(October 5, 2012)
For three Guild members who have written a veritable bumper crop of films this season featuring central characters with disabilities, the challenges have been nearly as complex as the stories they have set out to tell.
While writing The Sessions, Ben Lewin searched for the universality in his story about a paralyzed poet who hires a sex surrogate to help lose his virginity. “I wanted to make sure it just didn’t speak to people in iron lungs but to everyone’s initial fear of sex and the awkwardness of beginning a sex life and finding out what it is all about, ” says Lewin. “At the same time, having a disability myself (Lewin had polio as a child and uses crutches) meant that I could avoid all political correctness. I don’t know whether an able-bodied person would easily approach a severely disabled person in conversation asking what their sex life is like. Not being constricted by any political correctness meant I was able to go into it full frontally.”
Marty Madden, whose lifelong love of dance films led him to his story, came to wheelchair ballroom dancing through a producer friend. But his challenge in writing Musical Chairs, which will be released next month, was to convey the message that a passion for ballroom dancing – and the ability to do it - isn’t diminished because one is in a wheelchair. “We all have challenges in life, but they don’t make you any less able to love or explore and achieve anything you want in life,” says Madden.
Travis Fine, who optioned and rewrote George Arthur Bloom’s 1970s screenplay about an openly gay man, his closeted partner and the young Down Syndrome boy that they care for, concedes that his challenge – as “a straight married man with three kids living in the suburbs” -- was to find the personal connection that would allow him to tell his story. Ultimately, Any Day Now, which will be screened at the Writers Guild on November 12 and released on December 14 in a number of markets, became a universal story of love and compassion that won the audience award for Best Picture at every festival where it has played including its premiere at Tribeca. “No matter what color someone is, what their sexual preference, race, religion or mental capacity, they deserve the right to love freely and receive love,” says Fine.
At a time when disabilities are still somewhat taboo in Hollywood, these three films go a long way in bringing often-ignored storylines and characters to the big screen. They comprise the Screening Series of the Guild’s Writers with Disabilities Committee, whose mission is to enhance the visibility and employment of writers with all types of disabilities, and to encourage, celebrate and endorse accurate portrayals of the disabled in all areas of media. The committee also serves as an expert resource to the film and television communities on issues related to the disabled.
“There still exists an invisible wall borne of traditional attitudes about disabilities and exacerbated by Hollywood’s emphasis on youth and health,” says Committee Chair Allen Rucker. “If you’re a young high school kid with a disability you would never think it is possible to write for television or film because you rarely see yourself on TV or in films.”
It was a desire to help counter the paucity of disabled characters on the screen that moved Madden to tackle the subject of wheelchair dancing and, at the same time, tell an interesting story. But casting the film was anything but easy. As Madden explains, his casting director reached out to numerous organizations and guilds to find disabled actors, including Push Girl’s Auti Angel.
In Any Day Now, Fine wrote the lead character of Marco (who has been abandoned by his addicted mother) as “nasty and surly having grown up on the streets, a feral little kid.” But in the final auditions, actor Isaac Leyva, who has Down Syndrome, had difficulty demonstrating these qualities because, as Fine learned, DS children are consistently loving and gentle. “Ultimately it was a great lesson for me,” says the writer. “Isaac was the perfect actor, so I adjusted the role to fit his personality.”
Lewin, whose film (starring Helen Hunt, John Hawkes and William H. Macy) debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and won the Audience Award (U.S. Dramatic) and a Special Jury prize for Ensemble Acting, says he turned a corner in writing his screenplay when he recognized that his film, at its core, was about a relationship between two people not a man in an iron lung. He also went to great lengths to avoid making the true story about paralyzed poet Mark O’Brien– which first appeared in 1990 in a San Francisco publication – into a biopic.
By all accounts, he succeeded. “One person came out of a screening saying that he was never going to take sex for granted again,” says Lewin, whose film will be screened on November 2 at the Guild. “I think that’s a pretty good message to take away. At the very least I’m hoping to push the envelope.”
Whether these films start a sea change in attitudes towards how disabilities are dealt with in Hollywood and how writers with disabilities are treated, may be hard to discern for some time. “But we’re beating the drum in various ways,” says Rucker, who didn’t use a wheelchair until he was 51, when he was stricken with transverse myelitis. “It’s very hard for someone with a disability to walk into a pitch room. There are so many unspoken cues back and forth. Often it’s not even conscious but a sub-conscious feeling that disabled people may be unreliable because of health issues. But, hey, ‘I’m not sick. I’m disabled.’”
To find out more about the Writers With Disabilities Committee, click here
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