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It’s the first question that always comes up with a bio-pic: who should star in it?
Champion athlete John Maclean has two ideas for a planned film about his remarkable life: Danny DeVito???, because he’s the right height for when he used to be in a wheelchair. And Chris Hemsworth because, well, why not?
“I’m just an average looking guy but you’d take that every day of the week,” Maclean says.
Back from the Oscars, one of the executive producers of Lion, Andrew Fraser, is looking to adapt Maclean’s book How Far Can You Go?, about how he learnt to walk again 25 years after becoming a paraplegic.
It’s part of a slate of films his company is developing as the next Lion, includingJessica Watson’s True Spirit, about how she sailed around the world solo and non-stop as a 16-year-old, and Tara Winkler’s??? How (Not) To Start An Orphanage, about her work to rescue children in Cambodia.
Fraser became interested in making films as he travelled the world as Watson’s manager.
“I couldn’t find any great movies on the plane,” he says. “Every time I’d come across a tearjerker or an inspirational story, I’d think ‘why aren’t there more of these stories?’. This is what people want to see.”
Lion emerged after Watson sailed a race in Tasmania, in a boat sponsored by family company Brierley Marine in 2012. The young sailor mentioned the Brierleys had an adopted son, Saroo, who had an amazing story about tracking down his mother in India and wanted some advice, which led to the book A Long Way Home then, after Fraser team up with producer Emile Sherman, the hit film.
The success of four films up for best picture at the Oscars – Hacksaw Ridge, Hidden Figures, Moonlight and Lion – suggests the power of emotional, against-the-odds stories based on real life. It’s a type of film has done well over the years with Last Cab To Darwin, Red Dog, Mao’s Last Dancer,The Sapphires, Rabbit Proof Fence and Shine.
Maclean’s story fits the bill.
As a 22-year-old, he was hit by a truck while on a training ride for western Sydney’s Nepean triathlon in 1988. A priest administered last rites beside the M4 motorway but Maclean survived with his back broken in three places, pelvis in four places, right arm in two places, fractured sternum, punctured lungs and a head injury.
An incomplete paraplegic, he spent four months in hospital – grieving the loss of his sporting career and dealing with pain and depression. But once he started rehab, he took on a series of challenges.
Four years after his accident, Maclean and a friend won the state two-man kayak championships. Three years later, he became the first person to complete the gruelling Hawaii Iron Man triathlon – a swim of 3.8 kilometres, cycle of 180kms and run of 42kms – in a wheelchair. Another three years later, he became the first wheelchair athlete to swim the English Channel.
At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Maclean raced on the track and the marathon in a wheelchair. He represented at the Paralympics in 2000 and 2008, winning a silver medal for rowing. He became a motivational speaker and started a foundation to help wheelchair users aged under 18.
While training for the Rio de Janeiro??? Paralympics, Maclean started a new form of therapy called NeuroPhysics Training and Rehabilitation, which used intense exercises to stimulate the nerves and help the nervous system recover some of its function. As his focus switched from winning a gold medal to walking again, he managed three faltering steps. A month later, he walked across a gym then back again.
As he improved, Maclean decided to take on the Nepean triathlon again – a 1km swim, 30km cycle and 10km run. With the help of walking poles that he discarded with 30 metres to go, Maclean finished the race with his wife and son amid emotional scenes three years ago.
“Every challenge I had ever conquered, every Everest I had ever climbed, all built to this crescendo,” he writes in the book. “Amanda, Jack and I crossed the line, not as the finish but as the beginning of a whole new world of possibilities.”
Fraser believes that moment gave the film a structure, starting with the truck crash and ending with the race finish.
“It’s what’s in between that’s going to be the challenge, much like we had on Lion,” he says. “We worked for months on act two on Lion to get it right.”
As he lines up a screenwriter, Fraser knows it will be a tough film to get financed.
“In America – and even here to some extent – either art-house or commercial are the two things people are looking for in the industry,” he says. “This sort of sits in-between but I think it could work commercially. it’s another classic example of overcoming adversity.”
Maclean, who is planning a BridgeClimb next, hopes the film will get made.
“If people can derive a source of inspiration so they might believe they can do more with their lives, that would be wonderful,” he says.
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