For just a moment, try and get past the shoes: Burgundy-on-black Spectator wingtips in a shop window that Isaac Knott passes daily in the new film, Quid Pro Quo. After wrestling with the idea of buying the shoes for several days, one day he springs for them, feeling a warm tingle as he places them on his feet.
Isaac, who is portrayed by Nick Stahl, navigates life in a wheelchair, having been paralyzed at eight in the auto accident that also claimed his parents. Years later, when he wears the shoes, they seem to give him sensation and mobility in his legs; they even appear to reverse the paralysis that he’s dealt with most of his life.
Yet Quid Pro Quo, distributed by Magnolia Pictures, is more than just “another movie about magical shoes,” says director Carlos Brooks. It’s part romance, part detective story. Rather than focusing on the physicality of Isaac, Brooks’ first feature digs deeper to see how Isaac’s problems appear in everyday life.
“I was interested in taking this story into the psychological realm, where no matter what our physical condition, we all have the same psychological potentials or limitations that we struggle with,” he says. “Isaac puts on these shoes which allow him to walk again. That send him on a quest where, in the end, he discovers that he has really been investigating himself.”
Brooks, who does not have a disability, says his initial plan was to do a movie about a person with a disability who overcame an impairment, while helping the person who injured him in the first place. But when he came upon a group of people known as Wannabes, it redefined Quid Pro Quo.
The filmmaker grew up outside Seattle, WA, hiking extensively in the Pacific Northwest, including the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada during a break from college. He studied journalism at Western Washington (State) University in Bellingham,and later attended USC on a merit scholarship to study film and writing at the School of CinemaTelevision. He has written for both independent and studio projects, and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters.
The discovery of “Wannabes,” able-bodied people who inherently desire to have a disability “lit a fire,” says Brooks. “It was my ‘eureka moment’ as a writer, and it’s where the story came from,” he says.
When we meet him, Isaac is living in New York and working as a public radio talk show host. He tells stories, many of them about what life is like from the vantage point of his wheelchair. One day he becomes unnerved by an anonymous caller with a story more compelling than any of the ones he tells: A man walked into an area hospital with $250,000 in hand, demanding that one of his legs be amputated.
The caller, known only as “Ancient Chinese Girl,” continues to phone in, eventually meeting up with Isaac. Her real name is Fiona (Vera Farmiga), and she leads the deejay into the odd and disturbing world of Wannabes: “I was online doing research and discovered that there were people out there for whom getting help would be the exact opposite of what I thought getting help would be,” Brooks admits. He says he was confused as to why “help” for an able-bodied person would be to have a disability, whereas “help” to people with disabilities might be to regain use of certain functions.
Quid Pro Quo shines the spotlight on some of Issac’s challenges with his disability: He meets a woman on a blind date who can’t see past the wheelchair. He contends with stares and/or overly eager assistance from onlookers. He struggles to hail a taxi on the streets of New York City.
“If you’re wondering, I can have sex. I just can’t catch a cab,” he quips.
Thank consultant and actor Mitch Longley for the movie’s telling details.
“A lot of the authenticity in the film comes from his contributions,” Brooks says. “He was adamant that we hit the sexuality of it, the whole gamut of human experience that is often overlooked, denied and/or forgotten.”
Brooks opened auditions to actors with disabilities as well as able-bodied actors. Actress, model and Paralympic world record holder Aimee Mullins landed the role of Isaac’s former girlfriend. The leading role of Isaac and supporting role of Fiona were ultimately portrayed by Farmiga and Stahl, both able-bodied actors who best fit their respective roles.
Brooks had Stahl prepare for his part by using a wheelchair on the punishing sidewalks of Manhattan.
“There was an interesting relationship between him and strangers … There’s no pity or misappropriated anger, or any anger,” Brooks says. “I’m really proud of how all of that stereotype is defeated, and you very quickly are just identifying with the character and the person.”
That’s why Brooks wants viewers to get past the shoes and the perceived healing powers they represent—the ability of Isaac to suddenly walk once he places them on his feet only to revert back to his disability once they slip off.
“A guy came to the Sundance screening and missed the beginning where it warns you this all has to do with magic shoes,” Brooks says. “He missed that, and he came in and said, ‘Wow, I really like this because this is a movie depicting a physical disability in an authentic way.’ I was very keen about doing that, but ultimately I lost him…” because the viewer saw the film strictly as portraying physical disability. “I wanted them to identify with the character and not his condition.”
“I thought it was essential that everybody in the audience, whether able-bodied or disabled, get beyond the historical barriers that we have with people who are different from us,” Brooks says.
Isaac’s detective-like mind leads him further into the Wannabes’ world. His own wheelchair and, yes, even the shoes help him uncover how far members of this subculture will go to satisfy their desires.
There are three levels of the Wannabe lifestyle:
• Devotees who are sexually attracted to those with a disability.
• Pretenders who do not have a disability but live as if they do.
• Wannabes who long to have a disability.
It’s the Wannabe world that captures Brooks’ focus. And it’s a world, as he reveals in the film, where Wannabes secretly use crutches, braces, chairs or even breathing tubes to cast themselves as having a disability. The struggle they face lies in dealing with potential public scrutiny, or as one Wannabe in the film suggests, the fact that nobody would understand his desires.
Brooks admits he never communicated directly with anyone in the Wannabe world, but his research of the past eight years in Internet chat rooms and secret community websites helped him glean details of the lifestyle. “Some have had personal relationships fall apart because they revealed these desires. They were very tormented on that level.”
What is as the root of such desires? Brooks theorizes it is an attempt to fill a natural void. The examples that shine through in his mind are people whose parents were traveling doctors who treated people with disabilities, and perhaps focused too much on their patients and not enough on their families. But nearly a decade of research hasn’t brought Brooks to a solid conclusion on the matter.
“I’ve never been able to say definitively, only that there seems to be, I think, a misappropriated sense of significance given to disability, or perhaps an unconscious sense of the concept of being a victim and ‘if I were this way, I would be entitled.’”
Brooks says that’s exactly the opposite of what he’s experienced: That, in fact, many people with disabilities do not want to feel entitled to anything, but rather want to earn respect from peers as does anyone else. He feels it’s yet another way Wannabes grasp for a lifestyle they cannot fully comprehend.
“I found the humanity in them,” Brooks says of his Wannabe studies. “If I didn’t identify completely with the desire, I understood the sense of isolation.”
Other themes percolate through Quid Pro Quo: knowing what it’s like to battle guilt regularly, attempting to define what is “normal” and what is not, figuring out what is reality and what is not. The ending leaves it for you to decide: With magic shoes, does Issac leave behind footprints or wheel marks?
IMDB – “Quid Pro Quo” imdb.com/title/tt0414426