If you live in British Columbia or throughout Canada, you may not know the name Michael French, but you should know the name Rick Hansen and his Man in Motion tour, which captured international media attention in the 1980s when the paraplegic athelete wheeled around the world to gain awareness for spinal cord research. Micheal French was there filming a documentary about Hansen's adventures in China during that tour, and now some 25 years later, he's bringing a feature version of that same story -- Heart of a Dragon -- to the big screen.
I got the chance to speak to Michael recently, and he talked about the film's journey to the screen, the difficulties in finding an audience for an independent film of this nature, and much more.
Michael French: How are things in the showbiz world today?
Mark McLeod: Great, how about yourself?
MM: Now, I'd like to start with the history of the project...
MF: I was living here in Vancouver in the 1980s, and I had moved here from Los Angeles. I had made my first movie in 1979 in Alberta and we shot in there, edited it in Los Angeles, and then had to do some work in the film lab. I had heard of this great film lab, so I came to Vancouver and like so many people decided I wanted to live here, so I moved and was lucky enough to get a job with a great Canadian director. Darryl Duke was one of the classic film directors, lots of TV credits, fabulous guy, so I became one of his producers on The Vancouver Show which was a great experiment in television because it was live two hours a day, five days a week. If you made films or television and you had that kind of opportunity every day to do things live, it was a great training ground to refine any of the skills that you thought you might have. I worked with Darryl for three years and in the context of that, he was making a movie in China called Taipan, so I heard all about China through him. So I made my thousandth hour of live television and thought if I don't know it now I'm never going to. Coincidentally, that arrived with Rick (Hansen) arriving in China, and through The Vancouver Show we followed Rick's Man in Motion tour, and I had heard about the success he was having with people in the street, so I thought I gotta go see this and understand this. If I'm any good at making a film I should be able to find something in this story. I co-opted some of my friends that worked at the TV station and we begged, borrowed, and stole cameras and film and jumped on a plane and went to China to capture Rick in the street and climbing the (Great) Wall.
That was 25 years ago now, and so we made that documentary and came back to Canada. It was widely available on TV in English, French, and Chinese, and TV was the venue that was available at that time. Sherry Lansing, who produced Fatal Attraction and who later went on to become the chairman of Paramount, saw the documentary that I made and was in town making a movie called The Accused, so she saw the documentary and bought the rights to his story. That was all in 1987, years go by, and Sherry and I become pals, and Rick and I become pals. And in the late 1990s she approached me and said she'd been wanting to make this story for quite some time, but could never figure out the angle of the story, so she hired me and Mark Gordon, who produced Saving Private Ryan and 2012 and said, "I want to make this Rick Hansen movie". We spent a couple of years with her large develepment and script budgets, and saw some great opportunities to make the film we thought, but the scripts never amounted to a story that we knew much about and it seemed so disconnected to the story that we knew. So at that time me and Mark, and at that time David Foster was involved, and Sherry and I thought well what do we do now. And rightly or wrongly I said well let's make it independantly and in Canada. So we came back to Canada around 2000, 2001, and we started a process that I thought would take about two years. And ten years later we've just finished the movie.
MM: The cast is a mixture of both Canadians and Americans, as well as people from Europe and Asia. Can you talk a little bit about the casting of the film, because the non-Canadians might not have been as familar with the story.
MF: It's true they weren't, but they sure are now. We really cast the film in a traditional way. We got a casting director by the name of April Webster who had done a number of Mark (Gordons)'s films and television. She did the original CSI and we knew the story we were going to tell was going to be very much an ensemble cast, and she had great credentials within that world, so through April and our individual relationships we let it be known that we were looking for Rick Hansen. We looked at a lot of differnet people, and as these things so often are the case, I was in Jim Carrey's office one day and one of the fellows in the office said, "You know, here's someone you should take a look at." And they were in the comedy business, so it seems so odd, but nevertheless they were looking for people as others were, and I saw a tape of Victor Webster doing Tai-Chi and talking about this and that on the tape, and he just seemed to have the same intensity as Rick had, and though he looked very different, I cast him.
That's really where it started, and through a long process we ended up casting Victor, and that was one end of the cast. And then we cast Jim Byrnes, we all knew about Jim. I loved him as an actor and we knew he would be in the movie -- we just knew it. We thought there were a couple of roles that he might be good for, and April really pushed and said what about the reporter, and we said that's a tough one because he has to play opposite and how hard would it be for him to play the sort of bad guy. And April said, "I think you're wrong, and I think that Jim would blow you away," so we tested him and she was right. So on one end we had JIm and the other end we had Victor, and for Amanda and Don we looked to England. Andrew Lee Potts, who plays Don, had been in Band of Brothers and some other films, and we thought he'd play a great Don. For a lot of reasons we thought Sarah Jane would be a great Amanda, and indeed she was, and Ethan -- very much like the real Lee Gibson -- was very much an amusing, and often controllable, but always amusing guy, and that really was the basis of the cast.
MM: The movie has a big internet presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. How important do you think the internet is to the marketing of this film?
MF: I think the internet is at least equal to other media, and clearly it's at least as important, and the reason for that is the communities that might be interested in the film -- specifically the disabled community -- live on the internet perhaps more than you or I would, because it's another form of accessibility that maybe physically they might not have. We know the internet is a very important tool for some communities, and our sensibility was let's focus our attention on the internet as much as we would television and print, and treat them all equally. We all don't just consume one media -- you listen to the radio, you're online, you might read a newspaper occasionally, and you watch TV. In that way, it's really an equal part of everyone's lives.
MM: You're starting out in B.C. and then expanding. Why did you choose to go that route with the film's distribution as opposed to going out with a Canadian or U.S. distributor?
MF: That's a really good question, and I think it's because this movie needed special handling, and if it wasn't specially handled it would never have a chance. We spoke earlier about why it took so many years, and I can't tell you how many times I was told, "You're going to make a movie about a guy in a wheelchair?" I heard that, and we heard that from some well-established people in the Canadian business, as we did in the American business. On the face of it, it's not a film that would compete with Batman and ultimately, if you're going to play in a theatre, you've got to compete with Batman -- it's the nature of the beast. It was very obvious to us early in the game from collective experience that studio-based films in Canada or the United States require pretty specific content, and we turned that route down at Paramount, so now having gone and done it independently, to come back to the distribution system and back to that requirement just seemed like a step backwards. So while it took a long time to make, and asked a lot of people, we thought there are some distributors among us who worked on this film and run the distribution and marketing part of Paramount in Canada and the U.S., and other people had similar experiences in other companies. And this is probably where the internet would be more important than otherwise, and that the great equalizer in all this is the online world, and unlike traditional media there were no walls or barriers. So while we're opening in British Columbia initially in a very traditional platform base, our expansion beyond that is really supported by the early exposure we would get on the internet, both from people like yourself and from people who might go see the movie and talk online. That's an advantage that people wouldn't have had 2 or 3 years ago, and that's what the internet provides us.
MM: To that point, I think there's more exposure out there for your film than if you had gone with a Canadian distributor. They barely release the movies for a week, with almost non-existant marketing support with no trailers, posters, etc., and you're really lucky if anyone comes out.
MF: I think there's no incentive for them. All of us really exist within a system. I'd like to say we're independent, but even that is like its own studio. There's Fox and then there's independent, and there are rules for that. We're the lowest man on the totem pole, and at the end of the week we're the first to come off the screen. There certaintly is a system, and we're a part of that, but I think we're specially handled because if you try not to talk about the disability issue that is at the center of the story -- if you try to hide (it) -- that would be disingenuous. And if you try to sell the movie as a sports movie because there's action sequences, so you put them all together, then that's going to disappoint people. We decided that the smartest and most truthful thing to do was to test the film -- and we did in the U.S. and Canada -- and to find out what audiences told us it was about, and to then market the movie on that. These aren't our ideas, but more what audiences tell us, and the audience tells you the truth because there's nothing in it for them. So all the promotion surrounding this movie is a direct result of what the audience tells us it is, and we still have to compete with Batman, but that's okay. I think our great hope is that it just has a chance with an audience.
MM: I think that's as good of a note to end on as any. Best of luck with the film and thank you for taking the time this afternoon.
MF: You're welcome. Thank you.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.