Published on October 15th, 2010 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Michael French – Director of “Heart of a Dragon”
At BizBooks.net, one of our favourite things is to take you inside the filmmaking process.
More than two decades ago, Michael French went to China to join Rick Hansen on the Man in Motion Tour. The footage that Michael captured would later become the television documentary, Heart of a Dragon. After working as a producer and director on other projects like Jim Carrey: The Unnatural Act and Reelmadness with Will Ferrell, he decided to re-visit his experiences in China with Rick Hansen and re-create them in a different way.
With Heart of a Dragon set to be released on October 29th in British Columbia, Michael French joined us to reflect on his filmmaking journey and how he transformed his real life experiences into an ambitious feature film.
Let’s talk about Heart of a Dragon. How would you sum up the main elements of the film to someone who is new to Rick Hansen?
Twenty-five years ago, a group of friends set off across the world on an adventure. One of them was in a wheelchair. Together they changed forever the way we look at disability because Rick Hansen, the man in that wheelchair, knew that surrounded by those you love and trust, anything was possible.
You originally travelled to China with Rick Hansen during the Man in Motion Tour to capture documentary footage. From your experiences as a filmmaker, what are the major differences between directing a documentary and working on a feature film?
It’s really more about the similarities than the differences. Being on the Great Wall with Rick 25 years ago making a documentary and more recently with a cast and crew making a feature film were both about telling a story. The documentary dealt with what was happening, the movie deals with how it happened. Same story but told from different perspectives. One was objective, the other subjective.
What can you share about the casting process for Heart of a Dragon?
We knew from the beginning that the story needed an ensemble. April Webster had cast a number of Mark Gordon’s films and understood we wanted to make our cast a kind of family, inasmuch as the story was based on a group of friends who spent more than a year sharing the same life pushing themselves across the world. The process began with Victor Webster. He came to us through an agency in Los Angeles who did not represent Victor but knew of him. The first thing I saw of Victor was a martial arts performance. He had the same confidence and power Rick has. From there we cast for the rest of the family, Ethan Embry as Lee Gibson, Rick’s cousin and full time court jester. Andrew Lee and Sarah-Jane Potts as Don Alder, Rick’s lifetime best friend and Amanda Reid, Rick’s physiotherapist. Next, Yu Na – a Chinese actress – to play Ms. Wong, a Chinese translator, Jim Byrnes to play Ivan the reporter, and finally Aleks Paunovic to play Tim Frick, Rick’s longtime coach.
When you’re working on set with actors, what’s the most effective way to communicate or reinforce your vision of the film to them?
The movie is inspired by a true story about real people. Each of the actors knew the story and for a time in China during our production, lived something of that life and knew the struggle their character faced. Actors sometimes become the characters they play. Being in China and on the Great Wall helped that happen. Once that happened, my job was easy.
What was the most difficult scene for you to shoot?
The final scene in the movie because it was the most emotional.
You have directed Jim Carrey, Dennis Miller, and Will Ferrell in separate television comedy specials. What kind of preparation goes into directing comedy projects such as these?
Each of them knows their their talent exceeding well. My job simply to learn about how they worked and not get in the way.
As a writer-director, which qualities would you like audiences to associate with a Michael French film?
A story well told.
If you could recommend one book about screenwriting or directing, which one would it be and why?
Read something, anything about your own family, appreciate where you came from. Those are the stories you will tell and re–tell in most everything you write and direct.
What upcoming projects are you developing that you can share with us?
Once Heart of a Dragon begins playing theatrically and takes on its own life, I will return to being a full-time husband and father. That’s the only project that’s on the horizon that matters.
Heart of a Dragon opens in select theatres in BC on October 29th, 2010.