Heart of a Dragon

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There were a great many characters on the Man in Motion tour but we focused on the core players. We found a great casting director, and then we looked for “Rick”. We wanted to make sure it was someone not so well known and identifiable to obscure the story we were telling. That way the way Paramount was going to make the movie and we took another approach.

We met Victor Webster through the casting director and the managing company. I'd heard an interview with him on tape and he so reminded me of the determination and the single-mindedness of Rick. We did some auditions with Victor and it really became apparent that Victor, in many ways, could become Rick.

We knew that our representation of Rick had to have the same determination and the same morality. Also, it was really important that our “Rick” had to have some experience with disability. Victor had that very personal, ongoing relationship within his family, with disability.

We were very lucky because we had the same man (Mike Jacobs) who trained Jon Voight in Coming Home, train Victor.

WD: So all of your characters had some sort of relationship with disability?

MF: Yes. Either directly within their family, or themselves. The other side of the cast is Jim Byrnes who plays reporter Ivan Kostelic. Jim had been around a very long time as an actor and a performer and was a huge supporter of Rick Hansen. That had nothing to do with our choice with Jim at all. He was under our noses all the time and it took a casting director in Los Angeles to say, “What about Jim Byrnes?”

WD: He did a phenomenal job.He's a very gifted actor.

MF: Yes. Jim walks as well as anyone could with artificial legs, and he understands the reality of life as a disabled man as well as Rick does. So committed was Jim to the notion that this story would be told and so gifted was he as an actor, the issue was could he play opposite character.

You would think, on an emotional level, that all he'd want to do is give Rick Hansen a hug not push him hard. In many cases Jim's role is the gate keeper: he's the conscience, he's the one who ask, “what are you really doing, and why.” He allows the other characters to consolidate their thinking and to focus on what they're doing and go forward: he challenges them.

The back story to this is in 1984, when Rick was in the Olympics, wheelchair racing was a demonstration sport. It's a very big deal for anyone to be in the Olympics and certainly for Rick and anyone like him who are disabled: they were going to have the opportunity as a demonstration sport to race at the LA forum in front of 60,000 people.

With great anticipation Rick and his colleagues and other racers went to this event. Rick had won nineteen wheelchair marathons in a row. He was the favourite and he knew this was a very big deal for him and that he could win. It mattered a great deal, as it would to any great athlete.

The night before he was at a reception and he overheard a number of reporters talking about the  wheelchair racers as monkeys and wondering what role they actually had in the Olympics.

The next day Rick went out onto the track and looked around disheartened at the 60,000 people, raced, and finished fifth. That was absolutely unprecedented for someone with his skill.

WD: Can you talk about some of the challenges in making this film?

MF: I think that the responsibility of the story was the most challenging. It was and is a privilege that Rick and Amanda would have trusted us enough with their story to make it. We always knew their expectation was to tell the right story so people would understand what it was that they did.

I think it was really the pressure of our expectations and theirs, and others who knew them. It was an enormous responsibility to be trusted with the story of disability. Rick doesn't own the story of disability: we're all disabled in some way.

WD: Was there anything extraordinary that happened along the way that took you off guard or surprised you in a good way?

MF: Yes. I think that Victor Webster became Rick Hansen, that Jim Byrnes became this reporter, that the actors became the people in the manor in which they did. We see their performances and need to be with them to understand how they became a family. It was extraordinary because we knew that the story we wanted to tell was going to be very difficult, and while you could cast people with every expectation knowing their skills, it's not until you're doing it until you know for sure.

The other thing was when we finished in China we came back to Vancouver and we shot a lot of flashbacks in hospital: versions of young Rick after the accident and the struggle he and others like him would have.

The real surprise for us was when we screened it in front of a test audience they found them far too overwhelming: too emotional, too gratuitous. We didn't need to see that because the accident and the memory of those challenges he faced were almost a disservice because it allowed you to focus on the pain they had to endure rather than the promise they had. That was a real surprise, that those scenes were not necessary.

WD: What would you like your audience to take away from this film?

MF: That in some way we're all equally disabled and that and very often you don't see that in movies, which begs the question, “Who is more disabled - someone who can't forget tragedy or someone who can't walk - someone who can't chase their dream or a disabled man who does?”

I guess that really is what was left with us as filmmakers: the great promise that all people have. Disability is really a word that should be dropped at some point from our vocabulary.
Heart of a Dragon opens in theatres October 29th, 2010.
Check your local listings for show times and locations.

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