Released this summer to a burst of critical and PR fanfare, the kinetic sports documentary Murderball a group profile of rough-and-tough quadriplegics who play rugby in reinforced wheelchairs has faced a surprising struggle at the box office. Disability, it seems, is still a hard sell, even to art-house audiences on the prowl for the unconventional. But regardless of the movie's ultimate take, a milestone has been struck via the healthy attention that has been visited upon its two most prominent personalities: headstrong Team America player Mark Zupan and even more volatile Team Canada leader Joe Soares.
Of the two, Zupan has been anointed as the movie's symbolic face. He's been touted in print as "the action hero of the summer," his vaguely Hetfield-esque mug staring defiantly out from newsstands and changing the public perception of the wheelchair-bound, perhaps forever.
"It's very, very strange to be exposed to everything like this, and to be in Entertainment Weekly, Premiere, The New York Times Magazine everything has been so strange," Zupan says. But not strange in a soul-spoiling way: "I have a bet with one of the people that works at THINKFilm (the movie's distributor). She bet me that I was going to change, that I was going to be asking for special bottled water. And this was all just kind of a joke, but she was like, 'You've got six months.' I'm like, 'That's fine.' It's not going to happen."
That dogged determination is on copious display in Murderball, which puts Zupan's entire being up for review and his complicated history into context. Injured when he was thrown from a buddy's truck after a night of partying, he's gone on to become a key component of a rugby team that all but dominates the sport internationally. None of the friends and family members interviewed in the film suggests that his experiences have sanded down the rough edges of his personality: Another pal says affectionately that the obstinate Zupan was an asshole before and after his accident.
His loved ones appreciated the film's veracity, Zupan says: "They pretty much thought it was spot on, just like me." And what of Chris Igoe, the friend who was driving the aforementioned truck? In the film, the two men neither of who, supposedly, is the greatest of communicators fully reconcile the horrible experience they have shared. One wonders how this deepened bond between them has held up since the film's …
"He was at my house on Friday for his birthday," Zupan jumps to volunteer. "[I] threw [him] a party on Saturday. Talked to him three times today. He is my best friend. He's like my brother."
Zupan claims no such kinship to Soares, the Team Canada coach who is his main adversary in Murderball. A former Team America player who was cut from the squad and responded by taking a leadership position with the rival Canucks, Soares appears in the film and, apparently, in Zupan's philosophy as a revenge-motivated egocentric. The two have a memorable on-camera confrontation, and its grounding in reality is something Zupan doesn't try to hide.
"I won't take away from the guy that he has the knowledge," Zupan says. "[But] the way he conveys it and he tries to make it all about him … [He's] like, 'Oh yeah, look. I did this to make you guys like this.' It's like, who cares what you did? It's about the bigger picture, it's about the team."
In a separate interview, Soares expresses no bitterness over his portrayal in the film. Like Zupan, he's very satisfied with its accuracy, though he understands that documentary filmmakers can use the footage they've amassed to tell a story in a variety of ways. In addition, he says, a good portion of the movie was shot at a particularly difficult time for him.
"[In life], there's going to be times where you might have 40 people at the house," he says. "They're all drinking. You can't drink, [because] you've just gone through an ordeal such as a heart attack" which the excitable Soares suffers in the course of Murderball. "And you might not be in the greatest mood, because you are not allowed to drink. You're not allowed to do anything, because you might have an angioplasty coming up. Maybe at that period of time, it was fair to say I wasn't in probably my best of moods."
As to his rivalry with Zupan, Soares says that the other guy's greater exposure is partly a matter of logistics: "My availability is not as much as his." But there are also marketing factors to consider in their divergent public images, he feels.
"It's an American movie, you follow me? I'm an American, he's an American. But I'm an American that went to Canada that came back and" SPOILER ALERT! "beat the U.S. So they're portraying him mostly as a hero. But that's a choice they wanted to basically make."
Both Zupan and Soares continue to be involved in the sport of quad rugby. Zupan has a Nov. 1 tryout for Team USA, "to try to make it a world championship team in 2006." Soares, meanwhile, is in the process of finalizing new arrangements. (SECOND SPOILER ALERT!) Having ended his association with Team Canada, he says he's about to sign on with yet another country. Might he be so kind as to reveal which one?
"I could tell you," he jokes, "but then I'd have to kill you."