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The Independent Critic

 A Continued Conversation with Brian Malone 
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BRIAN MALONE

I'm really hoping this film, in a way, if anything...documentary films don't make filmmakers rich. You don't do it for the money. You do films like this or any documentary films to try draw a mark in the sand. You turn on a movie and you watch it, you understand, at least on some level, the subject matter and what has to be done to move things forward. I feel like that's the real power of a documentary film. It can inform and engage people in a way just to get that little lightbulb to turn on and make them say "Ah, now I get it. Now that I'm aware of it and I know what needs to be done, maybe I can help in some way or at least understand so that when a ballot issue comes up in the next election or whatever. Oh yeah, this money would help paras and quads." You know? Or something like that. I feel like that's the power of a documentary. They have a unique ability, if they're done right, Granted, there's a lot of knuckleheads with opinions. They just go off hellbent.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Or they do the sympathetic drivel or the inspiration porn as I call it. 

BRIAN MALONE

Inspiration porn? That's great...who needs that shit anymore? 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I'd like to think that we've advanced beyond that, though I do often wonder. I don't mind inspiration if it actually inspires you to do something. 

BRIAN MALONE

Don't say you're inspired. Show me. That's one of the things that I try to as a filmmaker adhere to. I just let the pictures tell the story more than. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Exactly. I do some pretty cool stuff. For example, I do some long distance wheeling for charity. That can inspire you. That's awesome. I wheel to Chicago, which I've done, yeah that can be inspirational. I get dressed? That's not inspirational. That's called daily life. I may get dressed differently than you do. It may even be harder for me than it is for you, but it still shouldn't inspire you. It's condescending to me if it does. 

BRIAN MALONE

You've wheeled to Chicago?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I've done that three times. 

BRIAN MALONE

Is it too narcissistic of me to ask what criticisms you have of the film? What did I miss? What didn't I get? 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

To be honest, most of the issues I had with the film were unrelated to Sam. I was really intrigued by the 24/7 nurse. 

BRIAN MALONE

We all wish we could have a 24/7 nurse or have someone who could take care of us that way. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I mean, though, she was obviously compassionate. She was obviously talented. I mean, I get that she's paid for her work but she's pretty much committed her life to Sam. It almost felt like we saw her just enough to get really intrigued by her, but not enough to truly "get" her. I found myself by film's end wanting to know more about her. I was even more intrigued early on, to be honest, because it didn't click that he had a wife and family. So, I found myself intrigued by her, the nurse.

BRIAN MALONE

Mira. She's a no B.S. kind of a gal. She's a strong woman. When she gets too old to be able to lift Sam, that's going to be a tough day for Sam, for his family and I think for her. She is family basically. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You can tell. The look on her face when he's driving. That was genuine. It doesn't get more genuine than that. You simply can't fake that. 

BRIAN MALONE

The lovely thing about doing "fly on the wall" filmmaking is people don't generally know when the lens is on them. You really get the truth about them. When I was up in the hotel room, I was watching the Weiner documentary. The most revealing parts of that film are the shots of Anthony Weiner's wife. That tells the whole story right there. They did a brilliant job on the contrast there. I can see why the film did very well. It's pretty riveting.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I think, in terms of your film, there was a section, and I'm sure you know which one it is, where the racing scenes felt lacking in balance. We'd just gone through a series of rather hardcore scenes with Sam and suddenly we were having scenes of just racing. It felt, for me, like the tone of the film shifted and not in a way that I really wanted it to shift. I have this inherently Libran side of me that tends to understand both sides, but I was happy when everything sort of shifted back.

BRIAN MALONE

I know. I'm sorry. Would you call that inspiration porn? That was speed porn. I had so many great shots. Maybe it was because I'll never get a chance to sit on the side of the track during carb day ever again or I'll never be able to have unprecedented access during race day ever again. There's a half million people up in the stands, I'm down on the track with my camera. I'll never forget that sound of the cars spinning by. It's just something you don't forget. You really get sucked into that culture. Being a novice race car fan, I may have gone a little overboard with it. I just loved that stuff. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I should stress that it's not like it really "bothered" me. It's not like when you check your review later that you're going to see this 1-star review because I thought your tone sucked. It was just one of those things where I kind of noticed it. There were other scenes, on the other hand...for example, the scene of him in the car, that could have so easily been inspiration porn and wasn't. It was a feel good scene, but not a scene that crossed that line. 

BRIAN MALONE

To me, the most important scenes are scenes where the technology is about to go and there's a little montage of shots of how we're going to be able to use it like how you can think about it and you can actually move something. You can move an arm.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Again, that next to last scene of several people in a row using the technology. It was a diverse group of people, which I loved.

BRIAN MALONE

There are a ton of labs around the country that are all doing different types of things. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's one lab. Ohio State over in Columbus...they have a similar program that they have with a totally different focus. There are private start-up companies, not only in the U.S. but in Europe, that are doing different things. In Japan, they are developing robotic suits that help enhance muscle strength and that kind of thing. It's not necessarily to get paras and quads up and moving around, but you can see how that adaptive technology can be repurposed. To me, when someone who's a whole lot smarter than me comes along and says "Hey, let's make a company that can do this, that and the other," and serve this many million people in wheelchairs to get them up and moving again that's a huge thing. I hate to say this, and I have no concrete evidence, but I suspect the reason it's not moving as fast as maybe we'd like is that no one has made a strong enough business case for it like "Oh, the para and quad community's not large enough population to be able to sell enough product to recoup our R&D costs or whatever." I don't know. I'm imagining what these conversations are like while people are working to try to make the new iPhones to sell 50 million of them or whatever, they could be using that to actually do something that's good. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that some of that's tempered by the fact there's a profit motive.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

It's hard not to be somewhat cynical when we live in a world where individuals and companies will snatch up pharmaceuticals, as an example, and immediately jack up the prices far beyond the reach of most people in society solely for the purpose of turning a profit. It's clear, at least to me, that these companies don't have anything resembling an investment in the welfare of humanity at mind but are only concerned with their bottom line or their stock prices. At some point, some brave soul's going to have to say "No, really. It is possible to balance fiscal responsibility with the welfare of my fellow man. Here's how we're going to do it." There's a short doc here at the fest called Good Business that kind of deals with that in telling the story of the Ackerman family in South Africa and their proactive efforts before the end of apartheid to actually build a business based on doing what was right. 

BRIAN MALONE

Just knowing how things work in this country...

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Even with the basics of advanced technology. For example, I can't afford a handcycle. I've always wanted one for my road activities. It would be a basic technology that would allow me to live more independently while not putting so much stress on my shoulders. 

BRIAN MALONE

What do you use then?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

This (pointing to my everyday chair, a Tilite 2GX manual folding wheelchair)

BRIAN MALONE

Are you shittin' me?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Nope.

BRIAN MALONE

You wheeled to Chicago in that?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

No, not at all. I do all of my events in my everyday chair. I've historically leaned toward Quickie chairs as I find them to be the most durable for someone like me. But, I did a 41-day, 1000 mile tour when I was younger in a chair like this one - it was actually a Quickie 2. Even when I do 5k's and other events, it's never in a more traditional sports chair. It's always a chair like this one...probably explains why I usually come in last!

BRIAN MALONE

Why didn't you videotape that, man? That's a documentary in itself. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Eh, there's been talk a few times about doing something like that. I'm actually a pretty boring dude. I just do some pretty cool stuff. 

BRIAN MALONE

I don't think I'm interesting either. Let the work speak for itself.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Yeah, exactly. 

About this time, Malone's phone rang and he noticed that it was Diana Holtzberg, one of the film's producers. I playfully said a brief hello to Ms. Holtzberg and gave the two a few moments for a conversation. Gotta' keep the producers happy, ya know?

BRIAN MALONE

Diana's a real heavyweight. She's like one of the real pioneers of documentary filmmaking from back in the 80's. She was partners, I think she still is, in this company called Films Transit. She distributed my first film and got it to like 37 different countries around the world. She's pretty fabulous. She's cool. (Richard's Note: In looking her up post-interview, I realized she produced a documentary I LOVE called "End of the Century." Yeah, I geeked a bit). Then, there's Daniel Junge, I don't know if you know him. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I know his name. I couldn't quite remember his films, but I knew he was a documentary filmmaker.

BRIAN MALONE

He's an Oscar winner, man. He's the real deal. Those guys really helped shepherd me along. I don't know that the film would be where it is now without them and also Lyman Smith, the editor. We kind of co-edited it. This is the first time that I've really given up the reins to let someone else edit, because to me that's where the real magic happens in the storytelling. I've had several editors put their hands on films before and then had to undo their work and redo it. Lyman's the first guy I've known who just had that same sensibility and understands how to mine out a story. It's like mining for gold, because you're just like going through hours of footage to find those little nuggets and stitching it all together. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You did that well with this film, especially in dealing with his wife and his children. You really showed it well how all of this has impacted them. I may have liked a little more of that, because it was so incredibly involving.

BRIAN MALONE

She was pretty shy. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

The scene where she transferred him. She, for example, kept pushing his shirt down. She felt like she was being both shy and being very protective. 

BRIAN MALONE

Yeah, and I applaud her. I know it took a lot for her to participate in this film. I know she would have preferred not to. I hope she knows what a great service she has done for all of the other spouses out there that have wheelchair bound spouses...

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Or even just the quadriplegics who want one and don't quite have the courage to say "Let's go out and date" or to simply put themselves out there. It's possible. It's hard, but it's possible. 

BRIAN MALONE

You remember that movie Raising Arizona?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I've seen it. It has been awhile.

BRIAN MALONE

Remember the end scene where Nic Cage and Holly Hunter bring back little Hi? He and Holly Hunter are sitting there and they're talking "We're probably just going to go our separate ways. It didn't really work out." The furniture salesman guy says "Listen, without my wife here I don't know where I would be." That's a pretty important thing. I didn't really say this, but my wife is the one who really helped me get this film done. Daniel and Diana are great on the professional end, but the glue that really held this film together is my wife. Cindy's a writer and producer in her own right. She's really talented and a very strong woman. She handled all the unfun parts of this film. Every single one of those clips that you saw for all those different labs, we had to get rights for all of that. We had to chase down all of that footage and all of those rights. We had to get releases for all of those people. We had to do all of the insurance and all of that stuff that is, frankly, the ass end of filmmaking. She did it graciously and beautifully. This film would be in pieces without her. I totally get that. What Sheila does for Sam, Cindy does for me in a different way. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That's profound.

BRIAN MALONE

It's important, because I don't feel like Cindy gets enough credit. I don't feel like Sheila gets enough credit. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I remember when Christopher Reeve's accident happened. I was one of those cynics. I was like "Oh, she's going to leave him" or "Oh, she's only in it for the money" and on and on. I'm embarrassed now to look back and realize how incredibly cynical I was, but I also know that this is challenging and not just anyone signs up for it and, quite certainly, spouses who got into relationships expecting one thing and end up with something different entirely...well, how could they not at some point think have doubts?

BRIAN MALONE

I think that's natural, Richard. We all feel that way. We all tend, I think, to have that kind of reaction. It's great when we're disappointed by that and we're not too proud to be disappointed by that. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

The longer you live with quadriplegia or paraplegia or whatever, the more you realize there's an entire world out there to experience and that life truly does go on and that includes your work life, your fun life, your love life and your sex life. 

BRIAN MALONE

Let me put it to you this way. I don't know how old you are, but I'm in my 50s. At some point, whatever we got going on you start losing it anyway. The physical stuff starts to matter less and less over time. What you have left is the companionship, basically your "soul mate." If you're lucky enough to come across someone who sees through all that physical crap one way or the other and still sees that you've got a good soul, those are the people, I think, who have the best things in life. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I've always thought that it would have been harder had I become a paraplegic later in life. I mean, for me, I've never known anything else. I've had periods of time that were rougher than others, but paraplegia has been my life experience physically. I've always thought it would be harder in a case like Sam's. He had this successful life, a beautiful wife, great kids and then it happens and everything changes. 

BRIAN MALONE

She sure didn't ask for it. I think that's the power of this film that's similar to the Weiner film that I was talking to you about where the whole film is summed up in Huma's face. Similarly, the profound sense of regret. You have to imagine that it takes a profound strength on a daily basis for Sheila to just forgive Sam on a certain level for the shit that he's put her in for the rest of their lives together. She didn't want it. She didn't ask for it. It was his own machismo or whatever that got them into this mess. There's no amount of money that's going to undo that. All she wants is to be able to hug her husband. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I loved the line she said where she talked about occasionally getting that urge to just drive off. 

BRIAN MALONE

Damn right.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I thought to myself "Thank you for being honest about it." Yet, she stays.

BRIAN MALONE

She's a woman who has an enormous amount of character. I don't think she realizes how strong and powerful she is. If this film gets some traction, as uncomfortable as it may be for her personally, she is just what the doctor ordered as far as what this spinal cord community needs and, to a certain extend, the TBI community of spouses and family members, too. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Does he have a TBI? Or did he have any cognitive damage from the crash?

BRIAN MALONE

Nope, it was all spinal. He just broke his neck. There's so much crossover there between TBI and SCI. In a lot of ways, TBI is harder because you can't see the injury. People with TBI often look like they're all put together physically, but I've dealt with people who have TBI who have to learn how to swallow again because their brain is so messed up or personality disorders. Think about how difficult it might be living with someone in a wheelchair, but then think about someone who has violent mood swings because their brain doesn't function normally anymore. It's funny, I was watching this doc on PBS the other night about King Henry VIII. I never knew this about King Henry VIII, but evidently he was this big macho guy who would have been a great candidate for Craig Hospital. He was jousting, showing off his manliness, and he fell off a horse. He hit his frontal cortex and smashed his head. Some theorists about their now, historians, it was that smash on his head that changed his personality and made him more enraged with Anne Boleyn and it ended up costing her her head. He got these suspicions of adultery and unfaithfulness and became more and more enraged. It's all theory at this point, but they do know that he had sustained a serious injury to the head. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

This is kind of random, but how did you get the racing community to cooperate?

BRIAN MALONE

I've got to tell you that Sam rolled out the red carpet. Wherever Sam goes, people just fall down for him. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That makes sense. IMS is kind of like that anyway. The George's have historically been a very generous and open family. 

BRIAN MALONE

IMS was very much like that...whatever Sam wanted. He's like royalty there. I don't think it's just because of the sympathy. It's because he has a successful racing team. He's definitely shown, coming back from his accident, that he's not giving up the one thing that he loves and that's racing. The IMS community just opened the doors and whatever Sam wants, Sam gets. Lucky for me, Sam was just so gracious in letting me have such open access to everything. It's Sam's willingness to trust in me that gave me all the access that enabled me to make a good film and not make an inspirational, saccharine movie but a movie that's real and has potential to get some real traction. Of course, you know that the other half of this is the marketplace. It's very fickle and distributors and broadcasters can be fickle. It's really disappointing to pour your heart and soul into something and then have a broadcaster say "Well, it's a great film but it really doesn't fit into our genre." My hope is that the story is strong enough that it can cut through whatever it needs to cut through.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

It's real without going negative or condescending or overly inspirational or whatever. Sam didn't lose his dignity in the film. We didn't, despite the honesty of the film, see more disability than Sam in the film. 

BRIAN MALONE

I'll take that as a compliment.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

When you have a disability, you grow up with the idea, at least if you have healthy role models, that you can be independent and live a full life. This film, I think reinforces that. It has always saddened me when I see other people with spina bifida who don't work or don't drive or don't date. I mean, I drove at a relatively young age. I own my home. My parents weren't perfect, but they raised me with a work ethic and a belief that while disability is a huge part of my life it doesn't define it in any negative way. I get people all the time who come up to me absolutely stunned that I drive and they want to see my hand controls. I'm like "You can do this. You can do all of these things." I mean, my hand controls are about $400-500. I mean, yeah, a lot of technology is out of reach right now but a lot isn't. 

BRIAN MALONE

I think a lot of it is the will. I think there are some people, whether they're in a wheelchair or they're up and walking or whatever, who just lack the will. I think whatever it is, I think it's something that we have to find within ourselves to just get up and live life or not. Some people never find their way to do it. I'm sure you know this, but there are some people who just have personalities that are victim personalities. I know people who are like that. I know people very close to me who are just like that and I'm sure you do too. There are people who are victims and there are people who understand life the way it is. Life is a current. You can either go with it or sometimes you want to fight back against the current, but you don't sit on the banks. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That's what you nailed so well. Sam Schmidt can have his disability and also, simultaneously, be an extraordinary human being. They are not, in any way, mutually exclusive OR dependent upon one another. I've always struggled on some level with actually owning the disability and honoring it. 

BRIAN MALONE

That's Sam...the thing that's cool about you is you're just a guy doing your thing. You don't let any of that shit get in the way of what you do. I appreciate that. You're actually a really good interviewer. I can tell you that. You interview the way I interview. I don't like to just sit and ask questions. I roll the camera and I forget the camera's there and I just talk to people. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That's my approach. I do my research, sure, but then I just show up and talk to people. Whenever I've tried to actually prepare questions, I'm never happy with the finished interview. These kinds of interviews are always a blast and people who read my stuff seem to enjoy them the most. 

BRIAN MALONE

You have conversation and you just talk and you get to know them. That's when you get the real good stuff. You have hours and hours of footage you have to pour through, but that's where you get those nuggets of reality. People don't always realize it, but it's that kind of conversation when they can give you something really meaningful beyond the soundbytes and media training. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

My worst interviews are with people who are just so programmed. Sometimes, I can pull them out of it but sometimes it's kind of like they're clinging to it like it's a life raft. I can't do those interviews. 

BRIAN MALONE

When I'm interviewing people, like celebrities or actors or corporate executives or whoever, I say "Can you do me a favor? Can you turn off the media training? I know what you're doing. We're not going to talk about any of that. We're not going to have any kind of meaningful conversation until you turn off the media training and we just talk." I have little radar ears and anything that comes across as rehearsed or contrived is meaningless. Think about this...when you have people who give you nothing but soundbytes, it's like junk food. They're like empty calories. There's nothing meaningful in that interview. I would argue that's why stuff has no meaning anymore, because there's too much pre-programmed quantity and there's not much out there that's really genuine and honest anymore. My films may never get to that real big height of a Sundance or Toronto or whatever, but at least they'll be honest. They will not be contrived. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I feel the same way about my interviews. I may never be the most popular film writer. I may never even have this as my full-time gig, though I'd love that. But, what I do write is going to be meaningful and honest and real. I'd way rather have this be a meaningful part-time gig than a meaningless full-time one. 

BRIAN MALONE

I think once in awhile you come across someone who's cutting through it all. Do you ever listen to podcasts?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Not often, but on occasion.

BRIAN MALONE

When I fly, or when I'm driving across the country, that's the time when I really get the chance to listen to podcasts. One of my best friends turned me on to Marc Maron. "WTF" podcast. I would recommend it. He's not an interviewer. He's a stand-up comic and he'll just talk to you about stuff. He gets people to say stuff and he just goes as long as he wants. If the conversation's going and the conversation's interesting, he'll just go on and on. You get people like Katie Couric. You get the President. You get John Prine. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I think I drive Heartland a little crazy because I don't want to do their red carpet stuff. It would probably be great for me professionally, but I just hate those canned, 5-minute soundbyte interviews. It doesn't interest me and it's not what I do best. I have nothing against Jessica Biel, for example, but I don't want a 5-minute soundbyte interview with her. If I could sit down with her and chat for 30 minutes or even 15 minutes? Yeah, I could have fun with that. I'll occasionally do the quickie interviews, but I'm always unhappy with them. 

BRIAN MALONE

Do you know what a cord cutter is? A cord cutter is someone who sort of cuts the cord on cable and satellite and all that. We recently did that at home and have nothing but the old rabbit ears now. The advantage of that is you get a lot of the channels that show nothing but the older television shows. We've got one channel that shows the old Johnny Carson "Tonight Show" episodes. Looking back as an adult, his most interesting interviews are the real people like the National Yodeling Champion from 1978, the national birdcaller champion of whatever. The actors that they have on are generally uninteresting. They're pretty vapid and transparent. People are going to kill me for that...my sister...I don't know if you know about my sister, Beth Malone. She was nominated for a Tony Award for Fun Home last year. I'll do the name drop now. She just finished a film with Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and Danny Devito. I think it's called The Comeback. I think it's kind of like one of De Niro's dirty comedies that he's doing nowadays. She's doing a lot of stuff and she's getting ready to go back out. They're getting ready to revive the Unsinkable Molly Brown. We're both kind of late bloomers, because she's pushing 50 and I'm over 50 now. We're really now just kind of getting a little bit of street cred. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Alright. I know your van is here and you want to get over the theatre to catch some films before your own screening. Thank you so much for your time. This has been a blast. 

Reengineering SAM continues its journey on the film festival circuit including the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis. For more information on the Heartland Film Festival, visit the festival's website. If you get a chance, definitely check the film out. 

© Interview by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic

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