09/30/2010 12:46PM

Q&A: Randall Wallace

Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Director of the Walt Disney Pictures film “Secretariat,” which opens in theaters on Oct. 8.

Birthdate: July 28, 1949, in Jackson, Tenn.

Got into racing because . . . I was invited by a friend to see the Kentucky Derby the year Barbaro won. That was my first experience with it. That was a captivating way to start your introduction to horse racing.

So you didn’t follow racing as a fan? I did not. I thought of horse racing as a sport for rich people. I didn’t realize that wasn’t true.

Were you a fan of Secretariat when he was racing? I was aware that he was a great horse, but I didn’t have a sense of how great he was, the greatest ever. But as I got into the story, I learned not only how huge his achievements had been, but how heroic his owner, Penny Chenery, had been, as well as Ronnie Turcotte and Lucien Laurin.

How did you end up as the director of this film? I was contacted by the studio to gauge my interest. From what I gather, they liked the passion, the emotional qualities, that I saw in stories. My previous films [“The Man in the Iron Mask” and “We Were Soldiers”] were all about combat, life-and-death struggles. When I came to this, I saw horse racing as what it is for the horses, a battle for supremacy. I wanted the racing footage to be powerfully physical. I wanted the audience not to be spectators, but participants in the race, to feel the dirt and the power, the pounding, the breath, the hearts and hooves.

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What are some of the challenges of telling a story about a subject who can’t speak? One of the things we did was film a lot from the perspective of Secretariat. We start out with the birth of the horse. Remarkably, the horse we see being born is a grandson of Secretariat. We went to great lengths to achieve that. We got the world’s greatest wrangler, Rusty Hendrickson, who was a crucial aspect in all this. What I pounded into everyone, first and last, is that we couldn’t hurt anybody. There’s so much inherent danger in men and women perched on tiny saddles hurtling along at 38 miles an hour on these magnificent animals. We had to be completely safe doing that. And we needed horses with physical charisma. Bill Nack wrote the definitive biography of Secretariat, and he said to be in the presence of Secretariat was to be in the presence of greatness, the way he moved and the way he looked. We had Penny Chenery actually pick our horse from a look-alike contest.
You focus the movie on Penny Chenery. What did you think of her when you met her? Penny even now is a person of enormous charisma and strength. She was remarkable because she carried out a legacy based on integrity and a sense of honor, which seems more and more rare in our world. Penny said about Secretariat and about racehorses in general that they are incorruptible. That’s what made Secretariat an inspiration. In 1973 the country was sick of Vietnam. It was going through turmoil. We didn’t trust our leaders. It’s remarkably similar to now. And along came a racehorse who inspired everybody and gave his complete heart to everything.

You’ve got a great cast – Diane Lane as Penny Chenery, John Malkovich as Lucien Laurin, James Cromwell as Ogden Phipps, Fred Dalton Thompson as Bull Hancock. How did you pull that off? When they hired me, I had a reputation for efficiency. I had shot “The Man in the Iron Mask” for a shockingly low amount, and “We Were Soldiers” cost about half of what it could have cost. We were given a budget of less than half that. The first thing I said is, I wanted to get Dean Semler, the world’s greatest cinematographer. He won the Oscar for “Dances With Wolves.” The greatest efficiency we could have is getting the finest people. Time is money in movies. You have to get it right the first time. I said I wanted Diane Lane and John Malkovich. There’s an old saying that it’s better to fight an army of lions led by a sheep than an army of sheep led by a lion. I wanted the lions. That’s how you have a sense of an epic scale while on a budget. Secretariat deserves that.

Otto Thorwarth, a real jockey, plays Ron Turcotte. How did he do? He was a magical find. He was utterly courageous. Beyond his physical charm was his personality. He’s a non-actor. He’s never acted in anything, and here he is doing scenes along with John Malkovich and Diane Lane. It’s akin to saying, “Would you like to go a couple of rounds with Muhammad Ali?” I know a guy who went a couple of rounds with James Toney. I said, “Don’t get in the ring with him, he’s a fighter.” Toney broke his cheekbone with a jab. Diane and John were much more gracious! They walked away respecting Otto’s courage and ability.

How much influence did you have over casting and the script? I didn’t write the original script, but I did work through the scenes. I’m an endless reviser. I might have new ideas for action and dialogue. That’s one reason I wanted such great actors. A general mastery of anything is the ability to master fear. Actors can be driven by it, and directors certainly can be driven by it. You have to be courageous and decisive. We had a team. Directors are referred to as the filmmaker. Directors feel the weight of decisions squarely on their shoulders. But to make a movie that sings with its heart, you want everybody to feel that it’s their movie, too. We had that kind of a cast.

This is a theatrical film, not a documentary. What are some of the allowances that have to be made in that circumstance? I knew the surface of the film, the journalistic aspects and the statistics. But to make a movie that captures the heart of the story, you have to find the poetic aspects of it, and that goes deeper than statistics. I wanted to understand what the characters did when they were alone. Some of the best moments are when Secretariat is alone, or Secretariat and Penny are alone. We shot a lot from the point of view of the horse. During the racing scenes, we were aspiring for the audience to feel like they are Secretariat, whether coming out of the tunnel, like a gladiator, or alone in the field or in his stall. When he looks at Sham, Sham looks at him. When Secretariat is loaded in the gate, he’s eyeing his competition. He knows who he has to beat. Those are the elements I thought needed to be in there. I knew at the beginning that the story had heart. As a filmmaker, I wanted to show the story’s soul, why Secretariat did what he did, and why it mattered.

Would you do another racing-related film? I want to work with horses again. I don’t know if I’d do another horse racing movie. It would be hard for me emotionally to top this one. But one of the things about horses and racing I noticed while doing this film is that when people who are into racing talk about it, they relate to it in a deep, emotional place. They talk about having seen a given race with their father. They take their children. There are friendships, guys who go with their buddies. I have ridden the train from Los Angeles to Del Mar, and you see the love of it. It’s the whole event. There’s a primal power of racehorses, and it’s why we love them and admire them.