It’s hard for Andrew Napier to contain his excitement over his documentary, “Mary and Bill.” And that’s understandable, considering how dear the project — about a pair of senior citizen athletes from the Madison area — is to the young filmmaker.
Four years in the making, “Mary and Bill” is finally ready for its closeup, Napier said.
“It’s an incredible story,” Napier, 22, said of the movie, which chronicles the athletic endeavors of Madison’s Mary Stroebe, 92, and Bill Wambach, 85, from Sun Prairie.
Napier, a Mauston native, was inspired to make the film after he read stories about Stroebe and Wambach that appeared on the same day — June 26, 2006 — in the Wisconsin State Journal. One told of Stroebe training for a triathlon, her 12th, at age 88, and the other reported on Wambach, then 80, setting a national age-group record in the high jump at the Badger State Games.
At the time, Napier was a 17-year-old high school student with a love for filmmaking but no formal training. A triathlete himself, he found the stories of Stroebe and Wambach so compelling he wanted to tell them on film.
“I thought, I see the pros do triathlons in record time, but then you see 88-year-old Mary Stroebe. You say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ ... These people, Mary and Bill, they inspire people.
“So I call them up,” he said of Stroebe and Wambach. “I’m one of many people calling them (after their stories appeared in print). It was because I was a high schooler, I think they were more willing. They had no idea I’d be filming them for four years.”
Napier packed his camera and headed to Madison to meet his story subjects.
“I’m from this small town, I’m driving to Madison — that’s scary,” he said.
But after meeting the two, things clicked and Napier was on his way to making a movie.
“That first summer, those first few months, I spent a lot of time with them,” he said. “Mary was recovering from a broken leg suffered when downhill skiing. (Doctors) said she would never walk again. She said, ‘No, I will walk again and I will do (another) triathlon.’ And she did.
“Bill had suffered a heart attack. He had been a smoker long ago. It was a very parallel story to Mary; doctors said he couldn’t do this. Bill not only qualified for the National Senior Olympics, he won first place in the nation.”
All of which Napier chronicled for “Mary and Bill.” He took “at least 100 hours” of film footage, he said, filming the pair sometimes separately and other times together.
Stroebe and Wambach — who didn’t know each other before filming began but now are friends — got used to having Napier around often.
“It was very interesting,” Wambach said of the filmmaking process. “When Andrew called me, I was very surprised.”
Wambach said his training was the focus of much filming.
“He’d film me walking up the steps of my apartment building to keep in shape,” Wambach said. Another time, with Wambach out riding his bike, “Andrew had someone drive along nearby so he could film. ... It wasn’t all done at one time.”
Stroebe, who competed in her first triathlon at age 77, said she was surprised by how involved the filming became.
“He came one day and took quite a few pictures, and he said that was enough for the day,” Stroebe said of Napier. “And I thought, ‘You’re going to do more?’”
But after all was said and done, “It was fun,” Stroebe acknowledged. After seeing an early screening of the film, “I thought it was very good,” she said, with one tiny observation: “Well, some close ups show all my wrinkles.”
That initial version of “Mary and Bill,” which Napier said cost him “probably a couple thousand dollars,” has been edited after it failed to gain acceptance in several film festivals. He is confident the newest version — which he is trying to keep under a one-hour running time, possibly to appeal to television — is a much more compelling film.
“I was angry and I was depressed, but I could not be more thankful” after the film’s initial rejections, he said. “It pushed me to make it better. It was too long; it wasn’t well-paced. Now it’s a better film.”
Napier finished a year and a half of schooling at UW-Madison (he’d won a scholarship for a film he made in high school on a Mauston effigy mound) before heading to Hollywood a year ago. He has contacts in the film industry, including some he met on the set of Johnny Depp’s “Public Enemies” in Columbus in early 2008, and he hopes that will help him to get out the “Mary and Bill” story.
“We’re just on the verge of sending it out to festivals again,” he said. TV also is an option, or maybe even the Web news show, “The Young Turks,” on which Napier works fulltime as a producer and director.
“I just want to get their story out there,” said Napier, who recently visited Stroebe and Wambach again — and did a little more filming — when he was back in Madison at Halloween. “They’re incredible. They’re my heroes.”
As for Stroebe and Wambach, they continue to live active lifestyles. Wambach still competes in national high jump events twice a year, “once indoors and once outdoors,” he said.
“I do cross-country skiing and walking. About six weeks before a meet, I get out the jump rope and start to get my tush muscles and my legs in shape. ... I just keep on going.”
Stroebe tried to say she has slowed down. “I’m through with (triathlons). The hills got higher, for one thing,” she said. “It was just harder to do.”
Of course, for her, taking it easy is relative.
“I still work out at the (health) club. And I swim ... and do my walking ... and skiing ... and snowshoeing.”
Sounds like good material for a sequel.