Filmmaker and crew rode the bumps during ‘Roll With Me’
Filmmaker Lisa France fell in love with Gabriel Cordell, a paraplegic man, the day she met him.
“He arrived to our meeting late and said he couldn’t find a parking place,” France said. “I had noticed two handicapped spaces just outside the door, and he said in all seriousness, ‘Oh, I’m not handicapped.’”
Those words were the start of the journey that would yield her documentary “Roll With It,” that would become France’s most difficult, but most rewarding project of her career.
“Roll With Me,” which was a favorite at the Woodstock Film Festival last fall, documents Cordell’s attempt to wheelchair 3,100 miles from California to New York. It will be featured in two special screenings at the Slamdance Film Festival at 4 p.m. on Jan. 22, and at 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 24, at Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St.
France is humbled to be screening at Slamdance.
“We were only going to have one screening, but they asked us to do another one,” she said. “I can’t wait to see some of the other films and meet these other filmmakers and talk about how they made their movies. We are in amazing company, and it’s such an honor for our film to play among these other movies.”
France said it was the hardest film she has ever made.
“If this is not independent filmmaking, I don’t know what it is,” she said.
The shoot took 99 days, and resulted in 4,000 hours of footage and 10,000 photographs, France said.
“Most of the footage was horrible because we had no real crew,” she said. “All the people who came on the trip weren’t camera operators of film crew people. They just volunteered to drive the RV and car.”
Even then, some didn’t have driver’s licenses.
“I can’t tell you all it took to get this band of wackadoos together,” France said. “It was bananas.”
Cordell was paralyzed in a car accident and turned to drugs.
“Gabe was a 43-year-old career smoker, who is former drug addict and feels major sexual dysfunction, not only with his body, but with his mind,” France said. “He also has arthritis in every drop of his body where he has feeling, and he had never rolled farther than a mile. So, here is attempting to roll from California to New York, and he thinks he can make it.”
Adding to the volatile mix is Cordell’s nephew, Christopher Kawas, who is fighting his own demons.
“I did know when Gabe said he was going to bring his nephew Chris, who was a drug addict and gang member, that things would get interesting,” France said.
During their first interview Kawas lied to France aobu this drug use.
“I asked him the last time he used something hard and he said it was a month ago, but I knew he lied because I saw him laying on a chair before the interview, and he looked completely [messed] up,” France said. “So I told him that there are only two answers that will make any difference at all – the truth or ‘I prefer not to answer that question.’ After he took a very long pause he told his truth, and that was the first day of him being sober.”
While the story is guided by Cordell’s feat, it is highlighted by his relationship with Kawas.
“The story between Gabe and Chris is a beautiful,” France said. “And I think a story of mentorship and community is very important right now, because I think people need to know that it’s OK to be a failed human being who’s fallen, because they can still be heroic at the same time. We’re not perfect. We’re all a mess on different levels.”
“Roll With It” is also a story of what France and her crew did to make the film.
“We were a team that consisted of a retired military [serviceman] with PTSD, an Army veteran, a lesbian, a volunteer with Asperger’s Syndrome,” she said. “We were like the Bad News Bears.”
The initial cut of the film clocked in at three hours.
“This could have been a miniseries,” France said. “I mean, there is so much on the [cutting room] floor, and in many ways it’s heartbreaking. But a really great filmmaker saw the movie early on and gave me some critical notes. So really dug deep and felt if we weren’t really focusing on Gabe’s story or Chris’ story and the brutality of the road itself, then it has to go.”
France praised her editor and producer Jeff Buccellato for his work on the film.
“He is probably one of the greatest human beings in the world,” she said. “He went back in and did it, because I, along with other filmmakers, get too close to my babies. And it’s hard when it comes to cutting off body parts.”
Lisa France’s “Roll With Me” will screen at the Slamdance Film Festival at 4 p.m. on Jan. 22, and at 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 24, at Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St. For information and tickets, visit http://www.slamdance.com.
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