The star of ''Murderball'' -- Mark Zupan talks about what's poised to become the next breakout documentary, a movie about quadriplegic rugby players

When Mark Zupan was 18 years old, he walked out of a bar and passed out drunk in the bed of his best friend’s pickup truck. A couple hours and many rounds later, his buddy put his key in the ignition and headed home. He had no idea Zupan was asleep in the back. When his truck spun out of control on a Florida highway, Zupan was launched into a canal. He woke up when he hit the water, and started crying after he realized he couldn’t get his legs to work. Help wasn’t coming. So Zupan grabbed on to a branch and held on through a long night, red ants nesting between his fingers, and kept holding on through morning rain showers. Thirteen and a half hours he hung on to that damn branch, until a stranger on his lunch break spotted Zupan’s eyes and nose and arm poking out above the water and called 911. The doctors told the Division I college-scholarship soccer player that his neck was broken and that he would never walk again.

How’s this for a Hollywood comeback story? Zupan, the charismatic heart of the chest-thumper documentary Murderball (which opens in New York and L.A. on July 8 before expanding to theaters across the country), is poised to become one of summer’s biggest and unlikeliest action-movie stars. ”When you meet Zupan, he almost seems like a superhero,” says Murderball‘s first-time filmmaker Dana Adam Shapiro. ”And the wheelchair is his cape.”

Shapiro first learned about quadriplegic rugby, or ”murderball” as it’s gleefully referred to by devotees, after reading a squib about the sport in a local Arizona paper. After talking to star forward Zupan and other players on the phone, he pitched the story to Maxim magazine (it ran in November 2002). But before heading off to the world championships in Sweden, Shapiro, realizing he had the potential makings of a movie, enlisted the camera skills of codirector Henry-Alex Rubin (Who Is Henry Jaglom?). ”The premise sounded horrible,” admits Rubin. ”If there was a documentary about disabled people on TV, I’d want to switch the channel to CSI. But you meet these guys and they just completely subvert every cliché you’ve ever had about someone in a wheelchair. They listen to speed metal, they drink Jägermeister, they pop Viagra, they have hot girlfriends, they play poker, they call each other gimps and cripples. And Zupan, he’s a filmmaker’s wet dream. That guy is so brutally honest, there’s not a fake bone in his body.”

They spent the next two and a half years following the U.S. team as it prepared for the ultimate showdown with archrival Canada at the 2004 Paralympics. Before they left for Athens to shoot the movie’s climax, THINKFilm, flush from recent successes with documentaries like Spellbound and the Oscar-winning Born Into Brothels, invested just under a million dollars in Murderball after seeing a three-minute promotional reel. ”Even in that brief dose, your preconceptions were shattered,” says THINKFilm’s head of U.S. distribution, Mark Urman, ”and that to me has always equaled box office. It’s visceral, it’s entertaining, it has huge personalities, and there’s also that ‘Yes, I know’ factor. ‘Yes, I know you don’t want to see a film about handicapped people. Get over it.”’

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