we had to devise ways of filming so we could capture him in a natural state.”

Zupan also inspired the film’s dominant visual aesthetic. “I’m just like you, but I have an ass-level view of the world,” he told Rubin, who shot 95 percent of the film. The chair-user’s perspective dictated the film’s entire look and feel.

“They were curious about how everything worked, so I said they could ask me anything or film anything,” says Zupan, whose girlfriend Jessie leads Murderball into a surprisingly frank and good-natured discussion of quad sex and relationships, part of an R-rated sequence with guaranteed audience appeal.

The Whole Story?
As candid as Murderball is, it’s also interesting for what it doesn’t show about life as a quad: no attendant care (most of the guys don’t need it), no bowel programs, catheters or leg bags, no adaptive equipment (other than wheelchairs and hand controls in cars), no travel hassles–nothing that would suggest a downside to disability. There’s also very little “upside” footage of quads at work–many quad-rugby players hold full- or part-time jobs–or any indication that some players (reflecting any statistical sampling of quads) live comfortably due to injury-related legal settlements.

Scott Hogsett shows off his moves on the court.

Scott Hogsett shows off his moves on the court.

And yet, Murderball doesn’t feel overly sanitized because it’s so entertainingly focused on the competition, personalities and relationships that make it universally appealing. It’s not “the whole story,” if only because no movie can be all things to all people … or all quads.

“I was more cautious because I was aware of all the ways movies have gotten it wrong,” says Cohn. “One of my favorite things about Murderball is that none of that ‘pity me’ crap is included. The whole point of the movie is that we’re normal, and including all that ‘struggle’ shit would just bring us back down again, making life as a quad look different, odd and shitty. We’re disability advocates by NOT talking about our problems. Our advocacy is doing the best job we can to make people in wheelchairs look capable.”

Hogsett took some heat for his sarcastic observation, in the film, about the distinction between Special Olympics and Paralympics. His objection to being confused with a “retard” drew criticism from Special Olympics representatives, but Hogsett obviously meant no disrespect.

“All I’m saying is that we’re different,” Hogsett says. “The Special Olympians are admirable people, and we’re not dissing them at all. We’re just different. By appearing in Murderball, all I cared about is that we were not exploited. We don’t bitch about our situation, so there’s nothing negative about our lives in the movie.”

Of course, not all is strictly fun and games. Zupan, Hogsett and Cohn readily acknowledge the “dark period” that followed their injuries, and they credit quad rugby as the “light” that drew them out of their post-injury doldrums. Rubin and Shapiro captured some disability-related hardship in over 200 hours of footage (many of these deleted scenes will be included on the Murderball DVD), and they knew that “the dark side” was an essential part of the story.

In one of the film’s most touching moments, quadruple amputee Bob Lujano wistfully recalls a dream in which he flies out of his wheelchair, all four limbs intact. He’s fully adjusted to life as a wheelchair user (his motto is “No arms, no legs, no problem!”), but his dream, and the animation that illustrates it, speaks volumes about the complex psychology of disability. Likewise, by focusing on Keith Cavill, a C4-5 quad just four months post-injury (from a motocross accident), Rubin and Shapiro capture the painful early stage of adjustment that all quads must endure to survive. (Murderball also hints at Cavill’s quad-rugby potential: In the film he lights up when Zupan promotes the sport at New Jersey’s Kessler Rehab clinic, and as an encouraging bonus, Cavill received a brand-new quad-rugby chair, valued at over $3,000, at the film’s New York City premiere.)

“The Keith story acknowledges that being a quad sucks at first,” says Hogsett. “It shows that we were all there at one time or another.”

It also shows that life as a quad is a process, an evolution toward a new kind of wholeness with a new kind of body. Some may argue that Zupan and his impressively capable teammates are overcompensating for their disabilities, putting their best wheels forward to improve the image of “gimps and cripples” everywhere. Say that to their faces, however, and you’re likely to get a knuckle sandwich. As far as they’re concerned, they’re just normal, and that’s all there is to it. Murderball promotes that attitude, and it’s positively infectious.

“The stars aligned for us,” says Shapiro, still gratefully amazed by the stories (including Soares’ heart attack and improved relationship with his nonathletic son) that unfolded over two-and-a-half years of filming. At the halfway point, Murderball secured additional financing from ThinkFilm, a successful company at the vanguard of the current documentary renaissance, ensuring the film’s theatrical release.

“Everybody says it sounds like a goody-goody film about disabled people that you should watch because it’s good for you,” says Rubin. “Then they discover something else entirely … something nobody expects to see.”

And they’re loving it. With so much acclaim in its favor, Murderball is a shoo-in as a best documentary nominee at next year’s Academy Awards. So have Rubin and Shapiro prepared their Oscar acceptance speeches?

“No,” says Rubin, “but wouldn’t it be cool if Zupan rolled onstage to accept the award?”

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