LOS ANGELES, July 18, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- Fed up with incorrect portrayals and the one-sided narratives in film and television of persons with disability, screenwriter Kelli McNeil set out to tell a story that was different from the usual Hollywood clichés. The real plot twist? Casting actors with the actual physical representations of the characters in the script: a paraplegic and a double amputee.
"I wrote Daruma as a way to process my own grief after a member of my family suffered a spinal cord injury that left them paralyzed," explains McNeil. "But what I saw was that even though they no longer had the same body after their injury, their spirit and personality were unchanged. The characters in my story are fictionalized, both persons with a disability, but the movie is not about their disabilities. They're just two normal guys who happen to be disabled."
McNeil wrote the story more than a decade ago and it sat in a drawer until it crossed the path of the film's now director, veteran filmmaker Alexander Yellen.
"By the second page I was laughing," says Yellen. "It surprised her (McNeil). She hadn't set out to write a comedy but what she'd created was a really smart, funny, moving narrative with these two great characters at the center. I knew it was going to be an uphill battle to get Daruma produced but I also knew it had to be made and that I needed to help make it happen."
With more and more calls for film and television productions to accurately represent persons with disability, the pair set out to shoot a proof of concept and did a nationwide casting call to authentically cast their two lead actors in the fall of 2018. This led them to Tobias Forrest and John Lawson, both veteran film and theatre actors as well as disability advocates.
Allen Rucker, Chair of the Writers with Disabilities Committee of the WGA and co-chair of the Media Access Awards weighed in on the current state of the industry and the way the filmmakers are approaching Daruma: "There are 61 million Americans with disabilities yet only a scant 2% of characters on TV are disabled. This is an historic disgrace. But change is coming and projects like Daruma are leading the way."
"Having the chance to play a character that's not defined by his disability and to tell a universal story that everyone can relate to is a rare and amazing opportunity," says Tobias Forrest, who plays the lead role of Patrick.
"Being an amputee is a part of who I am but is not the sum total of what I am," says John Lawson, who plays Robert in the film. "Having the opportunity to play a multifaceted character that just happens to be an amputee is what I've advocated for over 25 years for."
"Most movies with disabled characters present disability as a thing the lead has to get over in order to achieve their goal," said McNeil. "Or the infliction of a disability is the inciting incident in the movie, the clichéd narrative of 'here was life pre-trauma, here's the character coping with life post-trauma'. And I don't think that's right. I think diversity is something to be celebrated, now more than ever."
"Daruma is exactly the kind of project RespectAbility advocates for," says Appelbaum. "It embodies the values we're pushing for in this industry— inclusiveness both in front of and behind the camera with a narrative that promotes a positive, accurate representation of disability."
As interest in the story grew from other organizations, the production team sought and was granted fiscal sponsorship by From The Heart Productions and will be fundraising on the indie filmmaker platform Seed&Spark in October.
"We built Seed&Spark to be a place where people can connect through stories that matter, stories that give rise to voices that have been too long unheard, that not just entertain their viewers but help them see the world in a new way," says Seed&Spark founder Emily Best.
Best continues: "Daruma is a family drama, but the way the team has chosen to craft and, more importantly, cast the story shows how the storytellers are trying to make an impact with their work. It's the sort of impact a creator really only gets to consider when they have profound creative independence, which is why crowdfunding is such a powerful tool for change."
The fundraising campaign kicks off October 1st and will be conducting outreach to various veterans organizations, disability and spinal cord injury related advocacy organizations and other nonprofits to arrange for advance screenings and cast and crew Q&A's once the film completes production, currently slated for the summer of 2020. Outreach and additional partnership development will be overseen by expert film marketing and distribution strategist Kait Halibozek of Kait Halibozek Consulting.
"There are some projects that you know will make a difference before even one frame is shot, and Daruma is one of them. I'm looking forward to working with Kelli, Alex, and Seed&Spark to help make this film a reality," says Halibozek. "This is a story that will inspire people all over the world, and I'm excited to be part of it."
The team behind Daruma is offering rewards on Seed&Spark that includes everything from downloads of the movie to inviting the cast and crew to speak with organizations about disability inclusion.
Though great strides have been made to bridge the gap for women and minorities in Hollywood, there is still much to do when it comes to creating opportunities for disabled actors and filmmakers. The team behind Daruma is committed to working with actors with disabilities and hiring persons with disability behind the camera as well. Daruma seeks to prove that motion pictures are an art form that reaches everyone and so everyone should be able to participate in their creation.
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SOURCE Kelli McNeil