Filmmaker Interview – Mark Birnbaum discusses his documentary “Swingman”

By: Gordon K Smith

Author Alex Allred and Capt. Marshall Allen

Making its world premiere during the Dallas VideoFest 25 is SWINGMAN. Mark Birnbaum’s documentary tells the story of a Fort Worth firefighter’s life and emotional journey after a biking accident left him a quadriplegic, and does so with without ever resorting to schmaltz or sentimentality. We met with Mark, the subject of his film, Captain Marshall Allen, and Allen’s friend and biographer, Alexandra Allred, at a roundtable.

On July 2nd, 2001, Allen, an athlete and pioneering black fireman, was wrapping up a 30-mile bike trip when he tried to hop over a branch in the road and went into a ditch. He recalled the first seconds. “I went over the handle bars and landed on the back of my head…I was wide awake, and knew exactly what had happened. I knew from my training that I had dislocated my vertebrae below C-3, and snapped my neck. My first thought was, ‘God, no.’” With no help in sight, he was contemplating how to commit suicide with what little movement he had left when someone finally found him and called for help. Since then he’s been in a wheelchair, regained some use of his hands, overcome lifelong depression, and is now an administrator for the Ft. Worth Fire Department.

Allred, author of the 2010 book “Swingman” on which the film is based, first met Marshall four years ago in a way that reads like a classic Hollywood “meet cute.” “I was taking my own bike ride and saw this guy in a wheelchair, with a big Rottweiler without a leash – kinda strange. I went into the Starbucks that was there, in a hurry, and left my bicycle blocking the path in. He came in, a bit angry, and said “Come on, whose bike is that out there? Would you please move it?” My first thought was to get defensive and ask if the dog was there to scare people. Then I saw the Fort Worth Fire Department logo on his chair and asked if he was injured fighting a fire.  ‘Nope’, he said, ‘a 30-mile bike ride’. We just kept talking, and I couldn’t believe no one had ever done his story before”.

“No, I was just waitin’ for the right person to come along. Here she was,” Allen interjected.

“I’m a writer, and used to writing very quickly,” Allred continued. “It took a while to tell his story right…at first I thought this would be one article. Then when you saw this business with his daughter (Talaya, with whom Alan reunited recently) – okay, a series of articles…no, this will be a book.”

Many remarkable coincidences have tied the fireman, writer, and filmmaker together. “I bought a horse from Ogden, Utah, where Marshall was from”, said Allred. “When I read the paperwork, I found that I not only shared a birthday with the horse, its previous owners were a family that helped raise Marshall”.

More coincidences surfaced when Allen met his daughter, now a Fort Worth police officer. “She was a three-sport athlete on a basketball scholarship, majoring in Psych. I always had an interest in Psych. When we first talked, she used some of the same words, phrases and inflections that I do…this is the only way she’s ever seen me [in a wheelchair], and she’s fine with that.”

The synergy continued with Birnbaum’s involvement. “A mutual friend introduced Alex to me. I heard the story and had to make the film…we had our first meeting at La Madeleine’s. The battery died on Marshall’s chair, and I had to help load him into his van. From there I was hooked.”

“I don’t start with a lot of preconceptions. It’s an organic process. You start recording, and you just show up, and keep showing up…you get all the mundane things, like weddings, that’s where the story emerges…afterward, documentaries are written in the editing room. You have hundreds more feet of film than you’ll use, and hundreds of ways to tell the story. What to eliminate is the challenge.  I’ve started, but not finished, films in the past because the story didn’t go anywhere. But I knew this one would.”

Allen had been interested in making film even before his accident, to talk to adolescent boys.  “Around 1984, I was watching [a TV news story]. A 14- or 15-year-old white kid was clearly depressed, with low self esteem. I had to fight back tears right there in the firehouse. He talked about love, how he didn’t need it, how it was a trick for weak people. I’d said the same thing and gone past the point where he was. I wanted to make a book, film or presentation to keep young men from making the same mistakes I did.”

One of those mistakes was dumping a young woman the moment he realized he was actually falling in love with her. In the film, Allen recalls the painful memory and ensuing guilt after finding the girl’s photo, in a moving monologue. Emotion gets to him even today as he recalls shooting that difficult scene.

“When Marshall called me,” says Birnbaum, “he was distressed, and said ‘you have to come over and get this on tape now.’ I knew we’d gotten to that point of trust…I struggled with that scene. Is this right? Is this exploitative? I had to be sure, since it makes you so uncomfortable to watch it. But I knew that Marshall shared that with me because he wanted people to see it. As difficult as it was, that’s why it’s in the film. And it’s great that our film will be in the 25th anniversary of the Dallas VideoFest,” he adds, with praise for the VideoFest’s artistic director, Bart Weiss.

“Strength comes out of vulnerability,” adds Allen. “You can’t have one without the other. You have to be vulnerable enough to learn and experience things, to be strong. I knew I could trust you…This message relates to girls, too. I want them to know why guys do such stupid things.”

The story seems ripe for dramatic Hollywood treatment. Capt. Allen is all for it. Who would like to see play him?

“Only two people. The Rock plays me, and Michael Clark Duncan plays Big Al (his fellow fireman and helper).” Since Michael Clark Duncan passed away last week, he knows he’ll have to come up with someone else when that happens.

“I’m gonna need some powerful sedatives if that happens,” Allred chimed in.

SWINGMAN will be presented at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 30 at Dallas VideoFest 25, at the Dallas Museum of Art. For more information, go to www.videofest.org.

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