Rugby, Quadriplegics and Comebacks

Murderball Hits the Screens

18 mins read

Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s Murderball, a bracingly unsentimental look at the culture of quadriplegic rugby, is not only mainstream documentary filmmaking of a high order, but also undoubtedly the best movie ever inspired by a story in Maxim magazine. A successful premiere at the 2005 Sundance festival, where the film was fêted with the Audience Award, guaranteed that Murderball would garner a prestigious play in major North American markets. A couple of months later, Murderball was the runaway hit of Hot Docs, garnering excellent notices from local critics and building anticipation for its Canadian theatrical release this summer.

Not bad for a film that owes its genesis to a magazine piece buried beneath a cover story on Rebecca Romjin-Stamos. Dana Adam Shapiro, then a senior editor at Spin magazine and occasional contributor to the New York Times authored the article, a highlight of the November 2002 edition of Maxim. Earlier that year, Shapiro happened across an online story about quad rugby, more commonly known as “murderball.” (The term proved problematic for potential advertisers and was removed from the game’s official rule book, even though most players still use it when describing what they do). He was struck by the sport’s unique mixture of machismo and vulnerability. “It began to shatter every stereotype I had about people in wheelchairs,” Shapiro says. “It was just a jarring idea. It seemed like an oxymoron because of the physicality of rugby. My impression was that they couldn’t move anything, but there were these fragile guys playing full-contact sports.”

And then some. Quad rugby contests are surprisingly fast-paced, with two four-person teams competing back-and-forth on a regulation-size basketball court. The object is to pass the ball down the length of the court and into the rival team’s end zone. The players’ super-sized wheelchairs, which resemble nothing so much as Ben Hur-style chariots, are specially designed to both withstand and dish out punishment. The idea being, if you can’t snatch the ball from an opponent’s grasp, then you can try to dislodge it with a ramming maneuver. Such jaw-rattling collisions are commonplace. Quad rugby has its finesse elements, but those who succeed do it with equal measures of toughness and talent.

Shapiro decided that the game would appeal to Maxim ’s NASCAR-dad demographic, and lobbied the magazine for an assignment. He was sent to cover the 2002 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden. As it turned out, it was a momentous tournament, the quad-rugby equivalent of the 1972 Summit Series. After an easy breeze through the preliminary rounds, the highly touted American squad saw their ten-year run atop the international rankings scuttled by a scrappy and unheralded bunch of Canadians. Team Canada’s coach, Joe Soares, just happened to be the most successful American quad-rugby player of all time. Post-game, he told anyone who would listen that this one was personal. Canada’s victory had redeemed him from the shoddy treatment he had been dealt by his countrymen.

The plot was thickening fast, but Shapiro was prepared. Although his Swedish adventure was undertaken on Maxim ’s dime, he also had an agenda of his own, to make a documentary about quad rugby. To this end, he’d brought along two friends: his former roommate Jeff Mandel, with whom he’d been hoping to start up a film company (and who scored a producer’s credit) and his friend Henry Alex Rubin, an experienced Hollywood second-unit director who ended up handling the camera and helping to shape the footage into a proper feature-length film.

“I ended up deciding that this subject matter was uniquely visual and that it would be better told through film,” Shapiro says. “I remembered reading about it, and not being able to really picture it in my head. It was the type of thing you literally had to see to believe. Now, I had no experience in translating stories visually, so I went around looking for a collaborator.”

In conversation Shapiro and Rubin actually give off a Maxim vibe. Which is to say they’re youngish and shaggy, affably colloquial and, in Rubin’s case, occasionally amusingly glib. Rubin recalls that it didn’t take him long to say yes. Turning to his partner, he smiles and crinkles his eyes coyly. “You had me,” he sighs, “at ‘quadriplegic’.”

Their film, meanwhile, has us from the very first scene. In a single take, Team USA stalwart Mark Zupan is shown going through his morning routine. The bullet-headed Zupan, whose massive upper body and take-no-prisoners attitude suggest the pro wrestler Steve Austin, is one of the central figures in Murderball. A dominant figure on the court, he’s also one of the game’s most intriguing personalities off of it. It’s difficult watching a fit young man dragging himself with obvious effort from his bed to his wheelchair, but the accompanying voice-over, delivered by Zupan with what we will come to recognize as his characteristic terseness, quickly undercuts any stirrings of pity. The mollycoddling tone of the people Zupan meets in day-to-day life, those who offer him sincere congratulations just for going about his business, piss him right off.

Zupan’s brusqueness is shared by several of the other players, who initially seem more eager to talk about their game plan than their feelings. While he eventually opens up to the camera about the circumstances of his injury—he was thrown from a car being driven by his best pal, breaking his neck and essentially ending their friendship—Zupan isn’t exactly your typical heart-on-the-sleeve type. Shapiro hypothesizes that Maxim ’s pedigree as a stereotypical “guy” magazine thus served an important purpose in getting Zupan and his fellow players to open up. “These guys,” he says of his film’s subjects, “read Maxim. That brand helped us to legitimize ourselves in their eyes. It helped us financially, because the magazine sent us over there in the first place. But it also helped the players believe in us. Because when we showed up there with our little camera, it was hard to believe the movie would end up in theatres.”

If Maxim served as a kind of Trojan horse for the directors’ ambitions, it was their sensitivity that sustained the project over the ensuing two years. Or, more correctly, their studied lack there of. “We’d ask the players what the most annoying thing about being in a wheelchair was,” says Shapiro, “and they’d always respond that it was the pat on the back and being told ‘good for you.’ And most documentaries or programs about people who are disabled essentially end up being that kind of pat on the back. You know, like they’re saying, ‘isn’t this just so inspirational? So after we got told that a few times, we immediately stopped opening doors for them, or asking if they needed help. The film ended up assuming a similar point of view. They don’t want any pity, so as filmmakers, we tried not to have any.”

Which is not to suggest that Murderball isn’t very moving. It’s just that Shapiro and Rubin resist leading our emotions with cloying music cues or manipulative editing. The film’s structure asserts itself naturally, and its emotional impact feels earned. After their defeat in Sweden, the Americans try to regroup, and their training sessions, in preparation for the 2004 Paralympic Games in Greece, make for an obvious transitional device. Murderball seems to be gearing up as a pumped-up athletic revenge saga à la Rocky.

But Shapiro and Rubin retreat from the game itself, and introduce two other major protagonists, Joe Soares and Keith Cavill. Team Canada’s coach Soares, who decided to abandon the United States’ quad rugby program, still evinces his tremendous hurt at being cut as a player from their national squad. Cavill, a young bike racer whom we meet in the weeks after a fall has left him with a broken neck, is a figure in transition, trying to sort out an interrupted life.

Soares, whose relationship with his young son occasionally verges into dark Great Santini territory, is a defiantly proud man who has come to terms with his condition. Like Zupan, he scorns outsiders’ stabs at empathy. Soares’ home is a shrine to his athletic accomplishments, and while his family seem occasionally exasperated by his constant self-aggrandizing, it’s clear he inspires more love than impatience. Cavill, meanwhile, is at the other end of the spectrum, adjusting to life with a broken neck and unable to take the long view. When he returns home to find his mother and girlfriend have rigged his bedroom and washroom with various time-and-energy saving contraptions, he’s less grateful than coolly annoyed: he knows that his situation sucks.

The trio intersects throughout the film in different ways. Soares and Zupan, both rugged individualists, clash frequently during the tournament games, the old pro barking intimidation from the sidelines at the young star. Zupan also crosses paths with Cavill when he visits the latter’s hospital ward. He’s there to promote quad rugby’s therapeutic qualities to a roomful of recently injured patients, and after getting a look at Zupan’s tricked-out murderball chair, Cavill—whose greatest regret is that he’ll never get to race again—is immediately smitten.

It’s a powerful moment, and one that the filmmakers admit seems, from a documentary point of view, to be almost too good to be true. But they insist that Cavill’s enthusiasm upon meeting Zupan was in no way manipulated. “We’ve been asked if we shot that scene first, realized that [Keith] liked quad rugby, and then went in reverse, filling in his back-story,” says Rubin. “Obviously not. That would be completely dishonest. We just got really, really lucky.”

There were some other unpredictable moments. Late in the film, Joe Soares suffered a heart attack. The filmmakers were invited to bring their cameras into the hospital (after Soares and his family gave permission) and to their credit, they didn’t milk the trauma for drama. Soares’ illness and subsequent speedy recovery is treated matter-of-factly.

Shapiro and Rubin brought this same sensibility to the matter of the players’ sex lives. Given that their film is set in a fairly macho milieu, they probably weren’t expecting sex to be a big part of their film, but like most of their (and our) assumptions, it didn’t prove to be true. “Everyone’s thinking ‘do these guys have sex?’’’ says Rubin, “but nobody asks. So for us, it was another way of subverting your typical experience of watching inspirational films about disabilities. You just do not expect to have guys in wheelchairs talking about doggie-style and oral sex. It actually makes some audience members uncomfortable.”

In one memorable passage, the directors give us a glimpse of an instructional video produced for quadriplegics wondering how to maintain their sex lives. It’s a poignant moment, but also terrifically funny. Bad porn acting, it seems, is universal. Rubin laughs when it’s suggested that Zupan’s girlfriend Jess, who appears sporadically throughout the film, is especially alluring. “She’s hot,” he confirms. “They all get much hotter girls than we do.”

Jess brings out Zupan’s tenderness; never more so than in the climactic scene where Team USA once again tastes defeat at the hands of the Canadians, this time at the 2004 Paralympics. At that moment, their hard-edged bravado fades, and as they file out of the arena, the players’ usually impassive faces are contorted with bitter sorrow. Their friends and families do their best to console them, but it’s a crushing blow. Anyone who doubts the legitimacy of quad rugby as athletic competition (and they’d already be in the minority after watching the first 80 minutes of the film) needs no further proof than the agony on display—this isn’t a hobby, or a diversion partaken in for its own sake. For the players, it’s a deathly serious competition.

Still, given the larger context, their frustration can be seen as a positive development. The game means enough to them that they’re able to forget about the larger struggle of their lives and focus on achieving greatness within their chosen discipline. Murderball respects the importance of the game for its subjects, but it does so without giving over to the winning-is-everything mentality that mars so many sports films, documentary or otherwise. When Team USA loses, it’s a shock—once again, they went into the match as favourites—but our interest is in the people, and not the final score.

“The game” offers Rubin,” is just a point of entry into a world we wanted to show. It’s a MacGuffin, a plot device. It’s like a French gangster movie, where there’s a shoot-out at the beginning, and then two wonderful hours of people talking, or falling in and out of love. And then at the end, there’s a heist, or something. We’re cloaking ourselves in genre, to tell stories about people.”

Adam Nayman is a critic and teacher in Toronto. He writes for Cinema Scope, The Ringer, and other publications.

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