How I Wrote It

How Dennis Foon wrote the screenplay adaptation of Richard Wagamese's novel Indian Horse

The Indian Horse screenwriter talks about how he relied on novelist Richard Wagamese to bring the film to life.
Dennis Foon is the screenwriter behind the film adaptation of Indian Horse, originally a novel by Richard Wagamese. (dennisfoon.com)

Indian Horsea film adaptation of Richard Wagamese's seminal novel, is now in theatres across Canada. The film tells the story of Saul Indian Horse, a young Ojibway boy who is taken to a residential school, where he experiences and witnesses countless acts of violence against Indigenous children. Saul's one source of escape is the game of hockey, for which he has a remarkable natural talent.

Wagamese, who died at the age of 61 in March 2017, picked Dennis Foon to write the script for Indian Horse. In his own words, Foon discusses what it was like to turn this dark part of Canada's history into a film.

Working with Richard Wagamese

"I could only agree to do the project if Richard was going to be with me every step of the way. He read every draft. He was very much part of the entire process. I'm a novelist myself and when I develop an adaptation I'm very concerned about having a good relationship with the writer. I'm not coming to this story as an Indigenous person, so to take this on seemed very presumptuous. But Richard felt very strongly that, in a spirit of reconciliation, this project had to be a collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. There was a lot of input from elders and others from the Indigenous community as it was being developed. The authenticity of both detail and spirit is what I think people are responding to."

Young Saul Indian Horse, portrayed by Sladen Peltier (far right), hides from residential school recruiters with his brother Benjamin, portrayed by Skye Pelletier and grandmother Naomi, portrayed by Edna Manitowabi. (Elevation Pictures)

The power of art

"For a long time, I've been trying to use art to reflect our experiences and bring things to life we haven't seen. In those times when it really works, you can get into that character's head and you begin to empathize with them. That's the gift of art. That's what we do as artists — we're trying to take people to a place they've never been before. It can take them to an experience or to a world they didn't know. That's why we go to movies."

Researching residential schools

"The more I read about residential schools and the more I found out about them, it got worse and worse. The devastation is just so hard to grasp — the kind of punishments that were eked out, the children that died, the absolute lack of care and attention, the insidiously varied kinds of abuse that was inflicted on the kids and the communities. But there's also the humour, resiliency and the ability of people to find ways to overcome this kind of oppression — that spirit is something that I understand and, at the same time, am in awe of. There's so many people who have taken it and used that to grow and become stronger and to help others. That is so inspiring and it's such a tribute to what humanity is capable of in terms of overcoming obstacles."

Feeling Richard Wagamese's spirit

"After Richard's passing, we all felt he was beside us. At one of the screenings, an elder who was there explained, 'Well, that's because he is.' He said that in their traditions and beliefs, you know the spirit is there. Richard is there with us and that has to be respected. To know he's really here with us is a great consolation because it was so sad to not be able to celebrate with him. Richard is an unparalleled storyteller. His imagery and his characters are absolutely gorgeous. Richard's gifts are exceptional and losing him was a body blow to the art world."

Dennis Foon's comments have been edited and condensed.

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