The Collider Interview: Murderball

     July 18, 2005

Posted by Mr. Beaks

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If you’re looking for a respite from the numbing event film onslaught that is the Summer Movie Season, the breather you’re looking for is called Murderball, an excellent documentary about Quadriplegic Rugby(http://www.quadrugby.com/toc.htm) that distinguishes itself both for the unsentimental approach of its filmmakers, Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, and the invigorating technique they use to tell their multilayered tale.; Fraught with all the ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies of most classic sports films,;Murderball is a bruising, emotional thrill ride that depicts Team USA’s struggle to rebound from a devastating loss in the 2002 World Championships at the hands of Team Canada.; This defeat is painful not only because it ended a decade’s worth of dominance by Team USA, but also because Team Canada is coached by Joe Soares, a former American standout who hightailed it to the Great White North in order to exact revenge on his native squad for cutting him several years ago.

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Leading the charge for Team USA is Mark Zupan, a boundlessly charismatic badass whose personality dominates, but never overwhelms the film.; That said, watching Zupan in this movie, you get the feeling you’re witnessing the birth of a movie star, something the film’s co-distributor MTV obviously picked up on, which is why, when;Jackass returns in the near future, you’ll be seeing Zupan clowning around with Johnny Knoxville and Steve O for what sounds like a particularly painful episode (I can’t wait to see what this “Wheelchair Cattle Prod Jousting” is all about).

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So, when I was offered a one-on-three interview with Rubin, Shapiro and Zupan a couple of weeks ago, I leapt at the opportunity, and, unsurprisingly, was rewarded with a gloriously uncensored discussion during which the able-bodied Rubin kept doing laps around our table in what looked like an unmodified wheelchair.; (The wheelchairs used by the Quad Rugby players are pissed off looking conveyances that’d be right at home in a George Miller smash-‘em-up.); While not the most fluid interview I’ve ever conducted, it certainly was entertaining, as we touched on myriad subjects including the structuring of the narrative, the integration into the narrative of the film’s third character, a newly injured young man named Keith Cavill, and Zupan’s… softening toward Soares.


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The best sports movies often seem to be movies that either end in losses or aren’t about winning and losing at all:; for example, The Bad News Bears, Bull Durham and Raging Bull.

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Henry:; Raging Bull.; I never even thought of that one.

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Do you guys…

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Henry:; Agree?; Well, we didn’t make them lose.

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But the way it worked out.

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Dana:; We agree in hindsight, but while we were making this, we disagreed.; We always hoped in our story meetings, when we were trying to figure out what to do, that they would win at the end.; And didn’t realize that it was better for the film that they loss.; I agree with you.

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Zupan:; It still sucks.

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Henry:; I agree that we wanted to win, but it made it a better film that we did lose because you get to see true emotion.; Which you don’t get off of this guy (indicating Zupan).

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No.; Never.

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Henry:; Impossible.

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Dana:; We got a deeper victory.; The end of that film is a more profound victory.; It’s all the stuff we tried so hard not to do, which is make this inspirational film about triumph of the spirit or triumph over unimaginable obstacles.; At the end, after that game, that’s the one goal we realized; even though they lost, they didn’t lose at all.

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Henry:; But your point’s well taken.

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With that in mind, Mark, you’ve got to be thinking about nothing else than getting back out there.

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Zupan:; Fuck yeah, dude.

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How are you going to do that?

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Zupan:; Play our game.; If we didn’t shit ourselves.; Yesterday, I used the word “shat”.; We shat ourselves.; That’s pretty much what happened.; It was tied at halftime, and we just started making some poor, poor mistakes.

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Henry:; We had this debate:; I thought that maybe Joe had some superior plays.

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Zupan:; Fuck that!

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Henry:; Zupan humbly disagrees with me—

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Zupan:; It was poor playing.; It was.; It was horrible.; Off the ball shit.; I know.; That’s one of the games that I’ve relived in my head.; I don’t remember a lot of games, but that’s one where I can vividly say, “There’s a turnover there, there’s a turnover there, there’s a turnover there”… and why?; Because we were stupid.

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In the film, it’s said that Soares knows [the Team USA] players inside and out.; Is there anything that you have to do differently?

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Zupan:; No.; He thinks he knows, he thinks he knows, but will he ever really know…?; (Laughs.); I never played for him, I never played with him.; I’m sure that he’s watched—

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Henry:; He is very precise about his game, and, I think, does more research than the other coaches.; He has an actual, very thick playbook.; He showed it to us.; He actually only showed us the cover; he wouldn’t open it up for us.; (Laughs.); He takes notes, and films every game, and he studies every game—

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Zupan:; So did we.

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Henry:; Well…

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(Dana laughs.)

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Zupan:; Look, you’re not going to get anything good out of me toward (Soares), so I’ll just shut up.

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No, Mark.; I can see how the promotion of the film has really allowed for a softening toward Joe.

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Zupan:; (Laughs.); Softened towards him?; Okay.; If that’s what you want to call it.; That’s an interesting—

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I heard you call him “a puddle of shit” earlier.

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(Henry laughs.)

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Zupan:; Well, now you can quantify what he is.

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You still wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire?

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Zupan:; I’d probably throw gasoline.

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Henry:; Where is Joe?; We should have Joe here to defend himself.; Joe is a man who is after a dream.; This guy—

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Zupan:; And I’m not?

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Henry:; Alright.; You know what?; Next question.

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Zupan:; That’s a wise choice, my friend.; You’re digging a hole, and I ain’t gonna let you fuckin’ out.

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One last thing about Joe:; getting access to his surgery.; He actually flatlines.

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Henry:; Yes.; Well, we learned later that that happens, that it’s common.; But during the moment, we thought it was very fucking serious.

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It seems serious.

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Henry:; It is serious!; And it did actually happen, but we were taught later that this happens sometimes.; But we thought, yeah, Dana and I… “Oh, my god!; Is our antagonist going to pass away in the middle of the movie?”

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Dana:; We had the access because he called.; You were asking about why we were there.

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I was just curious, because the fact that he flatlined was absolutely remarkable.; Also, working Keith into the narrative:; obviously, Mark, you knew that there was this moment where you were going to introduce him to rugby.

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Zupan:; I didn’t know.

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Dana:; We started filming Keith much, much later.; We had been filming Zupan for over a year before we even started to film Keith.; And the reason for filming Keith was that he was really, at a very linear level, supposed to be Zupan ten years ago.; Of the two stars of the movie – Joe and Zupan – Joe was born with polio, while Zupan broke his neck.; Zupan would tell us all the time – it was one of the most interesting parts of the narrative:; what’s it like to break your neck?; And he would talk about this two year “dark period.”; We’d look at Zupan, and you don’t see that darkness; you don’t see that loss.; The idea was, “Well, instead of hearing about that loss, let’s show, not tell.”; Instead of Zupan telling us what it’s like, maybe we could actually film somebody who’s going through what he went through.; Jeff Mandel, who’s the third filmmaker, was very, very instrumental in having the relationship at the Kessler Rehabilitation Center, so we were able to get this guy who was open enough to let us film the rehab.; And he became sort of an every-Quad.; He was Zupan ten years ago; he was [Scott] Hogsett ten years ago; he was Andy [Cohn] ten years ago.; He was everybody.; He represented that transition that they all spoke about.; And, then, when they found out that Zupan got chosen to be the spokesman for Team USA, to come to the Paralympic Caucus in New York.; When we told the people at Kessler, they said, “Do you think maybe he would come and speak?”; We asked Zupan, “Do you want to go speak at Kessler?”; And he said, “Yes.”; So, it was a very organic and surprising meeting.; And the fact that Keith just lit up the same way Zupan told us he lit up when he found rugby.

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Henry:; Yeah.

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Dana:; We talk about the stars all the time when it comes to this film.; I mean, you could plan all you want… but a moment like that—

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It was wholly un-manufactured?

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Henry:; Yes.

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Dana:; The only manufacturing was that, obviously, he was at Kessler because we had a relationship with Kessler.; But the fact that Keith lit up like that.

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Zupan:; I didn’t know.

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Henry:; At that point, Keith was what you call an “outpatient”, which is when you come every week for rehab and stuff like that.; These guys will still go to a hospital for a year or two [after their injury].; Keith heard that Zupan was coming, and he was like, “Shit, yeah!; I’d love to sit in on that.”; But, obviously, part of the reason that we picked Keith was that he had a very dangerous and active lifestyle before his accident.; And we figured that if any of these guys was going to eventually be interested in Quad Rugby, it’d be someone like Keith.; But we never expected the reaction to be as strong as it was for him.; It really, really was… life changing.; And he is training now.; And he has his own chair now.; At the New York premiere, it was very sweet:; Zupe got hooked up with some chairs from a… I don’t know—

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Zupan:; Someone called after seeing a screening in Boston, and said they wanted to donate a chair.; That they wanted to buy Keith a chair.; I said, “Okay.”; We got all the funding together, got a chair built, brought it up to the premiere in New York, and surprised him.; He sat in it once.; Who knows?; Maybe he’ll play; maybe he won’t.; Hopefully—

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Does it seem like he will?

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Zupan:; He seems just totally stoked about it.; I mean, he’s got a lot of stuff to figure out about his body yet, and he’s still newly injured.

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Henry:; Keith still hopes to walk again.

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Zupan:; And that’s fine.; He still has a lot to learn.; He’s a young kid.

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Henry and Dana, did I read correctly that you two actually strapped in and played with these maniacs at one point?

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Dana:; At one point.

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Did you get your ass handed to you?

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Dana:; It was rough.

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Henry:; That’s the polite way of saying it.

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Dana:; They’re lucky that they can’t feel a lot of their body.; They talk about it being bumper cars, but there’s no bumper.; It’s just metal on metal.; They’re also faster.; They push in their chairs, so the muscles are definitely trained to… they go around the track, so we both played with them and raced against them.; It was like being in a shopping cart and smashing into a wall.

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Henry:; It’s like hopping on a bike and running into a wall.; There’s no cushion.; There’s no shock.; It feels like getting punched in the stomach when they hit you.; You feel all your guts go jiggle.; And we didn’t even get turned over, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to eat the floor.

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Mark, when you boast about your oral sex technique, was that something that you were hoping wouldn’t make the movie, or are you proud to advertise that?

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Zupan:; If you like to eat pussy, you like to eat pussy; there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.; That’s why it made the movie.

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Henry:; See what I’m saying?; This guy will say whatever the fuck he wants to say.

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Zupan:; My mom might have liked it not to be in the movie, but I don’t have a problem with it.

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Henry:; You dream about finding a guy that you can film and does not change when you turn the camera on.; That’s Zupan.

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What about Joe?

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Henry:; Joe definitely cares.; Joe took a lot more warming up.; He was different when you would film him, so we had to be very patient, and very careful, and often had to film him from behind so he wouldn’t notice, so he would be himself.;

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You talk a lot about shattering notions about quadriplegia.; Was this the number one reason you set out to make the movie?

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Dana:; It wasn’t the reason to make it, but it definitely seems to be one of the number one reactions to it.; I mean, the reason to make it was that this was a great story.; It was a story that we knew nothing about, and everything we knew about it was wrong.;; That’s a great reason to make a movie, because not only is this a world that nobody or very few people know anything about, but there was actually a real story.; The idea that you could make an entertaining, funny, scary, sad film about quadriplegics was exciting, because you’re used to seeing sort of one tone when it comes to movies about quadriplegics, which is inspirational.; And that “inspirational” is usually a form of condescension, because the bar is so low.; “It’s good to see you out.”; “You can do anything.”; “Oh, you finished your food!”; That sort of violins, triumph-of-the-spirit is usually the POV of articles or news segments about these guys, and as soon as you spoke to them on the phone or saw them play game, it was like, wow, we’re going to be able to tell a universal story that’s about football buddies from high school; it’s about a father and a son, an apple who fell a little too far from the tree; and girls, sex… all the things that you don’t associate with this topic.; It became stereotype shattering.; But, most importantly, it was narrative driven; it was character driven.; These guys had great stories to tell, and this was a very visual idea, a very cinematic subject because of the games.

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Henry:; Because most documentaries, let’s face it, are boring.; It’s like reading an article versus reading a novel.; It just often feels like a lot of talking heads:; some British dude talking in a voice over that you don’t care about; a lot of doctors talking about statistics.; And we were excited to make something that felt like a movie, not a documentary.; We wanted it to feel like… one of these;Rocky movies.; Like we said before, we were hoping that they’d come back to triumph at the end.; We had this beautiful arc.; Because most documentaries are just a backdrop… they just show you a backdrop of a subject: it’s like going to a play and just seeing the set design.; It’s great and all, but you want to see a play in front of it.; That’s the problem with a lot of documentaries:; they’re very pedantic, very didactic, very yawn… always told in the past, telling you about shit with a lot of photographs.; And we wanted to make a movie that was here and now, that would take you places in front of your eyes.

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Dana:; We just didn’t want to talk at you.; We didn’t want to ins_ert our POV.; A lot of documentaries are definitely just overviews of these subjects.

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Henry:; [Dana] comes from a journalism background, and I come from a filmmaking background.; And it was drummed into my head when I studied film:; show don’t tell, show don’t tell…; If there was one thing that I remember from film classes, it’s (teacher’s voice) “show don’t tell”.; So let’s not have Zupan talking about what it was like to break his neck; let’s have young Keith, four months after his accident, being wheeled into a therapy room, and let’s watch his face as he watches all the guys in the therapy room as they struggle to move a weight.; Let’s see that.; That’s shown. ;

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Any prior documentaries that you looked to that embodied this philosophy?

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Henry:; Dana and I talk about the Maysles a lot.; We love the Maysles.; We love Sinofsky and Berlinger.; Errol Morris.; There are definitely some docs that are amazing.; The Maysles, I think, embody that.; Pennebaker.; They tell stories that are happening in front of your eyes—

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Dana:; Aesthetically, though, we were much more… we were looking at feature films, just in terms of film grammar and editing style and the way that you use music and cinematography… all that stuff:; just the way that the film looked, and the way that the film was told.;;The Thin Blue Line;is very much a documentary.; Fog of War is very much a documentary.; Grey Gardens is very much a documentary in the sense that it isn’t on rails.; There isn’t a three act [structure].; They immerse themselves in this amazing world; I love that film.; But we were trying to make something a little more like a classic three act narrative.; “It’s an eighty-six minute Robert Altman movie”, is how we talk about it.; We have these three strands, and how are we going to integrate them so that this thing is on rails?; We wanted to make a short film, and when I say “short”, I mean under ninety minutes.; We really wanted it to be very, very character driven, very story driven, not subject driven, you know?

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Henry:; At the end of the day, we talked a lot more about;Rocky than Salesman.

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And now you’ve created this movie star out of Zupan.; You just did an episode of Jackass?

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Zupan:; It’s fuckin’ weird.

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What happens now?; Have you had any offers?

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Zupan:; There’s been talk of reality stuff.; Speaking stuff.; A book.

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Dana:; It’s funny, because everyone said “No” to us in the beginning.; We couldn’t get money.; A lot of the people who are now interested in doing things were against the movie.; Well, not “against” the movie – they were like, “Good luck, it’s very nice what you’re doing!”; But no one thought it was going to be commercial or entertaining or financially…

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Zupan:; “It’s nice to see that you’re making a movie about a bunch of cripples.”

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Dana:; We’re on Real Sports.; [Zupan’s] on fucking Reebok ads.; He’s on Jackass.; These things that are so mainstream and cool are embracing this subject matter that we couldn’t even get fellow quadriplegics to believe in.; We went to everybody.;

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Henry:; In fact, we don’t talk about this very often, but we didn’t know that [Team USA and Team Canada] would meet up again two and-a-half years later.; They were in separate pools.; They could have not even met, which would’ve been devastating for our film.; We were on pins and needles ourselves.

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As for the reconciliation with Christopher Igoe—

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Zupan:; The movie definitely brought us closer.; He’s a brother to me.; It’s awesome.

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Dana and Henry, were you guys worried about forcing anything here?

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Zupan:; He wasn’t involved initially.

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Dana:; He said, “No”.

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Zupan:; He said, “No” many times.; [Dana] was instrumental, the two suits in the movie were instrumental.

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Dana:; We formed, like, this… big campaign.; It wasn’t like a bullying campaign, they were just vouching for us.; [Christopher] just didn’t know.; Rightfully.; “Look, two strangers are going to come in and tell the most tender and raw part of my life?; I don’t think so.”; The logic that these guys kept using was, “These are my friends.; These aren’t vampires.; They’re not here to exploit.”; The bottom line is:; we didn’t airbrush Igoe.; We didn’t not make him the villain because we promised not to make him the villain.; That’s what he was worried about, that it would be easy to turn him into the bad guy, the guy who put [Zupan] into the chair.; It wasn’t our intention to soften him.

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Do you two [Dana and Henry] think you’ll work together again?

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Dana:; I think we’re going off and doing our own things.

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Henry:; Not because we don’t love each other – just because we got too much shit on our minds.; (Laughs.)

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So, Dana, you’ve got a novel on the way; Henry, you’ve got a mockumentary—

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Henry:; Almost done.

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And, Mark, you’re going to be the next James Bond.

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Zupan:; (Laughing) A cripple James Bond?

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Henry:; (Laughing); And your wheelchairs got all sorts of rockets and stun guns on it.

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Dana:; (To Zupan); You should be the new Inspector Gadget.

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Zupan:; That’d be kind of cool.

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That’d be very cool.

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Dana:; What’s that show they’ve got?; Blind Justice?; I’ve never seen it, but you’d be a great crime fighter.

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MURDERBALL opened July 8th in New York City and Los Angeles, and goes wide on July 22nd.; It is absolutely worth your time and money.

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