“I want to ask you a dying wish: I want you to love your mother,” writes the absent father of Alexander Darby’s new short film, The Wishing Horse. Focused upon the therapeutic possibilities of myth in the face of loss and family tensions, The Wishing Horse follows a young girl, Lily, unable to cope with her father’s failing health and the impact of this upon her relationship with her mother. Finding inspiration in G. K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, a piece of Wessex legend is brought into the present in the appearance of a white horse that acts as a comforter to the young girl, a folk story that her father used to tell her come to life.
Alex, a Royal Court writer and runner-up for the BAFTA/Skillset young people’s award for best screenplay, as well as working as an UNESCO photographer, describes the film as being ‘magical realist’. Citing Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Andrei Zvyagintsev, and David Lynch as influences, this genre deals with the integration of the magical or fantastical in an otherwise realistic and believable setting. In this case it is the appearance of the horse, Alex noting that one way of viewing the horse is as the spirit of Lily’s father, emerging as part of a story that he used to tell her. In this manner, the inclusion of the seemingly unreal and mythic produces a real and tangible effect as part of a coping mechanism. As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that myth “gives man, very importantly, the illusion that he can understand the universe and that he does understand the universe,” Alex says of The Wishing Horse that “I think our whole film is about how myths are still relevant today. The way we wanted to film it was so the horse came across as very real… I want [people] to see a story about myth that they can identify with, something that’s contemporary.”
As well as a personal project, the film forms part of a larger move to improve and widen the Oxford film community. Alex previously established the Oxford Film Fund with Jessica Campbell, the first film funding body associated with the University of Oxford. As Alex explains, “There wasn’t really an infrastructure or support for people making films… I think a reason why theatre works is because it’s kind of self-sustaining: the more people go, the more money you will make out of it, which is obviously harder for short films because the don’t really make money.” However, the Film Fund works to create a system in which this is a possibility, not least through a competition in which three screenplays are shortlisted, and bid for by production teams who will then make the film with the winner awarded a budget by the Film Fund.
Aidan Grounds, who now works as Executive Producer for Reading Repertory Theatre, and Emily Precious, now talent assistant for The Rights House Talent were also involved with the establishment of the fund. They have together formed ABG Productions, of which The Wishing Horse will be the second asset, and first short film. From these contacts, the post-production team include editor Louise MacGregor, who has cut commercials for Canon, L’Oreal, and Tropicana, while the post production supervisor Meg Clark has worked on films such as Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus. Alex says of the film that “One thing I think Aidan and Emily liked about the script is that it’s a self-contained story, in a way that a lot of shorts aren’t – they’re the beginnings of stories.” Both Alex and head of Marketing and Distribution, Tim Wickenden, hope this will stand The Wishing Horse in good stead for festival success, one of the primary means for short films to gain recognition within the industry. Besides festival entries, the film will undergo an online release, Tim noting that “the internet has changed how we view film… I would describe the potential for online release as being like floating a company on the stock market. If you can get a critical mass…if that moment of release hits a chord with people then it can gain some kind of mass following.”
The potential for reaching mass audiences forms part of both Alex and Tim’s interest in film, and their determination to promote film industries within Oxford. Tim says that “TV shows and films are seen by so many people and affect so many people’s lives that as a medium it’s perhaps one of the most powerful,” extending not only to consumption but to production as well. “The idea of a creative concept that can have so many people invested in it interests me. And the collaboration adds to the value of what film is to me.” Both Alex and Tim agree that making The Wishing Horse has been a learning curve and a formative process, with flexibility of direction possible partly because of the loose financial constraints when making a short film. As Alex says, “It’s a good time to try things out.” As such, much of the film relies upon symbols in order to construct the narrative, with much of the story being told without dialogue in a similar manner to Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return. Much of the strength of symbolism lies in acting as a prompt rather than providing a narrative, allowing viewers to take away a multiplicity of meanings from the film. Of the effect that they hope to create with The Wishing Horse, Tim says that “When our post-production supervisor saw this, she got angry and cried at the film. For me, it’s important when people who haven’t been involved at all watch it and have that reaction. I want someone utterly removed from the project to see it and have that reaction.”
‘The Wishing Horse’ will be submitted to festivals shortly, with an online release following; for more information about the film, please visit The Wishing Horse website. To follow post-production progress, follow the film on Twitter or Facebook