Film

MARATHONS AND MIRACLES

Saint Ralph finds light at the end of Canadian cinema’s long, dark tunnel

Brian D. Johnson April 11 2005
Film

MARATHONS AND MIRACLES

Saint Ralph finds light at the end of Canadian cinema’s long, dark tunnel

Brian D. Johnson April 11 2005

MARATHONS AND MIRACLES

Saint Ralph finds light at the end of Canadian cinema’s long, dark tunnel

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

WHAT IS IT ABOUT CANADIANS and marathons? From Terry Fox’s legendary trek to Marilyn Bell’s swim across Lake Ontario, nothing unites us quite like a feat of endurance. In this country, the ultimate triumph is not winning a race but bridging what looks like an insurmountable distance, as if we’re all still building the railroad, trying to wrestle endless space down to a human scale. Michael McGowan, 38, was once a champion marathon runner. Now he’s a filmmaker, hoping to go the distance with a plucky little movie he wrote and directed called Saint Ralph—the fable of a 14-year-old boy in Hamilton who trains for the Boston Marathon, believing the miracle of winning will pull his dying mother out of a coma.

Saint Ralph is not your typical Canadian film. It’s not dark, hermetic or post-modern, but sweet, inspirational and old-fashioned— Billy Elliot meets Chariots of Fire, with a pinch of Porky’s. Although the hero is a hormonal schoolboy who’s disciplined by a Catholic priest in the ’5Os, there’s not a whiff of sexual abuse. And unlike much of English Canadian cinema, Saint Ralph has a real chance of finding an audience.

The story follows a classic template: through a fluke of faith, a small-town underdog embarks on an unlikely quest that turns him into a local hero. Adam Butcher, a bigeared kid from Cambridge, Ont., brings unaffected charm to the role of Ralph, a well-meaning boy who keeps running afoul of the school headmaster, Father Fitzpatrick (a crusty Gordon Pinsent). After a mortifying incident of arousal in a public pool, Ralph is forced to join the cross-country team as punishment. A bump on the head and a religious vision set him off on a deluded mission to win the Boston Marathon. He finds support in a coach haunted by the past, the no-nonsense Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott), who trains the boy over fierce objections from the headmaster.

Since its premiere last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, Saint Ralph has been snapped up by leading distributors in

nine territories. Even before its release, the film has recouped the bulk of its $6.2-million budget in foreign sales. McGowan has signed with the William Morris Agency. Hollywood scripts are flying across his desk. And this week he’s in Paris discussing a movie he’s written for Oscar-winning producer Arthur Cohn (Central Station, Les Choristes).

“It’s been a Cinderella story,” McGowan

told me over lunch recently. His lean frame wrapped in a snug jersey with racing stripes, he still looks more like a runner than a filmmaker. Born and raised in Toronto, he’s a game interview subject, perhaps because he used to work as a freelance journalist. After completing a B.A. in English on a track-andfield scholarship at the University of North Carolina, McGowan juggled running with

magazine writing. In 1995, he received a Mazda for winning the Detroit Marathon— and promptly sold the car to buy some time for screenwriting. His first feature, My Dog Vincent (1998), a $150,000 comedy, didn’t amount to much. But then he created Henry’s World, a stop-motion animated children’s series that was sold to some 50 countries.

4| LIKE the implication that something extraordinary can be done by simply putting one foot in front of another’

In writing Saint Ralph, McGowan chose to make his hero a marathon runner “because I know the sport really well, and the landscape isn’t littered with great running films, unlike boxing films.” He also agrees there’s a Canadian modesty to distance running. “The marathon is not a glamorous sport. It’s a workmanlike event, based on dogged determination. We’re not flashy as a country. We’re dogged. And I like the implication that something extraordinary can be done by simply putting one foot in front of another over a long period of time.”

But McGowan knows that winning requires a mix of perseverance, talent—and serendipity. Saint Ralph happens to be the last feature produced by Alliance Atlantis Communications, which announced it would abandon making movies shortly before McGowan delivered his rough cut, in January

2004. And the filmmakers struck a rare alchemy in casting the movie’s two priests— pairing Pinsent, a Canadian icon, with Scott, an American known for playing iconoclasts (The Spanish Prisoner, Roger Dodger). Scott undercuts the film’s whimsy with a wry edge of introspection. And Pinsent, his hair cropped to a buzz cut, is atypically austere.

McGowan remembers Pinsent coming up to him before the shoot and saying, “I’m not sure about cutting my hair.”

“I’m not going to tell you what to do,” said the director. “You’re Gordon Pinsent. But I think it would work well for the role.” Later, when they were out for dinner, the actor emerged from the washroom with his hair slicked down and said, “What do think?” “It looks like your hair’s wet,” deadpanned McGowan. “It’s still not short.”

On the first day of filming, Pinsent arrived holding up a Glad bag containing his hair. “I hope you’re happy now,” he said.

McGowan taped the bag to the video monitor, where it stayed for the rest of the shoot. Perhaps it served as a good luck charm, because Saint Ralph has been blessed. Roger Ebert’s thumbs-up colleague, Richard Roeper, pronounced it one of the best films of the Toronto festival—he saw it by accident only after failing to get into 9 Songs, a hard-core sex film that drew a horde of male critics. Not all those who reviewed Saint Ralph were swooning. The film’s first notice, from a Toronto curmudgeon, said it had no business being in a festival or even a theatre. But a Japanese buyer slapped down almost $1 million for the movie, starting a cascade of foreign sales—U.S. distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films was the last to commit, after the response at a Los Angeles test screening went through the roof.

By making a crowd-pleaser, McGowan feels he has no place in what he calls “the Club”—the critically celebrated coterie of Canadian auteurs led by Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Don McKellar, who make “deliberately dark and difficult films.” While stressing that Saint Ralph “would never get made in a Hollywood system— the ending would have to be different,” he calls himself “a traditional storyteller, and unapologetically so.” Whether the film’s I-think-I-can promise will pay offin the home stretch is uncertain. It may take a minor miracle to get people to see a Canadian movie. But Saint Ralph could be just that.