The funny and touching Daruma premiered at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival and each attendee at the premiere received a gift bag filled with all kinds of goodies that were given by donation.

I was able to speak with the writer, Kelli McNeil, director Alexander Yellen and two stars: John W. Lawson and Abigail Hawk about the story, the casting, their message and of course, those adorable gift bags!

Hello! Kristy Strouse with Film Inquiry. Congrats!

Kelli McNeil: Hello! My name is Kelli McNeil, I’m the writer-producer of Daruma, and one of the things that we’re offering all of our attendees are these VIP swag bags. And they’ve got incredible items, and then they’ve got snacks, they’ve got, you know, hoodies from this company called Real Essentials, we’ve got lotions, we’ve got lip balm, we’ve got pencil bags, we’ve got personal grooming products, we’ve got these yoga mats, too, and for our VIPs, we have these things called the Hatch 2, which is a really amazing alarm clock that’s about $200 MSRP. When we were putting our film together, we heard people say, oh, there’s not really any money in authentic representation or casting, and I really think that the volume of stuff that brands contributed to these bags proves it completely otherwise, because I don’t have a total dollar amount yet on what was donated, but it’s tens of thousands of dollars. I started getting sponsors back in December, and Red Vines is one, too, actually. Then when the news about Peter Farrelly joined the film as executive producer, it was like the floodgates just opened, and all of these brands were like “Oh, can we please contribute?” So I think that this just speaks very differently on the narrative that people have been saying.

Speaking of this – how does one even get started on something like this?

Kelli McNeil: It’s almost like putting together our film. You start with nothing. Do you know the story of Stone Soup?


Kelli McNeil: Okay, so I like to call this film soup.


Kelli McNeil: So you start with an idea, you start with nothing, and you’re that lonely, hungry traveler kind of wandering through town looking for something to eat, and nobody will help you, so you just start doing something. For us, it was to start a proof of concept. You do that, and people are like, oh, that’s really interesting. Then somebody contributes something else, and somebody contributes something else. Then all of a sudden, you have this amazing feast for everybody. That’s how we made our movie and that’s how these gift bags came together. It started with one person saying yes and I think that’s such a lovely story.

So how did the movie come to form? You wrote the film?

Kelli McNeil: I’m the writer and the producer.

Wow, you’ve got some hats!

Kelli McNeil: Yeah. Well, you have to do that in indie filmmaking. I like to call myself the cheap toilet scrubber.

source: Sundance Film Festival

We’ve got stone soup, toilet scrubbers…

Kelli McNeil: I’m full of metaphors and analogies.

I love it.

Kelli McNeil: I actually wrote the first draft of this in 2008. It was inspired by a tragic accident involving a family member, which opened my eyes to the lack of positive portrayals of disability in the media. I realized that existing narratives often suggested that life with a disability was inferior, which didn’t reflect the reality that my family member was still the same person despite their changed physical condition. So, I felt compelled to challenge these stereotypes and create a more authentic representation.

It took another 11 years and numerous revisions to develop the script to its current form. During this time, my partner Alexander Yellen, who is also the director and cinematographer of the film, and I began dating. As a husband and wife team, this project became a significant part of our journey together. When I finally allowed Alex to read the script, I was incredibly nervous about his reaction. To my surprise, he found humor in the story, viewing it as a dark comedy rather than the drama I intended it to be. This perspective opened up new possibilities for the project.

However, the challenge remained in casting authentic disabled actors in the lead roles. Many suggested hiring well-known actors, but I was adamant about representing disability authentically. Alex offered to direct the film, committing to finding a way to make it happen. In 2017, we embarked on this journey together.

As we reflect on the memories of filming two years ago, we’re filled with a sense of disbelief and gratitude. Screening our film at Park City feels like a surreal accomplishment. We’re immensely proud of how far we’ve come and excited to share our work with audiences. It’s a moment we’ve been eagerly anticipating, and we’re thrilled to be here.

So, you’re the director. [turns to Alex]

Alexander Yellen: Yes, ma’am.

How does the pairing work, a lot of collaboration? 

Alexander Yellen: Yes, there’s definitely a collaboration between us, but we have complementary yet distinct skill sets. This is a lesson I learned from my parents, who are archaeologists. My father once shared with me the key to working together as a couple: when on your partner’s “side of the volcano,” they’re the boss, and vice versa. This approach helps maintain harmony and respect in our work.

Kelly is an exceptional writer, a skill I greatly admire but don’t possess myself. While I contributed ideas to the script collaboratively, Kelly handled the mechanics of writing. Similarly, I stayed within my lane during on-set producing, refraining from interfering or asserting my own ideas. In return, Kelly respected my role as director, offering feedback but ultimately deferring to my decisions.

During the editing process, Kelly provided valuable input without overstepping into the technical aspects. She understood that, as the director, I had the final say. This mutual respect for each other’s expertise allows us to work harmoniously. We’ve established boundaries to keep our work and marriage separate, such as leaving work discussions until after coffee in the morning.

While I primarily work as a director and cinematographer, I also have a background in editing. Although I didn’t edit this film myself, I’m comfortable overseeing the editing process. With a trusted crew who understands my vision, I can delegate tasks while focusing on directing and working with the actors.

Overall, our partnership is built on mutual respect, clear boundaries, and a shared vision for the project. We’ve learned to navigate our roles effectively, resulting in a productive and fulfilling collaboration.

So tell us, how did you find your wonderful cast?

Alexander Yellen: Well, so when Kelly said we were going to cast authentically, I asked her, “Do you have any idea what’s out there?” And she said, “No, but we’re going to find out.” And we did a traditional casting call. So we went through breakdowns and we put out the proof of concept roles and got some great responses. We watched tape and we had callbacks. And interestingly, John read for the Robert role, which was written as a double amputee. The lead was originally written as a paraplegic and Tobias, who ultimately got the role, is a quad. He didn’t want to audition for it at first because he thought they were looking for a paraplegic. But he read it anyway. John and Toby know each other, they’re friends, and they read each other for auditions. John said, “Look, I’m just going to turn the camera around. Just read the other half of the scene because it was a scene together anyway.” And it just fell into place, and he was great.

Frankly, he was the best read we got. He was right for the role, so much so that we reworked parts of the script to work specifically with him and his physicality to make the role work. I’ve never looked at this as a disability film, and I don’t know that I’d be comfortable directing a disability film because that’s not where my expertise lies. All I had to do was worry about directing a dramedy, like a road trip, father-daughter, best-new-friend-found-family film. I really could lean on those guys to tell me if I was doing anything wrong or anything that didn’t feel authentic or natural; they would tell me. So it made my job easier. It was also very collaborative in that way.

John W. Lawson: Absolutely. What the collaboration to me was that it wasn’t that I had to educate him about disability because the role was just written, and honestly, being a cranky, old, poopoo head came very naturally to me. But no, it was an excellent opportunity for me to get a chance to show the world that people with disabilities are just like everybody else. We have feelings, we have emotions, and we can do this. We can drive cars. I’m actually a private pilot and a scuba diving instructor, and I’m the first-ever one in history to do that. But with “Daruma”, it was a chance for me to show that I could act more than just one line. There’s this really cool quote from former First Lady Michelle Obama. She said that for so many people, television and movies are the only way that other people understand people who aren’t like them. And that’s what “Daruma” is. We’re two different people, but we’re on an emotional and physical journey, locked in a car, forced to find out about each other and learn about each other, and the disabilities don’t play into it.

I love that. And so tell us a little bit about your character.

John W. Lawson: Well, Robert, as I foreshadowed earlier, is sort of the crotchety old neighbor, but we don’t know why. And as you go through this journey, he has a really cool arc in the film that you find out why he was that way. He’s next-door neighbors to Patrick, and without giving too much away, he sees Patrick making the same mistakes that he made, and he doesn’t want him to do that. So although they’ve had a contentious relationship living next door to each other with a driveway between them, now, when there’s nothing but a little seat between them in the car, they have to get along. It’s certainly a road trip film, but it’s more of an emotional trip film for the two characters. It’s a rescue story and a survival story, and both of those things make great drama. And with this script, you’re going to laugh some along the way too.

Perfect. I love to laugh. What’s Anna like? [Turns to Abigail]

Abigail Hawk: I played the character of Anna, who is the romantic lead. She’s fascinating to me because she clearly has been hurt. She’s got some personal trauma that she most likely hasn’t really overcome in the healthiest of ways. She’s just working this retail job in a child’s mattress store and living her dreams. She meets Patrick, who is Tobias Forrest’s character. The fascinating thing about Anna is that she is still so open-hearted. So she comes into this potential relationship with Patrick with her heart open and isn’t totally bitter and closed off to the idea of finding happiness as she continues to move forward as a person. She’s a little bit goth and a little punk, and definitely way tougher and cooler than I am. It was a fun time to play something totally different.

What was it about the script that caught your attention and made you say, “Oh, I really want to do it?”

Abigail Hawk: Originally, I planned to be an actor in it. I’ve known Alex for years and when they were fundraising for the film, I was very taken with the story and with the passion that they clearly both had for it. I had a niece who passed away a couple of years ago, who was severely physically and developmentally disabled, and just the idea of being able to see someone like her on screen in a way that wasn’t the reason you were seeing it was powerful to me. I loved that they had characters that were very flawed, very faulty. Patrick’s essentially a very unlikable dude, and yet, Tobias himself is so incredibly lovely and warm. So that was why I jumped in because I believed in the ideas behind it and the novelty of it.

I’d love to ask everybody kind of what you’re hoping audiences will take away from the film.

Alexander Yellen: I want people to walk away from this feeling really good. It’s a film that’s going to take you to some dark places, be uncomfortable to watch, but at the end, you see, I don’t want to give the ending away, but it’s joyful and it’s earned. Every character in this film gets the ending that they deserve, and I think it’s very satisfying. So if people could come away satisfied, I’ll be very happy.

John W. Lawson: My hope for the film is that by the end of it, you don’t even think about the characters’ disabilities anymore. Everybody finds a way to relate to this film. Everybody feels something. In the screenings we’ve had, there’s a moment where I hear the audience react, and I know that they’re experiencing the exact thing that I want them to experience. If they can humanize everybody in the film and relate to the emotion, then I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do with it and walk away happy.

Kelli McNeil: Daruma is not a moral lesson movie. It’s about emotional disability, if you want to put it that way. I hope it has a heart that everyone can relate to, and everyone will take something different from this. It could even work to help heal some relationships happening in other people’s lives. It’s never too late. Forgiveness is a big part of it, redemption, and just understanding that we’re all human, we all have our own specific journeys. Art is cool like that.

Art is cool. That’s a perfect way to close this.

John W. Lawson: Art is cool.

Interviewer: Thank you so much. Congratulations on the film. I’m sure this has been a whirlwind.

Alexander Yellen, John W. Lawson, Kelly MCNeil, Abigail Hawk: Thank you so much!

We’d like to thank everyone involved with Daruma for speaking with us!

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