Writer’s Forum

“Secretariat” The Making Of The Movie


By Bill Doolittle

Randall Wallace, photo: John BramleyEven before he began production on the new movie “Secretariat,” director Randall Wallace knew the on-location scenes in Kentucky would be crucial.

“We had to get to Kentucky, not just for the place, but for the people,” says Wallace, whose Disney film about the great thoroughbred champion debuts in theaters across the country this fall. “I wanted to be there for the crowd that I knew we could draw from Kentucky. I grew up in Tennessee, not that far from Churchill Downs, and those folks down there are my people. I knew they could bring tremendous spirit to the movie.”

And they did. Wallace and his crew had no difficulty rounding up a huge cast of extras to recreate the crowd scenes of Secretariat’s historic 1973 Kentucky Derby victory – an electrifying track-record performance before a record crowd of 134,476 – and Secretariat’s overwhelming 31-length triumph in the Belmont Stakes. The Derby was shot at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, and the Belmont at Keeneland Racecourse, in the heart of the Bluegrass horse farm country near Lexington.

And the director didn’t mind priming the emotional heartbeat of his cast of extras.

“The first day of filming,” says Wallace. “I surprised my whole crew by saying, ‘Let’s play “My Old Kentucky Home” and film them singing it. Everybody was looking at me like I was crazy. 1st TurnBut as soon as we started to play it, the crowd, their hearts swelled, and they sang – and the energy of that just spilled into everything we filmed.” The magic of the Derby. And the enduring magic of Secretariat.

“You didn’t have to have anything happening on the track,” says Wallace. “We played the races, and the track announcer’s call of the race – the actual call – and everyone watched the track as if they could see it all before their very eyes.”

It was a role they were born to play. Many, in fact, noted that they had actually been in attendance for the 99th Run for the Roses – just college kids in the Infield 37 years ago. And probably every Kentuckian hired as an extra had been to the track. Sitting in a box or hanging over the rail, if the director asked them to cheer their favorite to the wire – well, these folks certainly knew how to do that.

“That’s right, that’s exactly it,” says Wallace. “And nowhere else could we achieve that.”

The real Penny next to our Penny

Wallace got an extra burst of energy when Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat, visited for the filming of her horse’s Belmont masterpiece.

“We knew Penny was coming, but we didn’t know exactly which days she would be there,” Wallace recalls. “But when she arrived we were all so excited we had to ask her if she would sit in the stands and be one of the spectators. And she was gracious to do that.”

Wallace placed Chenery in a box seat near where the cameras were focusing on Diane Lane, the acclaimed actress who portrays Chenery in the movie.

“So we had the real Penny next to our Penny,” explains Wallace. “And she was also watching the ‘races.’ The same way we did it with everybody. It was in her mind. It’s stunning, you can look at her face and see that she’s seeing it exactly as it happened.”

Chenery says that over the years she has seen films of Secretariat’s Triple Crown triumph so often it is difficult for her to recall exactly what she was feeling, and how she reacSaratogated in the real moment. She does, however, remember the setting. Otto Thorwarth, photo: John Bramley“I was sitting with Lucien (Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin) because nobody but your trainer knows how terribly important this moment is,” says Chenery. “And I didn’t want anybody talking to me, saying, ‘Oh, he’s moving.’ Hell, I can see. I get pretty tense. And Lucien, of course, was a fireball. He’d be smoking cigarettes, one after the other. It just mattered so much that I didn’t want any distractions.”

Wallace made a big impression on Chenery at the filming.

“I have to tell you, Randy Wallace gave one heck of a speech,” said Chenery. “I think he’s got a bit of the preacher in him. He evoked the race day, what the race means to Kentuckians, and of course, to my family and me. He really set the mood. And even though we were all shivering on a cold day, we threw ourselves into the drama of it.”

Wallace, who wrote the Oscar winning movie “Braveheart,” produced “Pearl Harbor” and directed “We Were Soldiers,” certainly understands the staging of epic action over a vast panorama. But he also knows there is more to the art of a movie than timing explosions and moving soldiers before a camera. He wants to draw emotion from his “cast of thousands.”

“Extras are always ignored – or almost always ignored – by film crews,” he says. “They are generally treated like furniture instead of treated like people. I always make a point of speaking to the extras and treating them like actors – because of course, they are. Explaining to them what we’re doing. I want them to know why we are making the movie. “Movies tell us who we are and who we ought to be,” Wallace continues. “I made that speech, then got to cap it off with the grand moment, that this is a fantasy story because ‘right here with us today is Penny Chenery’ – and people just went crazy applauding for Penny.

“Later I asked Penny, ‘Did you ever think you’d be an actress in a movie?’ and she said, ‘Oh, this horse could take me anywhere.’ ”

And so he did.

Courage and daring and gallantry

Wallace says the movie began with an original script by screenwriter Mike Rich, who brought the story to the story. Actor John Malkovich, who plays trainer Lucien Laurin, pored over videos of Secretariat’s races. “There are so many people involved in all of this, and I think all of that will show.”

Including the director’s own inspiration.

“What I knew about Secretariat was it was Secretariat, himself, that first brought my attention to horse racing,” says Wallace. “His achievements transcended the sport. He had done something that was outside what anybody would expect. And that was what more connected me to him. I grew up in a romantic south, where we thought about things like courage and daring and gallantry. It was that kind of spirit we all saw in Secretariat. “

And then,” Wallace adds, “it kicked into a whole other orbit when I discovered it was not only the story of the horse, but the woman who owned the horse.”

Wallace cast Diane Lane as Penny Chenery.

“Diane was the exact right person,” Wallace says. “I had not met the real Penny until the movie was well underway, though I did speak to her on the phone. But Penny and Diane, well Diane has this kind of elegant strength. It’s not just hard-edged strength, it’s a kind of dignified, graceful strength.” (L-R) Diane Lane, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, John Malkovich

Chenery is obviously flattered by the choice of Lane — because of the actress’s stature and, of course, because Diane Lane is beautiful. “I declined to be photographed Winner’s Circlenext to Diane,” Chenery says with a laugh. “Because the comparison did not favor me.”

Modestly said. But in reality, Chenery’s looks and vitality added immensely to the glamour of the Secretariat story as it unfolded across the newspaper pages and television screens 30-some years ago. So the choice of a beautiful actress to portray Penny Chenery would be entirely appropriate. Her fans would demand it.

“Well, I think they got the right person because Diane is an intuitive, sympathetic actress who reflects her character in the story,” says Chenery. “I watched them film a scene where she fires her first trainer, and she is full of righteous indignation.” Was Penny, herself, full of righteous indignation?

“I was!”

Penny Chenery arrived on the racing scene as a novice, assuming control of her father’s Meadow Stable as Christopher Chenery’s health failed – and just as the farm was producing its greatest racehorses. Stepping into a world that had its share of sharks, she successfully managed the racing operation, and “spoke” for her horses to an adoring public. The fortunes of Meadow Stable eventually flagged over time, but Chenery’s stature never diminished. One sports writer spoke for many when he called her the First Lady of the American Turf. And her modesty remains delightfully genuine. “It’s a weird experience to be the subject of this wonderful undertaking,” says Chenery, thinking of the enormous scope of a Disney studio motion picture. “I’d never been to location for a movie. I took my youngest son and his wife and their kids with me, and the kids got roles as extras. There are twelve of us in the crowd scene.

“The thing that tickled me,” she says. “When they were filming us looking at the race, they had a man in front carrying a stick with red tape on top. He would walk along slowly and we were all supposed to watch that red tape so that everybody’s eyes are seeing the same thing. I was thinking I should be looking at the horse, then looking back to the field to see what’s coming.”

Just call me Cookie

After the crowd scenes at the two tracks in Kentucky, the “Secretariat” crew moved on to Louisiana to film the movie’s racing scenes. The company set up on location at the old Evangeline Downs track, in Lafayette, La., which is now a horse-training center for the new Evangeline Downs, built not far away. BTS: (L-R) Keith Austin, Otto ThorwarthChenery enjoyed the focus on horses of the filming there. One day, while the crew was shooting an indoor scene, she wandered away for a walk through the barn area, where, she says, people all seemed to know her. (It is an enduring mystery of horse racing how everyone on the backside seems to know who everyone is – even before they get there. But they do.) “The grooms didn’t come rushing up to introduce themselves, or anything, but they would nod, or maybe smile and say, ‘Morning.’ As if this movie business is something we’re all in together. “I went to the barn where the horses for the movie were stabled, and talked to the movie-horse people,” says Chenery. “They told me about training them, and painting them in horse make-up. The head wrangler is a man named Rusty Hendrickson, and his wife, who is also a trainer. And then there were a couple of horse-crazy girls that take care of the horses. Now that the horses are movie actors, by the way, they longer carry their racing names. One of them was actually a descendent of Secretariat, but the hands call them all by such regal titles as “Spud” and “Cookie.” “Rusty showed me how one of the Secretariats (there are four used in the movie) is a trick horse, and he could make him rear up or bow down, or lie down,” says Chenery. “And one of the Secretariat’s is a filly. She has the right markings. And because she’s lighter-boned, they used her as a young Secretariat.” All of the living cast from the real-life adventures of Secretariat visited on location in either Kentucky or Louisiana, including jockey Ron Turcotte and exercise riders Charlie Davis and Jimmy Gaffney. Trainer Lucien Laurin and groom Eddie Sweat have passed away. All provided intimate details about the great horse and the events surrounding the story. Davis even landed a small role. He and the groom Eddie Sweat walk Secretariat over from the barns to the paddock before the big races – with fans rushing up to the fences to get close to the great horse. Turcotte spent time in editing studios, and thinks fans will be thrilled with the racing scenes. But what he likes best about the movie is the way the actors have nailed the real-life characters. “Diane Lane will really do Penny justice, she’s just beautiful,” says Turcotte. “They gave her blue eyes and changed her hair to more blond, and she seems so much like Penny.” Actor Nelsan Ellis, playing groom Eddie Sweat, has it right, too, says Turcotte. “Just the way he wears his hat, it’s Sweat.” Real-life jockey Otto Thorworth plays Turcotte. That pleases Chenery, who thinks it is important that an accomplished professional jockey is portraying Turcotte, a Hall of Fame rider. “There was one thing that I found curious, but ended up being kind of funny,” recalls Chenery. “For filming the racing scenes they had a truck with a camera mounted on a boom that stretched out to the left in front of the truck. They used four different red horses, because you can’t ask a horse to keep making that stretch run over and over again.” BTS: Otto ThorwarthAfter one shooting session, Chenery says she said to Thorworth, “You know, you weren’t really asking him hard like you would be in the stretch run of a big race. And Otto said, ‘I couldn’t get down and scrub on him – I couldn’t let him outrun that truck!’ ” Obviously, authenticity is a paramount concern in a movie depicting such famous racing events. “We had all real jockeys – and some of those jockeys acted,” says Wallace. “(In most horse movies) you have an actor on a pogo stick on the back of a pickup truck. We weren’t going to do that. We wanted a real jockey riding a real horse, at full speed.”

Feel the Dirt Flying

Wallace utilized a new filming technique involving very small cameras that can get close to the faces of the horses. “It was my cinematographer Dean Semler, who shot “Dances with Wolves” and “We Were Soldiers,” and just a great number of other things, who came up with the technique. We have cameras right up by the horses’ hooves, and close to their chests. So you can feel the dirt flying, and the danger.” In the end, after attention to all the thousands of details of making a movie, Wallace says he never lost sight of the horse that caught the imagination of the world. “What I found about Secretariat, what inspired me about this story was that we always look for the question of how do we identify with the voice of God,” he says. “In the great stories people always find a voice, whether religious or not, and they have to find a way to answer that call, or their lives would mean nothing. If they could answer that call, their lives would be everything. To me, that calling for Secretariat was greater than anyone could have ever expected it could be. Rather than measure up to his calling, his life exceeded that calling.” But, adds Wallace, “the movie is great fun, as well as moving and dramatic. “In my past work, the subjects had power. The Scottish Rebellion led by William Wallace, the events around Pearl Harbor, the first great battle of the American forces in Vietnam. All those events had dramatic weight. ‘Secretariat’ has dramatic weight, but it also has exuberance. There’s a real joy about it. A sense of unmitigated victory that is rare for any sport.


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