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An Accidental Story : ‘Waterdance’ Earns Raves at Sundance Film Fest

TIMES FILM CRITIC

More than seven years ago in July, 1984, Neal Jimenez, camping near Placerville with some friends, was walking along a path at night and slipped. The fall broke his neck, paralyzing him from the waist down. He spent five months in rehabilitation in Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, coming to terms with his wheelchair and his condition.

Out of this unlikely material, Jimenez and co-director Michael Steinberg have fashioned “The Waterdance,” an unexpectedly wonderful autobiographical film, both bitter and sweet but also piercingly funny and notably sensual, that is one of the hits of the current Sundance Film Festival.

“I knew almost immediately that I would write about this,” says Jimenez with quiet intensity over a cup of tea at a Park City restaurant. “You always want to turn whatever tragedy or experience you have to your work.”

A screenwriter with the highly regarded “River’s Edge” to his credit before the accident, what Jimenez didn’t know was how long it would take to get the job done.

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Though Jimenez’s script has gone through the usual pruning since his first draft, its basic structure has never varied over the years. Because he wanted to avoid the cliche of “seeing 10 minutes of the guy before the accident,” the fall novelist Joel Garcia takes is briefly mentioned but never shown. Instead “The Waterdance” (the title comes from a dream one of the characters has) takes place almost exclusively inside Garcia’s hospital rehabilitation ward and focuses on the relationships he has with two fellow patients and his girlfriend.

“I didn’t want the TV movie, the athlete overcoming adversity,” Jimenez says. “This is about men whose lives were not physical having to redefine their manhood.”

Jimenez, who had wanted to direct before the accident, would have liked to do this all by himself, “but since being in the chair I was frightened to do it alone. My endurance, my stamina is less.” So he teamed up with director Steinberg, a friend from UCLA Film School, and though he expected that Steinberg would deal with the technical aspects while he himself would deal with the actors, they both ended up sharing the tasks equally, a welcome division of labor given the film’s six-week shooting schedule and tight $2.7-million budget.

Hard as it is to envision at a major studio, “Waterdance” started its Hollywood life as a Warner Bros. project. But during a meeting with a Warner executive, Jimenez’s then-producer was moved to ask, “So you guys ever in a thousand years plan to make this film?”

“In all honesty, no,” the executive replied. The project immediately was placed into turnaround, which allowed them to shop it around to other producers. Its most unlikely rescuer turned out to be producer Gale Anne Hurd, best known for her work on “Terminator” and “Aliens.”

“Nancy Delos Santos, a friend of mine who worked for Gale, knew the script and kept pushing it,” Jimenez says.

Hurd bought the film, and gave the two directors pretty much of a free hand. “This is the first film she’s ever done,” Jimenez says, “that doesn’t have a gun in it.” Both directors felt Wesley Snipes and veteran character actor William Forsythe were first choices for Raymond and Bloss, Garcia’s two ward mates, and though they had originally wanted someone older for Joel’s girlfriend, the readings Helen Hunt gave convinced them to go with her. For the pivotal role of Garcia, names with heavy box-office clout were considered, but Eric Stoltz got the part and his commitment to it made the directors, in Jimenez’s words, “thank our lucky stars that we got him.”

“We’d had a preliminary meeting with Eric and then got together for dinner at the L.A. Trattoria Restaurant,” co-director Steinberg remembers. “We were waiting for him, it was very crowded, and suddenly everyone was getting up, moving chairs, parting the way for Eric in a wheelchair. I never saw him out of that chair once in eight weeks.”

Stoltz was so adept at basing his character on Jimenez’s personality that Steinberg says, “I didn’t really know who Eric was until post-production.” Jimenez says that the first time he saw the actor out of the wheelchair his immediate reaction was, “What gives him the right?”

Having adeptly steered “The Waterdance” through the potential pitfalls of maudlin dramaturgy, directors Jimenez and Steinberg know that there will be a final challenge when the film, just picked up by the Samuel Goldwyn Co., is released this summer and audiences must be convinced to see it. Even Jimenez admits, “It took me months to see “My Left Foot.’ When I finally went, I wondered why I stayed away so long.”


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