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Roll chair, roll film … action


A Hollywood movie producer clears the path for a big-screen retelling of the Rick Hansen story Calgary native Victor Webster is

Mark Gordon, the American producer of Saving Private Ryan, Speed and the upcoming The Day After Tomorrow, is famous for two things Hollywood covets: finding stars and crafting movies that make money.

While Gordon’s focus has been on large-budget blockbusters, he’s optimistic his latest project will become one of the few overtly Canadian motion pictures to become commercially successful in the United States.

Filming is scheduled to begin in China this September on Rick Hansen: Heart Of A Dragon, the story of the Vancouver Paraplegic who, from 1985 to 1987, pushed his wheelchair through 34 countries on four continents to raise money for spinal-cord injury research.

“This movie has a little bit of `the little engine that could’ to it,” said Gordon, who has produced, financed and distributed more than 40 movies and TV programs.

“It doesn’t have any gigantic movie stars and isn’t effects-driven,” he said. “It doesn’t have an expensive budget and no one’s waiting for it to make millions and millions. But who knows? It’s a great story. It could be a home run.”

The Hansen film has been nearly a decade in the making.

Paramount Studios initially acquired the rights to Hansen’s life story in 1997, with the intention of luring Tom Cruise or another A-list Hollywood star to the project. But Cruise, who appeared as a paraplegic Vietnam vet in Born On The Fourth Of July, declined the role, and in 2001 Paramount let its rights expire.

Cruise’s replacement is Victor Webster, a Calgary native whose movie credits include the Steve Martin comedy Bringing Down The House. Newfoundland-born Natasha Henstridge, who appeared in The Whole Ten Yards, will play Hansen’s wife, Amanda Reid.

“These are not household names, but remember that Mark Gordon has a track record of finding young actors on the verge of breaking out,” said Michael French, the project’s executive producer. “He did the same thing when he cast Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in Speed.”

Gordon and French, an independent filmmaker who made a TV documentary about Hansen’s tour nearly 20 years ago, persuaded several Hollywood insiders to join the project.

Canadian composer David Foster is working on the soundtrack and has negotiated with the likes of the Barenaked Ladies and Avril Lavigne to record new versions of songs popular when Hansen was globetrotting.

Former Columbia Pictures executive Blaise Noto, regarded as one of Hollywood’s best marketers, has also adopted the picture. Noto most recently worked with Mel Gibson on the $30 million film The Passion Of The Christ, which has grossed nearly $600 million (U.S.) worldwide since its Ash Wednesday opening.

French says the Hansen movie is scheduled for a January, 2006, release and compares the project to Chariots Of Fire, the 1981 film about a British Olympic sprinter who refused to compete on Sundays because of his religious beliefs. That $5.5 million (U.S.) picture won a best-picture Oscar and captivated U.S. audiences, ringing up $57 million in U.S. box-office sales — despite its lack of an American angle.

The script for Rick Hansen: Heart Of A Dragon focuses on Hansen’s success at overcoming obstacles as well as the numerous setbacks in his quest. East Germany and Saudi Arabia, for instance, denied him entry, and reporters in Bahrain boycotted his tour after Hansen revealed he would later visit Israel.

“Maybe it hasn’t been the right time for this story to be told before now,” Hansen said. “Maybe if you did this 10 years ago, it would have been trivialized as a movie about disabilities. But I’ve always believed this has transcended politics, religion and geography.”

`Maybe it hasn’t been the right time for this story to be told before now. Maybe if you did this 10 years ago, it would have been trivialized as a movie about disabilities’

Rick Hansen

While Gordon holds U.S. distribution rights, French said he’s close to an agreement with Vancouver-based Lions Gate Entertainment to distribute the movie in Canada and Europe. He also hopes to finalize a pact with the government-backed China Film Group Co.

Tens of thousands of Chinese fans once flanked Hansen as he wheeled through China’s cities and up the steep slopes of the Great Wall.

One subplot may highlight Deng Pufang, son of former Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping, who became a paraplegic after he was thrown from an upper-story window by Red Guards in 1968 during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Deng was treated at Ottawa’s Civic Hospital in 1980 and later helped facilitate Hansen’s entry into China. He is being consulted about whether including his part of the story would make the film more attractive to Chinese theatergoers, French said.

Webster is training for the role at a veterans’ hospital in Long Beach, Calif., for the next several months.

“This isn’t an easy role to play,” said Mike Jacobs, a paraplegic who is teaching Webster how to more accurately portray Hansen. “He needs to be introduced to the frustrations of using the chair, like opening doors or changing a flat. If one wheel, for instance, is low on air, you have to correct that with every turn of the wheel or it’ll constantly pull to the side.”

To be sure, Hansen, whose foundation has generated about $150 million for spinal-cord injury research since 1985, isn’t the first Canadian fundraiser whose story has been pitched to U.S. film distributors.

Canadian independent film producer Robert Cooper, who held rights to Terry Fox’s life story, couldn’t secure a deal with a major American distributor, and the $2 million movie, whose budget was comparable to an average two-hour TV movie, was sold to pay-television channel Home Box Office and later the CBS network.

“A lot has changed since the Terry Fox story,” French said. “For one, Mark and David weren’t working on that.”

Still, Hansen and others concede this movie project faces long odds. “It doesn’t bother me at all to suggest that making and selling this film is going to be at least as difficult as my tour,” Hansen said.

Michael Levine, Hansen’s Toronto lawyer, agreed that “casting is a key issue.”

“Whether it will appeal to a U.S. audience is a legitimate concern,” Levine said. “It’s a star-driven business.”

One film industry executive asked to be involved noted that “until they get that camera rolling, this is not something that’s for sure. They still have a fair bit of work to do.”

Yet Hansen and French say there’s a good chance the film will recover its $10 million cost and turn a profit. Gordon, who has put up about $3.5 million, has agreed to distribute profits, after the standard residuals are paid out to Hansen’s Man in Motion Foundation.

They are seeking a similar agreement from the Chinese distributor and Lions Gate, though it’s questionable whether the publicly traded company would agree to those terms. A Telefilm Canada grant and tax credits will generate $6 million, French said, with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. kicking in about $500,000.

Besides box-office sales and sales of the movie’s star-laden soundtrack, French hopes to recruit sponsors that backed Hansen’s tour, such as Nike, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, to promote the film through commercials and outdoor advertising.

“This is all going to come down to how good the movie is,” Gordon said, “but again, this has what a great picture needs: not only bells and whistles, but good characters.”

RICK WESTHEAD
BUSINESS REPORTER

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