Murray Grigor talks exclusively with The Saint about Ever to Excel, his student days at St Andrews, and of his friend, Sean. (Read Sean’s story here)
Murray Grigor is a proud Scotsman, an alumnus of the University of St Andrews, and an incredibly successful film director. He is the man behind the much celebrated ‘Ever to Excel’, a film documenting the rich history of our University’s 600 years. I had the fortune of watching the film, and then the added privilege of spending an afternoon in his company, talking to him about the creation of the ‘best film I’ve ever done’.
I began by asking Murray how he came to be involved in the documentary, to which he answered simply: ‘[Louise Richardson] wrote a nice letter to Sean, and as he is often very generous he called her back and said that he would: ‘love to help – do you have a director in mind?’ And then he proposed my name.’ Murray and Sean have a long-standing friendship, having worked together on several projects in previous years, and it is obvious from the way he talks of Sean that the pair continue to enjoy their professional ventures together. ‘He’s great on-screen, isn’t he? He’s a great storyteller’.
Murray told me that upon his invitation to become involved, a sudden rush of ideas reawakened in him, reminiscent of his student days spent compiling amateur films. The breath-taking sequences of St Andrews and the surrounding area are stunning on the big screen; a direct result of Murray’s fantastic eye for detail and love of architecture. ‘It was a pleasure to make. It’s a very special place.’ he repeatedly told me throughout the course of the afternoon.
The filming process itself took about 90 days, and in that slight time period, over 600 years of history was condensed. A real strength to the film, in my opinion, was that this long and complex history was broken down, simplified, and brought back to life. Throughout the hour and a half documentary, we are privy to the contribution of so many: alumni, scholars, and students alike. Murray was quick to support my observation, and added that his directorial vision was to include so many interpretations: ‘I tried to get the story told trough all these different voices, that was the idea.’.
With an overwhelming abundance of film material gathered from the 90-day shoot, Murray exclusively told me: ‘We’re now doing a sequel – you’re the first to know this! – and we’re going to call it ‘Ever to Exceed’, and it’s going to include some wonderful stuff which was just too long to put in the first film.’ He went on to joke that: ‘We may even have enough material for ‘Ever to Excess’, then ‘Ever to Expire’, and then maybe even ‘Ever to Exhaust’…’.
The narration provided by Sean complemented the story-telling theme of the film, and I asked Murray whether his friend required much direction in front of the camera. He smiled and told me that he was happy to let Sean take the ropes in his own performance, as he divulged advice once given to him by Spielberg: ‘All actors tell directors what to do, and they’re a pain. But with Sean you better listen, because nine of the ten ideas he gave me in Indiana Jones, I took on board’’. I smile at this anecdote, mainly because the Indiana trilogy is one of my all-time favourites, and also because I recalled the joy of watching Sean, full of animation and charisma, tell the story of our University.
Murray noted that the creative process behind these narratives was very much a joint venture: ‘I would write a sequence and send it to him [Sean], and he would say ‘How about this, Murray?’, and he would take it down, knock it back, and fillet the script.’ He praises his friend with his ability to make a script captivating, as he repeated a line in the film, in Sean’s accent: ‘In the middle ages, in order to confer degrees, you needed the blessing of the Pope. But where was the Pope? Rome? No! Here in some luxury in Avignon!’. At this point I think it apt to mention that Murray Grigor does the most fantastic impression of Sean Connery that I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.
As he so talked passionately of the film, I began to see in him not ‘Murray Grigor, Film Director’, but rather, ‘Murray Grigor, St Andrews Alumnus’. Aside from his intertwining of marvellous historical accounts with striking visuals, what struck me as the most compelling feature was the apparent love and admiration still held for the town, as told by various alumni who had spent the best years of their lives here. Having myself grown up with parents who studied and met whilst here, I never tire of hearing their tales of student days gone by, or meeting with their old university friends, who are as current to their life now as they were twenty years ago. What is refreshing, and rather touching, is having that sense of magic portrayed through film. Woven into the film was one such poignant quote, given by John Jardine, our University’s bedellus: ‘St Andrews is home to me’. Murray is one such proud graduate, and in a moment of quiet reflection, he quoted: ‘They have said, and they will say, let them be saying’.
Photo credit: Toby Renouf
Principal Louise Richardson gives her account of her involvement with Ever to Excel:
Shortly after arriving here I had the idea of making a 10-15 minute film about the university to show at gatherings of alumni. In thinking about who I might ask to narrate the film, I thought how wonderful it would be if we could get the most globally recognized Scottish voice, Sir Sean Connery.
Knowing that Connery had received an honorary degree from the university I wrote him a letter asking him to narrate the film. I was not at all confident of receiving a reply. About a week later my PA, Jackie, knocked on my door with an astonished look on her face and saying in a very excited voice: “Sean Connery is on the phone for you.” Sir Sean said he’d be delighted to work on the film. “After all not much has been around for 600 years,” he said. He said that if I were looking for a director he would recommend I speak to Murray Grigor.
I googled Murray and discovered that he was himself an alumnus. When I went to see him I discovered that he knew more about the history of the university than just about anyone I have met and that he has a deep and abiding affection for the place. Murray in turn brought in the extraordinary cinematographer Hamid Shams.
So, what started as an idea for a modest short film grew into this wonderful full length documentary capturing the beauty, the history, the magic and the ambition of St Andrews. Everyone involved in the project from beginning to end was extraordinarily generous with their time and were united in their affection for the university and their desire to do it justice.