When Andrew Shelley decided to quit his job and backpack around the globe, he didn’t plan to have cameras tag along. But his friend Dusty Duprel realized that Shelley’s journey could make a powerful story. So the first-time director/producer pulled together the team to shoot, edit and produce the 91-minute film Beyond the Chair.
The documentary follows Shelley, 29, as he leaves a successful engineering career to set off on an adventure, despite his family’s concerns for his health and safety. Born with a progressive muscular degenerative disease that required his use of a wheelchair before age 25, Shelley was excited to challenge the limits of his new all-terrain power chair, the Frontier X5.
The journey stretched over several months, and included unpredictable adventures in India, Cambodia, Thailand, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates.
The film’s distributor, Betsy Chasse of Intention Media, is an industry veteran who’s worked on more than 30 films. She made the hit documentary What the Bleep Do We Know!? It was narrated by Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin.
Before the recent premiere of Beyond the Chair, David S. Zimmerman, actor and founder of Meet the Biz, which offers workshops for entertainment professionals, interviewed Shelley, Chasse, Duprel and director/producer Rachel Pandza in Beverly Hills, CA.
Zimmerman: Dusty, how did you and Andrew meet?
Duprel: We met through a Craig’s List ad when we were both looking for roommates. We were roommates first, and then we became friends.
Zimmerman: What inspired you to make Beyond the Chair?
Duprel: After we had been roommates for a year, Drew decided that he was going to travel around the world. At first, I didn’t think it was such a big thing, because I know him and his personality. But after I told my friends about what he planned to do, they said we should make a documentary about it.
While filmmaking is the only thing I ever wanted to do, initially I wasn’t interested in documentaries at all. But this was a good learning experience, because you can make a lot of mistakes and correct them more easily in a documentary than you can if you make them in a feature film.
Chasse: Intention Media really liked the film, by the way, because it doesn’t feel like a documentary. It has a cinematic element to it that you don’t oftentimes find in a conventional documentary.
Duprel: We wanted it to have a narrative feel, so we modeled it, to an extent, after Murderball [an award-winning film about paraplegics who play full-contact rugby in wheelchairs], which was a great film that didn’t play like a documentary, either.
To incorporate the theme of the hero’s journey, we researched and read a lot of Joseph Campbell books and watched PBS specials. We saw that Andrew’s story was naturally the classic “hero’s journey.”
Zimmerman: Andrew, did you ever think your life would be the subject of a documentary?
Shelley: No. When Dusty first said it was going to be a film, I thought, “What is there to show?” I had no idea that it might be a story that people would want to see.
Duprel: Maybe a month into it, Drew goes, “When you said we were going to make a documentary, I knew it was going to be about me, but I didn’t realize it was going to be so much about me.”
Zimmerman: I can see how that might be overwhelming, and also how transporting several people around the world must have presented a fair share of logistics. How big was your crew?
Duprel: There were about four people on the shoot: Rachel, me and then Patrick Guera. Halfway through Patrick had to go home, so we flew Zachary Borman to India. It just worked out that when we were in Thailand, we had to hire a coordinator, Arthit Kimakhom, to work with us, so he became like the fourth person in Thailand. And then throughout the editing process, we had quite a few people helping.
Initially, Rachel and I edited from January to June, and we barely even scratched the surface of 360 hours of footage. So then we had Alex Bridgman, with whom we went to school, fly to South Dakota, and we all moved into an apartment together. We would edit all day, go to bed, wake up, and edit all day again, throughout the summer. So Alex was our second editor, and then we brought Erik Puhm, who was also a college classmate, and finally Tina Imahara, who came in and did the last pass.
Chasse: Tina was the editor on Fuel, which was another Intention Media movie [about solutions to America’s addiction to oil]. I first heard about Beyond the Chair on Tina’s Facebook page. When we first screened Fuel, we didn’t think it was an Intention Media movie, in terms of what we usually distribute. But the more I watched it, the more that I appreciated that it was a spiritual, uplifting film. If you think about Intention Media’s mantra— achieving social change—then that’s what this movie is.
Zimmerman: Even social change within oneself.
Duprel: It’s funny, one of the first documentaries I ever watched was What the Bleep Do We Know!?
Chasse: When we first released What The Bleep, we didn’t have a distributor. We did it ourselves. After we’d played in about 20 markets, we signed on with Samuel Goldwyn for distribution. After Bleep, I was sent hundreds of movies by other indie filmmakers. I had gained a lot of knowledge about self-distribution, and started Intention Media with my partner Melissa Henderson. We screened so many films that deserved to be seen and given a chance. That’s what Intention Media is all about.
Zimmerman: While you were filming Beyond the Chair, what was the highlight of the journey?
Shelley: Probably the suspension bridge in Thailand, which was held together by bamboo and coat hangers, and leaning to the side. I didn’t know if I should wear my seatbelt or not. If I had my seatbelt on and I fell, my wheelchair would go off the bridge, and I’d go with it. If my seatbelt was off, then I might possibly stay on the bridge if the chair went over. So I rode halfway with the seatbelt on, and halfway with it off.
Chasse: 50/50. I love that.
Duprel: This old bridge was about 100 feet above a river, and I didn’t feel safe walking across it. It was even more dangerous for Drew, as there was a legitimate concern that it would collapse.
Zimmerman: Glad that everything worked out. So Rachel, at what point did you become involved with the project?
Pandza: We were all friends with Dusty at San Diego State, and he introduced us to Drew.
Zimmerman: And you went to San Diego to learn how to produce films?
Pandza: The school was more for all-around production. Everyone learned every single role.
Duprel: Rachel and I had many of the same classes together, and we were really good friends.
Pandza: The other two cameramen and our editor were all friends from San Diego State, as well.
Duprel: They were like 90 percent of our crew.
Chasse: Were there any scary moments during the shoot?
Duprel: One time, Drew got thrown out of his wheelchair and had to go to the hospital [in Cambodia]. We filmed there, even though we weren’t supposed to, and then we got caught. At the time, we had film equipment with us that was probably worth a year’s salary—three or four year’s salary by Cambodian standards. So I wanted Rachel to take the expensive cameras and go back to our hotel with these two Cambodian men that we didn’t know.
Pandza: They weren’t total strangers; they were tuk tuk drivers who had been helping us for a few days. So I took the cameras back to the hotel, and I wouldn’t have gone with them if I didn’t feel I could trust them. But Dusty’s reasoning was that it was dangerous to assume that they had good intentions. I guess Dusty thought I was going to return to the hospital after I dropped the cameras off, but because of miscommunication, I just stayed at the hotel and rested. The tuk tuk drivers returned to help Drew, if he needed it, and to give Dusty a ride back to the hotel. But because they barely spoke English, and weren’t clear about what they intended to do, Dusty assumed they might have done something to me or with the cameras.
I think it’s just the perceptions that people have when they go to a place like that. They just don’t know. The people were actually really nice. You could walk the streets; I almost felt safer than in New York.
Zimmerman: Ah yes, perceptions.
Duprel: The two guys returned the hospital without Rachel, and I had asked her to come back.
Pandza: But I was tired.
Duprel: And I thought that maybe the guys had killed her and taken the equipment.
Pandza: He has a wild imagination.
Chasse: You watch too many horror movies.
Duprel: So I had the guys take me back to the hotel, and I had one wait downstairs, while one came up with me. I was still very paranoid at this point that they could have possibly harmed or robbed Rachel, so I asked the smaller of the two to go to the hotel room with me. That way if Rachel wasn’t there, I could hold him hostage. Of course, Rachel was fine, and I blew the situation all out of proportion.
Pandza: One of the guys had never been in an elevator before, and he was just like, “Whoa.”
Duprel: He didn’t expect it to move.
Pandza: It was so odd, and you don’t even think about stuff like that—how people in another place may not have experienced even small things like that.
Zimmerman: Andrew, did you have any money challenges?
Shelley: All of the time. Once, in India, I lost my shoes, and my credit card was maxed out, and the ATM machine wasn’t working, so I called my mom, and said: “I have no money and no shoes.”
Zimmerman: Did she send you something?
Duprel: No, she didn’t.
Pandza: We had a lot for our production budget, but Drew was spending a lot of his own money and at some point it was running out, and we were maxing out cards, trying to get as much as we could for all the things we were doing.
Shelley: Yeah, I burned up my credit line. But luckily, when I got home I got a short-term engineering job and paid it off.
Zimmerman: Would you do this again?
Shelley: I can’t wait. I’m saving my money right now; I’ve already got enough for my next trip.
Zimmerman: Would you travel again with a camera crew?
Shelley: I’d rather not have as much filming. I want to document it, and I want to share my story, but not as intensely.
Pandza: Even though Drew knew what was going on, at some point he was like, “I guess I didn’t realize there would be this much filming of me.” His perspective, which is not necessarily that of a filmmaker, was: Oh, we’re going to film all the cool stuff, and that’s going to be the focus.”
Zimmerman: Because you’re not an actor. You’re—
Zimmerman: Your’re still an engineer?
Shelley: Sort of. I do graphics now. It’s more creative. I also do motivational speaking and mentoring.
Zimmerman: Oh, that’s wonderful. What is the plan for distributing the film?
Chasse: Right now, we’re focused on our core audience. Intention relies more on a viral, grassroots approach. We don’t have a lot of money, for one thing—which is kind of hard—so we rely more on word of mouth.
The disability community is also really great at supporting one another and spreading the word. And just like with other films that we’ve had at Intention, what eventually happens is that there is a tipping point at which the word of mouth starts to take hold.
And this film, I believe, will cross over to schools, younger kids and families. There’s a really profound message in here that I think people in general want to hear right now: That you can do anything. Anything is possible as long as you believe in it. And so to me, that’s what this film is about.
Zimmerman: I like that. What about your next project?
Pandza: We’re both writing, and Dusty does a lot of editing. So we work in production a lot.
Chasse: I’d like to know what is the one take-away that you got from this journey?
Pandza: It’s that everyone is the same. Even when you travel to different cultures, you have all these different perceptions going on about what things are going to be like, and you just realize we’re all the same and we all have the same hopes and dreams and problems. But it all came together, even with the language barrier and all our differences.
Duprel: What I learned from the trip is that when you take a step forward, the next step will present itself, and then you’ll find the help you need to take the step after that. And you can’t put any emphasis on your limitations or fears, because they’re just excuses, whether you’re in a wheelchair or not. It’s hard traveling around the world, beyond the physical aspect of it.
Pandza: It takes the mentality and courage to do it. The determination. The biggest response we’ve had from people who watch it is that it’s a kick in the pants. Why am I complaining about so many little problems, when I don’t have as many problems outwardly as it seems as Drew has?
Duprel: Right. What’s holding me back?
Chasse: That’s exactly why we distributed this film.
Beyond the Chair is available for purchase at btcmovie.com
David Zimmerman is an actor, casting director, producer and teacher. For more information, visit meetthebiz.net