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‘Daruma’ Writer and Director Duo on Making — and Screening — Their Authentically Cast Disability Indie

Writer Kelli McNeil says she was already “deeply insecure about [her] work” when she handed over an early draft of Daruma — a drama about Patrick (Tobias Forrest), a veteran and quadriplegic who discovers he’s the father of a young girl born from a one-night stand years earlier — to her fiancé, director-cinematographer Alexander Yellen.

“She goes off to the other room, and I start reading the script, and by page two, I’m laughing,” says Yellen, who’s worked in various capacities on shows like Z Nation and Euphoria. “She goes, ‘This is a drama.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not. It’s a dark comedy and it’s great.’”

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McNeil began writing the script back in 2017, long before it would premiere at 2023’s Dances With Films Fest in L.A. and screen last month as part of Slamdance’s Unstoppable program, where Peter Farrelly signed on as executive producer to help bolster its profile. The film explores how one man (Patrick) confronts his guilt over his past actions in order to move forward with the help of his new daughter, Camilla (Victoria Scott), and fellow veteran, double-amputee neighbor Robert (John W. Lawson).

The concept was born out of McNeil’s own formative experiences with the disability community. After attending a school with deaf children in rural Texas, in the early 2000s she had a close relative injured in what she calls “a life-changing accident.”

“The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation wasn’t what it was. There really wasn’t social media. There wasn’t GoFundMe. There wasn’t any of this networking stuff to help people cope with this kind of situation and what it was like to move forward,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter over Zoom, while seated on a couch alongside Yellen in Park City, Utah. “I wrote the script as a way to process my own feelings and try to make sense of what this new world looked like. What I started to notice was that the world was inaccessible — completely inaccessible.”

McNeil would also come to find the kinds of disability narratives typical of Hollywood abrasive, if not downright offensive. “Portrayals in the media always centered on the idea that death was better than living with a disability, that it was something that you had to overcome,” she explains. “I wanted to tell a story where that wasn’t the center point. Just a story about somebody who had a disability and was living their life. The challenge that they needed to overcome was an emotional one.”

To do this, she and Yellen started by casting Forrest and Lawson, two actors with the same disabilities as their onscreen counterparts. For the next several years — amid a wedding and honeymoon, intense crowdfunding and filming at the height of the Omicron COVID-19 variant under guild protocols — the duo worked to produce the kind of movie Hollywood hadn’t seen and that the wider disability community could embrace.

“I did not have the direct experience with disability — the kind of visceral experience — that Kelli had,” Yellen says. “But aside from the character description that says, ‘This person is a wheelchair user and this person is a double arm amputee,’ [the story] felt familiar, relatable. I really connected with the emotional journey they were on. These people could have been relatives of mine. They could have been friends.”

A day after screening their film at Slamdance, McNeil and Yellen spoke to THR about how their indie Daruma adds to the changing narrative around disability in film in front of and behind the camera.

Authentic casting was a “non-negotiable” for you, Kelli. How you did achieve that? 

McNeil: One of the very first things was to talk with organizations that do disability representation in film and television. So I did cold outreaches to every organization at the time: RespectAbility, Hollywood Health and Society, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Media Access Awards. You’ve seen so many narratives out there that relate to this kind of material and they haven’t done any of the work. I wanted to make sure that we did the work before we brought anything to life. We reached out, told them what we were doing, allowed them to read the script.

We started by doing a proof of concept. This was very scrappy. We put this in front of the people that we knew could help us. We borrowed cameras from friends and camera houses that we knew. We also did a casting call, and we reached out to Gail Williamson over at KMR [Talent Agency] because we knew that was her specialty. We did a nationwide search and found a couple of double arm amputee actors. We also read a lot of actors who use wheelchairs. We did remote tapes first, and then we had callbacks. That is how we found John and Toby.

Yellen: John and Toby are friends and neighbors in real life, and they read auditions for each other. John went over to Toby and said, “Hey, I saw a breakdown for a double arm amputee. I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and I’ve never seen a breakdown that calls specifically for a double arm amputee. Will you read with me?” So they do John’s audition. And then John said to Toby, “You should really read for the wheelchair role.” He said, “No, they’re looking for a para[plegic]. I’m a quad[riplegic]. They’re going to ask me to do things I’m not going to be able to do.” John goes, “No, let them make that choice. Put yourself on tape. You have nothing to lose.”

Toby’s physicality was different from what was originally written in the script, but his performance was so good we thought it’s not that hard to reconceive this character around his specific physicality. So we spent a little bit of time in development again, with them, to make sure it worked.

McNeil: We worked on physicality, dialogue, we did sensitivity reads. RespectAbility started their entertainment lab in 2019 and held their first workshop at CAA in the summer. At that point, we had finished the proof of concept and were showing it around. We got invited to show it at that first lab and people loved it. We’d already spent eight, nine months building up our audience, promoting ourselves on social media. We were interacting with people and really started to build this community because we knew that we were going to have to make this a self-driven endeavor. We were going to have to go through crowdfunding.

Yellen: We did try it the traditional way. We took our proof of concept around. We talked to development execs at studios and production companies. We got a fairly consistent refrain that was, “Great, who are you casting as the leads?” We were like, “These two amazing actors. We’re casting authentically.” They’re like, “You know what? We really believe in what you’re doing. We wish you the best of luck. We can’t wait to see it when it’s done.”

I think we were always prepared for that. I’m sure reporting has showed in a million different ways that nobody in the studio system is willing to take a risk on something that hasn’t been proven to be profitable, many times over. But we believed so deeply in this. There’s an audience that is hungry for this kind of storytelling that is going to get behind this if we make it and do it well. We’re going to prove that there is a market for this and it is profitable — that people should be making more things like this.

What was your process for crowdfunding? And how pivotal was it to the film getting made? 

McNeil: Alex and I got married and then did an eight-week crowdfunding campaign right after that on Seed & Spark. We decided to do a fiscal sponsorship because we knew that if people could get some sort of incentive, they would be more inclined to contribute to the campaign. It used to be on Seed & Spark that if you didn’t hit a certain percentage of backing, you wouldn’t get anything. So this kind of crowdfunding campaign is a full-time job, where you’re promoting, messaging and emailing — constantly beating that drum to get that funding.

Eventually, it’s Black Friday in 2019, we have 24 hours left to raise our final amounts, and we get this last chunk of what we needed from Abigail Hawk. Abby has worked with Alex for almost a decade now, they’ve done a couple of movies together, and she’s been on Blue Bloods. She had a niece who was severely disabled who sadly passed away in 2019. This [film] really spoke to her, even though she’d never done anything like this before. She came in on the associate producer level, before we even cast her and helped push this over the line. It’s now February of 2020, while Alex and I are getting ready to go on our honeymoon. 

Yellen: With the crowdfunding campaign, we got all this positive PR, so we had a lot of momentum. We had private investors coming in on the heels of that to fund us. Then 2020 just wiped us out. Everybody pulled out. We still had our core seed money from our crowdfunding campaign, but we basically had to start over from the summer of 2020 to get things going again.

McNeil: Enter the gift of the Panavision New Filmmaker Grant. Aaron Saffa, the manager of that program, and we had been talking for a while. They normally put their camera packages to short films, but Aaron was so moved by this script that he committed the cameras, their lenses — everything — and that was worth about $150,000. From there, it was piecemealing everything else that we needed to do. That’s putting in our own money and calling in every single favor.

Were you able to get any assistance from a larger funder again? 

Yellen: We never got an institutional investor. We piecemealed our budget together from a huge group of small investors and then put in a sizable chunk ourselves. So we are very personally invested in this — emotionally, financially, physically, spiritually. We got together enough budget that we could move forward with the project and pay everybody. I’ve done enough projects in my career where if you ever see $1, it’s back-end. You’re just doing people a favor. But it was really important to me that we pay everybody. So everybody on the film made the same amount. We did a contract under a SAG deal and DGA deal, because I’m a DGA director. The DGA, their contract was flexible, so all the DGA staff made the same as all the crew — everybody from the first AD to the PA. SAG, we were tied to SAG rates, so all the SAG actors made the same thing.

What is the process of promoting something like this that doesn’t have that institutional backing? 

McNeil: I went to USC’s theater school and my senior year, I got very sick — so sick that I couldn’t work. I ended up taking an internship at a PR firm that was paid, learning how it worked. I always wanted to make the jump to filmmaking because that’s my love, but I’ve found my background to be one of the most valuable assets that we’ve had. [Choosing to premiere at] Dances With Films, we looked at it like a business decision. We’re in our backyard. We know people here, including media who will cover us. We can absolutely blow this out. So I said, “Let’s have our premiere with these guys because I don’t know when the next opportunity is going to be.”

It was the right call because we sold out the smaller theater in five days, then we sold out the bigger theater and got some amazing coverage. While there, I really focused on — and I did this here at Slamdance, too — getting brand sponsors. We’ve had to continually push back on people saying there’s no money in this type of authentically cast content. I started putting together swag bags. We screened yesterday with these brand bags that I’ve been working on since December. The VIP bags are worth over $500. I got tens of thousands of dollars of stuff contributed to this because the brands started to see the visibility we were getting.

Can you talk about the journey of getting this film to Slamdance? Disability narratives are still pretty rare outside of a few concentrated pockets of the festival industry. 

McNeil: We were not a known entity. Nobody knew us, so when we submitted to all the major festivals, it was heartbreak after heartbreak because we’re not attached to anybody big. It was only recently that Peter Farrelly came on. What [Slamdance Unstoppable founder and programmer] Juliet Romeo is doing — this is one of the only film festivals to have this type of program apart from ReelAbilities.

Yellen: With this kind of media presence and name recognition. Festivals are extraordinarily opaque. It’s very difficult to understand what the selection process looks like. I hear it compared to college admissions. You try to put the best version of whatever you’ve got forward, and you can try to make some inferences about what the programmers were thinking when you finally see the lineup, but we submitted to a bunch of big festivals and a bunch of mid-tiers, and there really was not a lot of disability programming. It clearly was not a priority.

If it happened to have some disability and also had a really big name attached or a big studio behind it, then it got in. And there were some shorts, but no indie feature disability-focused anything at these festivals. So the fact that Slamdance had the Unstoppable program — and basically, on paper, we’re not a good candidate for them. I have far too much experience to be a Slamdance director, and we weren’t a premiere. They do almost exclusively premieres and first- or second-time directors. But they said, “Your film fits too perfectly with the message and the spirit of the program for us not to include it.”

Part of that spirit is showing disability in its fullness and diversity, which is still rare in mainstream, bigger-budget cinema. You do that by playing with some specific and sensitive tropes like “the bitter cripple” and the desexualized disabled person. How did you navigate getting those character elements in without feeding into them?

McNeil: Patrick’s self-loathing comes from his inability to get over emotional burdens. Patrick’s not angry because he’s in a wheelchair. He’s angry because he hates himself for what he did.

Yellen: We know he’s an unlikable protagonist, especially at the beginning, and it’s a thing we wrestled with a lot. One of the interesting things to come out of the audience experience is how people react to his unlikableness from the get-go. I think folks in the disability community really embrace that because it’s a portrayal that isn’t out there a lot. You have, as you say, the bitter cripple, but this is somebody who’s kind of a jerk.

McNeil: And a total womanizer.

Yellen: One other trope is that folks with disabilities have to be saintly. That the only way they can get by in the world is by being exceptionally nice to everybody to play on their sympathy. The idea that somebody can function in the world with a disability and also be a jerk as well? I think folks without disabilities, it makes them uncomfortable because they’re used to seeing this one portrayal of what people with disabilities are supposed to be like in society, and this goes against that. But yeah, we have to be careful with making a tropey character and then reinventing him and changing the narrative to something else. When we did the first pass, I think we went too far, so we had to recalibrate.

How you tell this story — particularly your visual choice to keep the camera at eye level with Patrick — stands out. How did you settle on that?

Yellen: It wasn’t a conscious thought at first. I tend to gravitate towards subjective stories, where you really get to see the world through a specific character. Patrick is in every scene of the movie and clearly we were going to see the world through his eyes. So what’s the most important thing when doing that? We’re going to keep the camera close to him and at his level. The tools are so good now. Cameras, the support systems, the gear is lighter, more flexible to deliver professional-quality visuals in so many different ways. The camera does shift height, usually based on his emotion, so if he’s feeling good on himself, it’s a little lower than him. If he’s feeling bad on himself — with like someone ragging on him — that’s basically the only time when the camera moves up higher. It may be a little uncomfortable for people at first, but it’s not alien. Most people have to look up or down at somebody. 

You had to film this under some intense health and financial circumstances. You also had to be accessible. How did you do that on your budget and timeline?

Yellen: Building an accessible set is not as hard as people think. It seems intuitive to me that we don’t shoot in locations that don’t have a ramp. There’s so many places you can make movies and so many locations that are happy to work with you and many more accessible ones.

McNeil: We shot at Air Hollywood, and that was super accessible.

Yellen: Air Hollywood is an airplane studio in L.A., and the proprietor of that business [founder Talaat Captan] runs a program for parents of children with autism. They bring kids onto their airplane set, pipe in sound, have people dressed as flight attendants. It’s a simulation to try to help these kids get comfortable with the idea of flying so that when they do it for real, they’ve already experienced it, and they’re less likely to have trauma. He gave us the studio for cost. It was great.

A lot of the team were people I had worked with on a TV show for five years called Z Nation. A lot of my crew came down from Spokane. They slept on our couches and on air mattresses, and they bought in immediately. I’ll mention my key grip, Dan Misner, who also did not have a tremendous experience with disability. But he got really excited when I told him about the wheelchair rig and how we wanted to physically mount and lock the camera to Toby’s chair like a SnorriCam. He had never been part of a project that had the kind of unvarnished exposure to disability that ours did. We weren’t trying to hide anything. [Dan] said, I’ve never seen that before, and it’s so interesting.

With John, if he needed something, he told us and the asks were generally so small. It was like, if there’s a round doorknob, can you put some tape on it so that I can get some traction with my hook?

McNeil: I think that there’s just not been the opportunity to show people what they can do. Toby pushed back on a couple of things because he was very concerned that we weren’t showing him getting in and out of cars or getting in and out of bed, the transfers or things like that with a home health aide. But we didn’t need to show those things. It’s not part of the story. I always tell him, “Toby, nobody wants to see Superman change underwear in the morning.” (Laughs.)

Yellen: Toby really wanted to imply that he had an in-home health aide. I said, “We don’t have to show you actually transfer from the bed to your chair.” He was worried that people weren’t going to believe that he had the ability level to do these things. But when we showed Toby the rough cut, afterwards he was like, “You were right. In the entire history of film, we have been casting able-bodied actors to play down their ability level and win awards for it. You two took somebody with a lower ability level and played them up as doing things that they’re not actually able to do.”

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