The Self-hating Documentarians: Henry-Alex Rubin & Dana Adam Shapiro on “Murderball”
by Ellen Keohane
“It sounded like an offensive joke,” said “Murderball” co-director Henry-Alex Rubin, referring to the time he first heard about quadriplegic rugby.
Originally called murderball, quad rugby was invented by three Canadians from Manitoba and was first introduced to the U.S. in 1981. Only players with a combination of upper and lower extremity impairment can play. The game takes place on a basketball court with four players, who aggressively slam into one another in custom-made wheel chairs — sometimes knocking each other over — in an attempt to cross over the goal line with a volleyball.
For two and a half years, co-directors Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro followed quad rugby players Mark Zupan, Joe Soares, Andy Cohn and Scott Hogsett, among others — starting with the 2002 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships in Sweden and ending with the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.
But the film is about more than sports. It’s about what it’s like to recover after breaking your neck, and how rugby gave these athletes a way to cope with life in a wheelchair.
The resulting film earned Rubin and Shapiro a Documentary Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. THINKFilm releases “Murderball” today in New York and Los Angeles.
indieWIRE: Where did the idea for “Murderball” originate?
Dana Adam Shapiro: I was a senior editor at Spin in 2002 and also freelanced for other magazines. So I always scoured the Internet and local papers and magazines looking for stories. I came across this story about the Phoenix Heat, which was the quad rugby team that Scott Hogsett and Andy Cohn are on. It was about the rivalry that they had with the Texas Stampede, which is Mark Zupan’s team. The article was pretty mind-blowing for me, because I had thought all quadriplegics were like Christopher Reeve — very mild mannered and weak and fragile. Not playing this violent game and driving and having sex. I guess in my ignorance, I didn’t think quadriplegics would talk like that. And all of those stereotypes just started falling away. So I started calling all the guys on Team USA and interviewing them and finding out what it was all about.
IW: How did the two of you initiate your collaboration?
Shapiro: Jeff Mandel, Murderball’s producer, was the first person that I called and who got on board. But Jeff and I had never made a film before. I met Henry through a mutual friend. I knew he had a background in documentary film.
Henry-Alex Rubin: Dana and I discovered that we had a lot of mutual tastes. We liked the same movies and so on. The subject matter sounded pretty outrageous when he first pitched it to me.
IW: So the film was based on the article Dana wrote for Maxim in 2002?
Rubin: The film and the article were simultaneous. The way that we got funded to go over to Sweden was actually pretty brilliant. Dana got all his travel and lodging paid for by Maxim to write an article about the 2002 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships. Jeff raised the money for me to go. At the very least, we knew Dana would come out with a Maxim article and we were hoping we’d find a movie.
Shapiro: I knew the guy at Maxim and so I told him, look, we’re making this film and we need to retain the rights for the story. Maxim published the article and it legitimized us in the eyes of the players. It was a way for us to show them how we would treat them. And so they respected us and allowed us in.
IW: Can you tell me a little about the different roles you both played in the filmmaking process?
Shapiro: There were a lot of ideas that I had story-wise and character-wise, and there were a lot of ideas that Henry had visually. Together we put our heads together and came up with an aesthetic for the way that we wanted to tell the story.
Rubin: We both had strong skills in different areas, but I think we both had very similar tastes and that’s where our bridges sort of connected. We decided right from the get-go to make a film that really reflects these guys’ attitudes and their styles and who they are. These guys don’t want any pity. They play hard and they party hard. They curse. They call each other cripple and gimp. They’re not at all what you would expect people in wheelchairs to be like.
Shapiro: What really turned it into a feature film as opposed to a short film were the off-the-court stories, the universal stories that we found. Murderball, the sport, really only gets eight or nine minutes of screen time. The majority of this film is the story of what it’s like to break your neck.
Rubin: Let me just interrupt to say that we are a little bit — I have to admit — self-hating documentarians. We find a lot of documentaries very boring, very didactic, very pedantic. We didn’t want to make anything with a saccharine score or anything with talking heads. We tried to make the movie as if it were executed like a fiction film.
IW: When did THINKFilm get involved with the project?
Rubin: We had shot two-thirds of the way through the film, and THINKFilm came in and gave us the money to finish it.
Shapiro: We had been scoring it to this music that we really wanted. We wanted to bring a whole crew to go to Athens, Greece for the Paralympic Games with a bunch of cameras for a week. These are things we just never would have been able to afford without the money from THINKFilm. The movie would have been very different if we had to finish it on our own dimes. The greatest asset of THINKFilm, however, was that they imposed deadlines on us.
Rubin: We had an excruciatingly tight deadline. We barely made the Sundance deadline. I’m amazed we got in because the movie we sent to Sundance didn’t have the Paralympics in it because the deadline was before the Paralympics even happened. We sent them the movie and it didn’t even have an ending yet.
IW: What are you both working on now?
Shapiro: I wrote a novel called “The Every Boy” that’s being published by Houghton Mifflin this month. Then I’m going to write and direct a movie based on the book for Plan B and Paramount. I have to finish the script in a few months.
Rubin: Now I’m writing a movie about returning Iraq war veterans. And I should be done with the Winona Ryder mockumentary that I directed very soon. It was shot during the whole shoplifting trial.
IW: So it’s about her shoplifting problem?
Rubin: That’s an element. It’s about a nutty actress who wants to be become a bad girl. So that’s that.