Touching Wild Horses
The Writer Speaks

An Interview with Writer Murray McRae
Q:  Can you first tell us a little bit about your personal background and what drew you to writing?
M:  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.
Q: Did you ever think of writing a novel or were you always interested in screen plays?
M: 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).
Q: What sort of projects have you been involved with prior to Touching Wild Horses?
M: 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.
Q: Where did the story idea for Touching Wild Horses originate?
M: Touching 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.)

Q: How long did it take to write?
M: 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.
Q: Was it difficult to write a story that would hold the audience's attention with little action and only three main characters?
M: 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 recover.
Q: 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?
M: 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?
M: 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.
Q: And Jane?
M: 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).
Q: Why was Jane offered the part after Anne Archer withdrew from the project?
M: 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.
Q: What was the atmosphere like on the set? Did you and Eleanore share a common vision for the film?
M: 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.
Q: What does it feel like as a writer to see your vision come to life on screen?
M: 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!
Q: Were there any scenes that you envisioned differently in your mind from how they eventually played out on screen?
M: 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.
Q: How did the cast react to working directly with the horses?
M: 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

Over 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.

She 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.)

That 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.

Q: Where is Touching Wild Horses going from here?
M: 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
ome interest to your readers.

Yours truly Murray  To Eleanore Lindo's Interview

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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.