There are other films that celebrate the disabled, showing them as fully functioning individuals, just like anyone. But now, in what is arguably the ultimate in positive cinematic discrimination, acclaimed Hungarian director Attila Till has made Kills On Wheels, a darkly humorous thriller about wheelchair bound assassins, winner of the Roger Ebert Award at the 2016 Chicago film festival. On the eve of the film’s screening at the Canberra International Film Festival this week (November 3, 2016), he talks about it to Andrew L. Urban.
Trailer - Kills on Wheels
The tall, tousle haired Attila Till strides out of the Budapest TV studio, all smiles and broken English, taking a lunch break without lunch for our interview. He is making the fourth series of Hungary’s most watched TV show, Star in Star (roughly translated) in which he introduces Hungarian stars of song or stage as they take on the persona and wardrobe of other stars, either domestic or international, like Madonna, say. There is a panel awarding them points and the audience at home votes via a mobile app. The results are sometimes effective and sometimes ridiculous, but always funny. “It’s all for fun, a lot of fun,” he says with a big laugh. All his laughs are big.
In case you still think – because the lead roles are disabled characters - his new film, Kills On Wheels, is the product of an earnest do-gooder, you are wrong. At least about behaving like an earnest do-gooder. True, the film was seeded five years ago when he spent time volunteering to help disabled organisations raise funds, getting to know people stuck in wheelchair, stuck in their rooms in drab institutions and “most important, help communicate with the rest of us. I am famous in Hungary and I felt a responsibility to make use of that fame by helping somehow,” he explains without the slightest trace of ego.
Kills On Wheels came about from Attila’s wish to see a hero on screen, “who is cool, like in any movie made in the west,” and who is disabled, stuck in a wheelchair. Following his work with the disabled, he began the writing process as he always does, by interviewing people from whom he gathers authentic stories. “But I didn’t want to just use these disabled people and then discard them for actors, sending them back to their lonely rooms ..”
So he hired them as the two leads, as well as for several support roles and extras, mixed with some professional actors.
Twenty-year-old wheelchair-bound Zoli (Zoltan Felvesi), his friend Barba (Adam Fekete) with Cerebral Palsy, and Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thurozy) an ex-fireman who is now also confined to a wheelchair, offer their services to mafia boss Dragan (Dr Dusan Vitanovic), as a gang of hired assassins. Zoli is something of an artist, and he is working on a comic strip – which parallels the story of his and his friend’s adventures ...
Thurozy is a professional actor, and Attila says he really loved working with the young non-professional cast, especially as much of the dialogue is improvised, based on Attila’s outline. “I wanted to hear the authentic language they use,” he explains.
Dr Dusan Vitanovic is in fact a real doctor – a neurosurgeon at Hungary’s National Institute of Neurosurgery. He was spotted in some small role one day and dragged into the business … between operations, needless to say.
The performances are indeed authentic and Attila’s screenplay weaves together layers of subtext and some serious issues - with a light touch. It’s a satisfying film that never for a moment elicits pity for its characters. They are heroic in more ways than one. The violence is fast when it happens, and there is an edgy tone throughout.
Casting, says Attila, “is the most important thing for me. And I have seen many films with actors playing disabled characters, and they are very good. But I wanted to use real disabled people.”
He was moved to tears when the audience of disabled people at a special preview screening burst into whoops of joy at the first action scene.