Quadriplegic's life enlightens film he produced at Temple

Posted: April 18, 2014

The short film is grim: A young woman's life is hijacked when her husband suffers a neurological complication that completely incapacitates him, leaving her to care for him and their baby.

For the film's producer, Rob Wunder III, the character's predicament hits very close to home. He became a quadriplegic after a devastating accident when he was in high school. His father gave up teaching to live with him in a dorm for four-plus years while Wunder studied film at Temple University.

Earning his degree a year ago was a thrill, Wunder said, but it didn't rival the excitement he felt when he learned that "Sweepstakes," the 15-minute film he produced as a Temple senior, would be shown at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Written by his classmate Mark Tumas, the film was one of only 58 shorts selected from over 3,000 entries to be screened at the festival. Wunder and his father, Rob Jr., are in New York this week for the film's debut Thursday.

"My stomach is in a knot," Wunder III, 24, said. "It's really the first time we're going to be showing it to such a big audience."

It was a hot July night in 2006 when Wunder, then 16 and about to be a junior at Middle Township High School in Cape May Court House, went swimming with friends at a neighbor's pool. He ran and dove head first, trying to clear the shallow end. But he slipped and his head crashed into the bottom.

A part of his vertebra was crushed, and bone shards pierced his spinal cord. Until then an avid guitar player, surfer and scuba diver, Wunder faced an irreversible injury.

Neighbors and friends rallied around the family, and Wunder learned to cope with limitations. He could move his biceps, but not his triceps. He could hold a glass if someone put it in his hands and curled his fingers around it. He could lift his wrists and type using his knuckles.

He would need help at Temple. His father volunteered. His mother, Sue, became the primary breadwinner. The family learned to live on the salary she earned as a teacher at a Cape May County school for handicapped students - the same school where his father used to work and where his parents met.

During the week, Wunder and his father stayed at Temple. On weekends, they went home. Wunder took one semester off when he got sick and his wheelchair broke, but returned the following semester, ultimately finishing with a 3.6 GPA.

"There were days I thought we wouldn't make it," said Wunder Jr., who in 2009 won a national father of the year contest. "But you do what you have to do. How proud can we be for Rob of his accomplishment?"

Wunder III started out as an architecture major. But within a year he switched to film. Since childhood, he has loved to watch movies, a passion that has only increased in recent years.

"When you watch a movie, you can empathize with someone no matter where they are in the world," he said. "You can see so much of yourself in them."

He keeps a website with screen grabs from more than 1,000 movies he has seen in the last five years.

"Rob's an incredible student of film," said his film partner, Tumas, 22, of Cinnaminson. "He's probably seen more films in the last four years than I've seen in my entire life."

It wasn't until senior year that Wunder and Tumas got to know each other. Tumas had written the script for "Sweepstakes." He was taking a class in directing and as part of his assignment had to pitch his film to Wunder and other students. Wunder had seen previous work by Tumas and thought he was "super-talented." He asked to produce the film.

Wunder wasn't aware at the time that the film involved a man in a wheelchair, only that it focused on a young woman forced into a "caretaker" role.

Tumas was grateful to have Wunder's insights as a quadriplegic.

"I didn't have to guess anymore and tiptoe around these issues," he said. "Me and Rob could talk about them without any apprehension or nervousness."

Together, the two honed the script. Wunder, for example, suggested tweaking the scene in which the woman is feeding her husband and baby. She drops a fork, bends to pick it up, and notices the man's catheter has detached and is leaking on the carpet.

"If you didn't have to deal with something like that," Wunder said, "you'd never know that's a thing that happens."

Wunder also helped with casting, scheduling, and selecting locations to film. The movie was filmed at Tumas' parents' house, the Fresh Grocer store near Temple, the Spruce Goose Christmas tree farm in New Jersey, and a gas station in Northeast Philadelphia.

Both Wunder and Tumas underscored the help they received from other Temple students, including cinematographer David Dominguez and editor Ben Wellington. Their Temple professor, Rodney Evans, advised them and helped secure the lead actress, Maria Dizzia, who also appears in Orange Is the New Black, the Netflix series.

"That's what making movies is all about," Wunder said. "It's about depending on people. Everyone brings something to the table."

After graduation, Wunder and his father returned to the family home. His father is trying to catch up on household repairs that piled up while he was at Temple. His mother recently released a book, Enough for Today, about life after the injury. And his sister, Hailey, is majoring in exercise science at Wesley College in Delaware.

Wunder wants to make more movies.

He and Tumas talk daily about their current projects. He has written a short involving a woman who shows up late to pick up her wheelchair-bound son from school.

"We're underrepresented in films," he said, noting that people in wheelchairs are often portrayed as weak or villainous - something he learned when researching a paper for a theory class.

He hopes to collaborate with Tumas again soon.

"You're only as good as your last movie," Wunder said.


ssnyder@phillynews.com

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