HOLLYWOOD — Movie fans have always loved a good horse racing film. Now, following in the hooves of such favorites as Seabiscuit, Dreamer and National
Velvet, comes the new Disney film Secretariat. Based on a true story, it tells the tale of the legendary 1973 Triple Crown- winner and stars Diane Lane as stable owner Penny Chenery and John Malkovich as trainer Lucien Laurin.
It’s directed by Randall Wallace (pictured below), who first made a name for himself by writing Braveheart (which won him an Oscar nomination) and whose directing credits include We Were Soldiers and The Man in the Iron Mask.
Here, Wallace, whose credits include writing Pearl Harbor and Dark
Angel, talks about making the film, his love of post and how he ended up playing himself on HBO’s hit Entourage.
POST: How do you go about deciding what your next project will be, and what made you choose this one?
RANDALL WALLACE: “I look for something that moves and excites me, that’s worth all the work and challenges you have to deal with to make a film. Above all, a story that speaks to my heart and that I feel will speak to other people. So I wanted to make a film that hopefully will affect people the way certain movies have affected me.”
POST: The Hollywood cliché is, never work with children or animals. So how tough was it shooting racehorses?
WALLACE: “First, I never forgot that it could be lethal. Jockeys and horses can get seriously hurt and even die when they’re racing at 40 MPH, and we didn’t take it lightly and we didn’t fake it. We used real jockeys and real racehorses instead of the usual mix of animatronics and CGI. The primal poetic power of racehorses is unmistakable, and I’m not drawn to artifice. I was attracted to the realism of it all.”
POST: What were the biggest challenges of making this?
WALLACE: “First off, we had a small budget and very little time. This is a bigger movie than Seabiscuit, but we only had half of that budget, so we had to be very decisive and do extensive planning to pull it off. My main goal was to let the audience really experience the racing as participants.”
POST: You and DP Dean Semler, who shot We Were Soldiers for you, used some unusual methods to shoot this and really pushed the envelope, especially in terms of getting the camera up close and personal with the horses.
WALLACE: “We did. All of the conventional equipment that we tested didn’t really fully capture all the excitement and drama of the races, so Dean and I decided to experiment a bit. We used Panavision’s Genesis HD system, which I’d never shot with before. I loved the Genesis, and the way Dean had more control of elements, like working the iris and watching from a control center we had set up in a trailer. We used that set-up along with the new Olympus PEN E-PL1, which we used on special rigs for all the extreme close-ups of the horses and riders. We were able to get within inches of the horses eyes and hooves, as the camera’s so small and portable. The results of the tests we did with ‘the Olycam,’ as Dean called it, were just amazing. I loved the rawness of that footage. There were suggestions that we smooth it out and take out some of the digital artifacts in post, but I loved the look the way it was. No one had ever done this before.”
POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
WALLACE: “We did it all at Lantana and began at the end of last year and worked through until June.”
POST: Do you like the post process?
WALLACE: “Post for me is hugely exciting. I have a metaphor for the way I approach it. They say that Mozart said he’d once come up with an idea for a symphony when he stepped out of his carriage, that he instantly knew how every note would fall. I am not Mozart. I’m more like Beethoven who’d walk through the woods and then try to capture the sound of rain and write 100 variations. So while you’re shooting you have to see things very clearly and quickly, but in post you get to play with variations and ideas. For instance, the opening sequence of anticipation of the race, with narration from the Book of Job — none of that was in the original screenplay, and we hadn’t shot coverage for those specific ideas. But once we started cutting, we got the idea and then built the whole sequence. That’s the kind of post process I love.”
POST: The film was edited by the great John Wright, whose credits includeX-Men, Speed and The Passion of the Christ. How does that relationship work?
WALLACE: “He’s an amazingly talented editor and we became great friends in post. He came on location but he wasn’t on the physical set very often. He came to base camp every day and we watched our Genesis dailies in the back of a trailer viewing room that Dean had set up. The great thing about digital is that we could shoot scenes in the morning and then watch them at lunch. It took us a day or so to convert the Olycam footage. So it’s faster and more efficient and also includes the crew in the excitement of the coverage we’re getting.
“I consider everyone on the set to be a filmmaker. We’re all doing it together. We cut on Avid, and John and Dean are very alike in that they know how to use every bit of equipment, and they stay current on it, but it’s their artistic vision that’s the thing, and they both use equipment in service of that vision.”
POST: How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
WALLACE: “Fewer than you’d think. None of the horses are CG-altered in any way. All the visual effects were created by Pixel Magic, and the visual effects supervisor was Ray McIntyre, who was on the set constantly along with Andy Fowler, Disney’s visual effects supervisor. So any time we had a question about what was possible, we had them right there to fix any problem.
“Most of the shots were so we could add crowds in the backgrounds and the stands, as we weren’t always at the locations we were meant to be at. So we’d have a background plate of Churchill Downs, for example, and add stuff in. In post we cleaned up a lot of stuff, but our visual effects budget was quite small, so that also limited what we could do.“
POST: How important are sound and music to you?
WALLACE: “They’re so vital to any film. I worked with composer Nick Glennie-Smith again, who’s done all my films as a director, and he’s brilliant. Then we had this great interplay between the score and the sound design, which was all done by Ben Cook and mixed at Lantana. The editor is also a key part of keeping that all together. So I try and keep my eye on the ‘big picture’ and the ‘why’ of it all, and they understand the ‘how’ of it all.”
POST: Did you do a DI?
WALLACE: “Yes, at EFilm with colorist Steve Scott. It’s pretty amazing what you can do now in a DI, and we did stuff like lightening the horses’ masks so you can see their eyes more brightly. I really wanted to see a lot of color, so we were also able to saturate them a bit, to show off the colors of the silks and so on. That was a nice contrast to the almost vicious, kinetic immediacy we got from the Olycam footage. We did some cosmetic work. It’s now so easy to take out wrinkles or whatever.” [Scott used EWorks, a proprietary computer-based color correction system that offers LUTs that are created to precisely simulate various film stocks and lab processes during color correction.]
POST: Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
WALLACE: “I’m an extremely ambitious guy and I always want everything I do to be the best I can possibly make it, so it really helps to work with such supremely gifted people, both in front of and behind the cameras. I expected great things from Dean and John and everyone, and the results have exceeded all my expectations.”
POST: Is film dead?
WALLACE: “No, I honestly don’t think so. This was my first time shooting digitally and I was very impressed. It’s just so efficient and I do think the digital world will keep improving. Right now, I think they’re both so close in image quality, and I don’t think this movie would be a bit more beautiful had we shot it on film. And it might have gone a bit slower in terms of the shoot and post. Going digital was amazingly efficient — to the point where we actually came in $1 million under budget and two days ahead of schedule, which is unheard of. Disney was thrilled. We shot the whole film in just 45 days on a schedule no one thought we could possibly do. The previous film our producers worked on was about ice hockey, with people instead of horses to control, and it took them over 90 days to shoot. So there are big savings in time and money. But I still love film and I think it’ll stick around for a while.”
POST: Hollywood’s gone 3D crazy it seems. Any interest in doing a 3D film?
WALLACE: “I love 3D in the right film and it’s a challenge, so I’d definitely be interested. For me, the key values in any cinema are emotional depth and visual lyricism — a Lawrence of Arabia kind of experience. That’s what I aspire to. Right now, 3D still feels a touch gimmicky in a lot of films, but I thought Avatar was so brilliantly done that it got me thinking about 3D and its possibilities in a whole new way. So I’d love to try it at some point.”
POST: How did you get involved in Entourage?
WALLACE: (Laughs) “It’s a funny story. Our casting director, Sheila Jaffe, also casts Entourage, and I was joking with her about a writer/director friend of mine who’d been on the show, saying ‘How come he gets to be on the show and not me?’ I don’t watch much TV, but I love the show! Anyway, she’d just laugh and we’d kid around, and then suddenly one day I got a call from them to do it. It began as a single episode and it turned into a three-episode arc, and I’ve gotten more calls about that than anything else in my whole career.”
POST: What’s next?
WALLACE: “I have a dream project set in Russia during the American Revolution, and I’ve been working on that for years. That’s my passion project. But I’ve also got some other scripts I’m working on. I’m hoping that Secretariat will help redefine me, as all my other films have had so much killing and bloodshed.