Crowning Achievement

With 'King Gimp,' two Maryland filmmakers follow a young man with cerebral palsy from Boy Scous to baccalaureate, Now they wait to see whether their 14-year journey ends with an Oscar.

March 22, 2000|By PATRICIA MEISOL | PATRICIA MEISOL,SUN STAFF

The days leading up to the Academy Awards are days to relish for nominees Susan Hadary and Bill Whiteford, a filmmaking team at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Hadary has been pleasantly amused by numerous offers of precious jewels to wear to Sunday's Oscars.

Whiteford fancied himself making it after Tom Cruise wished him good luck last week at an Oscar nominee luncheon. With Cruise hovering over his table, blocking his way to his seat at the Beverly Hills Hilton, Whiteford put out his hand. "Hi, I'm Bill Whiteford," he says. "Hi, I'm Tom Cruise." Duh.

The team learned a month ago while driving to work in Baltimore that their documentary, "King Gimp," the story of a Towson boy's fight with cerebral palsy, was one of three nominated for an Oscar. Congratulations from friends and colleagues have poured in, and today they fly to Los Angeles for a last round of parties.

"It's an honor you live with and enjoy up to the minute they open the envelope," says the Annapolis-born Whiteford, whose silver hair and blue eyes against black clothes mark him as some kind of Hollywood celebrity. And then, as the pair knows from other award nominations, the winner is announced and the camera that has been stuck in their faces walks away. Just like that, it's over.

But like parents who celebrate the success of a child who goes to college, these filmmakers are too invested in their work of art to ever let it go.

For 14 years they have watched Dan Keplinger grow, on and off camera. What their intimate portrait doesn't reveal is their own unique relationship with Keplinger, now a 27-year-old artist. In an interview in their office on Greene Street, a case of gold trophies behind them, Hadary and Whiteford spoke more about the scenes on the cutting room floor than those in the final edit.

Keplinger was just 13 when they met him, a child in a Boy Scout uniform making dance-like movements with his arms. Unable to control the muscles of his arms, legs or mouth, he could neither speak nor dress himself. They chose him and five others from among 50 children they interviewed and played with to star in a 1986 federally funded documentary on mainstreaming children with disabilities.

"Other people look for disease," says Hadary, the loquacious side of the team. "We looked for people with disease. Bill and I would spend two or three months looking for people. Casting, if you will."

They made that film -- a training film still in use by teachers -- but afterward, Hadary and Whiteford realized they had developed strong relationships with the children. They wanted to keep watching them.

"They are our film children, if you will," Whiteford says.

Just kept going

In the years they grew to know the children, they created four piles of video tapes -- one each for Keplinger and three others. Their grant money long gone, they did everything in their spare time -- the filming, editing, writing, visiting, keeping relationships going. "It was wonderful to watch," Whiteford says, "and then, there was the completion problem."

They didn't know when to stop.

They recorded Keplinger's move from a state school for disabled children into Parkville High School. They filmed him moving from his mother's home into his first apartment. His first art show, his friendship with a young woman hired to help him with homework, his senior prom and his tears at his college graduation -- all were captured on film. Before they realized it, 14 years had passed.

One by one, the films about the other children began to be published, to critical acclaim. But Keplinger's was more complicated. His pestering forced the busy producers to hire an outside editor and win money from HBO to finish it.

From the beginning, the producers wanted Keplinger to tell his own story, as had the other children. But they couldn't understand him. Finally, Whiteford suggested that Keplinger write down his story and offered to pay him. It took two summers.

Using a head stick attached to a helmet, he typed four or five days a week in the producers' downtown offices, often after reviewing the film they'd shot. At night he'd rewrite. Then, the producers would quiz him: Is this what you meant? No, he'd say. Their communication got easier when e-mail came along.

The emotions Keplinger revealed in writing about his life surprised even his mother, Linda Ritter. "Dan and I had been so busy together, lining up meetings and fighting, we didn't take time to sit down and talk about feelings and emotions," Ritter says.

"King Gimp," a 39-minute film, was edited from 80 hours of tapes and 80 pages Keplinger wrote.

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