The actors in The Waterdance couldn’t afford to fool around on the set: They were on an intensive, 35-day shooting schedule and an ultralean $2.7 million budget. But making the widely praised drama — about a trio of paraplegics reclaiming their lives in a rehabilitation hospital — required the principal cast (Eric Stoltz, Wesley Snipes, and William Forsythe) to spend long hours in hospital beds and wheelchairs, which generated a lot of pent-up energy. So when the production’s caterer set out big trays of shimmering Jell-O, the invitation to let off steam was just too tempting. Soon, the Jello-O was flying.
”On low-budget films, you have to make your entertainment out of the little things,” laughed Stoltz between camera setups on the movie’s San Gabriel Valley set. ”Green Jell-O. Orange Jell-O. None of it edible, but all of it hurlable.”
Codirector and writer Neal Jimenez viewed the outbursts indulgently. ”We’ve had total dedication from everybody,” he says. ”The biggest surprise for me was how much I enjoyed working with the actors. That seems like it should go with the territory, but if you’re working with actors and you don’t respect what they do, then it’s not worth it.”
The larger surprise of The Waterdance, however, is how deftly Jimenez and his codirector, Michael Steinberg, friends since their days at UCLA, avoided the traps of maudlin sentimentality endemic in such a painfully autobiographical tale. Jimenez, now 32, was well on his way to a promising screenwriting career when he fell on a camping trip near Sacramento in 1984, broke his neck, and lost the use of his legs. ”Obviously, it changed my life,” says Jimenez, who downplays the accident’s melodramatic possibilities both on screen and off, ”but it wasn’t an earth-shattering thing. I was still writing, my girlfriend was still in my life, my friends were there.”
After the success of his first script, the 1986 independent feature, River’s Edge, Jimenez secured a deal at Warner Bros. to write about his experience. The studio soon cooled on the project, though, and it was rescued by producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator), who convinced video distributor Columbia TriStar to provide the necessary financing. According to Hurd, the project’s long gestation actually served to its benefit. ”At our first meetings, Neal didn’t have the distance he has now,” says Hurd. ”As time passed he was able to see it from a narrative point of view. It helped to create characters that were pure fiction.”
The film is now playing in select theaters around the country to appreciative audiences. But the movie’s first public screenings — at January’s Sundance Film Festival — had the filmmakers distressed. Even though they had scrupulously avoided milking cliches, they thought The Waterdance might still be so discomforting that audiences would miss its hard-earned humor. They needn’t have worried. When it was announced at the festival’s closing awards ceremony that the movie had won the Audience Award, voted by the festivalgoers themselves, the crowd let go with unabashed whoops and hollers.
Wheeling himself to the front of the room, Jimenez found himself playing out just the sort of scene — an emotional moment of pure personal triumph — with which he would have never dared to end his film for fear it would have seemed too corny. ”Thank you for liking the film,” he said as if struggling to contain his own excitement. ”We were worried that people wouldn’t appreciate its tone, but everybody got it, and that pleases me so much.”