The Writer Speaks
An Interview with Writer Murray
||Can you first tell us a little
bit about your personal background and what drew you to writing?
||I started writing in my early university
days, having been inspired by a grade twelve English teacher. I wrote
mainly poetry (one particular poem which I will get back to later)
and plays. I also began acting and really wanted to take to the stage.
However, not having the courage or complete family encouragement to
become an actor, I proceeded to attain degrees in Science and Law,
while acting on the side. While practicing law I began working with
a theatre group, writing and acting in musicals. I left the law after
five years (doing mainly divorces, which will drive anybody away)
and five plays to pursue theatre fulltime.
you ever think of writing a novel or were you always interested in
|| I have written twelve plays, and
performed on stage, TV, and film (the last a small role of the Priest
in Serendipity). I began writing screenplays in 1988. Touching Wild
Horses was in fact the first to get made, (out of 13 screenplays at
the time) so it was very exciting to see the words come to life on
screen. It will always be very special, as it was the first film after
many years of 'paying my dues'(as they say).
||What sort of projects have
you been involved with prior to Touching Wild Horses?
||Blizzard (with Whoopie Goldberg, Christopher
Plummer, Kevin Pollock) comes out this Christmas. I have just finished
two other scripts that are in pre-production...i.e. looking for the
money to get made.
||Where did the story idea for
Touching Wild Horses originate?
Wild Horses came about two ways. The first was personal. When I
was ten my Grandfather died. At the time it was thought best not
to tell the children of his imminent passing, so when my father
woke me one morning with the news, "Grandpa
is dead.", I was abruptly introduced to both mortality and the
process of grieving. Subjects I have been interested in exploring
in most of my work.
The second inspiration came when I read a newspaper article about
a woman who lived by herself on Sable Island. I was intrigued by
the thought of someone living on such a remote place with wild horses
and developed the character of Fiona from there.
When I started to think about what would drive a person to live
totally alone, cut off from the world and a normal emotional life,
I began to formulate the theme around the necessity of grieving.
I also had some personal experience (through friends and family)
with giving away a child for adoption and the emotional scars it
leaves. So began the process every writer goes through of asking
'what happens if...' and seeing where it leads. What happens if
a young boy, after a tragic accident he thinks he caused, in the
throes of grief, is sent to a remote island to live with someone
who has a buried heartache and has never properly grieved herself?
What happens when death comes early in a person's life?
From there, research about Sable Island, the horses, the period
began to fill in aspects of the story. For example the old sailors
called it the 'Dark Isle of Mourning' because of the all the shipwrecks
and that fit very nicely into the idea I was trying to explore.
Chucky came about because the island is so regulated and I needed
a foil for Fiona and a threat to her sanctuary. (Also at the time
I was fighting with some bureaucrat in the government and I wanted
some revenge so I created the petty Chuck.)
||How long did it take to write?
||The script took roughly two years
and six drafts to write before we went into production in the spring
of 2001. There were another dozen rewrites as we went along. During
the process of rewriting I worked closely with Eleanore (the director)
to achieve our shared vision. It was a wonderful working relationship
that I was lucky to have, as not all writer- director collaborations
go so well.
||Was it difficult to write
a story that would hold the audience's attention with little action
and only three main characters?
||I decided I wanted to write a family
film and tackle grieving and mortality from a child's perspective,
so the story is Mark's. That meant Fiona had to be the antagonist.
So in the beginning I needed to establish very clear characters that
would undergo great change. Both Fiona and Mark are cut off from their
true emotions and through the course of the film we see them become
fully alive as they help each other overcome their personal despair
and move on with their lives. That is why I told it as a memoir because
I wanted to show how important grieving was and that a person can
||Was Fiona's hostility towards
Mark based on the fact that his arrival disrupted her life or was
it more that she was fearful he might cause her to 'feel' again?
||Fiona not only chooses to isolate
herself on an island geographically but by lack of human contact.
It suits her that she is forbidden from touching her 'family' of horses
because then she does not have to be emotionally involved with anyone
or anything. She spends her life clinically observing the world around
her. She has buried her pain with order, structure and academics.
Mark's arrival and his desperate need changes all of that, thus her
stern and angry welcome -she is simply afraid of having to deal with
her own pain.
Mark by contrast is a child and therefore more malleable,
not as closed off as Fiona. He needs to understand what happened
and grieve but he doesn't have the emotional tools to do so. That
is why I decided to use the device of dreams. Not only do they reveal
aspects of the story and his crisis but they are more cinematic.
And with only a few characters, the more cinematic, the better.
The events in the story became a process of stripping each character
down to their emotional truth, allowing them to share their dark
pain and then accept the touch of another human being to help them
heal. Touching the orphaned foal was a simple metaphor for that.
|How did Mark Rendall come
to be cast?
||We got so lucky! The whole film depended
on Mark (character) being properly portrayed. Mark Rendall was a revelation.
I had seen another film he was in a year before and was struck by
his presence. When I saw the casting tape I knew he was the one and
I am quite sure he is going to be a great actor.
|| And what can I say about Jane Seymour.
We were four days from the first day of principal photography and
we got word Anne Archer had bailed on us. Personally, I was quite
happy because I had never seen her in the role. But it meant we lost
three valuable days of shooting (which meant more cuts to the script).
||Why was Jane offered the part
after Anne Archer withdrew from the project?
||I don't personally know how she got
the script, but when word came that Jane was going to step in, I was
relieved but not sure. Obviously, Jane is quite beautiful and not
really what I had in mind when I saw Fiona in my head but the moment
I heard her read Fiona the first time, that vision went right out.
Simply, I thought Jane did a magnificent job with a very different/difficult
character and now I can't imagine anyone else in the part. Not only
that, but she is one of the nicest people I have met in the business.
I have nothing but admiration for Jane and her lovely family.
I also thought Charles Martin Smith was perfect. He was a friend of
one of the producers and agreed to do the role, and he brought an
interesting humanity to the small but pivotal role of Chucky. The
rest of the cast was also terrific. As I say, we were very lucky.
||What was the atmosphere like
on the set? Did you and Eleanore share a common vision
for the film?
||Everything clicked under highly difficult
circumstances. The weather was unbelievably good for the time of year
(Oct-Nov). The setting turned out to be magical. I was allowed to
be part of the crew as Eleanore is a friend of mine. It's not normal
for the writer to be on the set and in some cases they are barred
from it. We had a very short shooting schedule and had to revise on
the set, so I was able to do rewrites to accommodate the lack of time
without compromising too much of the script.
||What does it feel like as
a writer to see your vision come to life on screen?
|| I had been on many sets as an actor
but it was quite different seeing your story and words captured on
film. It was thrilling!
|| Were there any scenes that
you envisioned differently in your mind from how they eventually played
out on screen?
||Categorically no. And in some instances
it was better. Given the time and money restrictions we faced, Eleanore
Lindo did a miraculous job directing the movie. In fact I'm quite
convinced the film would never have come this far without Eleanore's
vision, persistence and complete dedication. All of the creative team
was totally committed to the project and I think it shows on the screen.
Again, I was very lucky to have had the experience I did on the set
of my first film.
||How did the cast react to
working directly with the horses?
||The horses were amazing because of
the wranglers Jerri and Lee Phillips. They managed to train that three
month old foal to do unbelievable things, as you saw in the film.
Once again very lucky or maybe it was just meant to be.
Which leads me to a final thought. You asked if I had a special memory,
well among the thousands, there is one that stands out. Whether by
coincidence or synchronicity, whatever, it was unbelievable but true.
I mentioned earlier about a particular poem when I first started
writing. As you know, the movie is about a child’s first encounter
with mortality and how he is helped to grieve and understand that
death is part of living.
Now I have to give some background to put the event in context,
to give an idea of why it had such a profound effect on me. Sharon
was my oldest friend. My father worked with her dad and was the
best man at their wedding. Sharon (3 months younger) and I grew
up together, went on family holidays together, and basically knew
each other from birth. In 1975 I was
studying science with a drama minor (not sure what I should be doing
with my life) and she was graduating from nursing. (Ironically,
she ended up being a cancer nurse.) Upon her graduation, which I
took her to because she had broken up with her boyfriend, I wrote
her this poem, a sonnet to be precise. It was the first piece of
writing anyone had ever read. She told me I should be a writer.
I said she was crazy, I could never be a writer.
Instead I became a lawyer for five years. I finally got enough
courage to chase my dream and left law to pursue acting, my real
love. I got involved in a collective musical and writing became
part of my life. When Sharon saw that musical, in which I had written
all the lyrics, she said she always knew I was going to be a writer,
because I had written that poem for her
the years I went on to write more plays, moved to Toronto and
began trying to write movies, very unsuccessfully. Whenever I
was back home I saw Sharon and lamented my failure, she would
tell me I was doing the right thing…and would remind me
of that poem I wrote for her.
She got cancer in 1985 but was bound and determined to see her children
grown. She fought it for 16 years and we talked often about mortality,
fate, and spirituality. She had to.
was very excited for me when I finally told her about the shooting
of ‘Touching Wild Horses’ and
she said she always knew I would be a writer.
Near the end of shooting on Sandbanks (location), one particular
sunset was even more spectacular than the all the rest. Even a park
ranger who had worked there for 15 years had never seen anything
like it. The sun set in the shape of a blazing red cross above the
horizon of the water. (And we have part of it captured on film,
when Fiona, Mark and John are walking
along the shore and Mark says that Fiona should write a book.)
night I received news that Sharon had died about the same time
we were shooting that scene. I drove back to Toronto the next
day terribly sad. On my way out to Calgary, to attend her funeral,
I heard her voice in my head…reminding me of that poem
I had written. Truthfully, I had forgotten what I had written.
But when I got home I dug through boxes in the basement
and I found it.
The poem was entitled Alpha-Omega and was about a spectacular red
sunset, and moving on into the next stage of life without fear-
but with joy and excitement.
She always told me I would be a writer, I finally believe her.
||Where is Touching Wild Horses
going from here?
|| I hope it gets on the big screen,
so far I think those who have seen it have liked it. At the end of
the day, I guess somebody has to believe they can make money. Sad
but true. It might be screened on TV but I really don't know. We have
done all we can, it's up to fate...and a lot more luck at this point.
I hope this has answered some of your questions and is of s
to your readers.
Yours truly Murray
To Eleanore Lindo's Interview
Special thanks to Murray
McRae for taking the time to answer our questions and sharing his personal
insight into the writing of Touching Wild Horses.