A/V Room









Seabiscuit - Gary Ross Q&A

Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. The idea for the film came about when you saw a magazine article? Can you take the ball and carry it from there, please?
About five years ago, I saw a magazine article which was pretty much a microcosm of everything that ended up being in the book. I basically just was exposed to the material before anyone else was. It was just as thrilling and as exciting as the book ended up being, so I was fortunate enough to experience Seabiscuit before anybody else did. I called Laura up, and I didn't know there was a bidding war for the rights at the time. I was like, 'ooh, look what I've found!'. But there were six other studios that were trying to get it at the same time. So, there was something of an auditioning process for her, and to Laura's credit, it wasn't really the highest bidder situation; she wanted to make sure that somebody would be faithful towards the story and we discussed that pretty extensively. Interestingly enough, even though she was a horse race writer, she was most concerned about the characters; she saw this as a story about people, not just about horses, and she understood that, which is one of the reasons why, I think, she wrote such a compelling narrative.
We discussed that extensively and talked about other horse-racing things, so we had a very nice chat and she decided to sell me the rights.

Q. For you to shoot it, safety would have been a priority? And even though Tobey says the safety issue didn't prevent him from doing it, I guess there must have been a lot of choreography?
Every time you do a movie like this, that's the first thing you think of. It already has the highest mortality rate in any sport in the world, per capita to the people that do it. If you get in a crash in a Nascar, you still have a roll bar and a cage, and a lot of protection. If you fall off a racehorse, you know what happens.
So, it's tremendously dangerous. And then if you're going at 45 miles per hour, bumping and jostling with one another, and then you add a camera on a crane this far from somebody's head in the middle of all that, it's even more dangerous.
So it's obviously one of the first things we thought of. And also in terms of Tobey's safety and training and everything, so we just discussed it extensively. Every movie presents its unique set of challenges; I mean if I wanted to do a movie on the water, or whatever, I would have to become educated in it.
So Christopher Karen had just retired and was one of the greatest jockies in the world, and so he became full-time on the movie, working as Tobey's mentor as a jockey, teaching him how to ride, and he helped me choreograph all the races. We also had a core of jockies, not stunt people, because they couldn't ride well enough to pull this off. In a race-riding situation, riding long, whether in an English or a Western saddle, versus riding short, in a race saddle, could not be more different. It's more of an extreme sport than anything else. So we had all of these things to consider and dealt with it very responsibly and very professionally.
We also needed to choreograph all the things in the race with an amazing amount of specificity, and so the first thing I did was, I had written the races pretty specifically, because each race has a different character all the way through. None of them were just generically a race.
A certain arrangement, and particular attention had to be paid to the internal story within each race, which demands something else.
Once that was shortlisted, we then had a meeting with all the people involved in the horse-racing, every day, in my office, four or five days a week for three months, for about two or three hours a day.
I would have a large oval behind me with Velcro horses and I would explain each shot, saying where the camera would be, at which point a horse would overtake, and where the camera would be then. From that we developed a sort of playbook which we gave to everyone, so that they could see and memorise what was going to happen, because it's a lot of moving parts in a very dangerous situation.
The camera car, the guy who runs the crane, each jockey, the camera operator, we all had to know what our individual roles were, so that we knew where we were going to be at a particular moment in time, so we would rehearse and memorise those, often on foot in a comical fashion, so that we could see the spacial relationship to one another. And this was all before we ever got on a horse.

Q. Did Chris Cooper give you the benefit of any of his cowboy experience?
We did torture him a little bit in the Oscar process, because Chris has a tremendous amount of humility, so when he was getting nominated for these various awards, we would blanket his trailer with bad champagne. When he won a Golden Globe, we actually got a large globe and spray-painted it globe and left it in his trailer. He doesn't like attention very much, so we lavished him with it!

Q. Given the lack of special effects or a romance, for instance, was it hard to get made?
It was hard to greenlight the film. I think the fact that there is three financing entities, really speaks to that. This is not typical Summer fare, it doesn't have a high body count, or shell casings. We don't blow anything up; it's not a sequel, it was
never a comic book [laughs]. So, it's not an obvious Summer movie, but we can all think of movies that failed, this Summer, with those descriptions, and this was a huge success in the US. Sometimes, what one considers to be the safe choice, is not necessarily the safe choice.
I think this Summer saw a kind of return to a lot of classic movie-making. I mean, Pirates of the Caribbean was a really old-fashioned movie and Finding Nemo is a really heartwarming tale about the reconstitution of the family. Even something as pop culturish as Freaky Friday, which was a big runaway hit in the US, is a mother-daughter relationship.
So I think that a lot of the more testosterone-based, gunpowder movies - not that there is anything wrong with that - under-performed this year, and so, yes, it was a chore to greenlight, but I hope it leads to people broadening their view of what are safe choices and what are risky choices. It can't always be anticipated that way. A lot of people have come to this character drama in the Summertime and I think that's heartening not just for us, but for a lot of people who make movies; we don't just want to see the same kinds of films get greenlit all the time.
When the definition begins to get broadened of what can be successful, this is really good for all of us.

Q. Were you aware, going in, that this was going to be a difficult genre to tackle? And didn't that put you off in some way?
You're always aware of things like that. When I did Dave, you know, nobody had made a political movie in a long time, yet now we have The West Wing and Wag The Dog, and a lot of movies being set in politics.
All you can really do is respond personally to the material. And I thought this had all the stuff of a great classical movie. It had tremendous heroes, it had a wonderful, wonderful underdog story, just at a basic level, that I'd loved growing up. I had faith in that.
Yes, it was horse-racing, which was an obstacle to overcome, but I was also heartened by the fact that the story had become the largest selling sports book in the history of the world, so something must have gone right. Obviously, people had already raced this story for a reason, so by the time we began making the movie, that was already established.
I think, basically, all you can do is respond to what you like. Fortunately, it's worked out well and been a financial success, but did we know that going in? No.

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