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Writer/director Michael McGowan sets his coming-of-age drama in 1950s Ontario, Canada. When he is told that only a miracle can save his mother's life, and that if he won the Boston Marathon it would be "a miracle," Catholic school boy Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher) begins training to win the famed race. Once Father Hibbert (Campbell Scott) sees the 14-year-old's determination and resolve, he trains the boy to a triumphant win in a local race. Despite objections from the nasty headmaster, Father Hibbert then starts to prepare Ralph for his ultimate challenge.

 Where Do Ideas Come From?

I’ve been asked this question many times, especially in regard to Saint Ralph. As the writer and director, people want to know what the genesis of the story was. In this case it was quite simple: I started with a very vague notion that I wanted to make a film about running. For many years I was a competitive distance runner and it was a world I knew very well—thus the lazy side of my personality realized research would be minimal. Although I loved Chariots of Fire, the film landscape isn’t littered with fantastic running movies—unlike say boxing. I felt that there were opportunities to showcase the sport in a unique way. From the outset I wanted to capture some of the pain of training and racing in a manner that I hadn’t seen before.

From there I came up with the idea of creating a story about a fourteen-year-old boy who gets it in his head that he can win the Boston Marathon. That’s it. At that point I didn’t know why he wanted to do this but I felt that as a foundation for a movie, it had potential. I chose Boston because the race has been around for over a century and it is one of the world’s most notable footraces. Winning it would mean something to even the casual sports fan. What made Boston work even better (for my story purposes) is that on some years the race falls the day after Easter and it is always held on a Monday. If you see the film, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

The next piece in the puzzle was creating a compelling reason for Ralph’s slightly ridiculous endeavor. The stakes had to be high enough to make him unwavering in his pursuit. After all, in training for the marathon, as our character Longboat advises, “Dedication is paramount. Putting in the miles is essential to greatness.” It had to be a life and death issue. Therefore I decided to create a situation where Ralph believes that it will take a miracle for him to save his dying mother. In short order Ralph equates winning Boston to this miracle. Once that was in place I felt I had more than ample justification for setting him on his quest.

I wrestled with the idea of what era to set the movie and eventually settled on the 1950s for two reasons. The first is that I thought it would be much more believable to have a character like Ralph Walker come from complete obscurity to contend at Boston. In the decades since, fourteen-year-olds have run much faster than the winning time of the 1954 Boston Marathon. It seemed logical (at least to me) that Ralph’s unique training methods and unwavering determination would be enough, in an era of relatively unsophisticated approaches to the sport, to transform him into a contender. Because present-day distance runners reach peak form in their late-twenties and the times they run are so much faster—relative to teenagers—I felt that it would stretch credibility to have Ralph compete with today’s world-class marathoners. Add to this the notion of obscurity being so much harder to achieve in an information age, and the fifties made sense.

The second reason is that I was interested in exploring the notion of faith—or in this case, misguided faith—by using the Catholic Church as a backdrop. I felt a modern setting with priests at an all-boys school would necessitate exploring some of the darker issues that the church is facing and these weren’t part of the story. Perhaps more importantly, in the 1950s, for many Catholics, the church defined their world. It was the starting and stopping place. Either you were Catholic or you weren’t. This was important because the protagonist, Father Fitzpatrick, then becomes much more of a threat. To go up against someone like him, as Ralph does, would have serious ramifications. I didn’t feel like the stakes would be nearly as high today.

The rest of the script I corralled around this starting place. Who were Ralph’s friends? Who helped him? What were the obstacles to achieving a miracle?

Even though I wrote Saint Ralph, the process still seems to me like a mysterious alchemy. This notion that characters, worlds, conflicts, dreams can be siphoned from the ether, transferred to the page and then filmed in such a way as to make audiences suspend their disbelief, seems rather miraculous. Especially as I sniff around the folds of my brain for my next film. But as Father Hibbert says, “If we’re not chasing after miracles, what’s the point?”