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The Independent Critic

 The Independent Critic Chats with Director Brian Malone 
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Sam Schmidt was already a successful businessman when he first started racing in 1995 as part of the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series at the relatively late age of 31. Having purchased his father's parts company in 1989 when he was only 25, Schmidt was successful but longed to chase his dream of driving in the Indy 500. In his first year of racing, he captured Rookie of the Year honors and made his first Indy Racing League start in 1997 where he rapidly became a rising star and would eventually start in three Indy 500s and enter Victory Lane at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1999. 

On January 6, 2000, Sam Schmidt's life changed dramatically. It was at Walt Disney World Speedway that Schmidt suffered a horrific crash that left him a quadriplegic and on a respirator for several months. It was after leaving the hospital that Schmidt, in need of a new passion, turned his attention to team ownership with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. While he was no longer able to even brush his own teeth, let alone drive a car, Schmidt was still centrally involved in the sport he'd come to love. 

Director Brian Malone, a veteran documentarian responsible for such films as "Education, Inc." and "Patriocracy," has long maintained an involvement in disability and rehabilitation issues and has proven to be the perfect choice to document an extraordinary effort by a dedicated group of some of the brightest minds today to build Sam a car that he could drive using only his head. The film had its world premiere at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, a film festival that celebrates the power of cinema to transform the world. Indeed, the story contained within "Reengineering SAM" could very well transform the world. Malone sat down with me before the world premiere of his film to discuss "Reengineering SAM," directing, rehabilitation, hope and a whole lot more. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

A film like Reengineering SAM is always a little bit of a challenge for me...being a paraplegic myself. It's always interesting to see how other folks who experience paraplegia, or in Sam's case quadriplegia, deal with it. 

BRIAN MALONE

How did you take it? I tried to peel back the curtain and not sugarcoat stuff as much as possible and really just get into the minds and hearts of not only someone like Sam but all of his family. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

It was interesting. I have to be honest and say that sometimes I almost kind of get an attitude with films like Reengineering Sam because so often it seems like you're dealing with someone who is more successful, who has more resources available to them. 

BRIAN MALONE

That is definitely something. Sam has resources that most people do not have.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I mean, heck, he's got a 24/7 live-in nurse. Trust me, I don't have that. Honestly, though, your film dealt with that really well. I don't know if it was intentional or if it was just your style of filmmaking, but you did a couple of things, I mention this in the review, that worked against any attitude I wanted to have. I think part of it was the next to last scene in the film where you actually show that technology that has been developed and it's potential for use with others and it's universality. That was a simple scene, but a really brilliant one. It stripped away the idea of all of this being some narcissistic endeavor. 

BRIAN MALONE

That's what the real magic of this technology that's right around the corner is about. I get tired of hearing it, too. I'm tired of these syrupy, saccharine news stories. There's always a certain level of sympathy or soft-pedaling around the issues. It's really quite patronizing frankly. I'm so tired of it. I don't know if you know this, but I do a lot of work with Craig Hospital back in Denver. Craig, as you may or may not know, is a world renowned rehab hospital for SCI and TBI. I'm indoctrinated into it. It's that "Hey, life goes on. It's up to you to have the most fulfilling life you possibly can with whatever you have left to use. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Everybody has different circumstances one way or the other. Get over it. You have something to offer this life and this world and let's get on with it." To me, I'm much more attracted to anyone, regardless of whether they're TBI or SCI or upright and walking or whatever. I try to approach it that way, because I get a full load of it with patients and families everytime I go in and get to know them and they tell their stories through video and film. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

What led you to this film?

BRIAN MALONE

I'll bring it back to Craig again. Craig is a pretty remarkable place. The chief neurosurgeon there, Dr. Scott Falci, had this harebrained idea. He wanted to put paras and quads into race cars. How stupid is that? He dreamed up this idea and he pulled it off. He had a patient who was friends with Sam Schmidt that got them in touch. Falci's one of those wheeler and dealer kinds of personalities. Sometimes, you can argue that he gets himself into some bigger things than he knows that he's getting into. He has this strong will that just says "I'm going to make it happen no matter what." He did and it's funny because Sam Schmidt has that same kind of will and the same kind of drive. You get two giant personalities like that together...what's remarkable about those two individuals is they have those kinds of personalities that transcend most of us. I don't know how they do it, but it's magic. They attract attention. They attract investors. They attract giant corporations into saying "Okay, sure. We'll play. Here's a few million dollars. Let's build a race car." I couldn't do that. I don't know what that magic ingredient is. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I'm pretty compelling, but I'm not that compelling.

BRIAN MALONE

They have that gift that to me is pretty amazing.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

So all of this really wasn't even initiated by Sam? 

BRIAN MALONE

It was initiated by Dr. Scott Falci. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

There goes my attitude again. 

BRIAN MALONE

He came up with the whole thing. Here's the thing...at Craig Hospital, there are rec programs out there in the hospital to outings for whitewater rafting, scuba diving, skydiving, and whatever you want to do. There's rugby. There's some sort of rec program for folks who just want to get out and do something and be active...again "use what you got." Here's the issue. I don't know what your circumstances are, but frankly the majority of patients who come through hospitals like Craig Hospital are young men. They're daredevils who think that they're invincible and they have this daredevil spirit until they're not invincible anymore. They're snowboarders, motocross, race car drivers, whatever. What Dr. Falci decided is "Hey, there's all these other rec programs for all these other things. Why not do something for the racing community?" He wanted to come up with this organization, a non-profit, that was able to do a couple of things. It was able to put paras and quads into a race car with some top drivers and zip 'em around the track to give them the thrill of their lives. A little bit of that is in the film. He's partnered with Furniture Row, a NASCAR racing team. They did pretty well this year. There's a driver named Marty Truex, a pretty well known NASCAR driver who did pretty well this year. He's really come up the ranks. He's the driver in the film who's driving those folks around in the NASCAR car. The other aspect that he really wanted to do is he wanted to demonstrate how the rapid advancements of adaptive technology can do something super cool and get someone like Sam to drive again. I don't know if you know this, but Sam is like the first quad...he just got his driver's license two weeks agao. He has his driver's license now. He got a driver's license in Las Vegas where he lives. There are restrictions on that, of course, but he can drive now. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Well, heck, I have restrictions on mine. That's amazing. 

BRIAN MALONE

Yeah, he has a legal driver's license now...a high quad like Sam. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Because I know that lower quads can do it. 

BRIAN MALONE

Sam's got nothing from his neck down. Nothing. He might be able to shrug his shoulders a little bit. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

And that's really the technology that we were seeing...

BRIAN MALONE

Exactly. It has advanced even since this film was completed. The car keeps going and the engineers keep putting newer and newer technologies in it. I think Sam most recently hit 150mph right before the most recent Indy 500. It's pretty cool. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

There's a local doctor here, Dr. Chuck Dietzen, who has a spirit similar to that of Dr. Falci. I know that he'd had some similar ideas, because he'd talked to me about it. In fact, I even tried midgets, but that was as far as I went. Racing is in my family.

BRIAN MALONE

Well, you are from Indianapolis.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

My dad was a drag racer. I think pretty much all of his brothers raced at some point. 

BRIAN MALONE

We flew over a drag track right when we were landing. I don't know what direction we were coming in from Denver. Is there a local track? There's like a drag strip and an oval right next to it. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I think that was probably Lucas Oil Raceway. 

BRIAN MALONE

We were probably just about 2,000 feet over on approach. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

So, I love racing. Watching this film I was just in heaven. 

BRIAN MALONE

So, you're a racing fan then? I really enjoyed sticking these cameras on the Indy cars. That was Mario Andretti driving by the way, which is really cool. The shot with the blue car was Andretti's tandem car. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

He was my childhood hero.

BRIAN MALONE

You probably grew up watching the Indy 500 like most of us did, right?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Well, you know. Around here, it's usually blacked out. Most of the locals didn't know how to act this year, because this was the first time in years it wasn't blacked out and Indy folks could watch it. Most of my childhood was spent listening to it on the radio. I was the guy who rooted for Andretti when everyone else was going with Foyt or one of the Unsers. I think it was a personal thing...I wasn't supposed to live when I was born.

BRIAN MALONE

You weren't supposed to live?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Yeah, I wasn't supposed to live. I was born with spina bifida. So, I should have died 40 years ago at least according to the docs. 

BRIAN MALONE

So that's why you're a paraplegic?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Yeah. Now then, I've been an amputee for about 25 years or so. 

BRIAN MALONE

Is that part of it?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Actually, I danced off the side of a stage. 

BRIAN MALONE

Holy shit.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I got an injury from that. Because I was already a paraplegic and didn't have the circulation, it simply wouldn't heal. 

BRIAN MALONE

Wow. You danced off the side of a stage.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I did. I was a dancing tie salesman in a musical. I was a theatre major. It was an older theatre with one of those really deep orchestral pits. I was on crutches at the time and one of my crutches missed the edge of the stage and I fell into the pit. 

BRIAN MALONE

Are you kidding me? How long ago?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I was in college. So, it was about 25 years ago or so. 

BRIAN MALONE

Rehearsal or performance?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Dress rehearsal, actually. 

BRIAN MALONE

Oh my god, man. Do you remember it?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Oh yeah. Actually, I finished the show. I spent a couple days in the hospital and was in a cast, but I finished it. 

BRIAN MALONE

Are you kidding? So the amputation came later?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Yeah, they tried to save them. I had several surgeries and the amputation came about a year after the injury. Then, the second foot couldn't take the pressure of being the only one and it was amputated probably about a year after that. 

BRIAN MALONE

Listen, I've got to tell you. Watch out for the robotic legs. I haven't seen it yet, but you can just see it coming. You saw that robotic arm in the film...Did you hear that story of that same lab, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, who developed the thought-controlled robotic arm had a new patient. They couldn't talk about it at the time, but they just published the research, it was vetted and the story came out last week. They were able to re-introduce the sense of touch to a robotic hand. So, this arm that's now thought controlled now has these touch sensors in there. If a quad or someone is reaching for something and doesn't have use of their arm, they can thought control the robotic arm and before it was simply on or off and they could crush something like a styrofoam cup or something like that. You could now pick it up and apply just enough pressure. One of the things that Sam's daughter talked about was not being able to hug or be hugged by her dad since she was two. Just imagine being able to do that and being able to actually feel her. It's pretty cool. It's coming. What they're doing is they're bypassing the nervous system. You know, there's this whole new trend of wearable technology. You can just imagine it. Fast forward and you could strap on robotics and just think "I need to take a step. I need to take a step." That's the real possibilities down the road. That's the thing that to me is really most exciting about this adaptive technology...the race car's cool, but not everyone's going to be able to do that or even going to want to do that. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That was one of the things when I was watching the film. I guess maybe because I am a paraplegic and I do deal with this life on a daily basis, I kept thinking "How can this be applied to so many other areas of life?" I mean, even with Sam. He kept talking about wanting to be more independent. I kept thinking to myself "Let's take this technology and make Sam more independent." It's cool, of course, that he drove the car. If that's in your blood, you don't just drop it. That's probably exorcizing a demon there. 

BRIAN MALONE

You could argue that. Some people will look at the film and look at what his father's been through and what he's been through and think "Are you kidding me?" If that's what you do, that's what you do. You accept the risk. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I get it. I've lost a couple uncles to racing. That's really one of the reasons my father stopped. 

BRIAN MALONE

There are people who fly small planes. Once in awhile, a small plane goes down. Does that mean that people want to stop being pilots? 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I did skydiving once, which I loved. 

BRIAN MALONE

You're more of a man than I am. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

The really stupid thing I did was try bungee jumping. I mean, c'mon. My spine is already really curved. I can say I did it. That's about all I got out of that one. I like that you portrayed disability without going into that sympathy realm that you talked about. You did portray the reality of life with a disability and you did so somewhat intimately. It wasn't really hardcore intimately, but you went more into it than many do and did so without turning it into a Hallmark card. 

BRIAN MALONE

I'll be honest with you. I did go deeper into it, but for Sam and his family it was a little too close for comfort. I dialed it back out of respect for them. I feel like I wanted to portray the idea of what folks have to go through. To me, it's not a big deal. Like I said, I've been indoctrinated into the culture. I know what a bowel program is and I know a lot about the sexual function. In fact, I'm in the middle of producing some educational videos for patients with Craig. Craig started a new project to show them "This is what you have to deal with, but the sooner you get over it the better life you're going to have." You can still live a full life. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I'm amazed and saddened by how many paraplegics and quadriplegics and folks with other disabilities don't know that. My high school did not have any kind of driver's education, but by college I had a driver's license and a car and was already living pretty darn independently. 

BRIAN MALONE

Think how new the ADA is. When we were kids, it didn't even exist. How insane is that? We can look back now thirty years and it's great. Things are still happening, but things take time. I think that collectively, as a society, I'd love to see us just get over this whole sympathy thing. Listen, you're no different than me. You're no different than anyone else who's walking around. You've had circumstances that have led you to where you are. You're still a productive member of society. It's hard to have sympathy when you see people who have everything and are still complaining. That's the way I look at it. I just think we've all got to "man up" or "cowboy up" or whatever. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You know, it's weird. Usually when I do interviews, I'll sit down and do my research and write down some questions. With this film, I didn't really feel a need to do that. I mean, yeah. I did my research. I think it's because so much of what's portrayed on the screen felt familiar to me. 

BRIAN MALONE

Did it really? That's cool, man, because that's what I was really hoping to do. I was really hoping that it would connect with people in the wheelchair using community. I want them to feel like on some level I get it and I get that in this world we're really all looking for respect. That means a lot to me that you got it. I really worked hard not to be brutally honest or exploit it in a cheap way, but I also didn't want it to be patronizing. I just want it to be real. Life is real. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

The transfer scenes alone, for me, were pretty powerful. They were simple, yet powerful. They were beautifully done. They'll probably be kind of hardcore for some folks. For me, obviously in a lesser way than Sam, it's still an everyday issue. I transfer. I fall. I transfer. I wobble. I struggle in a shower. I worry about pressure sores. I almost subconsciously reposition myself regularly. Sometimes, it's hard to do. I have to do things like make sure my mattress is at the right level so I can transfer into bed and so on. I think about being a quad and, quite honestly, I think it scares the crap out of me. 

BRIAN MALONE

You listen to Sam talk and he says "At least I wasn't left on a vent." To him, he's grateful. There's always someone worse. Christopher Reeve, he didn't live long because your body starts to deteriorate. Here's what I think about. I think about all those quads who don't have however much Sam has that are laying in bed right now because they don't have 24/7 care. They're waiting on a Medicare or Medicaid nurse to come by once a day to roll them over. They're laying there and they have bed sores. They have a full bladder. They're just sitting there waiting for someone to come by. I sincerely hope that this technology at some point, and it may be a little bit down the future but not long down into the future, can help folks have some sort of independence back and they don't just have to lay in bed staring at the ceiling waiting for someone to get them out of the bed. 

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