So says Michael McGowan, the Irish-Canadian filmmaker whose touching, funny movie, “Saint Ralph,” was a smash hit at last year’s Toronto Film Festival.
Due to grace U.S. theaters Friday, the movie stars newcomer Adam Butcher as Ralph Walker, a fatherless 14-year-old boy whose mom (Shauna MacDonald) is in a coma.
Believing only a miracle can bring her out of it, Ralph decides to run the 1954 Boston Marathon, much to the ridicule of his peers and disapproval of his stern principal, Father Fitzpatrick (played by Gordon Pinsent). Although Fitzpatrick threatens to expel him from school, Ralph finds support and friendship from another priest, the rebellious Father Hibbert (played by Campbell Scott), who agrees to train him for the big race.
“Growing up Catholic is pretty rich fodder for all kinds of writing,” said McGowan, who won the Detroit Marathon in 1985.
“I was certainly raised Catholic; six kids in the family, the whole nine yards and I went to Catholic grade school and high school, but I have no scars,” the 39-year-old Toronto native joked in a recent phone interview.
“I went to an all-boy school that wasn’t that far off from the one in the movie, but, obviously, I didn’t grow up in the 1950s. The reason I set it in the 1950s was because the Catholic Church started and stopped people’s world then. And I also didn’t want to get involved in the modern problems of the church; it wasn’t part of the story. It wasn’t that type of film.”
The former entertainment journalist, who has family ties to Ireland’s Co. Clare, said he wanted to make sure his film could run laps around others that may have touched on similar material in the past. Referring to “Chariots of Fire” as “a kind of a gold standard,” McGowan pointed out “there aren’t, like, 20 great running films.”
“It’s a universal sport,” he said, admitting it is also one close to his heart. “Everybody runs and it just seemed like a good place to start.”
The man who wrote and directed the 1998 independent film, “My Dog Vincent,” said “Saint Ralph” was born one day when he got the idea to write a screenplay about a 14-year-old boy winning the Boston Marathon.
“That just sort of popped into my head one day,” McGowan recalled. “I don’t know where these things come from and then I started to create the characters, the world. Like what are the obstacles? Why would he do it? You sort of run through any number of scenarios and then you try to backtrack and see what’s plausible and then as it evolved the characters came out-Ralph, the Father Fitzpatrick and Father Hibbert characters, his friends — the fact that his mother was sick and you just dramatically see what’s the most interesting. What can raise the stakes and, hopefully, what will entertain an audience?”
The filmmaker insisted he didn’t have tremendous difficulty balancing the film’s dramatic and comedic moments, since both came as natural to the story as they do in real life.
“A lot of people when they see the film, they cry,” he remarked. “That’s not a very common response, but at certain points, the tears start coming, but I never set out to say, ‘OK, at this point, people are really going to feel sad, or at this point they are going to laugh.’ You set the situations up where you think they’ll be funny, but I always just let the audience find it or not. I can always tell what proportion of an audience is Catholic by where they are laughing, but I didn’t write it for Catholics or non-Catholics. Hopefully, most people can find a window into it.”
McGowan said he has also enjoyed spying on audiences as they screen the film, so he could get a sense of how the general public will receive “Saint Ralph” when it goes into wide release later this month.
“What’s interesting is watching how — especially towards the end of the film-how really kind of sad or tragic stuff can quickly be alleviated with a laugh and I think the emotional impact is stronger because people are laughing and crying at the same time,” he observed.
Likening some of the funnier bits to telling inappropriate jokes at a funeral as a means to relieve tension, McGowan said he thinks Irish people in particular are masterful at mining the funny from the darkest of situations.
“I think there is an Irish or Catholic thing where you can laugh or make a joke in spite of a really crappy situation. I think it’s the Irish way to be able to look at things with a wry sense of humor in the bleakest of times,” he said.
“Saint Ralph” opens in select cities Friday, Aug. 5.