Daruma — A Movie Breaking the Inclusion Barrier

Man in wheelchair, a young girl and a man with two hand hook prosthetics sitting around a dining room table
“Daruma” – Tobias Forrest (Patrick), Victoria Scott (Camilla) and John Lawson (Robert)

In 2019, ABILITY Magazine learned of a concept film that would star two disabled leading men who happen to be friends of ABILITY. Today, our friends, Tobias (Toby) Forrest and John W. Lawson, star in “Daruma,” a masterfully acted and produced film praised by top names in the industry. This independent feature film was the brainchild of Kelli McNeil and directed by her husband, Alexander Yellen, who set out to cast authentic actors with disabilities and also hire crew with disabilities. Years after that ABILITY Magazine article, “Daruma” debuted in front of a capacity crowd at the Dances with Films Film Festival at the iconic TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Loosely inspired by a family member’s life experience, the film has been a labor of love for McNeil. Together with Yellen, a veteran director of both television and film, the two have worked for years to write, cast, produce, film and ink a distribution deal for “Daruma.”

The film was truly years in the making. When their original studio pressured them to fill at least one of the leading roles with an actor pretending to be disabled, McNeil and Yellen opted to produce the film independently. They selected Forrest, a quadriplegic, for the leading role of “Patrick”, who is a paraplegic. Lawson, a double-hand amputee, was their choice to play the role of Patrick’s grouchy neighbor and friend, “Robert”, a character who shares the same disability as Lawson. Daruma brings to life the story of these two unlikely friends, who set out on a cross-country road trip to reunite Patrick’s 4-year-old daughter, Camilla, with her maternal grandparents.

With many roadblocks along the production path, “Daruma” was shot over the course of 15 days during the pandemic. McNeil is understandably thrilled with the current version of the film and its recent reception at Dances with Films film festival.

“We had a sold-out screening, and we really tried so hard to make that screening as accessible as possible for as many people across the disability spectrum as possible. In the end, I believe we had about 30 wheelchair-users in attendance. We worked with the theater programmers who knew how important this was, and we made space for everybody. We also had open captions for our deaf audience members, and we had audio visual descriptions provided to us free of charge by Audio Eyes,” McNeil said.

The screening also gave the cast and crew an opportunity to experience their film in front of a live audience. John Lawson said, “Watching it with everybody was great. When you’re filming, it’s hard to predict if the audience is going to laugh because some of its dark humor. At the screening, they laughed at all of the right times, and they all cried at the right time, too.”

Lawson was particularly interested to see if a particular line of his would land with laughter as intended. He explained that there’s a scene where Patrick’s in the wheelchair trying to lean in and secure a new car seat. As he struggles to reach it, Robert leans in and says, ‘Hey, you need a hand?’ John was relieved when he heard the audience laugh enthusiastically. “We weren’t sure how everybody would take that joke, but everybody laughed. And that was what we hoped.”

Forrest is among those grateful for the steadfast leadership of McNeil and Yellen during the film’s long road. “Even though there were hurdles along the way filming Daruma, Kelli and Alex just went around the hurdle. That was so great. We didn’t even go over them. We just went around the hurdles,” Forrest said.

About six years ago, the writer and director duo completed Daruma’s proof of concept film, which is the vehicle typically used to garner interest from studios and distribution companies to secure funding. Forrest and Lawson have been involved in the project since the concept’s filming, patiently hoping the film would eventually get made. The film’s compelling writing and vivid characters resonated with studio executives, and it looked like the film was on its way to mainstream production.

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“Kelli and Alex stuck with us through the whole thing. And they originally shot the script with studio funding and had interest for it. But the studio said, ‘Well, we need to replace these disabled people. We’ll put an able-bodied person in it’,” John Lawson recalls. “Then, the studio said, ‘Well, you can keep the amputee guy, but we’ll put an A-list actor in a wheelchair and let him pretend to be the paraplegic’.”

McNeil and Yellen made the decision to walk away and produce the film on their own rather than submit to the studio casting directives. “Daruma” entered the realm of independent films where funding can be difficult to find. For Daruma, McNeil and Yellen used their own resources along with a crowd funding campaign to raise the necessary funds.

McNeil is thrilled with the current version of the movie and feels good about the prospects of securing a distribution deal soon. She’s also grateful that “Daruma” has already succeeded in bringing attention to the issue of disability inclusion in the industry.

“The community we have built and developed with this project has been astounding. And I can’t even tell you what it was like coming out of that screening. Alex and I were just surrounded by hundreds of people wanting to shake our hand and tell us how much they loved the film. It was incredible. I’ll never forget it,” McNeil said. ”I don’t know where this film is going to land yet, but I have a feeling that the team we go with is going to see its value and help us get “Daruma” in front of as wide an audience as possible.”

John Lawson remembers vividly when he heard about the “Daruma” casting call. It was memorable because with 40 years in the business, Lawson had never seen a notice for a double arm amputee. Despite the fact they were looking for a younger man, John decided to audition for the role.

“I figured I might as well go. I mean, from my experience I was the only true double hand amputee around. At least as far as I could tell from all of the auditions I’d been on over the years,” Lawson said, with a laugh.

When Lawson learned the other lead role was a paraplegic, he immediately suggested his good friend and fellow actor, Toby Forrest audition. Lawson and Forrest live just a mile apart and often help each other with audition prep.

Father in wheel chair speaking with daughter at bed time

Forrest was resistant to auditioning, saying “The role is for a paraplegic. I’m a quadriplegic. But John kept pushing me to do it anyway. I said, I’ve done these things where they bring me in, and then I can’t do any of the stuff the character can do.”

Lawson wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, Forrest auditioned for the lead role in ”Daruma.” At the call back, he remembers expressing his concerns to McNeil and Yellen.

“I said, ‘I really appreciate this, but there’s a lot that I cannot do that this character can.’ And they were like, ‘It’s no problem, we’ll figure out a way around that if we have to.’ And I told them it’s not like I wouldn’t really love to star in a movie, but that’s my dream. I didn’t want to ruin their dream of creating a movie. But they were so insistent that I was their only choice to play the lead,” Forrest said.

John Lawson thinks that he and Forrest brought more to the audition than just their authentic disabilities. He explained that their ‘authentic’ friendship probably also helped during their joint audition.

“At the time of our audition Toby and I had been friends for, I don’t know, 10, 15 years. It’s easy to portray anger. But we also had to do this scene that demonstrated the characters were really close friends. I think that our actual friendship that existed came through in the audition scene, and that’s why they ended up casting both of us,” John said.

Forrest was especially happy to secure the “Daruma” role when he realized McNeil and Yellen planned to portray Patrick’s disability much differently. They dismissed the temptation of some filmmakers to focus on and sometimes even exaggerate disabilities to elicit an emotional response from the audience.

“For Daruma, they took a chance and actually made me more able bodied than I am in real life, which is pretty remarkable,” Forrest said.

Elaborating, Forrest explained that Patrick does a number of things in the film that he is not physically able to do in real life. McNeil and Yellen also chose not to focus on other aspects of Patrick’s disability, preferring instead to keep the focus on the central plot line and characters.

Toby Forrest and John Lawson sitting in a car with sun going down behind them

McNeil and Yellen said that they were not interested in what this character can and can’t do. They were interested in what this character can and can’t feel. They didn’t need to film (someone) getting in and out of the car.

“And after watching the movie, they were right. Those details were not important to the story being told,” Toby said. “It’s because the story is so well-written and the characters are just so connected. So, you’re able to forget about the disability part–and the mechanics of it– and really focus on the emotional life of these people. I think it’s so important that the disability not be focused on, to have roles that are separate, really from any disability.”

For example, in the film Patrick picks up a bottle and throws it through a window, something Forest cannot do. And, conversely, they elected not to focus on the process of Patrick getting in and out of cars or getting out of bed into the wheelchair. In Daruma, the decision to exclude some of the physical aspects that go along with disability helps shift focus onto Patrick, not his disability.

The idea is that “Daruma” is really a father-daughter drama about forgiveness. The “Daruma” production team knows that viewers will go into the movie thinking it’s going to be a movie about two guys with disabilities because it’s the first movie to star two guys with disabilities, authentically. But with skillful story-telling and beautiful imagery, the cast and crew have worked hard to create a different narrative than expected.

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Forrest said, “I hope everyone realizes this film is not about disability. Patrick is not broken because of his disability or depressed because of that or any of those things. You find out that he’s just not a great guy. And he finds out that he’s got a daughter and he thinks there might be an advantage to taking custody of her, but realizes he’s a terrible father in the process.”

During the recent screening, the audience appreciated and understood that message. John Lawson heard many such observations afterwards. “As people came out of the theater, everyone was commenting that disability was never mentioned. The closest thing was my joke about, ‘Can I give you a hand?’ And so that was a big takeaway for people who saw the film,” John said. “I mean, the number one thing is that it’s a good story. We go to the movies to feel something. And this is a movie that makes you feel. It’s not a moral lesson movie at all. So, I think it will attract a wide range of people who will enjoy it.”

“This film starts, like any good film, with good writing. And good writing comes from personal emotional investment and a commitment to the authenticity of the characters in the story. John and I were blessed with all of that for Daruma,” Forrest said.

The film comes alive with a talented production crew. Yellen and the “Daruma” production crew used their ingenuity to create a beautiful film, despite a short shooting schedule and limited budget. A New Film Makers Grant from Panavision provided an extensive camera package for Yellen to use at no cost. He and the crew built creative camera set-ups to get the shots Yellen envisioned.

“We shot this, believe it or not, the whole film in 15 days. When people see the finished product, they will not believe it,” Lawson said.

With no budget for a process trailer, an expensive piece of equipment that tows a car while cameras film the actors as they simulate driving scenes, the crew used the Panavision cameras to capture the glorious golden hour moments, beautiful sunsets, in the middle of rural California. They then projected that footage onto an enormous LED screen in the studio. It allowed the crew to replay that sunset over and over. That helped take the pressure off Forrest and Lawson as they sat in the stationary car, playing out the scenes.

“You could get as many takes as you wanted. Rewind the golden hour background and start over. So that really, I think, helped the performances. It was a turning point in the film, so it was important that it be the best performance we could give,” Lawson said. “It just came out phenomenal. If you didn’t know that we were sitting still in a studio. Nobody would ever believe it.”

Because the film is not about disability, the filmmakers chose not to focus much on the main character’s wheelchair to tell the story, but they did want to capture the character’s viewpoint. Yellen wanted some really close shots to highlight a few emotional moments. Yellen and crew built an elaborate rigging onto Patrick’s wheelchair, using one of Panavision’s state-of-the-art cameras.

Actor in wheelchair with camera and filiming equipment mounted on the wheel chair
“Daruma” – Toby Forrest with unique wheelchair camera mount

Forrest had concerns when the camera rig idea was first explained to him. “They were essentially planning to put me in an exoskeleton, in a sense. And it would be on my chair, and it needs to fit and needs to work, and there wasn’t a lot of time to figure it out.” Forrest said, “Truthfully, my initial concern was whether I would get a pressure sore. Because I am a quadriplegic, if my muscle tissue is pressed up against a piece of metal, and it’s like that for an hour or two, that could be the beginning of a pressure sore or another type of injury. And, I may not be aware of it because I don’t have feeling in my legs.”

As it turned out, Yellen had already thought to ensure Forrest’s safety while shooting with the rig. They mounted the rig onto the front of the wheelchair, allowing some really tight, up-close shots of Forrest during a couple of key scenes.

“It was right in my face. And I was able to roll around with the camera in front of me. So, the camera became part of my chair at that point,” Forrest explained. He continued, “It’s not like they just threw a GoPro on the front of my chair. Instead, they decided to mount an extremely incredible, expensive camera in such a way that the audience is right there with me in some really important moments.”

The end result was well worth the extra time and attention the rig required. “That was one of the most incredible shots that we did in the film,” writer and creator Kelly McNeil said, “Alex, my husband, and our grip, Dan Misner did a fabulous job. Dan is a master key grip, and he built that rig on Toby’s wheelchair to give it a very subjective first person POV (point of view) in two different scenes.”

Dan Misner, a seasoned film professional in various roles since the late 1980’s, explained, “The rig we built in “Daruma” is one of many in my career. However, it was my very first reverse POV type of rigs mounted on a wheelchair, especially one that required complete 360-degree motion while being strong enough to enable the chair to tip over with Toby in it and still keep the camera stable.”

“The biggest challenge in building the rig around Toby was holding all the pieces in place and getting the camera framed, which is a trick within itself. It took a few extra hands, but we ended up with a quite solid rig,” Misner said.

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Yellen discussed this shot and sequence with him, and Misner liked the idea and was very happy with the end result, “In my opinion, it created a kind of surreal, chaotic, helpless feel to the scene.”

The cast and crew of “Daruma” hope to show the industry that film productions with actors and crew with authentic disabilities can and will resonate with audiences.

“Everyone knows that money is a great motivator,” Kelli McNeil said, “Somebody once told me the only reason anybody ever makes a movie is for the bottom line. So, I guess if that’s what it takes to incentivize people, then at least we have the numbers and the statistics to back it up.”

John Lawson has been acting for decades and is cautiously optimistic that authentic representation will eventually be accepted as the norm, not something that is cause for celebration. “In the past 25 years the number of roles out there just haven’t changed much, except now there are more people becoming disabled who want to see themselves in the content they invite into their homes on a daily basis,” Lawson said.

25% of people identify with some form of disability and representation remains at less than 2 % in film and television. Lawson said, “We are denying 25% of the population the right to self- representation in entertainment We wouldn’t do that with females or any other race. But yet, we do it with people with disabilities.”

Looking back over his legacy of advocacy, Lawson recalls his repeated efforts to educate industry decision-makers that there is a market for more inclusive content and authentic representation. He has spoken at every major studio from Apple to Disney to Warner Brothers and all those in between.

“I’ve been to every one of them speaking to producers and writers and directors to try and educate them about representation. That’s one of the lofty goals that we have with “Daruma.” The hope is that it can prove that there is a market out there,” Lawson said.

There are some familiar faces in the cast of “Daruma”. Abigail Hawk, known primarily for her role as Lt. Abigail Baker on long-running CBS series, “Blue Bloods,” plays Anna, the leading lady and love-interest in “Daruma.” Barry Bostwick takes on the role of ‘Horace’ in the film. Bostwick’s storied acting career includes the iconic character “Brad” in the cult-classic “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and his role as Mayor Winston on the seven seasons of CBS sitcom “Spin City,” where he appeared alongside Michael J. Fox.

As the first U.S. feature film, with its two leading roles portrayed authentically by actors with disabilities, there is some early buzz in the disability community surrounding “Daruma”. Some believe the film offers reason to hope that it will finally usher in a brighter future for authentic representation in the entertainment industry. The film has generated interest from several distribution companies, and McNeil and Yellen are currently fielding offers and expect to have good news in the next few months.

Daruma Movie

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