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Sunday, May 24, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Screenwriter's Own Experience Lends Truth To `Waterdance'

Take any kind of writing course and you'll eventually hear the advice, "write what you know."

Though he'd surely wish things had turned out differently, screenwriter Neal Jimenez followed that advice in writing his script for "The Waterdance," now playing at the Broadway Market Cinemas, which he would co-direct with his film-school friend Michael Steinberg.

What Jimenez knew about was paralysis and the experience of coping with spinal-cord injury and life in a wheelchair. He would have preferred another story for his filmmaking debut, but "The Waterdance" is blessed by the writer's insight and first-hand experience. What might seem a bleak subject is handled with candid sensitivity and a surprisingly uplifting sense of humor.

It was a long haul to the film set, however. In 1981, Jimenez was still in college when he sold his script for what eventually became "River's Edge" (1986).

With a variety of job offers and works in progress, Jimenez was living a film student's dream when, while on a camping trip in 1984, he slipped on a hiking path and fell 30 feet, breaking his neck. The accident resulted in paralysis from his chest down, five months of physical rehabilitation (during which he regained full function of his hands), and plenty of inspiration for "The Waterdance," which he began writing two years after leaving the hospital.

Winner of the audience favorite and screenwriting awards at last January's Sundance Film Festival, "The Waterdance" stars Eric Stoltz, Wesley Snipes and William Forsythe as three men who forge uneasy friendships during rehabilitation, as they struggle to resolve issues of class bias, racism and the redefinition of manhood after paralysis.

Though his own experience provided the film's creative spark, Jimenez, 31, is uncomfortable with drawing an immediate connection between himself and Joel Garcia, the paralyzed Hispanic novelist nicely played by Stoltz. Jimenez prefers to let "The Waterdance" (the title comes from a dream described by Snipes' character) speak for itself.

"The film is very, very semi-autobiographical," Jimenez said in a recent phone interview, "although Eric's character is clearly based partly on myself - a writer with a Mexican surname who doesn't look Mexican and doesn't associate with the other Hispanics in the hospital ward.

"But I chose to write about rehab because the story structure was imposed. The necessities of narrative structure and giving the story some sense of closure prevented me from using too much of my own experience.

"Less than half of the film is strictly true. I didn't go beyond the hospital because . . . I wouldn't know how to end that story, because I'm still living it. I wanted this film to show that a lot of changes are taking place, and that a lot of changes are yet to come."

Jimenez charts his characters' physical progress (the removal of traction "halos," body casts, increasing wheelchair mobility) but leaves the work of physical and occupational therapists to the viewer's imagination.

"We've seen the recovery process too often in movies about injured soldiers and athletes," he said.

"Instead, what most impressed me was the place I was in, and how it brought together, through tragedy, so many different types of people. . . You lose your privacy awfully fast, and you quickly learn a lot of personal things about people you might otherwise never have talked to in your life."

One of the personal issues explored in "The Waterdance" is regaining sexual identity after paralysis. Reflecting Jimenez' own experience, the relationship between Stoltz's character and his married girlfriend (sensitively played by Helen Hunt) breaks new ground for the awareness of disability and sexuality. Building on the previous frankness of 1978's "Coming Home," Jimenez uses two superbly handled love scenes to reveal both the pleasures and frustrations of intimate encounters, and includes a hilarious sex therapy scene to get the facts across while subtly stressing the importance of communication.

"I wanted to deal with sexuality in a matter-of-fact way," Jimenez said. "We thought about cutting out the sex therapy scene because it's a little lecture that doesn't move the story forward. But that changed when we discovered it gets one of the biggest laughs."

Jimenez began making movies in the sixth grade. He began the script for "Where the River Runs Black," an interesting but little-seen 1986 film, just before his accident. Most recently he co-wrote the Bette Midler vehicle "For the Boys."

Jimenez' currently is directing "Lost Undercover," a Martin Scorcese production about an FBI agent who investigates the underground pornography world. Jimenez also wrote the upcoming film "Dark Wind," directed by Errol Morris, and a novel adaptation titled "The Sweet Hereafter."

With his career in full swing, Jimenez finds he still struggles with the everyday facts of life in a wheelchair, and the simple desire to be recognized as a normal, functioning member of society.

"I haven't really found peace with my situation," he said, "because I'm constantly struck by the conflict between wanting people to treat you normally, and at the same time wanting them to understand that things are a lot more different for you than they realize.

"It's a constant frustration, observed in something as simple as when somebody opens a door for you. If they don't open the door you think they're jerks, and if they do you want to say, `I can do it myself.' You have to take it in stride and laugh about it, but you're constantly reminded that you're different."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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