Actor Gabriel Cordel was in a horrific car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. After four months of recovery and physical rehabilitation at the Rusk Institute at New York University, Gabriel continued to pursue his dream of being an actor, now as a paraplegic. Since then, Gabriel has become the first person to roll across the United States in a standard wheelchair. You’re now going to meet Lisa France, director, producer, writer, actor, stunt person…Athlete. This almost close to perfect pairing of Lisa and Gabriel resulted in Miss France directing a documentary of Mr. Cordel called, Roll With Me: A Journey Across America.

Jeremy: So Lisa, I read you played professional basketball for Manchester Giants in Manchester, England, did that propel you to become a stunt person?

Lisa: I was a PA on Meet Joe Black, my very first job in film, and saw all of these people running out in front of cars over and over again. I approached this stunt woman and said, “Hey, how did you get this gig?” She pointed at a guy, “That guy hired me.” So I went over to Jeff Ward, an amazing stunt coordinator, and said, “How do I get a job doing stunts?” He said, “Are you in SAG?” I said, “No” (I didn’t even know what SAG was, but I knew I wasn’t in it.). He said, “Well, if you’re not in SAG I can’t help you out.” Then I was doing PA work on For Richer or Poorer and Jeff was working on that doing stunts again. At this point, I knew what SAG was and also knew a bit more about stunts. I told him I had played Division I ball and pro ball, and that I look like so many actresses, that I would make a good double. He starred at me and said, “You do look like a lot of people…Here’s my number. I will give you one chance at some point. I will call and whatever you are doing, you need to stop it, and come and meet me.” What he was saying is that in order to get into SAG, you need to be perfect fit so that you can get a Taft Hartley waiver into the guild. So, I was working on a Woody Allen movie called Celebrity when I got that call. It was for He Got Game to double Lonette McKee. My first stunt job was being a Spike Lee being killed by Denzel Washington. This was officially the greatest day of my life up to this point. I was huge Spike fan! Do The Right Thing is still one of my all time favorite films. It was a 22.5 hour shoot. I was there all day and worked the last hour of the day.
J: In Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam (1999), you were the “girl in the parked car.” What did you experience and learn on that shoot?

L: It was my second film with Spike and he actually specifically requested me after I had doubled Lonette McKee in He Got Game. I had already done a few stunts at that point, but never a stunt with squibs. Most people, including me at the time, don’t know that squibs actually have gun powder in them and have real charge. So when Michael Badalucco shot us in the face, it sounded and felt quite real. There were squibs in the dashboard and the gun powder sprayed all over my hands. My eyes were closed because I was “dead,” but my hands were in pain and burning. This is when I realized what a squib actually did and was. I remember it like it was yesterday. Mostly, what thrilled me was that Ellen Kuras was the DP and she had two or three cameras set up on dolly tracks and they rolled after the shooting for what felt like an eternity as my hands were burning. The stunt woman who was in the car with me was so cool. Her name was Danielle Burgio and she had just been in Blade, thus, she was no stranger to blood or squibs. She whispered, “Are you okay?” I said, “I think I’m bleeding.” We both started cracking up as we sat in huge puddles of fake blood.

J: How did you find yourself directing and tell us a little about your films?

L: When I was working as a PA on Celebrity, my good friend Lisa Rowe, and the person who has been massively responsible for me paying my bills in between directing jobs, asked me, “What do you really want to do in this business?” I said I wasn’t really sure yet, but that I thought I wanted to be a director. It was shortly after that when I was standing next to Woody Allen on set and imaging where I would put the camera, how I would block the scene we were in, etc. that it became crystal clear that I wanted to do it. So Lisa said, “Well, go do it then. Get out of here.” I wrote, directed, produced and starred in my first short film called Love In Tow with Zach Braff. I had no idea what I was doing and Zach actually brought me some amazing people to be on the crew, Alex Moulton and Kira Kelly were big factors in me finishing the film. Alex was my DP and had to explain to me what a focus puller did. Kira Kelly was my gaffer and also was super helpful in teaching me about lighting. She’s now an amazing DP herself. The movie is quirky romantic comedy and it went on to do pretty well and win some awards here and there. That was my film school essentially.

Then, very shortly after that, my producing partner Luis Moro raised money for my first feature, Anne B. Real. That was a very magical albeit blood, sweat and tears project. When we finished the cut, I thought to myself, “I can’t believe this piece of crap is going to be my first film.” I actually stayed in bed during the first screening of our film at the Pan African Film Festival. Thank goodness for Luis. He called me and said, “Get down here fast! It’s crazy!” I, of course, thought it was because there was a problem. It was not. In fact, I walked into the theater to the end of our film…and a standing ovation. Luis said, “Lisa, we made an awesome film. I told you we did.” For $100K, yes, pretty solid when looking back. Creatively, it was probably one of the best experiences of my life. I worked tirelessly with Luis on re-writing and re-working Antonio Macia’s original script. The thing is, Antonio had an amazing idea, but it wasn’t easy to orchestrate. It was Luis that got Anne Frank’s family to give us the rights to passages from her diary, and that’s what had it all come together. Working with Dean Parker on the score was probably one of the greatest experiences of my life. Thankfully, I had Dean on my third feature, The Unseen. In addition, he has agreed to score Roll With Me, too. And Luis is still working with me, too.

The next two features, Love & Suicide and The Unseen were right on top of each other. Demian Lictenstein and Luis produced both with me. Love & Suicide we made in Cuba and, apparently, very much against the law. We got a sweet little note from the US Treasury telling us we couldn’t sell it because it was a “Cuban product” and was against the law due to the embargo. Because Luis is Cuban, it has been a huge mission for him to empower our president to get rid of the embargo… and I can honestly tell you that he has definitely influenced where things stand. Luis actually gave Obama our film and pleaded to remove the embargo. It’s funny, most people think the embargo is Cuba not allowing us to go there or buy and sell, but it’s we who are the ones who have the rules. In any event, it was an amazing experience. My executive producer, Duane Wandless, and another producer, Belinda Marment, came with us. That was pretty much the crew. We had two little DVX 100 cameras, two wireless microphones, a reflector and nothing else. We shot the whole feature with Luis, Kamar De Los Reyes and Daisy McCrackin in ten days. It was insane, but fun. It was very much like making a documentary though. Because I wrote the script in about a week, but we only used about 30 pages of it. The rest of the film came together when Luis did a full re-write in the cutting room. The story really evolved from Kamar’s real life and his relationship with his actual father who lived in Cuba. When we go see the character’s home in Cuba, we are actually seeing Kamar’s father’s home. That footage is all documentary footage. So that became the crux of the story.

And The Unseen was my largest film. That was the hardest to make, despite having the most money. It was born out of a fortunate meeting with celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch. Duane Wandless, who prior to being my EP on Love & Suicide, was my intern. He came to me after we came back from Cuba and said he actually had a little money and that he wanted to invest. I almost fell over. Here is my intern, basically living in my house while I was out and around with Anne B. Real with deep pockets! And he knew everything about me. I was painfully transparent with him. I was so broke it was unbelievable, but I was still buying him Subway sandwiches and train fare, etc. and he knew everything about me. I was painfully transparent with him. He never told me he didn’t need it. He was checking me out. It was kind of unbelievable and I almost had heart failure when he said he wanted to invest. To this day, I’m very sad we never made our money back on The Unseen. I want, more than anything, to pay back investors. If I ever hit one out of the park, the first people who will get checks will be those investors. They are all extraordinary people.
When The Unseen wasn’t critically popular, nor did it sell easily, I basically went to “film jail.” Film jail sucks. You can ask any filmmaker, it’s like an abyss that sucks you into a creative hell. Your mind, body and soul are screaming out to make films, but you’re like a guitar player with no guitar. I feel like I’m possibly climbing out of that dark hole with Roll With Me. This is a chance to do something good in the world while also being creative.

J: When did you meet Gabriel Cordell and what struck you about Gabriel?

L: I met Gabe in February 2013. He was late for our meeting and said, “I’m so sorry I’m late, but I couldn’t find a parking spot.” I was outside at a Starbucks and there were two handicap parking places right in front of where we were sitting and I said, “I’m sorry, and maybe this is inappropriate, but do you have one of those blue handicap things…?” He immediately said, “Oh, yeah, I’m not handicapped. There are people who really need those spots.” I knew I was f***ed right there. I knew Gabe was my kind of person. He is an underdog. He makes no excuses. He is fully responsible for his life. He is painfully determined and all of these things are part of me. I resonated with him immediately. My high school football coach, Todd Alles, called me when we were looking for funds and said, “Is this guy going to make it?” Without and hesitation I said, “Yes.” Todd then put us in touch with West Coast Chill and they became our first sponsor who helped fund us to get across the country.

J: Since Roll With Me had a very limited budget, no safety gear, and no one had experience caring for a paraplegic, what obstacles did Gabriel find and the team and how were they overcome?

L: Wow, well, there were so many…I think the film will share most of them, but let me just say this, if you put 7 men into a tiny moving bachelor apartment (our RV) that only has 4 tiny beds, no place to put their clothes, foods, personal items, equipment, no privacy, etc. and ask them to live together peacefully for 99 days, how do you think that would go? It’s funny because people say, “Oh wow Lisa, you slept in your car the whole way? Really? That must have been horrible…” Yes, it wasn’t comfortable, it was either freezing or cold because I could run the car at night when I was sleeping. I couldn’t open the windows because it wouldn’t have been safe…but, at least it was quiet and peaceful. I am so grateful for my Mazda condo (that’s what we affectionately called it). The bad news was that my condo was also the follow car each day. So I had to take all my “house” and move it into the RV each time we rolled. Then add in Gabe’s different needs and you’ve got a whole litany of issues that come up. It was beyond difficult, it will be in the film. The movie is not just about whether or not Gabe can make it across the country in a standard wheelchair, it’s about a bunch of flawed humans who accomplished something extraordinary.

J: Quote: “I have always believed that my accident was an accident, but it wasn’t by accident.” ~ Gabriel Cordell. Lisa, Gabriel spoke of a promise he made to himself as a teenager, that he would meet by the time he was 45 years old. Was this fate?

L: I think you will see in the film that Gabe didn’t know exactly what would happen to him on this journey, but it is clearly decided by the end of the film what this journey did for all of us who witnessed it, and what it has done for his nephew and who it has made him today.

J: What happened to Gabriel 20 years ago?

L: He was driving to his first audition in the city and a woman went through a red light and hit him. I recently went to that intersection in West Hempstead and the phone pole is still bent from where he hit it. He was paralyzed from just below his chest all the way down. He cannot feel anything from his chest muscle down. He has no motor control either. He also has lost sexual function. He has a lot of metal in his back. He suffers from fairly severe arthritis and rotator cuff problems.

J: Gabriel admits that six years of his life since then, were spent immersed in a drug and alcohol habit. How did Gabriel overcome those obstacles?

L: To be clear, Gabe never had an alcohol habit. He doesn’t even really like it. He might have half a beer and then be done. His drugs of choice were cocaine and crystal meth. Both of those are very, very dangerous drugs. A few things happened to have Gabe wake up and say, “I better stop now if I’m every going to keep the promise I made to myself.” Gabe’s drug abuse was directly related to loss of sexual function. There are a lot preconceptions about people who are paralyzed. One of them is that walking would be the first thing a person would desire if they could have anything. The truth is that having sexual function is generally the first thing people would choose. I’ve now met many paraplegics who all have said the same thing. Now, this is only true of people I’ve met in developed nations with excellent access for people in chairs. In a developing nation, the answer may be different.

J: How did Gabriel and you feel when he met the finished line on July 8, 2013?

L: We just looked at each other in a bit of mixed emotion. Happy, proud, relief, emotional, and actually sad that it was over. All of the guys just sat on the top of the RV and relaxed. Then moved over to the high school steps. I remember their huge smiles. “We did it.” It was truly so moving that it’s hard to express in words all of what we felt.
It’s a big high to finish such an epic journey, but then there’s that ‘now what’ feeling shortly after. Gabe, particularly, struggles with that because he loved rolling. He still loves it and that’s why Gabe particularly struggles with that because he loved rolling. He still loves it and that’s why he’s doing more of them for charity.

For me as a filmmaker, I was kind of freaking out. We didn’t have a film crew per se. Everyone shot stuff on their phones, GoPros, we had my old cameras from Love & Suicide (which broke) and my friend Michell Honc let me borrow her 60D, which I was terrified of breaking. And I’m not a DP or camera operator and not one of our support and travel team was a shooter either, thus, I suddenly realized that everything we had was going to be a true documentary. Gritty, real, in the moment, no proper coverage. I also knew there was no script. I knew that I didn’t have a DIT the entire 99 days, thus, things were just digitized in no particular order. All of this flooded through my mind as I drove back from NY to CA in 3 days. I started to have a mini panic attack thinking about the thousands of hours of footage I had to sift through. And that I needed to get a job quickly because we had no more funds. So for the last two and a half years I have been working day jobs while working on going through the footage simultaneously.

Then, there was the subtle mental and physical paralysis that happens when you get home. There was a regiment of going out on the road every day and that regiment was now over. But then, I realized that I would get to relive the journey if I could get through all the footage. Sadly, I’m not an editor and that presented a whole other problem. The docu-reality world is so huge right now and a good editor is mega expensive. I didn’t need an editor… I needed a producer/editor. After many, many searches and working with a few great people, I finally found Jeff Buccellato through one of our producers friend’s friend. Yes, it was one of those! And now I finally have a true creative partner and Jeff is not just a talented story teller, but an amazing human being.

J: Tell us about Roll With Me Israel and Roll With Me Long Island?

L: While we were on the road in PA, I asked Gabe, “What are you gong to do next?” He said, “I want to roll Israel for peace.” He was born in Africa to Palestinian Catholic parents. For him, it’s not political, it’s about finding a common ground in love and peace. In trying to simply figure out how to live together peacefully. I wanted to go, but Gabe wouldn’t let me because there was very heavy bombing in Syria at the time, thus I stayed behind. Two of our team did go. Chris Yanke and Derek Gibbs went. The YMCA was super helpful in making the trip happen as well.

Gabe did the Long Island roll for Howard Stern’s wife’s charity, Bianca’s Furry Friends, and the North Shore Animal League. It was great because I had a chance to spend time with Gabe’s family and shoot some footage of where he grew up, his cousin told me about the accident, etc. It was kind of haunting for them still. The charity roll was awesome for Gabe and me. Plus Glenn Walsh, one of Gabe’s best friends, came with us. It was a far easier roll than the one across the country. Far easier.

J: How can we help?

L: It’s all about asking people directly. We have two amazing producers who have jumped in to really make this happen. Mitsuyo Miyazaki and Peter Maestrey, who are amazing filmmakers in their own right, have humbled me by working so hard on our campaign in that they are directly asking people to contribute with a few other great volunteers who work out of my FB and our Roll With Me page. It’s a lot of work. We feel so fortunate that some celebrities have twittered about us and posted on their Facebook. Avril Lavigne, Jorja Fox, Daniel Franzese, Daniel Sharman, Brenda Strong, etc. They have all generously put it out there for us and backed us. And you know, it’s funny, a few people have messaged me and said, “Well, why don’t those celebrities just fund the whole thing?” If every celebrity funded every single project, they would be broke! So we are very fortunate that we’ve had these amazing people support us. Now, we just need a little more. We are at 3/4 of the way there with 8 days remaining. I guess if everyone of your readers put in a few bucks we would make our goal. Our goal will not completely finish the film, but I’m confident that we will get more funding once we have a solid locked picture. We are looking at locking picture in the first couple of months in 2016 and hope to premier at Sundance or Tribecca in 2017.
Here is our website: www.rollwithme.org
Here’s the latest news from Lisa France as of Dec 24 2015
Please click this link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/169740699/roll-with-me-a-journey-across-america

The latest news is that there are some amazing people who have reached out to us to help. My own family, Dave & Nancy Garrison, Jerry Katell, Eddie McGrath, Wayne Scholes, Laura Luxemburg, Cristina Colissimo and a few other people who wish to stay nameless have truly extended themselves way beyond my expectations. Shannon Doiron, Mitchell Joseph, Todd Alles, my mother Suzanne France, my dad, James France, my sisters Amy & Allie, my girlfriend Lee Friedlander, my boss at the day gig Gary Glass, my dear friend and producing partner Luis Moro is constantly trying to figure out ways to support this film — they have all jumped in and helped so much that we literally couldn’t have gotten here without them. And I feel so sorry that I’ve not been able to respond to every message people have sent us on Facebook. I’m trying, but it’s hard. But I am overwhelmed with gratitude each day by those reaching out to us. There are people from the road who are now super excited to see the film finished. So there is news daily from the road we traveled, the road we are now on, and the new road we will pave with this film.

Lisa France
VP of Production
http://www.gambassa.com/
323-309-6928
lisa@gambassa.com

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