Learning about Daruma

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on October 31, 2019 # Mobility, News

The movie Daruma is based on the true story of two friends that sustained life-changing injuries just a few days apart. We asked writer Kelli McNeil and the cast members of the film a few questions regarding the Daruma Movie, the significance it holds, and how people persevere and never give up.

1. Can you explain the significance behind “fall down 7 times, Get up 8”?

John Lawson: It’s an old Japanese proverb that speaks to never giving up. There are numerous recreations of similar sentiment. For me personally, one of my favorite reiterations of the proverb is. Life is ten percent what happens to me and ninety percent how I react to it. I might not have control over things that made me fall, but I can control what makes me get up. I cannot change the past, but I do have a choice and control every day of my attitude. I choose to get up. I play Robert in the movie and wasn’t familiar with the concept of the Daruma Doll or the saying that goes along with it, Fall down 7 Times, Get Up 8 until the writer Kelli McNeil explained it to the cast and crew.

Tobias Forrest: It is inevitable that life will have setbacks, but we can overcome them with perseverance. Rejection can leave actors feeling defeated but keeping focused can quickly turn things around. The numbers don't really matter, it could say fall down 9 times and get up 10, the important thing is to keep getting up.

2. Can you explain Daruma's efforts in diversifying Hollywood?

Kelli McNeil: “While many efforts have been made to diversify Hollywood in terms of race and gender, disability inclusion has been called the last frontier for true diversification. The reason for this is because people aren’t comfortable seeing disability on the screen because it’s a reminder that it can happen to anyone. Almost 25% of the US population is classified as disabled but only 2% of characters in film and tv have disabilities. It’s only recently that films and television shows have begun to authentically portray disability on the screen. With the success of shows like Special and Speechless, Aly Stoker’s winning a Tony, and the recent movie, The Peanut Butter Falcon, audiences and filmmakers are just beginning to knock on that door. From the very offset, the team behind Daruma intended to authentically cast the two lead roles, one a paraplegic and the other a double amputee.

John Lawson: Daruma brings characters to the forefront of the story that just happens to have a disability. The disability representation is not a story focus but only an element of the characters portrayed with accuracy and authenticity by performers with the same disability.”

Tobias Forrest: Not only did Daruma develop characters who happen to be disabled but it is committed to accurate and inclusive casting by hiring actors with disabilities. While this should seem like a standard practice in the entertainment industry, it is, unfortunately, a rare experience.

Alexander Yellen: Daruma is a unique project in that it takes a familiar, relatable story and frames it around a pair of leads with disabilities. Stories about disability are awards fodder every year but virtually never are actors with disabilities cast in the lead roles. Able-bodied actors portraying characters who acquire a physical, mental, or emotional disability comprise the vast majority of the general public’s exposure to disability in mass media. Daruma is going to challenge that reality and demonstrate that actors with disabilities are capable and deserving of authentically representing themselves on screen.

3. Why was it important to you as an actor, director, or writer to have this film with actors who are living with a disability off-screen be the main lead?

John Lawson: This story with two disabled leads portrayed by two disabled actors has never been done in Hollywood. Hopefully, the success of Daruma will educate and elevate performers living with a disability into the heightened Hollywood discussion of diversity.

Tobias Forrest: Entertainment should reflect accurate portrayals of disability and that is guaranteed when actors who live with a disability are hired. As an actor, it is important for me to be a part of projects like Daruma that will hopefully convince more filmmakers to strive for accuracy and inclusion.

Alexander Yellen: There has been a laudable push for diversity and authenticity in entertainment, particularly over the last decade, but the disabilities community has been largely overlooked in this effort. Personally, I have seen very few actors with disabilities in roles that allow them to properly showcase their talent and so I was admittedly skeptical when we began our casting process as to the depth of the acting pool. Once we began auditioning actors, I knew there was no other choice. Casting leads who properly reflect their characters is not only the best thing to do for the story but also the right thing to do for the industry and the audience who will see this film.

Kelli McNeil: I could not make this project any other way. To cast two able-bodied actors in these roles would be disingenuous and inauthentic and would only add to the problem of diversity and disability inclusion in Hollywood rather than attempting to bring the change we all hope to see.

4. What are Kelli’s, the screenwriter, ties to the SCI community?

Kelli McNeil: I was inspired to write Daruma after a member of my own family sustained a spinal cord injury from a motorcycle accident. At the time they were injured, there were very few resources to lean on and the materials that the Reeve Foundation had made accessible to persons and their families dealing with a new SCI injury were invaluable. Without the Reeve Foundation and their resources, coping with that event would have been a lot more difficult than it already was.

As we adapted to life with an injury, I became more aware of the difficulties my relative faced in the home and out in the real world, but also realized how unchanged they were in their spirit and personality. It dawned on me that their disability didn’t define them. They were the same person, they just happened to be disabled.

It was this realization that got me thinking about the genesis for Daruma’s storyline. If you look at most movies that feature disabled leads, the point of injury is the main plot point. It’s like, here’s our lead pre-injury, now here’s the inciting incident when they get injured, and the rest of the movie is about them coming to terms with their new reality. Well, what about after that? Because life goes on with a disability too and I wanted to create a story for two disabled lead actors where their disability is not the focal point of the movie. They just happen to be disabled.

This led me and the film’s director Alexander Yellen to do a nationwide casting call for their two leads in the movie, Patrick, a paraplegic, and Robert, a double amputee.

5. What was the process to write the script? And to bring together the crew and cast?

McNeil: Since the story is not about my relative but only inspired by them, I struggled to find the right way to tell this story for years. My relative had spent time recuperating after their injury at a facility where they were roomed with another young person who had just lost both arms in an electrical accident. They were both in their early 20s, in the prime of their youth, and then this happened to them. As much as they were processing their new reality, I was processing my own grief as well. And I was struck by the symbolism of one person who had just lost the use of their legs and the other who had just lost the use of their arms. And together, they sort of made this whole person and completed each other.

This is where the imagery of the Daruma comes into play. A Daruma doll is a round, red doll popular in Japanese culture. When you receive a doll, you make a wish and you color in one eye black. When the wish comes true, you color in the other eye.

The Daruma doll finds its origins in the root of Zen Buddhism. The legend goes that the Bodhi Dharma, the Daruma, meditated in a cave for nine years seeking enlightenment and his limbs fell away as he had no need for them anymore and he became this round figure.

I studied a painting by Sesshu Toyo in college called “Eka Showing His Severed Arm to Daruma”, and it was the striking realization between the symbolism of the painting and the story I wanted to tell that helped put the final pieces together. The connection was made even deeper when I discovered the actual Daruma dolls and the saying that accompanies them: Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight.

I failed many times at developing this story and even did multiple rewrites of it after we cast John and Toby. I had written the script from an able-bodied person’s perspective and didn’t give them enough credit for the things they were physically capable of doing, particularly John. Yes, John is a double amputee, but he’s a hell of a photographer, a scuba diver, a private pilot, and an incredible human being. We’ve become very close and this experience was incredibly eye-opening for me. It’s because of things like this that this film matters so much.

Tobias Forrest: I got involved because I was helping my friend John Lawson with a taped audition for Daruma. He encouraged me to audition as well and although I initially declined, he convinced me. We both went to the callback and were lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet Kelli and get involved with Daruma!

Alexander Yellen: The first step was finding the right leads for the film. We reached out to a casting agent who specialized in actors with disabilities and also more broadly through social media to solicit auditions. When we met John Lawson and Toby Forrest at the callbacks, they were initially a bit skeptical of two filmmakers with no history or footprint in the disability community but they felt the script was strong and so signed on. Within a few hours of shooting the proof-of-concept, they were wholeheartedly behind us and have been both our ardent supporters and hosts within the broader community. On the crew side, the proof-of-concept was largely dependent on favors from friends and colleagues. For the feature, we hope to keep some of the same team but are also actively soliciting participation from the crew with disabilities as well. Inclusion doesn’t end in front of the lens.

6. What were some of the challenges in making this film?

Kelli McNeil: One of the biggest challenges to getting this made is getting other people in a position to help make the feature see its potential.

Alexander Yellen: The real challenge has been convincing a Hollywood system, believing only in what has succeeded previously, that two unknown actors with disabilities can carry a feature film. It has never been done before. Producers and financiers love the idea of Daruma’s story but get nervous about the casting. That is why we have chosen to launch a crowdfunding campaign. A grassroots effort allows people who believe in our cause to participate in the endeavor and because donations are tax-deductible, every contributor benefit regardless of how the movie ultimately performs.

Tobias Forrest: At the time of filming the proof of concept, I was busy doing the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Cost of Living” and had shows Friday through Monday. Fortunately, we were able to film during the week but doing the trailer and playback to back was my biggest challenge. However, it was an awesome experience as an actor that I am so grateful for.

7. What makes Daruma different, when compared to characters in other movies who are living with a disability?

John Lawson: The few characters with disabilities in stories on screen today are usually depicted as helpless and pitiful, or as an inspirational hero merely because they chose to live their life post disability. Worst of all, films like “Me Before You” tell a story that even if you find love after having a disability, it is better to commit suicide than live with a disability. Daruma depicts characters in a story that just happen to have a disability. Their disability is not the story focus but only an element of the characters.

Tobias Forrest: Movies often focus on the “disability” with a character rather than the “character” with a disability. Daruma introduces characters that are completely flawed but not because of or defined by their disability.

Alexander Yellen: As I mentioned the majority of stories about disability in media center around the acquisition of the disability in question. Daruma is a story that doesn’t focus on the characters’ disabilities. The same story could be told with any type of character. It’s a simple, universal story of family, friendship, and forgiveness. That gives it broad appeal. While disability is inherent to the main characters and an important part of their reality, it doesn’t define them or their story, just as it doesn’t define the millions of people living with disabilities or the lives they lead. Daruma presents its main characters as being at their core just like anyone else.

8. What message do you hope audiences leave with after watching Daruma?

John Lawson: I believe in the social model of disability that states, Disability is caused by the way society is structured, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. It looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people. When barriers are removed, disabled people can be independent and equal in society, with choice and control over their own lives. For many years, television and film have had a sweeping impact on American society and culture. It has influenced the way people think about social issues such as race, religion, gender identity and even disability. Daruma is a story with a positive message that shows disabled people can be independent and equal in society.

Tobias Forrest: Disability should be seen as an aspect of a character’s life rather than a tool for dramatic storytelling or as the punch line of the joke. Also, authenticity and accuracy matter in the entertainment industry and films like Daruma should be our goal. That happiness is measured by how we treat ourselves and the people around us, not by our looks, our abilities, or the challenges we face.

Alexander Yellen: I want people to walk away from this movie having completely forgotten about the characters’ disabilities and to talk about the incredible emotional journey these two characters took them on. Because only when we start to see people for who they are rather than just looking at their disability will we be able to eliminate the stigma that’s associated with being disabled.

The Daruma Movie is a moving story that tells a tale of strength and courage. Although the movie has fictional characters, Kelli McNeil wrote the script off her personal thoughts, experiences, and struggles. Daruma holds powerful messages everybody could take to heart and learn from. You can learn more about the movie through the film’s website.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.